How a Hunter Captured His Game
Mark Hunter’s path to the 2009
World Championship of Public Speaking.
By Beth Black
If you’re looking for proof in this world that tenacity, spirit and love will triumph in the end, that proof is Australian Mark Hunter, Toastmasters International’s 2009 World Champion of Public Speaking. His road to the championship was filled with challenges and smaller victories, yet he never gave up his pursuit, that is until the warm August day in Mashantucket, Connecticut, when he was named the new World Champion.
That day, Hunter wowed the judges and the audience alike. In his intricate-yet-graceful speech, “A Sink Full of Green Tomatoes,” he shared hard-earned insights about life following a water-skiing accident that left him in a wheelchair more than three decades ago.
Spreading His Toastmasters Wings
It all began in 1994 when he joined the Bribie Toastmasters club on Bribie Island in Queensland, Australia. “I received a phone call after my first visit that was so supportive, acknowledging and enthusiastic, it was hard to say ‘no’ even if I wanted to. I soon learned this club offered an environment that was supportive and encouraging,” says the Brisbane resident. “It was also an environment in which I could be myself and be challenged.”
Once in, Hunter found even more reasons to stay. “In the club, there was a belief that members could better themselves – this was done through a mentoring process that not only supported me but also challenged me to take on roles of responsibility and ultimately compete,” he says.
The personal development that Hunter achieved through Toastmasters’ leadership training led to professional growth in his career as a school principal at Underba State School, north of Brisbane. Yet ultimately, it was the sheer enjoyment of the meetings and speaking that made Hunter return. “I gained so much from seeing the growth of others and hearing their stories,” he says. “The fun that seemed to permeate each meeting” made Toastmasters a regular part of his life.
Nearly 15 years later, he is the ultimate competitor, crowned Toastmasters’ World Champion of Public Speaking over nine other world-class contestants. He credits Toastmasters with helping him keep track of his development. “I have not come across an educational organization that so readily, easily and accurately measures the growth of an individual,” he says.
Entering the Competitions
In 1996, Hunter entered his first speech contest and reached the Interdistrict level. “My initial motivation was the Holy Grail [World Championship of Public Speaking],” he says. Eventually, however, he saw an opportunity to do more than simply win a trophy. Hunter says, “That desire to win morphed into acknowledging, and taking, the amazing opportunity of sharing something of significance with audiences through the process of competing.”
From there, he competed in several International Speech Contests, placing second at the Interdistrict level in 1999 and in 2005. He reached the World Championship stage in 2001, 2007 and again this year.
Learning to Weave Themes with Subtext
With each competition speech, Hunter sifted through personal stories that would have relevance to others. He made it to the International Convention several times with major themes examining physical perfection, wisdom, the past, failure and love. But he discovered through experience that a championship-level speech must be laced with deeper levels of subtext to surround a theme and intensify its impact.
His life’s struggles played a part in his winning presentation. “The theme of the speech came from my personal experience of trying to change the world in the context of discrimination around disability,” he says. “There were times when I would be a quixotic knight in shining armor – ready to fight the good fight – but these were followed by times of exhaustion. Coming to the conclusion that there are other ways of changing the world, apart from charging around, was not easy but was informed by a wisdom that comes with age.”
This epiphany – that there are other ways of changing the world – became the central theme of his winning speech, which he enriched with subtexts about opportunity, wisdom, age, finding answers and acceptance.
Winning Takes Team Effort
While stalking the prize, he was no lone hunter. Several people helped him by acting as sounding boards for his deliberations – challenging his ideas – yet allowing him to be true to himself throughout the process.
Also, this past year Hunter visited clubs in his district to gather feedback. He says, “It has become clear to me now, that while it takes a club to raise a member in our remarkable organization, it takes a district to raise a champion – thank you, District 69!”
Enjoying International Stage Time
Back on the World Championship stage, Hunter’s experience helped him create rapport with the audience. “There is an amazing amount of palpable positive energy from the audience at this contest,” he says. “I was able to use this energy more successfully this time than perhaps the first time around.”
This level of the contest experience was different from earlier rounds. “At club level everyone knows you well, and I work to ensure that everyone feels as though I am speaking to them personally,” says Hunter. It’s more of a challenge, he says, when the audience expands. “Moving a larger audience is dependent upon my capacity to create a relationship straight away. Humor helps.”
During his championship speech, Hunter expertly focused the audience’s attention with his use of a wheelchair. Rather than allow it to upstage his presentation, he took control. “I park the wheelchair issue so an audience is not focused on the set of wheels, and I use self-deprecating humor to do this,” he says. While the wheelchair partially defines who he is, Hunter was careful to avoid using it to draw sympathy. He did, however, choreograph his wheelchair movement to make his message more effective. “It can add elements of surprise, mischief and fun,” he says. This was his plan when he struck a pose familiar to all. “I thought the body language imitating Rodin’s The Thinker was particularly mischievous!”
And for this occasion, he enjoyed a little more wheelchair humor. One of his favorite moments of the speech was when he lifted the front wheels of his wheelchair, imitating a horse rearing up, and then shouted, “YeeHaah!” The audience loved it. “This got a response beyond what I had even dared to imagine,” Hunter notes.
Paying it Forward
Hunter would like to give back to the organization that gave him this opportunity. He plans to visit districts in Australia and elsewhere, providing educational sessions and keynotes, as well as supporting those who dare “to dream the (im)possible dream.” He’ll also train organizational leaders in the science of coaching as a leadership tool.
Hunter believes he has gained three important things from his membership in Toastmasters: The first has been his personal development. Then, he discovered an appreciation of others and their journeys. But perhaps the most important gift from his membership has been the chance to see his dreams come true. He calls it “an amazing opportunity to leave a legacy through competing, which is, as [Dr. Stephen] Covey says, ‘the essence of human fulfillment.’”
Beth Black is an associate editor for the Toastmaster magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.