Manner of Speaking: Filled With Funny

Manner of Speaking: Filled With Funny

Try out your comedy chops at Humorous Speech Contests.

By Paul Sterman

Photo caption: John Zimmer, shown here with his daughter, Kristen, won the District 59 Humorous Speech Contest. 

When John Zimmer of Geneva, Switzerland, gave his speech last November, he donned a pair of black shades and broke out a nimble Arnold Schwarzenegger accent. Not only that, but The Terminator’s timing was spot-on.

The occasion was a Humorous Speech Contest, an event that Toastmasters International presents every year. The competition is held at various Toastmasters venues throughout the world, and it produces loads of laughter and fun for everyone involved.

Zimmer’s award-winning presentation, delivered in Bamberg, Germany, was broadly satirical. With a figurative wink, he suggested that Toastmasters audiences need to be toughened up – and that speakers should take their cue from Schwarzenegger’s scary action-film persona. Who better to intimidate an audience into listening?

Therefore, instead of the traditional Ice Breaker speech to introduce yourself, you’d now be giving a “Bone Breaker” speech, noted Zimmer (channeling Schwarzenegger). As for hand gestures, repeatedly pounding your fist into your palm in a threatening manner would do just fine. And facial expressions? Well, there’s pretty much just the one, if you recall Schwarzenegger’s acting range: Look mean.

Zimmer, a Canadian attorney who lives and works in Geneva, had his audience in stitches. 

Comical Coffee and More
Then there’s Sid Davis, who riffed and ranted about coffee in his contest speech in 2005. More specifically, Davis, a member of the Lake Norman Toastmasters in Mooresville, North Carolina, playfully dissed the Starbucks crowd – or at least those patrons who order the “mocha, frappe, latte, venti, pony expresso, whipped cream sissy drink.” “If you want a milkshake, go to Dairy Queen!” he growled.

A wealth of topics can be mined for humorous material. While coffee provided Davis with a playful subject, a clash of cultures was the comedic fodder for Nahid Kasra. The Southern California Toastmaster moved to the United States from Iran at age 17. In her contest speech last year, she talked about those first days in America:

“People would ask me where I’m from and I’d tell them, ‘Iran.’ They’d say, ‘Oh, did you ride camels?’ I said, ‘No, I came here by plane.’”

In fact, says Kasra, she never once saw a camel in her life – a funny comment on stereotypes.

The contest speeches are five to seven minutes long. Each competition features a panel of judges, and winners at each level (club, area and division) advance until a final round is held at the district level.

Participants say they have fun performing humorous material; they get a chance to develop their comedy chops and enjoy making people laugh.

“When the laughs start coming, you think ‘Yes! That’s it – I’m in the zone now,’” writes Zimmer in an e-mail from Geneva.

And the speakers also have a blast listening to others perform. 

It’s Fun!
“I always encourage my fellow Toastmasters club members to enter these contests – just going there to hear these other speakers is great,” says Cliff Shimizu, a member of the UniMasters club in Lake Forest, California, who has entered the Humorous Speech Contest nearly every year for the past 10 years. “Number one, it’s entertaining – they’re humorous speeches; everyone loves that. And you learn so much about what to do – how you use props, how you structure speeches. You pick so much up from other speakers.”

Shimizu says the contests are rewarding on a number of levels: “Growing up, I was sort of introverted and a shy person. I always wanted to be the center of attention and tell jokes. I always had a humorous streak to me, but I never knew how to express it.” With Toastmasters, he found his chance. “When I joined Toastmasters, I had a captive audience; people actually laughed at these things I was saying.”

Shimizu gave humor-oriented presentations to his club, but when he entered the Humorous Speech Contest, that kicked things up a notch: He really had a chance to shine.

And he rose to the opportunity. One year, he won at the area level, and in 2004 he finished in second place in the Founders District contest. But Shimizu – and others – say the events are more about the confidence, the personal growth and the enjoyment to be gained than any trophies picked up along the way.

“The humorous contests opened my eyes to a whole other world outside of our club,” says Shimizu, a Toastmaster since 1998. “I saw how there was such a great diversity in speakers – all different kinds. I became hooked on the world of speech contests.” 

It’s More than Fun
In contrast to Shimizu always believing that somewhere deep inside of him was a funnyman waiting to get out, Nahid Kasra felt just the opposite: She always believed she wasn’t funny. The only speeches she had delivered to her club were serious and earnest. So when her fellow club members urged her to enter last year’s humorous contest, that was the last thing she wanted to do.

But ultimately she decided to take the challenge.

“I thought, ‘Why not? So I’ll make a fool out of myself – what’s the worst that can happen?’”

It was an excellent decision. Because what Nahid discovered was that she is funny. She told stories and jokes about her life as an American from Iran – and her humorous speech was voted the best of her club. She finished third at the area level.

“It was such a pleasure to do this,” she recalls. “I worked with a mentor, and then when I did my speech, the audience laughed.”

“I didn’t even know that I had this talent for humor,” adds Nahid, a member of the Rancho Speech Masters in Rancho Santa Margarita, California.

In fact, she’s so enthusiastic about this revelation that she hopes to develop a career using humor in some form.

The Humorous Speech Contest was also a professional inspiration for Sid Davis, the North Carolina resident. His coffee-themed comedy routine took first place in the 2005 division round. These days, Davis is touring comedy clubs across the United States, working as a professional comedian. He says his training and success in Toastmasters was a driving force in his becoming a stand-up comic.

Last year, Davis served as the contest chairman for his district’s humorous competition, meaning he hosted the contest but didn’t participate as a contestant in the event. He says the experience reminded him once again of how many entertaining presentations there are to see at these programs.

“There are very, very funny folks who come here,” Davis says.

There’s also a real camaraderie between competitors. Participants want each other to do well, notes Zimmer, whose speech last year won first place in District 59, which encompasses 18 countries in Continental Europe.

“My fellow contestants were all wonderfully friendly people,” he says. “One would think that watching them would result in a moral dilemma – you want them to do well, but you also want to win yourself. However, I have found that the whole philosophy of Toastmasters usually results in healthy rivalry where everyone supports everyone else.”

The contest can also be a fun family experience. Zimmer’s 13-year-old daughter, Kristen, has a keen interest in public speaking, so she was only too willing to provide her dad with personal coaching as he prepared his humorous speech and continued to advance through each round. And Kristen didn’t take it easy on the old man:

“She insisted that I rehearse the speech in front of her countless times,” notes Zimmer, a member of the International Geneva Toastmasters club. “She would look at the script and suggest changes here and there, many of which I gratefully incorporated.”

The father-daughter bonding grew even more special when Zimmer made it to the district finals in Germany – and took Kristen with him. She saw her dad perform in front of 225 people – and emerge victorious. At the awards ceremony, when John’s name was announced as the first-place winner, both he and Kristen were called up to the stage. John had the presenters put the medal around Kristen’s neck.

“It was a great experience,” he says, “and one which we will both remember always.” 

Paul Sterman is an associate editor for the Toastmaster magazine and a resident of Orange, California. Reach him at