The Reluctant Competitor

Ever found yourself doing “the last thing on earth I ever thought I’d do”? Only half awake, I found myself driving to Topeka, Kansas, one drizzly early morning, where in a few hours I’d compete in the Toastmasters District Evaluation Contest. First, you need to understand that I am scared to death of public speaking. It is why I joined Toastmasters. Second, I have spent most of my life scrupulously avoiding anything that smacks of competition.

So why was I entering a Toastmasters contest? It started with our club competition. Apparently Jerry, one of my fellow club members, was the only person interested in representing our club at the area Humorous Speech and Evaluation contests. I had never paid attention to the Toastmasters competitions and had no idea how they worked. We were all fine with having Jerry win unopposed – everyone, that is, except Gary, who is my mentor and our club president.

“Won’t anyone help out so that Jerry isn’t the only contestant in our club contest?”

The other club members were already staring at the table or at the light bulbs, but I wasn’t fast enough. Gary caught my eye. I took a deep breath. “Oh, what the heck, I’ll do an evaluation.” I just wanted Jerry to feel he had won fair and square.

We listened to the seven-minute target speech, and I took notes. I giggled when our sergeant at arms escorted Jerry and me into another room, where we spent five minutes finishing our notes. Then he came back for Jerry, who was to go first, and he also took my notes. Alone in the “waiting room,” I twiddled my thumbs until I was escorted back into the meeting room. Given back my notes, I delivered my evaluation. Eventually, our club judges came back and informed me I had won in the evaluation category! I thought it was a joke. Then they informed me I now had to represent the club at the area competition.

“I didn’t say I was willing to go to any contest. I was just trying to help out!” My voice was shrill with panic.

My mentor frowned, looking somewhat hurt. “What can I say? You won! But if you aren’t willing to represent us, we can’t make you go.” Feeling ungrateful and petty, I sighed and agreed to go.

Our family had already made plans for the Saturday of the contest, but I managed to sneak away and even made it to the contest location on time. My hurry and the absurdity of my contestant status kept me from getting too nervous. I kept repeating a line from the old Rocky movie: “All I want to do is go the distance.”

I listened to the target speech, delivered my evaluation when it was my turn and left immediately to hurry back to my family gathering. I had done my duty by my club. I had gone the distance. It was over!

Later that evening I received an e-mail from my mentor. “You won! Now you get to represent us at the division contest.” Huh? What were these people thinking? 

A Speaking Triumph
At the next meeting I was handed the trophy I’d failed to pick up at the area contest. It was the first trophy I had ever received. How ironic that it was for public speaking! But it made me reflect on why doing evaluations was not nearly as terrifying for me as giving a speech. Apparently I was fairly decent at this evaluation stuff. I decided it was because I could focus on helping the speaker improve; I could focus on their speech. I did not have to come up with a riveting topic. I did not have to create a speech. I did not have to engage and entertain the audience. I simply had to be useful – or so I thought.

The division contest was a bigger event, with more contestants and audience members. I had a few butterflies. Of course, it was all ridiculous; I was not contestant material. But then all I wanted to do was go the distance. And Gary had promised that evaluation contests went no further than this level. One way or the other, this crazy journey would be over.

Because I drew the high number, I was last to deliver my evaluation and did not get to hear my competitors. While the judges deliberated, each contestant was asked to respond to a question, a Table Topic of sorts. My question was “Why did you become a Toastmaster?”

As I stood in front of the audience again, I realized to my amazement that I was completely relaxed, as though I were back at our familiar club table. I told the roomful of strangers my story, how I’d decided I was tired of being afraid of speaking. I made them nod knowingly, I made them laugh, and for a few moments I felt an uncanny connection with them.

When the winners were announced, I felt calm, knowing I would not be called. I was wrong. I now had a second trophy for, of all things, public speaking. But that wasn’t the only surprise.

“What do you mean there’s another level? You said this was it!”

“You must have misunderstood,” Gary assured me, eyes dancing. “It’s the district level that is the final level for evaluation.”

And so, on a drizzly morning in November, I found myself driving to the district contest.

If this were Hollywood, the end of this story would be that I had gotten on the stage and won yet again. But in real life, luck and whimsy only take you so far. The people at district level took this seriously. I began to get that spacey “alien” feeling. I had a hard time concentrating on the target speech. As I sat in the “waiting” room trying to decipher my scribbles, I realized that the young man next to me, feverishly rewriting his notes, was unknowingly panting and blowing as though in labor. It dawned on me how very serious he was about this. My fellow competitors meant to get here. They really wanted to compete. They wanted to win. I was suddenly embarrassed by my attitude. I did not deserve to be in their midst.

I did go the distance that day, but barely. There was a bucket of sand in my mouth, a tornado in my stomach, and I could hardly put words together. But I got through it. Having spoken early, I had the chance to sit in the audience and listen to the competitors who followed. I marveled because they didn’t deliver mere “evaluations”; these competitors had in fact developed an entire speech – complete with theme, snappy introduction, main and support-ing points, humor, effective staging and gestures, reiteration of main points and a snazzy finish. They not only created their speech in five minutes, but they delivered a performance with flair and without benefit of any rehearsal!

It was a revelation. Aha! So that’s what an evaluation could sound like. I tried to soak up their ideas, their techniques, their tricks. It occurred to me that everything we learn from giving speeches at Toastmasters serves to make anything we say more interesting, more engaging.

At last I understood and appreciated what my mentor had been trying to do for me, why he had cajoled and tricked me into attending and competing. The real value of the contest lay not so much in competing but in witnessing ordinary people doing what I do, only extraordinarily well, much better than I do. These were not some far-away television personalities; not people completely out of my league. No, these were people I passed in traffic or sat next to at a restaurant. And that made it powerful and, well, yes, inspiring. I learned so much from watching and hearing them. I knew I could be better. I had ideas of how I could be better. Suddenly, I wanted to be better. Not better than others, just better than I am now.

I learned that I didn’t need to keep avoiding competition, because ultimately there is only one contest. The only competition that really matters is the one between who we are and who we want to become. 

Edna Talboy
has been a Toastmaster for two years and is a member of the Tiffany Springs Toastmasters club in Parkville, Missouri. An instructional designer and performance improvement consultant, she can be reached at

Changes Are Coming to the
2011 Speech Contest Rulebook

The new-and-improved guide is on its way. Here’s a look at the highlights.

For many years, Toastmasters who ran speech contests were required to consult two different guides: the Speech Contest Rulebook and the Speech Contest Manual. That’s all about to change. Toastmasters International has combined the two booklets into one streamlined resource that delivers several improvements to help those involved in organizing, running and participating in Toastmasters speech contests.

“The new contest rulebook is easier to read, easier to understand and simpler for participants to follow,” says International President Pat Johnson. For example, much of the repetition of previous versions has been removed. Now there is one section titled “General Rules for All Toastmasters Speech Contests” that states all the rules applicable to all contests. A member interested in participating in any of the Toastmasters speech contests can start with the basic contest rules in one easy-to-find section.

Next, participants in various contests, such as the Humorous Speech Contest, can flip to the appropriate section and read the rules designed precisely for their contest.

The rulebook also includes a section on contest checklists that was formerly published in the Speech Contest Manual. These checklists help to improve the quality and consistency of speech contests throughout the world.

Another benefit is clarity: Any questions that past contest organizers might have had regarding the mandatory nature of recommendations in the old manual have been settled. All guidelines in the rulebook are required.

The new rulebook concludes with a section offering additional resources. Members viewing the free electronic version of the rulebook can click live links to these helpful resources. Easy, quick and simple!

With a wider format, the new rulebook might seem very different from past years; however, the contest rules remain essentially unchanged.

The rulebook is for contests culminating in the World Championship of Public Speaking in August 2011.