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June 2024
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Succeeding in a Speech Contest

How to prepare and improve as you work toward your goals.

By Bill Brown, DTM

Illustration of a toolbox

Click play to hear about one member who made great strides in his speaking ability by entering his club's speech contest.

When you hear the words “speech contest,” what are your thoughts? “I want to be the World Champion of Public Speaking.” “If I could just win the area contest, that would be great.” “No way am I going to compete in one of those.” Do any of those reactions sound familiar?

Each year, thousands of Toastmasters compete in the Humorous, Evaluation, Tall Tales, Table Topics, and International speech contests. They start at the club level and progress through to the district level. (The International Speech Contest progresses all the way to the World Championship of Public Speaking.)

My personal contest experience could best be summed up by the tagline from a sports program that I watched when I was young: “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” These different degrees of success have given me a clearer perspective on the contest experience. That perspective has helped me win some trophies—and to be content when I didn’t. The important factor was that I grew with every contest. And so can you.

First of all, to be successful in a contest, you have to understand what success is. Yes, it might be to win a trophy. But keep in mind, only one Toastmaster becomes the World Champion of Public Speaking every year. Did all the other participants fail? Or do they become better speakers in the process? Isn’t that success, too?

One of my club members decided to enter the Tall Tales Speech Contest last March. At first, his story was rough, but he worked on it and it got better each time. When he competed at the area level, our club members were stunned at how well he performed. Although he didn’t win, he is still, to this day, excited about that speech. It transformed how he views his speaking ability.

He might not have won a trophy, but he really did win. He is a much better speaker today because of his participation. And, as he speaks for his business, he has the potential for greater success there. That is true contest success.

Keep in mind, only one Toastmaster becomes the World Champion of Public Speaking every year. Did all the other participants fail?

Second, being successful in a contest takes effort and dedication. You have to want to grow and be willing to put in the time to make that happen. I have heard many times that the Speech Evaluation Contest—where contestants observe a test speech and then present an evaluation of the speech—is great because you don’t have to prepare. I strongly disagree. When I won that contest at the district level, I had a plan. I knew exactly what I was going to look for. In addition, I knew how much time I would dedicate to each segment of my evaluation (positives, suggestions for improvement, and summary).

And finally, I practiced evaluations at the club level many times. It’s not easy to put together a complete evaluation speech with just five minutes of preparation (the amount given in the evaluation contest). I won because I put in the effort before the contest.

If you are entering the International Speech Contest, select a topic you are passionate about. Your interest and expertise on the topic will energize the audience and come through in how you speak. Finally, to perform well in a contest, you can’t be worried about the judging. Far too often I have seen contestants, myself included, trying to score points on the ballot. The judging process is not that mechanical.

If you focus on winning a trophy, you will focus on technique instead of communication. Your passion for your message might not come through as strongly. Focus, instead, on providing something of value to the audience. You will connect better with them—and the judges. Regardless of how the contest turns out, you will have succeeded.

I still have people coming up to me, repeating the key point of a couple of my International Speech Contest presentations from years ago. The speeches may not have been winners in the judges’ eyes, but they benefited those who needed to hear them.

In short, yes, you have to work hard to win a contest. The question is, what is winning? If you grow through the process, and you help others grow through your message, that is true success.

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