2008 Reading Toastmasters Speech Contest

I walked into the Reading Toastmasters meeting room a little nervous.  I practiced the speech until I could give it in my sleep, but I still wasn’t comfortable about its power.  I still wasn’t sure I believed my own message.  The episode which the speech was about was how a teacher had told me the only reason she was passing me was because she hated me and didn’t want me in her class the next year.  In the following years, she appeared remorseful of the things she said.  It took me years to forgive her and at the time of the speech … I still hadn’t.

I was competing against one other club member, and I had heard her speech a year earlier.  It had a lot of power and she clearly believed her message.  I didn’t think I’d make it out of the club with “Wings and Chains.”

My fellow contestant gave her speech first.  She was confident.  Her voice was strong.  She believed what she was saying.  How could I top that?  I only became more nervous.

When it was my turn, I walked up to the front of the room and shook the Toastmaster’s hand and began my speech.  I felt the anger and resentment I had for the teacher build as I told the story and I felt sadness as I explained how an event which happened in the Amish community of Nichol mines, Pennsylvania, showed me what true forgiveness was.  At the end of the speech I actually felt a little bit of a burden I had carried for so many years lighten.  It was still there, but lighter.  I returned to my seat and as I sat there, I felt I did really well, despite the problems I had with the speech.

The announcement came at the end of the meeting.  I wasn’t certain I had not won, but I felt I truly did the best I could.   In the 2008 contest season, that’s all that was important to me.  The Toastmaster stood in front of the room and announced the results of the judging.

“The winner is … Mike Donlan with “Wings and Chains.”

I was stunned.  I didn’t truly understand why I won, but I was very grateful.  As time went on, I did figure out why I won and it really didn’t have a lot to do with the speech itself.  It had almost everything to do with simplicity of the message.  This may be the most important public speaking tip I had ever learned.  The simpler your message, the easier it is to digest and to remember.

My fellow competitor’s message was strong and it was powerful, but it was split into three separate points.  If you asked me to explain what her message was, the explanation would be several sentences long.  Her message wasn’t simple, digestible or memorable.

On the other hand, my message could be described in four words, “Forgiveness sets you free.”  It appeared that a clearer well defined message made all the difference.

A second reason why I won is that my fellow competitor never wrote down her speech.  She delivered it from the top of her head.  In many public speaking cases, in fact in most cases, it’s perfectly fine, even advisable to do that, however a contest speech or any speech where exactly the right words must be chosen, the speaker needs to write it all down, even if they don’t intend on using it word for word.

After the announcement, it was official.  I would be heading back to the Area Contest for the third year in a row and in the days following the club contest I discovered that I would be having a rematch against an old friend.

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