My Turn: How I Conquered My Contest Fears

Don't shy away from speech competitions just because you're new.

By Angie Palmer, ACS, ALB

When the contest season comes, new members or even new clubs start to wonder if they should participate. “Contest” can be a frightening word to those newer members who don’t have many opportunities to speak in front of a group. They feel public speaking is intimidating enough and dread the thought of speaking and competing at the same time. Indeed, I secretly had the same reaction last year when I first heard from my club in Alamogordo, New Mexico, that it would be organizing the Humorous Speech and Evaluation contests. Speech contests can be nerve-racking.

Of course, not every member shares the same sentiment. My husband, Keith, had been a member for only a few months – with just his Ice Breaker under his belt – when he jumped right into the Humorous Speech Contest last year. His speech was called “Selling Your Wife” – a title you can imagine I was not entirely impressed with. I wasn’t sure what he was going to talk about until he made his debut at our club contest. Keith caught the audience’s attention right from his opening line: “Selling your wife has become one of the more difficult things in life to accomplish.” I was wondering what was up his sleeve.

He went on to explain that he was there to help his fellow men sell their wives – a humorous play on words based on a colloquialism meaning “to sell an idea to…” – on purchasing the latest “toys” on the market. The audience and judges loved him…including the women. My husband made it all the way to the district contest – the first member in our club’s history to have advanced that far. He didn’t win there, but having a brand new member competing at the final level completely changed our club members’ perceptions about participating in contests. Keith was an excellent example of how new members should not shy away from competing. 

Giving It a Try
My husband and I joined the Moundbuilders Toastmasters club in August 2008 after we moved to Heath, Ohio. It happened to be contest season again. When our club’s vice president education asked for volunteers to enter the contests, I bravely raised my hand for both the Humorous Speech and Table Topics contests, along with some other members.

I was nervous a year ago and didn’t think I was proficient enough to enter any speech contests. A Humorous Speech Contest, in particular, was an item on my impossible list. After all, humor can be culture-specific and subjective. Being a person of Hong Kong Chinese heritage living in the United States for only three years, I find it difficult to see eye-to-eye with some of the American stand-up comedians.

To find jokes that appeal to a large, general audience is a skill that needs to be built day by day. I wanted to take my first step to surmount this hurdle, and so I made my debut with a speech titled “My Culture Shock.” The theme touched on a combination of the culture shock I had in the United States and the subcultural shock experienced between husbands and wives.

I did my best and did not expect to be the first-place winner – but that’s exactly what happened. After winning at the club contest, I became more confident in my humorous-speaking skills. Things I thought I could not do suddenly became possible.

I gained valuable speech contest and stage experience throughout the whole process. I learned how to rewrite my speech to get the audience reaction I wanted. It was also in these two speech contests that I observed and learned from proficient speakers, gaining valuable insights on how to perform humorous and Table Topics speeches. It was also a perfect opportunity to network with other Toastmasters and share our experiences. Moreover, my club helped groom me to be a more competent speaker as I competed and advanced in the competition.

So, how did I do in the two contests? I came in second in both – at the division level! Things happen when you least expect it. I entered the speech contests mainly to conquer my fear of trying humor in front of the American audience, but this exciting experience gave me much more than I ever expected. 

Angie Palmer, ACS, ALB, is a member of the Moundbuilders Toastmasters club in Newark, Ohio. She is the owner of Skye Public Relations Ltd. and can be reached at