A fish called Rover who gets hooked on classic movies. A high school nerd who vanquishes his nemesis. A hero who saves a beautiful woman and an entire village from a savage crocodile.
True stories? Not likely. But that’s not the point. They’re tall tales: entertaining stories that stretch the truth and the imagination of both storyteller and audience. These particular whoppers were told, respectively, by Toastmasters Mary Lou Williams, DTM; Robert Cravalho, DTM; and Venkata Ramana Dittakavi. The tales are part of a worldwide folk tradition that’s celebrated as one of Toastmasters International’s officially sanctioned speech competitions, the Tall Tales Contest.
“I love tall tales,” says Williams, a member of Naples Advanced Toastmasters and Fort Myers Toastmasters in southwest Florida. “This particular kind of speech is beneficial for a Toastmaster to do because it stimulates creativity and originality. And tall tales are stories. Therefore, they have a plot with a beginning, middle, and end; characters; and action. They motivate a Toastmaster to develop and enhance storytelling skills.”
Almost every culture has its tall tales, often starring at least one superhuman character who performs mind-boggling feats. You may remember them from childhood: heroes like Paul Bunyan, America’s giant lumberjack, clearing millions of acres with a single swing of his ax; Crooked Mick, the champion Australian sheep shearer who really does move mountains; Finn MacCool, the Irish hunter-warrior who creates the Isle of Man when he hurls a clump of Ireland at a rival and it lands in the Irish Sea.
To (Not) Tell the Truth
The Tall Tales Contest is an optional speech contest for Districts. Some hold the contest at their District conference; some don’t hold it all. However, even if a District does not hold the event, clubs still can.
Tall tales are like storytelling on steroids, and in that spirit, the Tall Tales Contest challenges speakers to turn up their oratorical heat. According to the Toastmasters International Speech Contest Rulebook, the Tall Tales Contest speeches are to be three to five minutes long and their subject “must be of a highly exaggerated, improbable nature and have a theme or plot.”
“The Prom Queen” certainly fills that bill. Imagined and performed by Accredited Speaker Robert Cravalho of Na Hoku Kai Toastmasters in Honolulu, Hawaii, it was the winning entry at the District 49 contest in 2013.
In the story, Cravalho loses his high school sweetheart to his arch-enemy, Big Billy Beeterman, and he exacts revenge on Billy. It ends with Billy freezing in fear—and Cravalho laughing maniacally.
To craft his tale, Cravalho started with a true story and embellished it to a fantastic, but still believable, level. “In high school, the love of my life broke up with me and started dating an athlete. I was crushed and somehow wanted to take revenge on him for stealing my girl. To get my revenge, I had to create an Achilles heel for my villain so I could exploit it, and that was the fear of heights.” This villain chased Cravalho to the top of the bell tower, “and once he had me cornered, all I had to do was remind him how high off the ground he was [so I could] trigger his fear of heights. He froze and I escaped back to my girlfriend’s arms.
“At the end of the speech, I wanted my audience to wonder, ‘Did that really happen?’” he says. “I think that is the telltale sign of a great Tall Tales speech; the story is not so far-fetched that it couldn’t be true.”
Some tales, however, succeed exactly because they’re so over-the-top outlandish—a thrill ride steered by an expert storyteller.
Venkata Ramana Dittakavi, of Hyderabad Toastmasters in Hyderabad, Telangana, India, competed in a Tall Tales Contest in District 82 (now District 98) in 2008. He won the contest, which concluded at the Area level.
“The real kicker was the last line … the audience roared with laughter. What a great feeling!”—Robert Cravalho
“I wanted the audience to be glued to my speech,” he says, and they surely must have been enthralled by his tale of saving a woman and her movie-producer husband from a savage monster.
“A crocodile hit the boat and the woman fell into the water. I jumped into the water, fought with the crocodile with one hand and held the lady close to me as she was unconscious. I killed the crocodile and threw it onto a nearby hill. Its blood fell all over a tribal village. The villagers were so happy, as that crocodile was killing whoever got into the river to fetch water.”
Mary Lou Williams’ “Rover, A Fish Story” is literally a fish-out-of-water story about a fish that learns to live on land while watching such classic films as Moby Dick and The Little Mermaid. Impossible? Williams describes Rover’s transformation so logically and matter-of-factly, you might think, well, maybe it could be true.
Leaving the audience guessing is a powerful attraction for Williams, who shared Rover’s story at a District 48 workshop on tall tales. She has not competed in the contest but is a fan of the event “because of the variety and outlandishness of the ideas that contestants come up with in creating their tales and embellishing them with ever-more-fantastic flights of fancy. For example, one participant told a tale about being a donut farmer. He used Cheerios for seeds.”
Cravalho believes speakers can benefit by telling this kind of story at a club meeting. “Improving on creativity helps you to perform better in all that you do.”
And you can’t beat the immediate payoff of the speech. For Cravalho, that came with the last line of his tale, “when I tell the audience that Big Billy Beeterman remained frozen in time in the church tower because I never told anyone what happened until just now.
“The audience roared with laughter. What a great feeling!”
Tall tales can take your speaking skills to new heights, says Dittakavi. “They help us to realize how powerful our imagination is, and the power and influence of our words. … They test your skills in storytelling, persuasion, entertainment, word usage, and many more skills.”
Dittakavi’s story about the movie producer, his wife, and the crocodile ends with Dittakavi getting an offer to star in a movie about his act of heroism, and attend a village ceremony dedicating a statue to him. “I refused both of the offers as I had this Tall Tales Contest on the same day, and I am a passionate Toastmaster committed to improving communication and leadership skills.”
Now that we believe!
Editor’s Note: Learn more about the art of storytelling in the Pathways project “Connect with Storytelling,” an elective available in all paths.
Kate McClare, DTM is a professional copywriter and President of Miami Advanced Toastmasters Club in Miami, Florida. She gave her first Ice Breaker in 2011, shortly after joining Toastmasters.