Use your instrument

I studied music in college for two years.  My principal instrument was the trombone.  I was lucky enough to be around some super talented people during my time in Tallahassee.  It was apparent very early in my days there that I was not nearly as gifted as most of the people in my program.  They could all play their instruments much better than I can. 

As a speaker, your voice is your instrument.  Some people are naturally gifted, just like people in the music program, and have “special” instruments.  James Earl Jones, President Obama, and Oprah all have those special voices that we love to hear.  They sound good, they make us smile, and they are generally pleasing to the ear.  We all have very individual instruments that make us all sound different, but how can we truly use our instruments when we speak?

In toastmasters we refer to it as vocal variety.  This broad heading covers pacing, tonal quality,  pauses, and volume.  When you see polished speaker one of the things you usually don’t notice are how well he or she uses vocal variety, but when you see someone who is not polished you ALWAYS notice that they have no concept of vocal variety.  

We have all been to PTA meetings, city council appearances, and watched painful examples of people that just don’t have any variety.  They are very monotonous and redundant in their speech.   Imagine the teacher from the Charlie Brown cartoons.  Everything sounds the same and she repeats herself over and over.  Not using variety is death to the speaker.  

Vocal variety helps pull an audience in.  It helps emphasize an important point in your speech.  You can use variety to make a story funnier or to help build the suspense for a serious moment.  You can also transition from point to point by using your vocal variety.   As important as content is (and content is the most important part of a good speech), great content gets lost if the delivery is dull, predictable, and quiet.  

The next time you are giving a presentation try to intentionally put more variety into your speech.  You will never hear an orchestra play a 15 minute piece that has the same volume, speed, and phrasing.   A great soloist uses his instruments natural range and gives the music a new life depending on their interpretation.  Use your instrument to help your speech come to life and breathe life into what could be a boring musical piece.  




What does a world champion look like?

Toastmasters International’s speech contest is a highly competitive process.  TI has clubs in over 90 countries and over 200, 000 members.  We have all spent countless hours working on our basic and advanced manuals and at some point most members decide to compete.  As an organization we have several different contests from our table topics contest (off the cuff speaking) to our tall tales contest.  The international speech contest is the only one that TI requires that all clubs participate in.  

The first WCPS (world champion of public speaking) was Henry Wiens of Reedley, CA in 1938.  Since then the coveted title has been awarded every year except 1944-45.   The first international winner was Glenn Carroll in 1960.  Last years winner, Lashunda Rundles, became the first African-American woman ever to win the event.  

But what does a champion really look like?  One of the prevailing formulas is to “make ’em cry, make ’em laugh, and give ’em something to do”.  Basically you have to have high points and lots of emotion as well call the crowd to action.  A miniature inspirational seminar is basically what the formula calls for.  In my preparation I have watch countless numbers of contest speeches from winners and those that simply made it to the final.  I have also watched speeches from around the world that won club, area, division, and district championships.  And without question I know that toastmasters is definitely the place to go if you want to improve your speaking skills.  I also see a couple of separating factors.

All of the winning speeches are amoebas.  By this I mean that we can all put ourselves into their stories.  The speaker has crafted their 7 minutes of personal reflection in a manner that connects with the general audience.  This removes many speech topics immediately.  The key to these speeches is in how they are designed.  People take amazing personal tragedy and success and deliver it in a manner that each individual can see themselves in that situation.  

All the winning speeches are choreographed.  Please don’t think that all the winners recruit and retain dancers to make their speeches “look good”.   But many times speaking is more about what you don’t say than what you do say.  Nonverbal communication is important in day to day dialogue and just as important when speaking.  Even though I use the word “choreograph” I do not mean forced.  Great speakers use the space and the time they have on stage with purpose.  They don’t wander around, they move when the story moves.  The great ones don’t plant their hands in their pockets or fold their arms unless the speech calls for them to do so to emphasize a point.  Delivery is a large portion of the scoring system and what you look like and how you move is a huge part of the delivery.  

All the winning speeches are well prepared.  This may seem like an obvious one.  You have to have some level of talent to compete in the WCPS or even to make it out of your club level contest.  All the speakers in the contest are good!  In much the same way that all professional athletes are obviously very good in their chosen sport.  The difference between very good and great is usually in the preparation.  This is the old visual of Michael Jordan staying after practice to shoot free throws or Jerry Rice running extra pass routes on an off day; the great ones work at being great.  The greatest speakers do so as well.  They deliver the speech to their club and the clubs in town.  They speak to friends and family.  They perform for kids and dogs.  They take the time to write, rewrite, and then edit, write and rewrite their speeches again.  They have writers look at their text, storytellers critique their flow, and more experienced speakers give feedback.  Make no mistake about it, these guys work and work hard.  

In working on my speeches, one of the things I enjoy the most is finding speeches that look like me.  By that I mean that not only are the speeches well crafted and well delivered but they are especially appealing to me.  Last years contest had some amazing work being done on the big stage.  Lashunda Rundles had a tough group to compete and ultimately win against.  I watched as many speeches from the top 10 as I could find.  My personal favorite is Rory Vaden.  He is young, high energy, emotional, polished, and gifted.  More than anything his speech just connected with me.   


Well done Rory!



What should you talk about?

Throughout this journey I have gotten amazing support from my club, friends, and family.  Those that are outside the club are usually quite interested that such a thing actually exists.  One of the recurring questions is “what do you talk about?”.  

There has never been a great speaker without a great speech.  As we look back through time at great speeches by presidents, dignitaries, activists, and professionals we should realize that as amazing as their delivery and mastery of the topic was, they still had to have a great speech first.  I use three basic principals when coming up with a speech

  1. Always talk about something I know about
  2. Always know your audience
  3. Always keep it simple

Always talk about something I know about

We have some amazing speakers at our club that have a wealth of knowledge on everything from freshwater marine life to financial planning to world travel.  Unfortunately I don’t know ANYTHING about those topics and I would be crazy to even try to talk about them.  I choose topics that not only interest me but are things that I have working knowledge and passion about.  Obviously my family gives me lots of material, but I have also spoken about UGA football, golf, mortgages, and discrimination.  Although I am not an expert on any of these topics, I have a working knowledge of them and in most cases a slightly different personal angle than anyone else.  The beauty of talking about what you know is it makes it easier to prepare.  Even though it make take a few weeks to craft a speech about how smart my five year old is, I can do it without having to visit the Library of Congress.  If I were asked to give a technical speech about plant pathology I would need a immeasurable amount of time just to figure out exactly what plant pathology is.  

Moral: Talk about things you not only know about but like

Always know your audience

This peace of the puzzle is often overlooked.   An important variable in your choice and style of speech is the audience you deliver it to.  You can deliver a message of peace and harmony one way to a church group but have to modify it completely to speak to at risk teens.  Your wealth of knowledge can be overwhelming when starting to find topics.  That knowledge base will help you narrow your scope down from everything in the world to just things that you know something about.  The step of analyzing your audience will again narrow it down.  You must consider the type of group, the time alloted, the space you will occupy, age, sex, religious background, and countless other variables to help you narrow your topic.  Take the time to really think about the who you are speaking to in addition to the what you are speaking about.  

Moral: Know your crowd 

Always keep it simple

Once you have a working list of  “stuff you know” and have narrowed it down further based on who is listening you can then really begin to craft what you are really going to talk about.  The last piece of the puzzle is just as important as the first two.  You have to be able to keep it simple.  Newspapers and magazines have done this for years.  The writing in most of these publications is quite simplified from the original thoughts of the writer.  We live in a fast paced, microwaved society and it is so hard to ingest all the information that is thrown at us.  Most of us have a hard enough time getting all of our family members to all of their appointments on time, let alone to process complex sentences crafted by our keynote speaker.  Please don’t think I am asking you to write elementary speeches but at the same time you must realize that unless your audience are all PH D’s in the topic you are speaking, you should not have a PHD speech.  As I have been told many times, “Don’t use a $.25 word when a $.05 one will do!”.  To expand on that thought, don’t craft a 45 minute in depth break down of the physics of the sun when your audience has no need for all that detail.  KISS my friends KISS (that’s keep it simple stupid).  

Moral:  Usually less is more


Division Champion-Part 2


What exactly do adults do with trophies?
What exactly do adults do with trophies?

Contest day was quite hectic.  Seaver had baseball practice that morning (he hit his first home run) and then we had to race to a birthday party.  I then left my lovely family and headed to the contest.  

It was a very well run affair.  And the competition was definitely a step up from anything I had encountered to this point.  The speeches ranged from deeply touching to flat out inspirational.  I drew the last spot in the speaking order for both competitions.  With this being my first division contest, it was great to be able to watch my competition.  I was even able to make a last minute addition to my speech because I had 30+ minutes to sit and listen.  

I knew I had a good speech but everyone had a good speech.  And my competition also were all very good speakers.  They really had good stories and great delivaries.  It was going to be a matter of execution.  

The speech title was “Family Picture”.  It is the story of what my family looked like in family photos when I was a child as well as how that has changed to our family photos today.  I really worked hard on weaving not only a good speech but one that all both humor and heartfelt emotion as well.  

It went well, I messed up the ending, but the speech did go very well.  And at the end of the day, I was honored to have won the contest.  My big take away was that all that preparation did pay off and it didn’t matter whether I won or lost because I loved the speech.  Now I have to spend another month preparing for the next contest in April.  

Wish me luck!



Division Champion-part 1

March 21, 2009

Division J of District 14 of Toastmasters International held its annual international speaking contest and I was lucky enough to represent my club and the city in this contest. I had competed in several club contests and even won an area prize in the humorus speech contest before but this was my first step into competition at the division level.

The area competition had been two weeks prior. The speech I delivered was a good speech, but it was so far from “contest ready”. I asked for and received some really good feedback. Then I proceeded to pack them all away and head to Florida for spring break with my family. While we were on vacation I did spend some time looking at and working on the speech, but for the most part all I really did was rewrite exactly what I had done in the area contest.

My club was nice enough to allow me to practice my “new” contest speech the Tuesday prior to the event. At this point I had done a lot of editing and working on the project and felt I had made some great strides. I had now taken the words of encouragement, support, and criticism and crafted a much more competition ready entry.

I delivered a much better version of the original, but at this point I still really didn’t LIKE it. My club, which is an awesome group of people, provided some great feedback. Small pointers about body language and eye contact as well as the big aha moment of the day which was that the speech was still too sad. I found that I really needed to work on moving the emotions of the speech up and down and use humor as well as drama to paint a better picture. So I went back to work.

At this point youtube had started to become my friend. Because of copyright laws the world championship speeches are not available, but a little bit of digging found me several championship speakers giving their championship speeches. I also was able to borrow the 2005 WCPS and watch that entire competition as well.

I delivered the rebuilt speech to a crowd of TWO at the AthensChurch offices. It was really an honor because one of my dearest friends is our lead pastor and he had never heard me speak. The feedback I received was amazing. And at that point I really felt good about the speech and with a couple days to go until the contest I just needed to practice, practice, practice.

The night before the competition I was winding up my preparation. I had as tight a speech as I had ever crafted and felt that I achieved my goals. The only thing I forgot was to time it. At 11:45 the night before my competition I realized my speech was about 45 seconds too long. Two hours later I was happy and the speech was in time.

Now on to contest day…

Area Contest-Part 3

Thursday March 5, 2009

Area J-96 speech contest

This was the city championship round.  I have had the honor of competing at this level during another contest and had some clue as to the level of competition I would encounter.  Contest speeches are not necessarily any better speakers at this level than what we see every week, but they do have a higher level of preparation and polish.  For the international speech contest there was one other competitor.  He is a joint member in both our club and the host club.  

I went first and delivered my speech.  I had spent some time reading, but really had not watched many “contest” speeches.  I knew that I wanted to do something different than my standard high-energy, happy speech.  This speech was the story of my family and how I felt as a young boy without a mother or a father in the home.  I could see that people in the audience were connecting and enjoying the speech and I felt I did a good job.  

In the end, I was lucky enough to win this competition and move on to the division level contest.  And this is also the point in the journey where I realized that I actually have some gifts and talents and now I needed to see what would happen if I really worked on a project.



Area Contest-Part 2

The funny thing about most of my speech writing is that it takes place in the shower.  This is one of my most creative moments for some reason because its just me and instead of singing in there, I prepare speeches.  The original ideas I had for my contest speech revolved around the emotions that I carried the night the President Obama was elected and what it meant to me as an African-American male.  One day I definitely want to do that speech, but it is not a “contest” topic.  

Part of this journey for me has been learning about the contest itself and watching some if its past winners perform.  Obviously these people are wonderful speakers, but it was very apparent from the begininng that many of the topics, although well scripted and touching, were very safe.  People did not touch on politics or religion or any type of social issue.  Most of the speaches were inspirational and uplifting.  Most of them were personal accounts from the contestants of stories that we all could identify to.  So that left me looking for another speech topic.  

Most of the speeches I have done at my club have been about my own family.  So I started the process there thinking about many of the previous speeches I had crafted.  I realized that I had never really touched on my FOO (family of origin) and there is defiitely some material there from my childhood and some inspiration that can be pulled how that affected and eventually changed my life.  

Our club was to hold our speech contest on March 3, 2009, but unfortunately mother nature had different plans.  Our meeting was snowed out as Athens was still digging out of the WINTER STORM 2009 that had happened two days earlier.  Things were more complicated because we needed to send a winner to our area contest that following Thursday.  Because the other competitor in our club contest was also a member of another club in town we were both able to compete in the are contest.  

Next stop, “Finally” (that was the title of the speech)


The Contest-Part 1

Every year Toastmasters International holds several speech competitions. They have events for evaluating speeches, extemporaneous speaking, tall tales, as well as humor. The big one is the international contest. Each year over 25000 people start the competition in over 90 countries. The ultimate goal is the international convention, which is this year being held in Massachusetts. At the finals there are 10 competitors, eight domestic and two international. The contest starts in each local club. From there it is a series of increasingly harder competitions progressing from January to August culminating in the international convention. In the world of Toastmasters we call it the “World Championship of Public Speaking”.

This year I am competing in the contest. Our club held its contest on March 3rd, unfortunately the south forgot it was the south and that Sunday 8 inches of snow fell on Athens. We had much debate and eventually I was able to compete that Thursday in our Area J competition. Now I have it lucky in that public speaking comes pretty easy to me. Usually when I do club speeches, I barely write out an outline of my talks and really rely on my God-given ability to perform. But I read a professional speaker say that a speech can’t be professional unless it is written, so I started writing…

To be continued

so can you