If you’ve ever competed in a speech contest, you’ve probably felt your heart race as you’ve heard the words “And the winner is …” Maybe you were fortunate to hear your name called as a winner. Or perhaps you’ve felt your heart sink while being left sitting as the winners take the stage.
As a five-time competitor in the International Speech Contest, I can attest to feeling that anxiety at every level. And trust me, the larger the stage, the greater that anxiety grows. Sometimes people ask me: Is competing in speech contests worth the effort? Are the weeks (and sometimes months) of preparation a waste of time when you don’t win? Over the years, I have been very fortunate to rack up my share of wins. But I also know the pain that comes from falling short. Some competitors feel they have failed or start to discount the value of their speeches; others feel their efforts were wasted. Some even fall into resentment, thinking the contest judging is biased.
However, competing in speech contests offers rewards far greater than any prize. Many of us compete every year and don’t “win.” And yet we return time and time again because we get something extremely valuable for the experience.
The Hidden Prize in Not Winning
In August 2019, after five years of attempts, I had the chance to stand on the final stage of the World Championship of Public Speaking®. I delivered the very best speech I could; I poured my heart out on the stage. And when the results were announced, my name was not among the winners. But that does not mean I lost. The truth is that simply competing offered me many benefits beyond a trophy. I would encourage everyone to compete at least once; in fact, I would say that not winning offers more opportunities for growth than being awarded a first-place trophy. I’ve rounded up five ways you win by simply participating in a speech contest.
1 You Improve Faster
Contests, by their very nature, have higher stakes than regular club speeches. This usually means more practice. And when you practice the same speech time and time again, your skill as a speaker starts to improve quickly. You begin to focus on tiny components of your speaking; you notice that people respond differently as you change your approach. Each time you take the stage, it gets easier.
And then something amazing happens—your speech becomes better, and you become more composed, more streamlined. The speech becomes a part of who you are, like a musician playing one of their best-known songs.
In regular Toastmasters club meetings, we usually deliver a speech once and move on. But in almost no other discipline does this happen. Musicians play songs thousands of times; dancers rehearse and perform the same routines each day; writers rewrite and edit constantly. Being a speech contestant gives you the same opportunity to hone your skill and perfect a particular speech by giving it over and over to different audiences.
2 You Learn to Embrace Feedback
When competing in a speech contest, you will inevitably get a lot of differing opinions about your speech. Some people will love it, and some won’t. They will compare your contest speech to previous speeches. Learning to take on feedback from many people is tough, but it’s a necessary part of the process. You have to smile and thank them when sometimes you feel like screaming. You are often at your wit’s end and feel like giving up, and still, people keep telling you to work at it.
Feedback can be puzzling and unclear sometimes, and often you’re only given clues, such as someone telling you that they’re just not “feeling” it. It’s up to you to keep reworking the speech until it’s better. However, the more feedback you can take on, the better you will get at receiving and incorporating it.
3 You Gain Confidence for Other Roles
One of my co-competitors, David Moore, a member of B. Braun Toastmasters Club in Irvine, California, has been competing in speech contests for over 13 years. And he keeps coming back, challenging himself year after year, even though he has already won several District contest titles.
“The way I see it, I need to keep challenging myself,” he says. “With a speech contest, there is something on the line. I don’t know how the audience will react, or if I will win. But at least I’m putting myself out there.”
I admire the World Champions of Public Speaking more for their character than their speaking skills.
He adds that competing in speech contests gave him the confidence to expand into other roles in his District, including Area and Division leadership roles. “Speaking in those contests made me see that I could rise to the challenge as a leader.”
4 You Expand Your Horizons
Adelina Eftenoiu of Toastmasters of Laguna Beach, in Laguna Beach, California, is an entrepreneur who joined Toastmasters to hone her speaking skills and learn how to impact people with her message. Despite feeling unsure about what she was getting herself into, she entered her first speech contest this year.
“I won my club contest with almost no planning, and I was incredibly nervous for the next round,” Adelina says. “But when I spoke at the Area contest, I realized that if I can push myself to compete, then I can also push myself in other areas. I walked away from the contest with a second place but a lot more mental strength.” Since then, she has expanded her business and begun speaking at motivational events. “None of this would have happened without that shot of confidence the speech contest gave me. It showed me what I could do.”
5 You Build Character
Character development might be the most unexpected benefit of competing. Something changes inside you when you don’t hit your goal. You either give up, or you come back. Either way, you are making a choice that affects your character. I have learned through my five years of competing that there are many behind-the-scenes aspects of speech contests. You must practice consistently, be courteous to the other contestants, and be respectful of the judges and their decisions. You must show up on the day and give your very best every time
All these behaviors start to change who you are. And the longer you continue to compete, the more it becomes a part of your character. I believe the International Speech Contest is the world’s best personal development course. You gain all the tools you need to communicate, and you gain the character to change your own life for the better.
Today I admire the World Champions of Public Speaking more for their character than their speaking skills. A champion has been through the same difficulties as those who don’t win, but they have changed their character along the way. That, I believe, is the greatest benefit of the speech contests in Toastmasters.
The Journey Is the Reward
When you raise your hand to enter a contest, you are putting yourself on the line, facing your fears, and expanding your character. And in reality, the only contest is inside you. You have to choose which actions you will take and how much you are willing to invest in yourself. When you “lose” a contest, people will say they are sorry you didn’t win. After five years of competing, I want to change that story. Instead, I want to encourage us to remind competitors who don’t win that they have changed and grown as speakers.
My mentor Dananjaya Hettiarachchi, the 2014 World Champion of Public Speaking, gave me this sage advice a few years ago before a speech contest: “Life is a journey, and the journey itself is your home.” I am finally starting to understand what he means by this. I can now see that the true value of the speech contest is that you get to find new ways to become better. And that’s why I will keep competing for as long as I can.
The trophies and titles don’t matter. Who you become is the real prize.
To learn more details about Toastmasters speech contests, download the 2020-2021 Speech Contest Rulebook.
Daniel Midson-Short is a member of Coastmasters in Dana Point, California. He has competed in the International Speech Contest since 2014, reaching the semifinal round four times, and the finals in 2019. He is a keynote speaker and writer and runs a digital marketing agency in California.
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