On November 6th and 7th, I attended my first Toastmasters Conference to support and cheer the contestants. It was the District 37 Conference in the mountains of Asheville, North Carolina. One of the best parts and motivators was the drive and rooming with a fellow Toastmaster who is also a dear friend and on this particular occasion, a contestant of a humorous speech competition. That’s right, the heart of the conference is the two Fall competitions – The Humorous Speech Competition and the Evaluation Competition. The top 16 speakers in all from the entire NC District, each of whom have won every level of competition from Club to Area to Division in their region, compete in the much awaited District competitions. The caliber of speakers is high, and the air is filled with anticipation for the audience and anxiety for the speakers. And after watching these competitions, I now know why.
Participating in this event opened my eyes to a new world of possibilities of just how much can be achieved through a nurturing Toastmasters club. I was the videographer in charge for most of the occasion. We arrived at the hotel barely in time to change and run to the Friday evening contest. The show started with an accomplished Toastmaster who delivered a funny target speech, followed by the 8 Evaluation contestants on the stage. I watched in awe the skilled evaluation techniques and polished deliveries, most of them tinged with extemporaneous humor to suit the occasion in just the right way.
The next evening led us to the highly anticipated humorous speech competition! My friend Naomi had been preparing extremely hard, going over every single detail and every competitive advantage one could think of, including but not limited to the fact that we arrived in just enough time to get adjusted to the altitude. She felt extremely honored to be among the top 8 at that contest. I had seen her speech now numerous times, and was happy to watch it again and again, as she practiced numerous times in the car or in the room. Watching her on stage was not easy; I was a nervous wreck and I was the one behind the video! Ironically, she was not. She rocked up there on that stage when it was show-time, as did a few other contestants that had the audience in stitches.
Above Photo Copyright to Naomi Takeuchi, my contestant friend on the far right, with Laura Poole of Archer Coaching spreading her wings and Atrayus Goode, our Contest Chair master at the Saturday Gala Event.
2 awesome contests. 16 amazing speakers. And 3 Best things I learned from the Toastmasters Speech Contestants at the Asheville conference this fall:
1. Tremendous Courage to Compete: It takes serious courage and guts to compete in the District level competition. You do not just have to work through the usual fear of public speaking and getting on stage. No! You need to have the command of an audience entirely made up of seasoned or new Toastmasters. The audience knows a good speaker from an average from a mediocre. They know when you mess up and when you use a technique well or poorly. They are themselves speakers and evaluators, some at the very top of their game. This is the audience to whom you have to deliver either the effective evaluation or the funny speech. This knowledge is no strange fact to the contestants, and while it partly feeds the excitement for the journey, it can certainly create apprehension. It takes brave, courageous Toastmasters to compete in these events.
2. Supreme Delivery and Performance on Stage: They say Delivery is everything. No argument. The deliveries of these speeches were phenomenal. But it was beyond a phenomenal delivery. These contestants were performers, entertainers, comedians, and borderline actors. They used visual gestures so vivid that you could not help but see the vision in your mind. They engaged their audience through polished use of elements of laughter in all its forms from dry wit to slapstick to hilarious phrases timed just right. They used surprise endings and clever punchlines and tell it all flawlessly from memory. They have taken their Toastmasters training beyond a great delivery through coaching, mentoring, and perhaps even learning from the masters. When I casually mentioned Robin Williams as one of my favorite comedians to my friend Naomi, I was surprised she had already been studying his tips of the trade for the speech.
3. Highly polished Proficiency of Techniques: Everything we learn in Toastmasters, we practice constantly. Or at least we should. We are human; we err and it take time to become proficient at these techniques. When the contestants are up there, the judges do not afford them much forgiveness if they blunder and botch here and there. Hardly any mistake will go unnoticed by the judges panel. It takes extreme proficiency of the entire spectrum of skills needed to deliver a winning speech, and that comes with hours and weeks of practice for the final performance of a 5-7 minute speech.
Winning is not easy when the “threshold to entry” is very high, as my husband likes to say. In this case, the threshold to entry was very high, and the caliber of speakers extremely high. Naturally, each and every one wishes to place in the top 3. Winning is exciting, rewarding, validating, and certainly nice on the credentials list. But there should be more that defines success for a contestant. There is the knowledge that you are among the top 8. The knowledge that everyone gets to see you on stage, and be it pressure or preparation, you will do your best to belong with the top 8. There is the exhilaration of doing something that most people are paralyzed with fear to do, and the knowledge that you are competing at a hard game with top players. So cherish the success, and in due time, with the right combination of courage, delivery, and proficiency of techniques, the best speaker will naturally win. May it be you at the next contest!