Nobody Loses in this Speech Competition

Nobody Loses in this Speech Competition

A championship finalist applauds the international contest experience.

By Colin T. William, DTM

You’ve seen them at conferences. They are our rock stars, our icons. They are so famous within Toastmasters that, like Pelé or Madonna, sometimes we just refer to them by first name – Darren, Jim, Vikas and in 2008, LaShunda. They are…The Champions.

But have you ever wondered about the people they defeated?

In 2008 I competed in the Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking. I did not win, or even place in the top three. So how does it feel to advance in the competition, from club to area to division to district to region, and all the way to the championship round of 10 finalists, only to see someone else take the trophy?

It feels…awesome!

Many of us enjoy competing in the speech contest. Some of us aspire to make it all the way to the very top. Still, if 25,000 people enter every year, 24,999 of us will fall short of the championship trophy. Thus, for the vast majority, the competition will fall into that nebulous area we often call “learning experiences.” In all honesty, that phrase can sometimes feel a little hollow, a euphemism used as consolation when we don’t achieve our goals. But with the odds stacked so heavily against winning the top speech title, it’s important for all who compete to place that goal in the proper context and take as much as we can from the process.

Last year was my fourth time participating, after stalling at the district level three times. In 2007 I’d drawn a blank in the middle of my district speech, an experience that haunted me when entering last year’s contest. But 2008 was different. I started with a speech I’d written in one afternoon for a club meeting the previous November and subsequently refined for the contest. I altered and improved it at every level until the district round, at which point it barely resembled that hastily prepared manual speech from the winter before. At each level I felt the fear many of us experience during our Ice Breaker speeches, but, as we all know, the only way to conquer that fear is to keep speaking.

I was fortunate to finally break through against some strong competition at district. For the region event, I revived and improved the speech I’d blanked on in 2007. A last-minute inspiration on the morning of the region contest led to a revision that made the speech distinctive, and I barely edged out some talented speakers. And so, although I’d never anticipated the possibility, I’d qualified for the championship final. 

Wild Ride
Past champ Darren LaCroix warned me that the two months leading up to the final would be a roller coaster, and he wasn’t kidding. I wrote, I re-wrote, I second-guessed, I third-guessed, I rehearsed locally, drove out of town to rehearse in front of less familiar audiences, discarded speeches and started over. I watched DVDs, took notes and e-mailed people so many drafts that my “Sent Mail” box now serves as an archive of obsessive neurosis. I lost sleep, lost weight and lost my summer. And then I went to Calgary and was defeated.

And it was a blast.

I did not win – but I did not lose. It feels wrong to describe what I experienced as “losing.” I learned more in half a year than I ever could have dreamed. I experienced a wild ride. I shared stories from my life, stories about my son and messages I believed in with audiences who cheered me on. Many, many people were generous with their time in helping and supporting me. At the championship, I shared the big stage with nine amazing people, and made friendships I will always cherish. Afterward, I had people stop me at the Calgary airport and on the plane to tell me they loved my speech. I felt many things, but I sure didn’t feel like a loser.

So what can you take from competing in this event? Whether you reach the final round or are defeated at the club level, the potential rewards are rich and varied. They include benefiting from the following kinds of experiences:

  • Speaking under pressure, and challenging yourself to be even better than you think you could be.
  • Sharing a message you truly believe with an audience that needs to hear it.
  • Meeting other strong speakers, and learning from their styles.
  • Refining a speech, making it better every time you deliver it.
  • Giving a speech to different audiences, from club up to district.
  • Speaking in front of large and unfamiliar audiences.
  • Developing and perfecting entirely new speeches if you win at district and then again at region – and doing them in a relatively short period of time.
  • Handling defeat gracefully, which all of us except one person – the ultimate winner – will have the opportunity to do. 

You might be the next Darren, Jim, Vikas or LaShunda. Or, you might be one of the other 24,999 of us who leave without the big trophy, but with a growth experience. However it turns out, by competing in the speech contests you will challenge yourself, you will grow, you will practice everything you’ve learned and you will be a better communicator. You will accomplish many amazing things. And you will not lose. 

Colin T. William, DTM, is a psychology professor from West Lafayette, Indiana. You can reach him at