I entered a speech contest

dragons bumpersticker
The people watching you speak are not dragons

My speech got second place! Out of two.

As my brother recently told me, no one starts anything big without wanting to win it all, and he’s right. However: I’ll take my red ribbon, so to speak. Because I won! On the personal growth front.

Step 1: Join Toastmasters

I joined a Toastmasters group, a few months ago. If you are not familiar with Toastmasters: it’s a structured program that provides a warm, encouraging space to develop speaking and leadership skills. It’s been around since 1905! Here’s some Toastmasters history.

I’ve long felt I need to work on thinking on my feet, and a few friends and relatives have suggested I work on my confidence. Some of the same people suggested I look into Toastmasters.

My 48th year is a damn good year to opt in to that “do something that scares you every day” notion. Going into a cold (or hot) sweat even on a weekly basis is a pretty big step, for me. I may not be easily spooked by crazy speed on skis or bikes, nor by climbing tall, exposed rock walls. However, standing in front of people, doing something, and knowing there will be some sort of reaction? For sure. My fear realm relates more to emotional or career risks.

Those of you who know me or see the “Yoga Classes” along the perimeter of this page are perhaps thinking, “And yet you manage to teach group yoga classes. Regularly.”  Know this: the first time I taught, the fear was nearly paralyzing, and one of my teachers was there in the room, evaluating me. It has gotten easier with practice and trust. It helps that most, or perhaps even all, of the reactions over the past 8 years of teaching have been positive.

Step 2: Participate in the Meeting

I found a nearby club that meets at a time that works for my schedule. I started going to meetings. It took a month for me to commit to one of the many meeting roles; the structure of the meeting is fairly rigid, which was a little intimidating but also learnable. There are always one or two speakers and an emcee (the “toastmaster”). There is a meeting evaluator, evaluators for each speaker, and also “helpers” assigned to keep track of the time, the creative word choices and the less creative “filler” words like ahs and ums.

Surprise! Table Topics

If you’re not  in an assigned role, you are very likely to get called upon to improvise, in a challenge called Table Topics. What you’re asked to speak about could be anything. Some examples: Which of the seven architectural wonders of the world you want to visit, and why? Or, tell us a story about which holiday causes your family the most stress?

After fumbling through a few sub-45-second answers of my own, I took note of some creative responses. I determined that the best way to approach Table Topics is to view it like a party game, sort of like Snake Oil or maybe Cards Against Humanity (but not “for horrible people”). The idea is to say something, anything, for at least one minute. It may not “answer” the question, but the you do need to entertain and share something about yourself with the group.

Eventually I started signing up for roles at the meeting. Partly out of fear of Table Topics, but also out of desire to share that opportunity with everyone else there. Who isn’t afraid of improv? No one in this group appears to be a seasoned stand-up comedian or comedy improv pro.

Step Three: Deliver a Speech

Two months in, I figured I was a little overdue for my first prepared project speech-one aptly called “Icebreaker.” I’d been spending an hour each week with these people and they hadn’t learned much about me, aside from: I’d pick the Panama Canal to visit and July 4 is a great holiday for a family stricken with pyromania.

I pulled together some stories about my life, practiced it endlessly for the five days prior to the meeting I’d planned to give my speech. My husband was my audience for maybe three rounds; my car’s steering wheel got it maybe eight times and the peanut gallery of stuff animals on the sofa got it six times.

I did it, with no notes, and also no fainting, excessive sweating or premature death. My fellow toastmasters seemed to like it. I kept the length within the allotted time, and got some helpful feedback: not to mumble. My evaluator couldn’t decipher a pattern but I knew: I mumbled when went off script.

Progress! The workbook has 10 projects. I had nine to go.

Step 4: Try Another Speech

A few weeks later, a call went out for people to sign up to compete in the twice-yearly contest. At first I thought a contest was for more seasoned speakers – and yet one of the two categories didn’t require a specific number of completed projects. I was eager to get more practice, and I had a story in mind. The category was ‘Tall Tales” and I had an idea, from an experience on my trip to the Galapagos Islands, last April.

The meat of the story: On our next-to-last day in the islands, Mom saw a very rare bird, a Paint-Billed Crake. No one else did. We’d been looking for it, the whole trip. And below is the only photo she took of it.

paint billed crake
He’s looking in a mirror, this Paint-billed Crake.

“Tall tales” are meant to be stories of exaggeration, or not-quite-believable adventures. And this one for sure qualified.

Unlike the weekly meetings, contests do not have feedback baked into the structure. Judges vote anonymously. The speeches either fit into the allotted time (2:30-5:30, for a Tall Tale), or they did not. If they are too short or too long, the speech gets disqualified. The winner and runners-up are announced, and that’s it. The category winners go on to compete at district level.

And yet informally, I got a few helpful comments – two people told me they enjoyed my funny birding story. One mentioned that my ending came a little abruptly, and I could not disagree – that was possibility that had occurred to me from the start, as I relied a bit too much on revealing the photo above to deliver the punchline of the whole story. I again had some mumbling, caused again, I think, by some last-minute improvising.

I also had some problems with the screen: it was an unfamiliar projector and control, and though I had only 5 slides, not a single one of them advanced with the clicker I was using. This caused me some anxiety about my time limit, and also caused me to spend more time turned away from the audience, looking at the screen and our AV pro, for help. I prepared a lot at home but hadn’t looked into going a little further to rehearse with the equipment.

Learned lessons: skip the slides, if possible. Stick to the script. Relax if the technology starts to screw you.

It’ll be some time before I think I’m anywhere near as polished and entertaining as some speakers I’ve seen, but I’m feeling one step closer. Maybe I’ll step up at a Moth night?


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