Where are all the women? Like a cartoon thought bubble, the question bloomed as I clustered with 105 other semifinalists for the contestant briefing. It looked to me like we females made up only 25 to 30 percent of the group.
My secret goal as a 2018 International Speech Contest semifinalist, besides wanting to do well, was to widen the footprint of women in the contest finals—the Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking. When I first learned that women had only gained entrance into Toastmasters International in 1973, I was shocked. Knowing that as of 2017, only four women had won the World Championship, further surprised me.
As it does for every contestant, my journey began at the club contest level. After each win, I sought out more opportunities to deliver my speech. I think a winning speech is created not through the genius of an individual, but through the combined feedback of many Toastmasters. It takes openness and humility to absorb constructive criticism and try it on for size while simultaneously growing your natural strengths.
I cannot say enough about the generous support I received from my fellow district members—men and women alike. They were eager to support my journey with their time, insightful feedback, heartfelt encouragement and positive words.
Jackie Bailey, DTM, a District 2 semifinalist in the 2015 International Speech Contest, shared her contestant experience with me. She’d been the only woman in her semifinalist group at the Toastmasters International Convention in Las Vegas, Nevada. She went in expecting to feel competitive with her fellow semifinalists, but instead, they all bonded and are still in touch today. That story laid the foundation for my superb semifinalist experience.
Armed with the expectation of becoming fast friends with my fellow contestants, the best thing in the contest briefing auditorium was meeting the 10 other talented souls in Semifinal 4: Kenny Ray Morgan, Paul Artale, Stuart Pink, Donny Crandell, Al Talamantez, Ben MacEllen, Arfath Saleem, Hongbo “Bobo” Lu, Kageni Njeru and Melita D’Souza.
The stats were improving—I was one of three women!
"For the first time in Toastmasters history, first, second and third place had all been awarded to women."
The connection and mutual appreciation among the 11 contestants showed during our semifinal, when our speeches included references to each other’s messages and stories. While not winning was disappointing, it didn’t crush me. I couldn’t have been happier for Kenny Ray, Kageni and Paul when the first-, second- and third-place winners were announced.
The immediate payoff for not winning my semifinal: enjoying a full night’s sleep for the first time in months! Another plus: getting to relax while taking in content-rich education sessions at the International Convention in Chicago. I cannot imagine how stressed those 10 finalists must have been between Thursday’s semifinal win and Saturday’s finals competition. Reading the program while waiting for the championship to start, I was thrilled to see four women in the finals. The numbers were still improving!
After the announcement of Ramona Smith’s first-place win, I jumped to my feet along with everyone else in that auditorium, cheering and crying. For the first time in Toastmasters history, first, second and third place had all been awarded to women.
This all-female win impacted me in a profound way. For the past few days, I’d watched semifinalists perform and repeatedly thought how difficult it is for women to compete with men’s resonant, multi-octave voices and larger physical frames—great advantages in vocal variety, gestures and use of space.
Thanks to Ramona J. Smith, Sherrie Su and Anita Fain Taylor, my thoughts about what makes a winning speaker shifted. Speakers win when they can be themselves on stage. When they can physically maximize who they are through movement and dress, vocally express who they are and craft a story that brings their message to life with power and humor—they win—whether male or female.
Thank you, ladies, for paving the way for even more of us to become champions of public speaking!
Lindy MacLaine, DTM is a member of SKWIM Toastmasters Club in Sequim, Washington. Lindy helps women entrepreneurs revamp and revitalize their message for improved on-camera engagement, connection, and conversion.