The 2012 Division E International Speech Contest

On Thursday night, the Division E contest was every bit the challenge I thought it would be.  The two speakers I had to compete against, both, apparently, had thoroughly practiced there speeches during the three weeks between the Combined area contests and Thursday night; both speeches where tight and ready to roll.  Fortunately, for me, even though I had a very busy three weeks, I was also able to practice a lot.  The unknown candidate was also there.  From Area 16, the Scranton area was the one speaker in the contest I hadn’t seen yet.

I picked third out of four speakers.  Interestingly enough, out of the three speakers who had all seen each other’s speeches, I was last.  I was happy with that position, because it gave me a chance to relax and gather my thoughts after the speech contest started and to get a little inspiration from the proceeding speakers.

The first speech which Bonnie was giving was about her friend who had a son with a heroin addiction and ultimately died from it.  She hadn’t changed any of the words, but the whole speech was crisper, tighter and she was ready for the Division Contest.  Justin’s speech about Steve Jobs and some of the apps for the Ipad and Iphone which can help us be better Toastmasters, seemed to start strong but end weak at the Area contest.  On Thursday night, it was clear Justin worked hard on his speech.  He closed all of those holes and reworked the end to create a very strong and somewhat intimidating speech.

Then it was my turn.  I started my speech by telling the story of how Achilles got shot in the heel with an arrow.  I started just after the Trojan archer Paris had shot the arrow into the famous heel.  I quickly compared Paris facing an “invincible nemesis” to our own seemingly invincible problems.  Then I shared my story of how I lost my job and took nearly four months of job searching to find another.  I then showed how I used the same method to defeat my “Personal Achilles” as Paris did in the Greek legend.  The secret is patience coupled with persistence.

I felt good when I first started my speech.  I did the introduction to the speech and then started into the body.  Then it happened.  A slight stammer.  It happened in a portion of the speech I had trouble with early on.  I gave the speech in front of several groups and it appeared I had mastered the first couple of sentences of the speech, but I stammered.

After my speech was over, I sat down and I felt that little stammer was a hug problem.  The fourth speaker took the stage and gave a very entertaining speech about her brand new cat.  I sat thinking about my one slip and hoped the judges would forgive me.  At the end of the contest I listened to the results and I heard my name. But not at the position I wanted to hear it.  I came in second.  I was not entirely surprised to hear Justin had won first place.

I don’t really know if that stammer caused my loss, but I do know that with the level of competition that was at the Division E contest, that was all it would have taken to miss first place.  However, Justin’s speech was very tight and I had a hard time finding a weak point.  Justin is on his way to the District 38 contest and I sincerely believe he will do very well.  All I know is it would make me feel a lot better if he wins the district contest.

The Area 13 Contest

Last night was the Area 13 contest.  Along with Area 13 it was also the Area 18 and 24 contests.  It was an interesting event.  I got to see three-fourths of the Division E Contest take shape.  I have now seen two other speeches I will be facing on April 26th and they have seen mine.  Both of the winning speeches are extra-ordinary.  One was on a simple subject, the wonders of Steve Jobs and Apple and the other was on the scurgges of harroin.  The former was a very funny yet very useful speech about the many things we as Toastmasters can do with the iPhone and the iPad.  The latter was a very emotional speech about how harroine took the life of a dear friend’s son.  Emotionally, my speech sat in the middle.  I have humorous parts and serious parts in my speech.  Besides last nights speeches, there is one more out there.  The wild card speech; the contestant from the area that was not represented last night, Area 28.

Last night’s contest was very special.  Most times when you watch a contest, there is at least one speaker who you have to wonder how they got to this level.  There were seven speakers last night and every single one of them could have been in division level contests, let alone area.

The contestant I competed against, is a returning member of Community Toastmasters and has been returned for not quite a year.  He was excellent.  He spoke first and during his speech on the pitfalls of multi-tasking, I couldn’t help but worry.

I took the stage and things went basically as I planned.  I did stumble at one point, and unfortunately it was noticeable, however, as I looked into the eyes of the audience, I could see I was connecting in a very deep way.  I’m sure many of them had experienced unemployment as well, and they were remembering their own tribulation.

After the contest was over, I realized I had a hug lesson in humility.  Practicing my speech in front of familiar faces is a good way to learn my speech, however, without a measuring stick, I didn’t know how well I was really doing.  Last night my presentation was measured against abnormally good speeches and speaker and, although I don’t think I was found wanting, I’m definitely not as far ahead as I had envisioned.  In fact, at this point, I don’t even know if I’m first.  Over the next three weeks I have a lot of work to do and have to share my speech as much as possible.  I need to rework my speech … again and practice hard, because I know that is what the other two contestants will be doing.  All three speeches will be better come April 26th and I’m going to have to recommit myself to see that mine is the best.

I know what to expect from the two other speaker, but at the moment, I’m most worried about the speaker I have not yet heard.

Practicing Wings and Chains

With the Area 13 contest being postponed for two weeks, I decided to take a break from my speech, which I have been practicing for months and practice another.  I spent a week with my Speech “Wings and Chains,” and delivered it twice; once on Monday at Reading Toastmasters and once on Wednesday at Kutztown Area Toastmasters.

As you would know by now, I have my eyes set on winning the 2012 World Championship of Public Speaking and I am all in.  In 2008, I won the District 38 International Speech Contest with “Wings and Chains.”  Since then I have dreamed of delivering the speech at the Finals of the World Championship of Public Speaking.  For the past four years I’ve broke out “Achilles Last Stand,” (Now renamed “Achilles Never Had a Chance”) and “Wings and Chains” to smooth out the rough spots and to practice them.

I’ve spent so much time with “Achilles Never Had a Chance” that I felt I needed to refresh myself on my 2008 speech if it was going to be successful in the future.  After delivering it twice over the course of a week, I was back in the basement practicing “Achilles.”

A contest speech needs to be practiced and changed up until the last possible moment.  That last possible moment is about forty-eight hours before the contest, (I’ll talk more about that later.)  The speech needs to be practiced until you understand how each word, phrase and idea makes you feel.  If you don’t feel your speech, your audience won’t feel it either.  There is a subconscious connection between the speaker and the audience which I’m not smart enough to explain, (If you can, please, leave a comment.)  The audience knows when you’re faking it.  They may not know they know, but they know.  (Don’t re-read that last sentence.  It was hard enough to write.) Here’s an article by Craig valentine that spelled this concept out clear as day and also gives some great pointers for inner dialog.

The reason you want to practice up until forty-eight hours before the contest is two fold.  First of all, you won’t be tempted to make any other changes just before you go on stage.  Last minute changes are usually the hardest to deal with in your speech.   The second and most important reason is, after you’ve taken a little break from the speech, it feels fresher to you, and if it feels fresher to you … remember that sentence I told you not to re-read?

The Postponement

The 2012 Area 13 International Speech Contest was supposed to be on March 19th, but because of scheduling difficulties, it had to, not only be moved back to the April 5th, it also had to be moved to Allentown, which is about an hour drive from where I live.  The reason it was moved there was because a joint contest with Areas 18 and 23 where already scheduled.  Area 13 would be able to plug into the already existing contest pretty seamlessly with very little extra planning involved.


I have been a little concerned about giving my speech at the Area contest and then giving the very same speech for the division contest in front of virtually the same group.  I was particularly worried about the area 16 speaker who is not in the contest on April 5th.   However this is what Toastmasters is all about.  This is what competing in the Toastmasters International Speech Contest is all about.  We are presented with problems or perceived problems and we must make adjustments on the fly.


After thinking about the challenge, I realized this is actually a good situation.  First of all, part of the answer to my dilemma is built into the problem.  Some of my Mentors will be there and, assuming I win, I will be able to sit down with them and find out what I need to improve on.  The added pressure of finding a way to wow practically the same audience with the same speech will force me to reach deeper into my heart and soul and find powerful solutions.  In the end, if all of the contestants play their cards right, this situation will make for a great Division E contest on April 26.

A Hidden Reason for Good Eye Contact

When I first joined Toastmasters in 2004, like many new members, I suffered from excessive fear of public speaking.  I tried to follow my mentors’ excellent advice of making good eye contact, but quickly realized it made my anxiety worse.  Because of necessity, I developed a way of coping with that fear.  As I spoke to a group, I would purposely blur my vision.  This way I could appear to be making good eye contact but, in reality, I couldn’t see their eyes.  That practice relieved my trepidation immensely.  I appeared more comfortable and confident in front of the group and there was no way my mentors could tell me I wasn’t making good eye contact.

In the years since, I discovered the immense amount of psychology that goes into public speaking.  One of the many things I learned is when a speaker is not really making good eye contact there is no real connection between the presenter and the audience.  The reason is a connection between the speaker and the audience is mostly subconscious.  There are subtle nuances in the presenter’s movements, words and tone which the audience picks up on intuitively, as a result, the audience’s mood changes and thereby changing the mood of the speaker.  It’s a vicious circle which adversely affects the presentation.

With this in mind, I began to rid myself of the habit of blurring my vision to look into the eyes of my audience.  It worked out well for me and I’m happy to say that I haven’t spoken with blurred vision for years.  However, because of my errant ways I developed another bad habit which I only recently became aware.

I first noticed the problem in a video of the Region VII contest in which I participated back in 2008.  At the time, I didn’t pick up on exactly what the problem was.  I watched the video with my wife and as I saw myself speaking, I said to her, “I look … twitchy.”  Being the wonderful supporting wife, she said, “No you don’t.”  I knew there was something wrong, but my wife was right.  I didn’t look twitchy … exactly…, but there was definitely something erratic about the way I was presenting my speech.

I forgot about the whole matter as I got into my work as Area Governor, but was recently reminded of the issue as I watched the video of my presentation of “Achilles Never Had a Chance.”   As I watched, I saw the same erratic movements I wasn’t able to figure out before.  Apparently, no one in the audience could figure it out either, because no one brought it up during the group evaluation.

I watched the video a few times before it dawned on me what was going on.  I wasn’t making good eye contact.  I was making eye contact.  I did look into the audience’s eyes … without blurring my vision, but the eye contact didn’t match the speech.

As Toastmasters, we talk plenty about making our body language match the things we say, but we don’t spend a lot of time on making our eye contact match our speech.  The best way to make our eye contact match our speech is to look at one member of the audience as we speak a sentence and as we begin the next sentence, pick another member of the audience.  As we share a full sentence with each member of the audience, we make a much stronger connection with that member, and through the subconscious that positive connection spreads from audience member to audience member until we have a strong connection with the audience as a unit.

The obvious reason for good eye contact is the strong conscious and subconscious connection you’ll have with your audience.  A hidden reason for good eye contact is your body language becomes much more stable.  Each member of the audience acts as a temporary anchor keeping your gaze steady for the length of a sentence and as the sentence ends, your change to another pair of eyes will seem much more smooth and natural.

The eye contact issue is something I’m still working on.  Sometimes, it’s surprising how difficult it is to break a bad habit.  I’ll know how well I’ve done at the Area 13 contest on March 19.

The Power of Humor

While I was Area 13 Governor, one of my favorite things to do was to run the area humorous and international speech contests.  I got a rush from the planning, filling roles, keeping track of contestants, and pushing to get everything done usually under the wire.  After everything was done, I enjoyed acting as the Toastmaster for the affair.  I probably enjoyed being the center of attention a little too much.

One of the many experiences I had with the contest was communicating, via email, with one of the contestants of the Area 13 International Speech Contest.  This contestant had lost, but was concerned that the winner’s speech seemed like it belonged in the humorous speech contest rather than the International Speech Contest.  The contestant didn’t understand the power of humor in inspiring people to do extraordinary things.  I thought about the question for a few days, then I wrote the text below in a reply.

First of all, may I say congratulations. Many people, after losing a contest, decide not to compete again. I saw nothing in your email that leads me to believe you intend to give up. Between this contest and the humorous speech contest, last fall, we all have seen you have stories to share with the world and I hope you continue to do so.

There are no rules against any specific speeches in the International Speech contest. Think of it this way. The International Speech Contest speeches are Speech 10 from the Competent Communicator Manual, except they’re 5 to 7 minutes instead of 8 to 10 minutes. You both did that, but your specific question is, “Why did her speech seem to belong in the humorous speech contests?” The simple answer is, because most of the winning speeches in the International Speech contest are humorous speeches.

The theory is, you draw the audience in with a good story and humor, and you keep their attention with more humor. While you have their attention, you teach them the lesson you want them to learn. This is a theory that has been tested over the centuries and has been proven to be absolutely correct. Some of the greatest speakers in history have had some of the strangest senses of humor. Why they were so successful in getting their message across was, when their audience was laughing, they let their guard down. They identified with the speaker and, even if it was for a split second, they were his/her friend. This is what happened last Saturday with Linda’s speech. It is not an accident that judges will pick a humorous speech over a more serious speech. It’s simply the way our minds work.

Most people at the club and Area levels, tend to think of inspirational speeches as serious, thoughtful and deep. But at the District and International levels, the competitors know that inspirational speeches are thoughtful and deep, but they don’t have to be serious. I guess what I’m trying to say is, you wouldn’t have known unless you did some heavy duty research. Tips for writing an international contest speech are on line, but they’re not the easiest to find. Most of the information you need to write a good contest speech has to be gleaned from Youtube videos of other contest speeches. Even then, you will most certainly not get all sides of the issue.

Something else you can do is ask someone who’s been to the District level or beyond. Not to blow my own horn, but I am one of those people. In 2008, I Started out with a speech that was relatively serious. At the area contest, someone who had made it all the way to the international contest in 2003 strongly recommended that I use humor in my speech. What I ended up with was a roller coaster ride of a speech. I had people rolling in the isles at one point and tearing up at another. I won the District 38 contest with that speech.

If you plan to compete next year, and I hope you do, I strongly recommend attending the Division E contest on Thursday and the District 38 contest in Harrisburg.  This will give you a chance to see real competition speeches as they happen and get a feel of the atmosphere. You’ll also have a chance to talk to the competitors and get their perspective on things. It could be a very powerful experience.

I also recommend goggling, “Toastmasters contest speeches,” and check the video results. You should find some videos of some winning contest speeches there. I am also available to answer any of your questions. Call me at any time, I’ll make time for you.

I hope this answers all of your questions and concerns. I hope to see you and the rest of the crew soon.

Achilles Never Had A Chance; Reveled

Last night, during the Reading Toastmasters by-weekly meeting, I gave the speech I plan to use for the upcoming contest season.  Funny enough, as I mentioned in my last post, I wrote this speech back in 2008.  I then wrote it again after losing my job and found a new one.

It’s funny how ideas for speeches can come along.  One day I was listening to the radio and a Led Zeppelin song I hadn’t heard in a while came on.  The galloping drums and bass along with the orchestral guitar work were instantly familiar to me, but I had forgotten the name of the song.  I looked at the screen of my satellite radio and saw, “Achilles Last Stand.”  I thought to myself, “That would be a great title for a speech!”

When I got home, I did a little research on how Achilles was killed.  I looked for a message I could draw out of the story and use in conjunction with a personal story.  After a couple of hours, I realized that Paris, the man who killed Achilles, used patience as a weapon.  Paris lived a cursed life and was never able to do anything right.  He stayed away from Achilles until he saw a small window of opportunity while Achilles walked with his back toward Paris.  It was then Paris took out his bow and arrow and shot Achilles in his heal.

All I needed was a personal story to go along with this legend and I was sure I could make a powerful and memorable message.  I did decide to use a story which turned out to be slightly prophetic.  I used the story of how I started my job at the time and the pitfalls I had to go through to become proficient.  After I lost my job at the end of 2008 and then found a new one in early 2009, I realized I had a much better story to use.

Since 2009 I had revisited the speech several times making changes and polishing it until I had a shining diamond of a speech.  I began sharing it with audiences and had some great evaluations which I considered as I polished the speech even more. Last night was the first time I used the speech in this contest season.  I had a great group evaluation.  They told me the story of Paris and Achilles was blended very smoothly into my personal story and they also found that the legend helped bring my point across much more clearly.

I didn’t expect to have a perfect evaluation, so when a few people had a couple of areas for improvement, I was very appreciative.  Apparently, I need to work on some of my body language in the beginning and there were a couple of times when I spoke too quickly and slurred some words together.  One valuable suggestion was to go through my speech and simplify any long sentences, so they’d be easier to say without jamming up the words.

All in all, I had a very successful night and I believe it was a great start to a great contest year.  The next time I am scheduled to give the speech is on March 19th.  The day of the 2012 Area 13 International Speech Contest.