Tag Archives: Speech Winners

Please Hold

As I start writing this, I’ve been on hold for 15 minutes with AT&T.  How much time in your life have you spent just sitting on hold, standing in line, or generally waiting for something to happen.  I have tried to estimate the amount of time I’ve spent at the ballpark waiting for my son to play and I came up with approximately 2.7 light years.

Usually when I’m waiting I’m killing social media or messaging friends on my phone (what in the world did people do in the dark ages when we actually had to speak to people?).  Waiting for people to come back to me on the phone has inspired me to doodle amazing works of art, practice my signature for when I get famous, work on my grocery list, and even once filed my toenails at my desk (I had a private office at the time).

Now here’s my point to this ramble…

What if your life is on hold?

  • Holding for a mate
  • Holding for a child
  • Holding for a job
  • Holding for a break
  • Holding for sobriety

How much of our lives to we waste on hold waiting on something?  And more importantly how much of this time are we doing something useless like doodling or practicing you pageant wave (not me, but I have seen my secretary do it).  That is valuable time and space that we can never get back that just disappears as we wait for something to fill it.  As with most things in our lives if we aren’t actively filling the space, someone or something does it for us.  So as we wait our time gets filled with bad habits, bad people, and bad situations that often time have a bad habit of extending our wait time.  It is almost as if you get disconnected from AT&T and have to start the discussion all over again (as info, it has now been 28 minutes on hold).  And as you race that hamster wheel of life you are exhausted but somehow in the exact same spot.

So if you’re on hold right now, do something.  I can’t tell you what to do but something has to be better than waiting for nothing to happen.  I chose to write while on hold.  The reality is that I should choose to write or work on a speech every time I am in life holding pattern.  We are all waiting on something how much longer will you allow yourself to sit on hold drawing constellations that don’t exist?

(31 minutes and still holding)






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!



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!



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?




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!



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.