Category Archives: Contest journal

Contest Season

Now that football is over with, I can move my sporting interests on to the other big thing in my life…

World Championship of Public Speaking


The 2010 Toastmaster’s International Speech Contest

The road has started to the international convention in August where one person will be crowned as the best for this year. Now this year I will not be competing, so I will be watching this years contest from the coaches seat.

I have the pleasure of working with a good friend that helped me a lot last year as he winds his way through the season. He delivered a very topical, humorous, and touching speech about our addiction to texting, tweeting, and smartphones in general. Now I know that non of you have ever texted in church, updated your Facebook status in the potty, or tweeted while waiting in line at the grocery but the fact is many Americans do and the art of communication is being lost.

Watching the contest from this seat is totally different. In some ways it is better and in some it is MUCH worse. One of the greatest things about being a toastmaster is learning to give effective evaluation of speeches. To my knowledge I feel as though it is the best way for someone to learn how to give feedback on someones presentation and it is a skill that an active attendee of meetings could get a chance to do on a monthly basis.

That evaluation practice is the foundation for coaching. Now, if you google “speech coach” you will find countless websites, blogs, products, videos, and face men for what basically stacks up to being people who are giving evaluations of speeches and oral presentations. I have several friends that are part of this google search and they are very skilled at what they do.

  • They can polish an accomplished speaker
  • They can help ceo’s craft stockholder presentations
  • They can help ministers improve and expand their ability to reach their congregation
  • They can help a virtual novice overcome jitters as they deliver their first proposal
  • They can help a sales manager perfect her ability to demo a product

It is a cool job!

So now I get to play “pretend speech coach” and try to help my friend get as far or farther than I did last year.  So how am I going to do it.

One of the biggest lessons I learned last year is to be myself.  I am not an expert in grammar, staging, speech writing, or visual aids.  What I am is that I am as good as anyone I have ever seen with vocal variety and pretty good with my use of body language.  Now, I have some skill in all the other areas but when it comes down to how I can help him the most is to help refine his already strong natural abilities in my two areas of expertise.

The other thing I learned last year was really how to listen to a speech.  Those that were around me will tell you that I listened to countless speeches.  In the beginning I just put them into the good or bad territory.  Which basically was, do I like it or don’t I.  As the year progressed I became a more critical listener.  Looking for both strength and weakness in every presentation I watched.  As I became more critical I also became more open to the grey area that existed between good and bad and eventually worked to a point where I filed everything I heard in the box of “good and how can I learn from it?”.

I hope the results tonight are in our favor and I can keep learning how to coach someone.  And even if it doesn’t I’ll still go to the contests and still watch as people get better and better.  And maybe, just maybe, one day I’ll pull a Brett Farve and unretire and put my hat back into the contest circle.




Off the cuff

Our terminology in Toastmasters is “Table Topics”.  You may call extemporaneous speaking, off the cuff responses, thinking on your feet, or just plan talking.  In my time with Toastmasters I have come to believe that it is the most critical skill that we can give our new members because we all use it and we use it every day.  It is also a skill that I would consider myself an expert at in the context of Toastmasters and would like to share some of my “how to do its”.

Now first, let me separate how I deliver a table topics into a couple of categories…





I love to laugh.  It is a lot of work to support a frown and a down attitude.  Many times when we are offered a question that is a little silly, is so far out of your realm of understanding, or is something that requires a comical answer.

“Tell me about a time you were embarrassed.”

“What is the best way to frost a cake?”

“What is the funniest movie you have seen and why?”

The key with a fun response is no different from any other response, you have to think.  The key to delivering an effective response in any situation is to think.  People are scared to death of “the quiet game”.  That is that mythical time between when the question is asked and when you craft your answer.  Awkward silence is very uncomfortable and five seconds feels like five hours to most of us.  It is though, the key to gathering your thoughts and preparing a response.  When you have a “fun” question or you want to craft a “fun” response, your time in the quiet game is not to be spent on structure, organization, transitions, or rousing summary statements.  In your moments of preparation you are simply searching for the ONE story that you can relay that is easy to tell, has characters, and has a definite and natural ending.  The hardest part of this process is taking enough time to find that story and not allowing the uncomfortable silence to cripple you.


These are fun moments and ones that are more like interview questions.  These are topics that you have an opportunity to share a belief, point of view, or message that means something to you and your being or soul.

“Who was the biggest influence on your life?”

“Define a role model.”

“How would you advise the President?”

In an interview the potential employer may ask you about how you handled certain situations or why you are right for this job.  In the same way that you play the quiet game for fun topics and questions, that is that same place you need to start for pointed topics and questions.  In that time you are sitting and thinking you are now searching for an emotion and not just a story.  These responses have to be delivered from the heart and are not simply a matter of retelling a situation.  Adding to the quiet game you must now add emotion.  Even in an interview situation, there is an emotion you need to convey in order to show an employer what is truly inside you.  So now we add find the emotion to think to give a pointed response to a question.


I’m a competitor.  I had a great run last year in the speaking contest but along the way I also finished second in the state in Table Topics.  I’ve actually won our club contest every time I have entered not to mention the several times I have won the best table topic of the day.  It is something I’m pretty good at.  Contest speaking is fun but it is different from a regular table topic.

“What is toastmasters?”

“What does the Superbowl have to say about our culture?”

“Which is more important listening or being heard?”

Theses are all questions that I have had in contests.  Now the process to answer these is still built off the same foundation.

  • Think
  • Emotion

Now we have to add in the last piece…

**********Find a ledge**********

This is my term for looking for the place to put your foot to build your speech.  In that 5-10 seconds where I am preparing for my response I am replaying the question in my head and looking for my ledge, that anchor I will tie my two minutes to.  From that ledge, I then try to find 2 stories that can be told and that I have some emotions for.  I know that seems like a lot to do, but that is where my mind is going.  I’m also trying to find an amazing opening sentence and I’m thinking about how I may be able to tie it all together.  You can do a lot in 7.7 seconds.

So the next time you are asked a question and you have to respond off the hip.  Are you just going to start spewing data and opinions?  Are you going to give a canned answer that is safe and uncreative?  Or are you going stop, think, find a story, deliver some emotion, and find a ledge?  If you do nothing more than stop and think, you are well on your way to not only winning the quiet game and table topics, but to improving your skills in speaking!



Winner, winner, chicken dinner

Only one team gets the glory involved with winning a championship.  Everyone else leaves with a little disappointment.  Saturday I got to taste defeat.  And I am OK with it.

The contest was fun.  I got to meet so many amazing people that love toastmasters as much as I do.  The conference portion of the weekend was great.  I heard great speakers and went to some great workshops.  But the reason I went was to compete.  I had made peace with myself on the ride up and decided that success would not be measured by a trophy but instead by “how it felt”.

1.  The speech was good.

One of the most useful skills I have acquired in this process is the ability to take input and feedback, sift through it all, and apply my own style and substance to it.  This last two weeks I have had evaluations from some very experienced toastmasters, speakers, and writers.  I obviously couldn’t do everything they suggested but I found things that I felt made the speech better and put them to work.  At the end of the day, I loved the finished product.  It was 100% me.

2.  The competition was great.

There were so many great speeches on Saturday.  I knew coming into the event that the talent level would be high.  My fellow speakers did not disappoint.  I was falling down laughing as well as feeling emotions in my heart as they crafted stories about job loss, achieving your dreams, and impacting peoples lives.  It was artistic and funny and dramatic.

3.  The audience liked it.

At the end of the day, the speech was not for the judges it was for the crowd.  I could see in the faces of the people as they laughed and nodded that they “got it”.  I know that I didn’t do some “winning” tactics and techniques but that was OK because I stopped trying to win a week earlier and focused on telling a great story and making it connect with an audience.

4.  It wasn’t my time.

I don’t know if I will ever do a contest again.  It was mentally exhausting working on this speech.  I learned so much during this time and my future has been changed because of it.  But it just wasn’t my time to take that next step.  This clears the next 7 weeks of my life to DO my life and to take what I have learned and apply it in other areas.

5.  I did pretty good.

Even in loosing this contest, I’m in the top 1% of 1% of 1% in a club for people who speak.  I know that if I could have gone 8th instead of 1st or if Seaver’s voice recording would have played it could have changed the outcome, but the right person won and I would still be walking away with my head held high.

So contest season is over, now what?   I have my coaching hat on again for football.  I have some opportunities that are starting to present themselves to me.  I have a level of confidence that I did not have last January.  I have my faith, family, health, and friends.

End chapter one

Chapter two:  The best is yet to come!


Moving on

I am now in all out speech preparation.  I have a speech, I have places to give the speech, and I have my eyes and ears 0pen for ways to make the speech better.  This is the fun part of the process.

After I won the last contest, I decompressed for a week and then I laid out a schedule to get ready for the next speech.

First two weeks:  Brainstorm speech ideas

Second two weeks: Settle on an idea and start putting it together

Third two weeks:  Give it, give it, give and learn

Final week: Tweak but don’t over analyze

Day before contest:  View the room/audience and make mental notes

Contest day:  Enjoy it, because it may be the only time I get to do it

That’s the road map I cooked up in my head after my last victory.  What I really didn’t calculate into the process was how difficult it would be to write another really good speech.   I knew I would have to create another speech if I won, but I figured I would just be able to tighten up an old one and make it work.  I was totally wrong.

There is no how-to book or manual on competing in a toastmasters contest.  There are a lot of opinions on blogs and websites from past participants but really no blow by blow account of how someone did it.  So I had to take bits and pieces from many different sources.  One of the most amazing things I have learned in the process is how gracious TM members are.  I have reached out to former world champions, busy professional speakers, and high ranking club officers and almost always gotten some sort of response.  These are super busy people that don’t know me from a hole in the wall, but take time out of their day to give me advice, criticism, and hope.

I have said several times that “I don’t know enough to know what I don’t know” in this process.  I have seen so many contest speeches and early on in the process I caught myself trying to copy ones that I thought were great.   And I could probably have put together a pretty good speech that was “somebody elses”, but its just not me.  At the end of the day I want to go into the contest with a speech that I am in love with.  That was the key to the first one, I loved it; it took on a life of itself; and rather than giving a speech the speech was a part of me.

The new speech is titled “Move On”.  It grew out of another speech which was me trying to make a winner rather than me trying to tell a story.  That’s what I am good at.  I tell stories with sweeping changes in emotion, volume, and position.  I move people, I don’t motivate.  My appeal is more to the heart than it is to the brain.  And that’s what I am going with.  In my mind its a winner and that’s really all that I care about.  If the judges like it, great but I am not going to put this together with the only way to measure success is with a victory.  I won the first time I delivered it at my club and new that I had found something that reflected me.  I won when I see how it lands on peoples hearts and makes them think.  The trophy would be great but the story is my reward in this process.


P.S.  I really do want to win though 😉

It’s a big deal

I am loving this ride I’m on in this contest.  Regardless of the outcome it has been a life changer and even if I do compete again, it may never  be able to top this experience.  I have been able to have contact with people I have admired from afar, received compliments from people I don’t know, and have grown in so many unexpected ways.  

This contest is a big deal.  And making it this far is a really big deal.  To put it in perspective:

106 countries

Over 12,000 clubs

Nearly 250,000 members

Every club is required to participate in the International speech contest.  So starting with 250,000 there are now only going to be 80 people left in the entire world competing at this level.  I have a one in seven chance of making it to the finals.  

But really what does this mean for me, my family, and the people around me?  My big personal take away is that I am more talented than I thought I was on the platform.  My big family take away is that I am so lucky to have the amazing situation that I have with a wonderful and supportive spouse and an inspirational son.  My big people take away is that there are so many people around me that not only care about me but investing in me, and that is humbling.  

This process is a big deal.  But just like most things in life it all the other things that happen because of it that make it wonderful.  



Coming of age

In preparation for the upcoming Region 8 Toastmasters speech contest I went back through my basic manual and reviewed all the speeches I did on the way through.  I originally looked there for speech ideas but found myself getting so much more insight into my maturation as a speaker.  From the earliest speeches in my manual I could see the beginnings of a future competitor.  

I had comments like:

Smooth delivery-Good pacing-Natural humor-Nice body language

I had no idea what I was doing, but apparently some critical pieces to my speaking puzzle came naturally to me.

There are a lot of people in this world that have natural skills and abilities in one area or another.  The playgrounds are littered with people that had college or professional basketball talent come natural but something never quite worked out.  

As a toastmaster most of us strive to improve our skills as a communicator.  The words of evaluation are meant to help expedite that improvement.  I see many toastmasters that don’t do anything with the evaluation information.  They hear it, read it, and then repeat the same mistakes in their next speech.  From my earliest days in the club, I made a point of addressing the areas for improvement on the very next speech.  My speech preparation may not have been top level, but I made a point of working on what I was instructed to work on.  

That was the beginning of the process.  Now as I work through crafting contest speeches, I am delivering them to different clubs and different groups and getting evaluations and feedback from so many sources.  Now obviously I cannot take every comment and make a change to my speech but I am mindful of the things that I hear repeatedly.  These are things I need to adjust.  My district speech was good but I heard from several sources that my ending needed work.  I eventually got an ending I liked at 2:15 am the day of the contest.  

There is no substitution for stage time.  That is where you truly improve your craft as a speaker.  A close second to stage time is evaluation.  The only way we can truly get better is if we listen to the people that are trying to help us get better. 



The second speech

In my almost three years as a toastmaster I have given 20 or more prepared speeches as well as countless table topics responses and evaluations.  I have had a lot of club “stage time”.  I have never really had a problem coming up with material.  When the project was focusing on gestures, I talked about my experiences conducting a marching band.  When the project was visual aids, I was able to pull items from my day to day life that meant a lot to me.  There has always been something floating around me that was a starting point for each project.  When I began my journey in this years international speech contest the speech that would eventually become “Family Picture”, started as a speech about what it felt like to be black man watching another black man be elected president.  It then morphed into a eulogy to my mother, which then turned into reflecting on my anger at my parents for my dysfunctional childhood.  The final version was a walk from my childhood through today and the realization that dreams do come true.  It was a quite a roller coaster ride.  

Now as I prepare for the next competition on June 27, I have to prepare a completely original and new piece.  Seeing that I have several speeches under my belt, that shouldn’t be too difficult should it?  Nothing could be further from the truth.  After two weeks of work I have little to show for it accept lists of ideas and a few bad outlines.  One of my problems is that I am trying to write a “finished” speech on the first draft, which I know is not possible but knowing what it takes to win a contest makes it hard to avoid this problem.  My second problem is that my first speech did not fit the contest “formula”.  Most championship speeches present a personal problem, relate it to the audience, solve the problem, and then move the crowd to action.  My fist speech was not built that way at all.  I created tension with a personal story but then I proceeded to travel all the emotions of that personal story and then tie it together with my life today.  There was no action step and I didn’t try to equate my story to that of the audience.  

My strength on stage is my delivery.  I can evoke emotion and humor by using my natural abilities, gestures, and voice to make my points.  My strength in my content is in the story.  I have great stories about great people that were in my life and that is where my emotion and passion comes from.  My speech won because it was not only polished but because it connected with the audience in a way that was sincere and heartfelt.  

So I continue to work.  I have a few ideas that I like but none that are pulling me into the bunker with them.  I also anticipate the speeches evolving several times over the next seven weeks.  I really love this creative process and see how it helps me to stretch and grow.  I just wish it would actually start with a “big idea” so I can really get this speech going.  

To be continued…



Sometimes dreams do come true

“It’s a picture perfect evening for our first place winner, Stevie King”

That is how I heard the announcement Saturday night as I became the 2009 District 14 International Speech Champion.  When I started this contest I had what I thought was a stretch goal to simply reach the district finals.  Prior to this contest I had never advanced past the area contest.  I always thought I could do well in one of these contests but really never had the opportunity to really go for it.  

The weekend began on Friday night with the table topics (off the cuff) speaking contest.  I drew number five in our speaking order out of ten.  I really like table topics and it was going to be fun to simply compete with these talented people.  I was also the only person that was speaking in both contests so I thought it would be a slight advantage to have a test run prior to my big speech on Saturday. 

The question Saturday was “You have two ears and one mouth, which do you use more?”.  

As I heard the question my mind started racing. ..

  • Should I try to be funny?
  • Should I pull out my cellphone?
  • Should I work both sides of the question?
  • Should I go over the top?

It really seemed like I was standing there thinking for an hour before I started, even though it was probably 10 seconds.  I decided to go with the fact that I talk more than I listen because I have a six year old.  In my two minutes of speaking I talked about how I have to repeat myself and how hard it must be for a child to have to constantly be given instructions and directions.  I finished the speech by bringing it around to the times when he does listen and the times that we do communicate well.  I was able to craft compelling content, work the audience, use a lot of gestures (including sticking my fingers in my ears), and pull the audience into our story.  It wasn’t perfect and when I sat down I felt like I could have structured it better, but I was proud.  

As I listened to the five that came after me, I really felt that I did a better job than they did but obviously I didn’t have a vote.  The other contestants were super smooth and had great humour (it resembled a humorous contest because everyone was rolling in the floor).  In the end I got second place behind a toastmaster with 30 years of toastmasters time and several years of preaching and professional speaking, not bad I thought.  I felt even better when I had several people mention to me afterwards that they thought that I should have won.  The biggest thing that I got from Friday was being able to see the room set up and really feeling like I belonged there.  I got home Friday night and made a couple of changes to my speech based on my observations.  

Saturday was a blast!  First of all it was my son Seaver’s sixth birthday.  I had asked him earlier in the week what he wanted to do special and he said that he wanted to go golfing.  We had a great time on the course and I shot an all time low score of 83!  We then met my wife for lunch and then headed home.  I knew I was prepared and had a good speech and didn’t practice it once that entire Saturday.  

Upon arriving for number selection on Saturday night people were very congratulatory and complimentary.  One of our club officers even mentioned that she had heard that I was the one to watch.  Although flattering, it didn’t really change my nerves or demeanor, I just had to focus on the job at hand and execute. 

One of the things that I learned in preparing for the contest was to really enjoy it.  I am so glad that I made a point to do so.  My fellow competitors were amazing.  We laughed and joked and really enjoyed our time in sound check and the time leading up to the contest.  They were such great people.  

I drew the third position for this night.  In hindsight I am glad I got to get it done in the first half of the competition so I could sit and really enjoy the other speeches.  You can read the text of my speech here.  I couldn’t have performed it any better.  My timing was good, there were a lot more laughs than I anticipated, and I could even see some tears from people in the audience.  At the end of my speech I asked the crowd to rise and allow me to take a photo of them.  The applause was great and I knew I had done the best I could. 

My competition did not lie down.  They were excellent.  There were two professional speakers in the contest, several members with years of toastmasters contest experience, and several naturally gifted presenters.   They wove stories of  heroism, life lessons, personal achievement, and self reflection.  It was truly an honor just to be included in this bunch.  It is even a bigger honor to have won this contest and to represent all those great people at the next level.  

Now the work really starts.  Between now and June 27 I have to create, write, and perfect a new speech.  One of the things I really learned from this process is the pieces that are required to win in a toastmasters contest.  The speech must be funny, moving, four dimensional, heart felt, creative, memorable, and truly original.  This speech started as a eulogy for my mother and it has ended up being a commencement address for me to the world.  I can’t wait to see what happens with the next one!



Contest week

And down the stretch he comes!


This amazing journey started back on January 6 when I was asked to participate in our club’s International Speech Contest.  I had missed out on the opportunity to participate in 2008 because I had just started a new job and wasn’t available to compete but luckily for me I lost my job on January 8 and had plenty of time to work on a speech.  For the last four months I have been practicing, rewriting, and editing my speech, “Family Picture”.  

This Saturday night I get the pleasure of competing in the District 14 Toastmasters International Speech Contest.  I am only two steps away from the finals and I have already accomplished my personal goal I set when I started of making it to the district level; but now that I am here…

I love my speech.  I have tinkered with it endlessly and on a few occasions have completely torn it apart but in these final days I can say I am happy with my work.  It is a story about me, my childhood, and the life I have now in spite of a complicated past.  There are some laughs and some sad moments; there is audience participation and there is what I hope to be a few “wow” moments.  It has truly been a labor of love and I have gotten out of this process way more than I ever thought I would.  

I know that there will be nine other competitors on Saturday that love their speeches.  They are probably working just as hard as I have to prepare for the contest and they have as much right to the trophy as I do.  I also know that they are nervous and worried that their speeches just won’t translate to the judges or the audience or that they freeze on stage.  As much as this is a contest, for me, it is more of a look into my life.  I have seen so many different jobs and so many different situations and so many different processes that have all lead me to this point today.  

In my speech I talk about challenging yourself to live each moment as if its being captured in a family picture.  The statement simply means that we must not waste any moments, ever.  I have an opportunity this week to make what could be a life altering moment and I get that moment regardless of the outcome of the contest.  I will get to speak in front of one of the largest crowds of my life and a situation where several professionals will be able to hear me and I will get the opportunity to interact with amazing platform performers; it is a great moment waiting to happen.  


I really want to win.  And I will be disappointed if I don’t.  But I will not be broken and it won’t kill my dreams.  And the reality is that one of the residual benefits of this speech is really being able to see how lucky I am and how amazing my family is and how special my days are with them.  That’s the whole point to the speech and in reality that’s the whole point of my life.  



Let’s talk about practice!

Michael Jordon shot hundreds of free-throws after practice

Joe Montana worked on his footwork day after day

J.K. Rowling spent countless hours rewriting the Harry Potter series

What are we talking about?  Practice!

There is no shortcut to success.  Even those supremely gifted people on the planet still have to work to maximize their potential.  I love public speaking and throughout this contest process I am now learning how to PRACTICE public speaking.  

My practice methods for regular toastmasters speeches is very loose.  Usually I find my speech material in the shower.  Rather than singing in the shower like  many people do I usually just talk.  I  perform speeches to the shower head and come up with some rather creative ideas.  I really need to get a recorder in there somehow.  Once I actually wrap my head around a topic, I prepare an outline and then just start practicing to the air and my dogs (they are a great audience).  

For this contest I have had to evolve.  

I actually have a written version of the speech.  I actually have seven written versions of the speech.  Each draft has gotten progressively better and tighter.  I have noticed from actually writing my speeches that I like to ramble and get “wordy”.  With any speech and contest speeches particularly you must mind the time and you must be efficient with your words.  Writing does not come natural to me but it is so helpful to actually put my ideas down on paper and continue to work toward having good copy before I go o stage with the speech.  

Prior to the next contest on April 25 I will have given the speech formally to four toastmasters clubs and informally to several other audiences.  I will have also practiced the speech hundreds of times in the shower, to the dogs, in the car, and lying in bed.  I have gotten feedback from people that have competed at high levels in toastmasters and one of the keys is always to practice and be so comfortable with the speech that I can be in the moment when I am delivering it and be able to connect with the audience.  

I don’t think there is a perfect way to practice but what I do know that not practicing almost guarantees your failure.  Natural talent and ability is great but the world is littered with super talented people that flamed out before they reached their potential.  Don’t flame out!

What are we talking about?