Manner of Speaking: The Real Prize

Speech contests teach you about yourself.

By Darren LaCroix

Many readers of this magazine have experienced the emotional roller-coaster ride of the Toastmasters International Speech Contest. And for those of you who haven’t participated in the event, I think the following lesson is still a powerful one.

Are you ready for the 100-percent-guaranteed way to get a speaking trophy? Here it comes: Buy one!

Because when you compete in the International Speech Contest, it should not be all about getting that first-place trophy. Can only one speaker each year really win? Well, it all depends on how you define “winning.” If you grow as a speaker, you’ve won.

The purpose of the contest isn’t to see who can beat each other, it’s to teach you more about yourself and your ability to connect with your audience. Likewise, the purpose of a coach isn’t to teach you how to win trophies, it’s to teach you how to deliver your message in such a way that your listeners get it and think differently because they were in your audience. I personally coach many speakers in the corporate world and many professionals. I don’t care if they win; I encourage them to join Toastmasters and compete to grow as presenters.

What is the one key ingredient of a winning speech? People ask me each year for the “hot topic” they should write about. The one key ingredient in every winning speech is a compelling personal story. That’s it. You’re only “hot” if you’re speaking from personal experience.

My friend Bryant won huge in the International Speech Contest in 2007. He made it all the way to the finals and didn’t take home a big trophy. He took home something much bigger as a result of the competition: He became a much better, more compelling speaker. His improved talents and the lessons he learned during the competition will last him a lifetime.

A trophy just gathers dust. Which is truly more valuable? 

Trophies Don’t Tell the Future
Don’t you dare let a trophy or lack of one define you! Life is bigger than a speech contest. Many people who haven’t won in the World Championship of Public Speaking have more successful speaking careers than many of the winners (including me).

How did I know I had a winning speech? It wasn’t anything my coach said to me. It was a comment made by a woman in my audience a few weeks prior to the 2001 competition. I was speaking at an MIT Toastmasters club on a Saturday morning, and a foreign exchange student came up to me right after my speech. In broken English, she said, “My family says I should leave school, give up and go back home to my country. Because of your speech, I choose to stay. Thank you.”

You have become a “speaker” when people approach you after your presentation and talk about themselves – not about you – and what they are going to do differently as a result of hearing you.

Wow! That was the moment the belief in myself and my speech, titled “Ouch!”, became clear to me. I became more passionate about making sure my audience got my message. I then became more coachable and learned what I could to better communicate my message. It wasn’t about me, it was about how my story could help others.

I had a winning speech! I didn’t know if I’d get a trophy, but I knew I had a speech I couldn’t wait to give. My coach reminded me that I had been given the privilege of seven minutes in the lives of nearly 1,500 people in the audience, and he asked, “What are you going to do with it?” 

Change People’s Perspectives
If you really want a trophy, just buy one. For $35 you can save yourself a whole lot of anguish. But you can be a winner by competing for improvement, by being the best at changing the perspective of your audience with your compelling personal story. Clients pay for that. No one has ever hired me to do a keynote speech because I have a 35-pound piece of Lucite on my mantle.

What will you do with the privilege of your audience’s time? Competition is not about you – it’s about how your story helps individual audience members. It’s not about the trophy, it’s about your own growth. You can take my trophy from 2001, but you can’t take away my growth as a speaker and a person. I’ll always remember that young woman from MIT.

What will they say when they come up to you after you speak? 

Darren LaCroix won Toastmasters’ World Championship of Public Speaking in 2001. He is a professional speaker, trainer and mentor living in Las Vegas, Nevada. He can be reached at