Behind The Curtain – 2013 Toastmasters International Semifinal Speech Contest

Whew, competing at the 2013 Toastmasters International Semifinal Speech Contest is a LOT different from competing at Club, Area, Division and District contests. First, you’re competing in front of an audience of complete strangers (unless you’re in your home-town of Cincinnati, OH, like Chris Nachtrab was when he won 1st-place in my Semifinals group). I took 2nd-place! Second, it’s most likely the largest audience that you, as a Toastmaster, have competed in front of. With 500 attendees, it was the largest audience that I have spoken in front of. Third, you’re staying in a hotel room for almost a week, far away from the comforts of home.

The contest stage

Stage and Soundcheck - 2013 Toastmasters International Semifinal Speech Contest
This is only the left-half of my Semifinals speech contest stage. The right-half is cropped off.

The stage is large. At International, our contest stage was 40 feet wide, 12 feet front-to-back, and 2 feet high. (Our stage just happened to be the smallest of the 3 Semifinal stages. The largest Semifinal stage was more than twice the size of our stage). Compared to most Toastmasters’ Club, Area, Division and District contest speaking areas, the Semifinal stage is large. Most of my competitors took full advantage of the stage and incorporated it into their speech: stage-left, center-stage, stage-right, up-stage and down-stage. Only one of my competitors paced back and forth on the stage – and it really looked out-of-place.

Bright lights in your face. There are 2 giant lighting-trees that each have 4 bright-white lights blasting you in the face. Make sure and look your audience in the eye so you don’t get blinded.

Check out the contest room in advance. I sneaked* into Duke Energy Center’s convention room 231 the night before our contest to check out the room and stage. The room was huge, out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere quiet and all set up for the next day: 500 empty chairs all facing the stage, which had a table, a chair and a podium. I walked the stage, stared out across the empty seats, deeply breathed in the air in the room a couple of times, then practiced my speech 4 times on the stage. As I was wrapping up my speech’s closing, another contestant, Mark Goldberg, showed up to do the same.

Orientation for 88 Semifinal competitors

Orientation - 2013 Toastmasters International Semifinal Speech Contest

(7:30 a.m.) Eighty-eight District winners from around the world met in Duke Energy Center‘s Convention Hall A/B for our Semifinal speech contest orientation. All of us were then directed to our respective Group’s section in the room and introduced to our speech contest liaison. I was in Group 3. Our Toastmasters International-assigned liaison, Kate Rynerson, made sure we signed model release forms, had us randomly pick our speaking order (I got #5) and did an amazing and professional job of answering our questions and keeping us under control. Some contestants wore shorts and t-shirts, others were fully-dressed in business attire.

Sound check (2 hours before showtime)

(12:30 p.m.) Two hours before the contest, our group of 9 contestants (Group 3) met in our speech competition’s room, #231, and we each got fitted for a wireless microphone (lapel or headset). Then we each had 2 minutes on stage and were asked to say the loudest and softest parts of our speech, to test sound-recording levels. We were also asked to demonstrate our largest physical movements to see if the mic would get crushed and need to be moved. Scott Brown and his top-notch team from Freeman Convention Management were professional, courteous and made us feel like rockstars!

Every speech is videotaped and the camera, tripod and camera person are just to the right of center-stage, about 10 rows into the audience. I don’t remember the camera being distracting for me.  But, in retrospect, it definitely stands out like a sore thumb and may be distracting for some people.

Kate Rynerson, our liaison, then introduced us to our group’s Contest Chair, Pamela McCown.

Meeting our Toastmaster

Toastmaster Pamela McCown - 2013 Toastmasters International Semifinal Speech Contest

(1:00 p.m.) An hour-and-a-half before the contest our Toastmaster and keynote speaker, Pamela McCown, let us know how she would like to be addressed during our speech: “Madam Contest Chair.” This is not the usual greeting that Toastmasters are used to giving at the Club, Area, Division and District level contests. And this last-minute change in a speech must be accounted for. As Pamela made sure to point out, she is not “Mr. Contest Chair.” At this level of competition you cannot afford to get the title of the Toastmaster wrong.

Forty-five minutes before showtime

We’ve been mic-checked, given our instructions by Kate, met our Toastmaster and now we have 45 minutes until we have to be back for “call” at 2:00 p.m. for a 2:30 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. contest.


Then go to the restroom a second time, just before 2:00 p.m. By the time it was my my turn to speak (I was speaker #5), I started to feel like I needed to go to the restroom again.

Getting into the speaking zone

For me, nothing puts me in a great “zone” better than dance music. I put 3 dance songs on my cell phone’s music player app the night I won the District contest – just for this exact moment before competing at Semifinals in Cincinnati: a dance set by DJ Girl Talk; an awesome mix from my long-time friend DJ Alcheme (Leo Ouellette) in Reno, Nevada; and a super-funky jam called Sprung by my friend Jeremy Curl. I put the earbuds in my ears, cranked the volume on my cell phone and started rehearsing my speech. Along with going over my speech, I also “danced like no one was watching” while facing one of the back walls of the contest room. Instead of zoning out, I was zoning “in” for the contest.

Find your fuel!

Dance music really works for me. Find whatever confidence-boosting, focusing and/or calming activity works for you to go on stage: breathing, stretching, meditation, pushups, jumping jacks, yoga, dancing, silence, stillness, visualization, praying.

Waiting to go on stage

500 chairs - 2013 Toastmasters International Semifinal contest room

(2:00 p.m.) I grabbed a complimentary bottle of water, sat in my designated #5 seat in the “contestants-only” section of the audience (front row, stage-right), took small sips of water and started chatting with my fellow contestants. I took small sips of water to keep my mouth hydrated, but not so much that I would have had to run to the bathroom.

Once the contest begins, you can’t leave the room. In fact, it was made clear that if we weren’t physically available when it was our turn to go backstage and get mic’d, we’d be automatically disqualified.

When speaker #1 is on stage, speaker #2 is back stage getting mic’d and then on standby for the Toastmaster to announce their name and speech title when it’s their turn. The rest of us are sitting in the front row, in our speaking order. As soon as speaker #1 leaves the stage and the Toastmaster asks for a minute of silence (so judges can write their notes) speaker #3 bolts to the back of the stage, gets mic’d and is on standby.

It all worked out quite smoothly.

When it was my turn, I waited for the 1-minute of silence, bolted back stage, got mic’d and waited while the speaker before me, Ray Schnell, presented his speech. While I was waiting I stretched and took a couple of deep breathes, and then a strange little thought crossed my mind: “Do I really have to give my speech? Wasn’t all the practice and hard work enough to call it even? Can’t I just watch from the audience?” Then I immediately re-focused myself in the “now”, squared my shoulders, put a big fat smile on my face and took a couple more deep breathes. And I leaned forward just a bit, in a ready-to-go boxer’s stance.

“Reid Walley. ‘A Good Harvest. A Good Harvest.’ Reid Walley,” our Toastmaster announced.  That was my cue!

“You’ve been invited to speak,” I said to myself, as I walked up the backstage ramp, through the parted-black curtains and onto the stage into an ocean of faces and bright lights. I greeting our Toastmaster with a handshake and a smile, then stepped back to the center of the stage. As I faced the audience I took a few more deep breathes, in silence, and spent 3-4 seconds looking at a few people in the eye before…


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