Profile: A Death-Defying Flight to Victory

Profile: A Death-Defying Flight to Victory

How David Henderson, Toastmasters’ 2010 World Champion of Public Speaking, soared to the top.

By Beth Black


"We all fall down. That’s the bad news. No matter how far you fall, love will lift you up.” With these words, attorney David Henderson, a Toastmaster from San Antonio, Texas, rose above 30,000 contestants from 113 countries to win the final round of the world’s largest speech contest: the Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking. Henderson presented his winning speech, titled “The Aviators,” to a rapt audience Aug. 14 in Palm Desert, California. Nine finalists delivered five- to seven-minute presentations on wide-ranging topics. A panel of 14 judges voted on the winner, using criteria that included content, organization and delivery.

Henderson’s winning speech could have gone down in flames. Yet the one-year member of San Antonio’s Sociable Toastmasters club managed to pull it off. From costume choice to emotional content to dangerous physical maneuvers, Henderson’s speech presented challenges rivaled only by the feats of his opponents. This experienced trial lawyer steered his speech straight through all the calculated risks, proving that skill and talent mixed with courage can lead to success. 


When is a Costume a Good Idea?
The first risk Henderson faced was the costume he designed. In a field of conservatively dressed opponents, he wore an aviator helmet, goggles, bomber jacket and a long “Snoopy” scarf.

“I didn’t know if people were going to think coming out with the helmet and the goggles was ridiculous,” he says. “I didn’t know how people would feel about the bomber jacket...or the use of the scarf as a prop.”

Leery of using props in competition, Henderson says, “I’m actually skeptical of people doing things that are gimmicky. I think there’s a really fine line with props.” Nevertheless, he decided to wear the costume, because it helped to delineate his characters and storyline. 


Memories in Minutes
Another challenge Henderson faced was in telling a world-class, memorable speech that would evoke the audience’s sympathy in five to seven minutes. He chose a theme close to his heart – coping with loss – and fashioned a story about a childhood friend. Then, he had to describe losing her to sickle cell anemia – striking a delicate balance between coming across as maudlin by describing a child’s death or failing to portray the full weight of the loss.

Henderson decided to devote the first half of the speech to showing the audience the little girl, “Jackie.” He made sure to express her story fully to the audience, avoiding a common pitfall of speakers. “I think that the problem people often face is we get so wrapped up in our own ideas that we just assume other people are going to get wrapped up in our ideas, too.” says Henderson. “That’s not necessarily the case.” 


The Speech’s Engine: A Powerful Story
To develop his theme, Henderson repeated one sentence three times during his speech: “Sooner or later, we all fall down.” The story wove its way around this phrase, depicting three different stages of how people respond to loss. At first, he used the example of children, who have no understanding of “falling down,” because they can’t fully comprehend the permanence of loss. The second time Henderson delivered that line, it was to teach the audience how to recover from grief with an intact heart. And the last time he said it, Henderson explained how his love had helped the girl, Jackie, bravely face her own death.

With a tragic story to tell, Henderson managed to insert some well-placed humor. He felt jokes were needed to keep the audience from becoming overwhelmed. “If you make them hurt too much and don’t provide some relief, they’ll hold it against you,” he notes.

Blending in humor appropriately was an important lesson he learned in Toastmasters. When Henderson first joined the organization, he did not use comedy at all. “Not a single joke in any of my speeches,” he says. His speeches were very serious and sometimes missed their opportunity to inspire or compel action. He eventually learned how to work with humor so that it helped with his delivery. While adding comic relief to his winning speech, for example, Henderson took care to balance the levity of humor with its heartrending message so that he could reach the audience – much like a plane carrying a heavy payload must achieve enough “lift” to fly so that it can reach its destination. 


Taking a Tumble
He knew he needed to find a way, in the light-hearted middle of the speech, to drop the audience down to a somber mood quickly. “By the time I got the audience to be invested in Jackie, I didn’t have time to trail it down slowly.”

Henderson was stumped by the problem. And so, the day before the championship round, he made the decision to add a physical maneuver to his speech – falling to the floor – to illustrate his key message that “We all fall down.”

He didn’t know what was going to happen when he performed it during the contest. “The problem is, if you don’t go all the way, it just looks like you did something really goofy. So you have to actually fall.”

It was a calculated risk. “There was a point where I was losing my balance, and I’m crashing onto the floor,” he says. “So I’m thinking, I may actually hurt myself...And I don’t know if the mike will come dislodged and there will be some kind of weird feedback. I made a sound after I fell to make sure the mike still worked before I stood back up.” 


Conquering Emotions
One of Henderson’s challenges came out of his original reason for joining Toastmasters: Crying. “I have a habit of tearing up when I’m giving speeches,” he says. He actually joined to learn how to speak without tears – but found it difficult. Henderson took this as a new challenge. “I realized, if I can’t make myself stop crying, it’ll be okay if I can put into perspective why I’m crying.” True to form, he did have tears on his face at one point. The audience reacted with empathy – turning his challenge into a winning strategy. 


What He Gained From the Experience
With every win, Henderson’s main goal remains the same: To learn. As a child, he became curious how his mother’s friend developed her superb speaking skills. She advised him to join Toastmasters someday and enter the competitions.

It took him 15 years to finally follow her advice. “When you learn a Toastmasters skill, you’re supposed to use that skill in your everyday speech.” Contest skills, he says, are no different. They should come out of Toastmasters skills that are applicable in everyday life. Henderson’s winning speech proved that Toastmasters skills can carry you through your everyday life, and they can also help you soar to new heights.


Note: Recordings of Convention events, including the World Championship of Public Speaking, are available to order from www.toastmasters.org/captureconvention.  


Beth Black, CC is an associate editor of the Toastmaster magazine. Contact her at bblack@toastmasters.org.

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