Thinking Like A Loser

If you’ve ever been frustrated by speech contest judging...join the club. It’s a big one. You’ll meet lots of friends.

Here’s my take on winning and losing speech contests. It’s the perspective of someone who has been hanging around Toastmasters for 35 years. I’m an eight-time district contest winner. But let’s put that into perspective: I’ve lost more contests than most people you’ve met. I don’t qualify for the Guinness Book of World Records, but when it comes to winning and losing, I’ve been there, done that.

I was recently introduced to two winning speakers: Jock Elliott from Australia and Kiminari Azuma from Japan. Elliott has competed five times on the World Championship stage; Azuma has competed in five district contests and two Inter-District competitions, including the 2008 competition in Calgary. They are winners. But along the way, they’ve had their share of losses. What keeps them in the race?

I discovered that the wisdom they shared about surviving a contest loss matches what I’ve learned over the years. Frustration with competition results is a common experience. Sometimes the frustration is caused by faulty thinking, sometimes it’s the result of factors that are simply out of our control. Here are some points to consider the next time you’re unhappy with the results of a speech contest: 

Judging and Bias
Judging is subjective. It’s not a precise science. In the end, contest results reflect the subjective opinions of the judges. Any one judge will not likely agree with the opinion of every audience member, nor will he or she agree with the opinion of every other judge.

Furthermore, a small minority of judges won’t like certain topics. Some judges tend to prefer the speeches of people they know. Some judges carry a chip on their shoulder because they think they should be competing on that stage instead of you. Since their bias is different from yours, that means you sometimes won’t agree with them. And you can be absolutely guaranteed that when you do win, there will be at least one person, and probably more, who will think that the judges got it wrong!

The subjective nature of judging means sometimes the winner is genuinely the best speaker – and sometimes not. That’s life in the world of speech competitions. As Jock Elliott says, “That’s the game. Live with it or play something else!” If you weren’t picked as the winner, it doesn’t necessarily mean you weren’t the best speaker. And if you were picked as the winner, it doesn’t mean you were the best speaker. The winner is just the winner.

“I’m a good judge of my own performance.” Of course this is faulty thinking. We’re actually bad judges of our own performance. We’re also bad judges of the performance of someone we like or don’t like. We’re bad judges of the performance of someone expressing an opinion we don’t agree with. We do have blind spots.

So allow the judges to have their opinions. They’re entitled and that’s okay.

Judges have good intentions. I’m a firm believer that the judges honestly try their best to be fair and do the right thing. If their vote is swayed by bias or favoritism, it’s not intentional. Believe in the goodness of people. Doing so is closer to the truth, and makes it easier to be happy with the results.

They’re volunteers. Let’s face it, your average contest is being judged by volunteers. Ask yourself: How many judges have won contests in the past? If you’re lucky, maybe a few. That doesn’t make their opinions less valid – it’s just a perspective to help you not take the results too seriously when you lose...or when you win. 

Attitude and Perspective
Winning is important. Not really. Take the International Speech Contest. One person wins, tens of thousands lose. So you’re in good company. It’s not about winning – it’s about growth. The primary goal of entering a contest is to grow. If you lose and grow, you’ve come out on top.

If you win and don’t grow, you’ve wasted your time. My slogan is: I learn more when I finish in second place. You tend to think you were pretty good when you win. Your analysis goes deeper when you lose.

Elliott’s perspective is this: “Competition is the best training ground because you are under pressure and out of your comfort zone, so you try harder. If I win, great. If I lose, then I’ve learned something about myself, or the contest, or the judges, or the audience, and next time, I’ll be better prepared.”

Let it pass. If you feel frustration with the contest results, that’s normal. I’ve been there. I’ll be there again. And if you compete, you’ll eventually feel frustrated too. The key is your bounce-back-ability. How resilient you are is a measure of your strength and character. There’s another contest just around the corner. And if you were truly the best speaker who didn’t win, you don’t need to announce it to anyone; most people will already know it.

Have fun. Enjoy the experience. The goal of the contest is to get better...not to get bitter. If you’ve grown in the process and have become a better speaker, you’re a winner. Kiminari Azuma says, “On my way back from the 76th International Convention, I was thinking about the Inter-District and International contests and realized that there are no losers in a Toastmasters contest.” It’s true. The only losers are those who never enter the contest in the first place!

Winning is hard. Maybe winning is hard, but so is – being a graceful loser. The magic is in cultivating the right attitude.

The Heat of the Moment
When the wound is fresh, the sting of losing clouds our judgment. Elliott and Azuma both say your opinion right after the contest of how well you performed will be different from your opinion weeks later. Azuma reflects on his reaction after one particular contest: “I didn’t win. I was shocked. Several weeks later I watched my contest performance on video. I was shocked again! I was a monotonous robot and was speaking too fast. I found lots of room for improvement.”

                    "The primary goal of entering a contest is to grow.
                    If you lose and grow, you've come out on top. If you win
                    and don't grow, you've wasted your time..."

Elliott expresses similar thoughts about watching himself on video in the aftermath of a contest. “When you look at the tape later on, you begin to see the justice of the [contest] result.” He adds, “Experience actually counts for a lot, and you become tougher and begin to realize that losing won’t kill you and that maybe, just maybe, the judges were right, and win or lose, you got the result you deserved. You are able to gain a sense of proportion, so that losing at a club contest is not grounds for suicide.”

The insights of Elliott and Azuma suggest that at the moment the results are announced, you’re too close to the event to have a clear focus and opinion of how you really performed. You’ll need some processing time to arrive at a more accurate perception of reality.

The Real World
Have you ever wondered why you’re not winning more contests if you’ve been steadily improving your speaking performances? It might be that your competition keeps getting better too!

Last November I competed in the District 33 Fall Conference Humorous Speech Contest.

In my previous five district humor competitions, I finished in first place four times and second place once. In the November contest, I had an excellent speech that drew great audience response. A fellow member of my club said he counted 32 laugh lines in my speech.

First place went to Colin Saunders from Las Vegas.

I had Colin picked as the winner before the results were announced. His speech was a work of art, with the word choices of a poet and great physical delivery. Most importantly, he was very funny.

Second and third place went to two young and energetic speakers: Jason Gordo and David Hillshafer.

This was the best Humorous Speech Contest I can remember. Reflecting on my past competitions, I’ve come to the conclusion that it was much easier to win a district contest in the “old days.” My first district win was 25 years ago at the District 48 Fall Conference. In those days the Humorous Speech Contest extended to the regional level, where I competed three years in a row, from 1983 to 1985. The recent district contest I participated in was more competitive than any of those three region contests from the mid-1980s.

But that’s as it should be. Speakers today are better trained than yesterday’s speakers; with a firm grasp on the art and science of speaking. That’s good. It’s challenging and stimulating.

Winners Are Persistent
Enter every contest. Know that at some point you’ll probably be disappointed with the results.

Jock Elliott says, “Ability aside, sheer perseverance and match practice will move the odds in your favor.” And Kiminari Azuma says, “As I watch my ‘best contest speech,’ I’m glad that I’m still discovering ways to improve my performance. It inspires me to think: Yes, I can do more!”

So when the contest results have a sting...get over it. Losing is just a springboard to higher achievement. Be stimulated to thrive and grow. Accept the feedback, which is the true gift of Toastmasters. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and enter your next club contest. Challenge yourself to work harder. Work smarter. And remember: You will succeed tomorrow by exceeding the standards of today.

John Kinde, DTM,Accredited Speaker, is a humor specialist from Las Vegas, Nevada. You can reach him at

Ten Good Reasons To Lose a Speech Contest
1. If you wait until you definitely win, you’ll never enter.
2. The best way to get better is by being bad.
3. You’ll be more popular. People won’t resent the fact that you won.
4. You don’t have to waste time being nice to the judges.
5. Your friends will tell you, “You were robbed! You should have won.” That’s what friends are for.
6. The contestant interview is fun enough.
7. Being a good loser develops character.
8. Trophies collect dust.
9. When you win there will be nothing more to look forward to.
10. You can do your best Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonation: “I’ll be back!”

If You Must Protest...Know the Rules!
Toastmasters International does everything in its power to ensure that all speech contests are conducted ­fairly. However, if before you enter a speech competition, you have concerns relating to a contest rule, here are some steps you can take:

  • Read the Speech Contest Rulebook carefully.
  • Check the Speech Contest FAQ page on the Toastmasters Web site,, found in the Member Experience section.
  • Discuss the matter with a club officer or someone in your club with contest experience. If you still have ­concerns, contact your local area or district level leaders.
  • If your problem still isn’t solved, e-mail Toastmasters World Headquarters at

There are only two issues you can protest during a speech contest: eligibility of the speaker and originality of the speech. No other issues will be considered. So for example, it doesn’t matter if the speech offends people – as long as the content of the text is the speaker’s own, and the speaker is eligible according to contest rules.

In addition, only two groups of people may lodge a protest: contestants and judges. If you’re not in one of those two groups, please do not disrupt any contest. Any protest must be lodged with the chief judge and/or contest chairman.

Also, be aware that once the winners of a speech contest are announced, it’s too late to make any protests. The chief judge may correct any errors in the contest chairman’s reading of the winners, but once they’ve been read, all decisions regarding contest results at that point are final.

“The primary goal of entering a contest is to grow. If you lose and grow, you’ve come out on top. If you win and don’t grow, you’ve wasted your time...”