In 2012, Aaron Beverly entered his first Toastmasters International Speech Contest. Just three years out of college and full of ambition, he competed at the area level, and, by his own account, was confident he would be declared the winner.
“I was totally shocked when I came in second,” recalls Beverly.
What happened next marked a turning point. “Afterward, a person came up to me and asked me, ‘Do you want to know why you lost?’” Beverly listened. “He told me what I lacked was a story. That I was just trying to preach to people and tell them what to do, and I had no substance to back it up.”
So Beverly set his mind to mastering the art of telling personal stories, and honed his speaking skills through repeated practice at club meetings. In 2016, he finished second at the Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking—and this year he finished first.
The 30-year-old project manager for JPMorgan Chase captured the speaking title in August at the 2019 International Convention. In his winning speech, “An Unbelievable Story,” Beverly unspooled a captivating tale about his experience at a friend’s 2018 wedding in India. Speaking by phone from his home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he reflected happily on his victory and how Toastmasters has lifted him, both personally and professionally, over the years.
“Toastmasters has really expanded my world,” he says.
An Early Speaking Stumble
Beverly is a member of two clubs: the JPMorgan Christiana Keynote Toastmasters in Newark, Delaware, and the University City Toastmasters at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He joined Toastmasters largely because of a traumatic speaking experience in college. At the time, Beverly was a sophomore at Central Pennsylvania College, where he participated in the school’s Student Leadership Training Institute—a program directed by adjunct professor and past Toastmasters International President Dilip Abayasekara, DTM. When the Institute held a graduation ceremony of sorts, Beverly was asked to present a gift to the keynote speaker.
“I only had to say three lines,” he says, still pained by the memory. “I got up and shook the guy’s hand—and then I totally blanked out. It was only 15 seconds, but it felt like an eternity.”
“I never wanted to experience that again,” he adds.
His Toastmasters training had immediate benefits. He was hired by JPMorgan Chase and credits his communication, leadership, and networking skills with later helping him land his current project manager job with the company.
Beverly says he’s also made many friends in Toastmasters, including Brandon Locke, a fellow club member whose wedding in India formed the backdrop to Beverly’s speech. “I have had the joy of watching Aaron speak in person for a long time,” Locke says, “and I knew he would do the story justice.”
Donning formal Indian wedding attire, Beverly delivered his winning speech with polish and panache. He started out setting the scene: “Brandon’s [then]-fiancée, Devika, and her family are Indian, Brandon is white, and I am the only black man there. I can’t help but feel different.”
What helped him feel embraced and accepted was an Indian wedding ritual—a game, really: He was asked to protect the groom’s shoes before the wedding. The shoes could not fall captive to the bridesmaids or else the groom would have to pay a “ransom” to get them back. “A fact about me: When I am given a mission, I take it very seriously,” he told the audience. He wasn’t giving up the shoes.
Though he mined the tale for laughs, Beverly also tapped into its cultural relevance. The shoe game, he said, was a fun way for the bride’s and groom’s families and their respective friends—people from a mix of cultural backgrounds—to get to know each other and make everyone feel welcome. Society needs to do more of that, said Beverly, who issued a challenge to the audience: Be open-minded and compassionate toward people who are different from you—a mission to take very seriously.
“A fact about me: When I am given a mission, I take it very seriously.”— Aaron Beverly
Past Toastmasters World Champions of Public Speaking were impressed with the newest member of their distinguished circle. Mark Brown, the 1995 winner, says Beverly structured his speech with a deft touch, earning laughs from the audience as he chronicled the shoe adventure—“and then right at the end, driving home a powerful point about the acceptance of others. We didn’t see it coming, but when it did, it was poignant.”
Darren LaCroix, the 2001 champ, says Beverly’s message resonates during these divisive times. “As an international organization, we are all from different cultures and face this [issue of feeling different] every day,” LaCroix says. “Aaron does not take sides yet faces the issue head-on, brilliantly, with a personal story.”
A Valued Mentor
Through the years, Beverly has forged a strong connection with Abayasekara, the past International President and Accredited Speaker whom he met in college. After Beverly joined Toastmasters and began competing in speech contests, he asked Abayasekara to coach him. From him Beverly learned how to structure a story, make it cohesive, and connect with an audience.
“Aaron would send me his contest speeches—text and sometimes video—for evaluation, and we would go back and forth with tweaks that strengthened the speeches,” Abayasekara recalls. “I think the most important thing is that Aaron is humble, which makes him a great listener, and he doesn’t let ego get in the way of learning.”
Speaking to the audience after he won the championship, Beverly expressed gratitude to his mentor for his guidance. For his part, Abayasekara says it was deeply gratifying to coach Beverly and watch him soar to such speaking heights.
He notes that Beverly has now surpassed his own performance—Abayasekara finished second at the 1992 World Championship of Public Speaking. And he couldn’t be more pleased.
“A mentor’s greatest reward,” says Abayasekara, “is the success of his mentee.”
Paul Sterman is senior editor of Toastmaster magazine.
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Highlights from the 2019 Toastmasters International Convention