Going Off Script Can Have Devastating Results

In a Toastmasters speech contest, you can disqualify yourself by going under-or-over-time! Toastmasters’ International (inspirational/motivational) speech contest allows you to speak for 5-7 minutes – with 30 seconds of leeway. IE: you’re technically good from 4-minutes-and-30-seconds to 7-minutes-and-30-seconds. But if you end your speech at 4:29 or 7:31, you’re disqualified. I’ve seen it happen to my competitors. And it’s devastating!

During last year’s 2016 District 39 Spring Conference in Stockton, CA, Donny Crandell won first place in the International Speech contest (I came in 2nd). He went on to compete and win at the Semifinals round, and was 1 of 10 people, worldwide, that competed on the big 100-foot-wide stage in the Finals round – the World Champion of Public Speaking contest.

This year, Donny and I chatted during the District 39 Spring Conference in Anderson, CA, where we were competitors again. He shared his story of going overtime by 6 seconds when he was competing on the big stage last year. “I blew it,” he said. “I went overtime by 6 seconds.” “Did you ad-lib anything,” I asked. “Yep.” he said. “I went off script and added the Serenity Prayer at the very end of my speech.”

The international speech contest season is from February to August. Seven months. It’s a lot of work, sacrifice, time away from family, extra time before and/or after work. And it’s not a paid gig. You volunteer. So going overtime by 6 seconds can be devastating – especially at the Final round in front of an International audience of 2,500 people. All that hard work, luck, time, and travel…

Going off script CAN work, but it’s such a coin-toss. You have no idea if you’re gonna land on heads or tails.

Losing vs Loser

Has your favorite sports team ever lost? Losing is part of the game. All hail the game!

I lost this weekend’s District 39 Toastmasters International speech contest at the District level (round 4 of 6). Didn’t even place. And when the top-three winner’s were announced, and I wasn’t one of them, I was immediately handed two options:

1. Bewildered

2. Be grateful

Rich Hopkins: “It’s ok to be both.”
Me: “As long as I firmly land on Be Grateful as soon as possible, then I can move forward with extreme freedom.”

John McCain: “In your opinion, what made the winning speech better?”
Me: “Keerthi Karnati‘s District-winning speech (at District 39’s 2017 Spring Conference) was simply a deeper, heart-felt, funny, scary, well-presented speech. And only Be Grateful allows me to see that clearly.”

Michael Stephens: “I don’t think it’s that you’ve “lost”; I just think it’s that someone else “won”… great job:)”
Me: “I firmly believe in meritocracy. I also believe in losing as a normal part of living – everyone should not get a trophy. That’s one thing I like about Toastmasters, there are clear distinctions between trophy and no trophy. Like winning, losing is equally a natural possible outcome of participating.”

Robin Robinson: “Next topic, sportsmanship and being a good player. Competing with dignity, and dealing with the outcome graciously, is a worthwhile skill. And you did that. Bravo.”
Me: “Sportsmanship is a big deal to me. I’m all for analysing my own loss, but pointing fingers is definitely not cool. So, yeah, sportsmanship has huge value.”

Losing vs Loser

Losing is part of honing one’s craft. The loser stops honing.

(To move forward) I must be willing to admit that I lost

I have to admit that I lost the speech contest in order to re-calculate my destination. Losing a speech contest and turning down the wrong street are the same. They both require self-realization and re-calculation. I feel a certain freedom when I look in the mirror and accept my loss. Owning it is liberating!

You Just Won Your Toastmasters District Speech Contest – Now What?

Congratulations on winning your District Toastmasters International Speech contest!

Now what?

  1. Grab a copy of your Toastmasters District speech and upload it to YouTube so you can get it evaluated by previous World Champions, Advanced Toastmasters Clubs, mentors.
  2. Start developing your second speech, for Finals, right now! You will be presenting 2 speeches at the International speech contest: one for Semifinals (typically your District speech), and a completely new speech for Finals.

Get insight from previous World Champions

Contact previous World Champions and see how much they charge to evaluate your District-winning speech.

*Darren LaCroix: “I do help people for free once they have won their district speech contest. Why? First, helping people who contact me out of a field of 81 is much more manageable than 35,000. Also, I want to give back as my mentors did, and the [District] winners have earned that opportunity. The speech contest is a self-discovery process. It is powerful as a growth tool, if you have the proper intentions. If your entire goal is to win for ego purposes or to launch your career, please do not contact me or invest in any of my programs.”

Get insight from 2nd- and 3rd-place World Champions

If they’re not competing in this year’s International speech contest, last year’s 2nd-place and 3rd-place World Champions are a great resource. Find them here.

Get insight from Advanced Toastmasters clubs

Contact your District’s Advanced Clubs for feedback and evaluations on your District speech – maybe even mentorship. They’re also the perfect environment to practice your Final speech.

One of my go-to Advanced Toastmasters Clubs in Sacramento, CA is Reveilliers Toastmasters. They really kicked my butt, told me the truth and provided top-notch evaluations. Most Advanced Club members have attended many International conferences and have heard many Semifinal and Final speeches over the years. An Advanced Club will tell you if you’re up-to-par or not – and, generally, how to fix it.

Get insight from your previous District winners

Contact your District’s previous District winners for help, advice, even mentorship.

Study previous World Champion speeches

There’s a huge difference between presenting at your District and the competition you’re going to face at the Semifinal and World Champion levels. Notice their deliberate use of the stage to set up scenes with characters and dialogue.

Watch previous Toastmasters World Champion of Public Speaking speeches.

How I Prepared for the 2013 Toastmasters International Semifinal Speech Contest

Step 1: Getting feedback from local Advanced Toastmasters clubs

Reality check!

A couple of brutely-honest – and painful to hear – District 39 Advanced Club evaluators were concerned that my District-winning speech wouldn’t hold up to the competition I was going to face 3 months later at Semifinals on Aug 22, 2013 in Cincinnati, OH. Turns out they were right! The 3 months between District and Semifinals, my speech changed by 50%. It was much more work, time and stress than I anticipated. Plus, I had to create a completely new speech to present during the World Champion of Public Speak competition!

Getting educated.

I watched – and re-watched – previous World Champion of Public Speaking winners on YouTube: Jim Key (2003), Randy Harvey (2004), Lance Miller (2005), Jock Elliot (2011) and Ryan Avery (2012). To my surprise, the previous-year’s winning speakers had overly-large gestures, were quite animated and covered the whole stage. Not something you’d ever see in a board meeting or from a politician running for office. But for an inspirational speech delivered in front of 2,000+ attendees you need to act over-the-top because most of the audience can barely see you.

Acting silly!

After reviewing World Champion’s winning speeches, it reminded me of silly, over-the-top, Vaudeville performances. But that’s simply because I had been used to presenting Toastmasters speeches in actual board rooms and small venues (15-150 people). The World Champion of Public Speaking contest is in a convention hall that is literally the size a football field, and filled with almost 2,000 people. You have to look alive and be entertaining!

I also watched everything I could get my hands on from Hall of Fame Speaker, Patricia Fripp, and 1999 World Champion of Public Speaking, Craig Valentine! Ryan Avery (2012 WCPS) has also kicked off a teaching Website called How To Be A Speaker.

Step 2: Re-crafting my District-winning speech for the International competition

Right off the bat, I was in trouble! My evaluators presented a long list of good reasons that my District-winning speech was going to get clobbered at the next round of competitions. I made 4 big changes:

  1. Edited my speech to be more International in its appeal. Since I live in California, I needed to delete/replace any local, cultural and colloquial references that an International audience – and International judges – may not easily relate to.
  2. Altered my speech from mostly-narration to a good mix of narration and dialog.
  3. Since my evaluators said I came across as very preachy, I had to figure out a way around this.
  4. Integrated some of Randy Harvey’s S.C.R.E.A.M. speech-writing formula:
    • Simile*
    • Contrast
    • Rhyme
    • Echo
    • Alliteration
    • Metaphor*

*Now I had to figure out the difference between a Simile and a Metaphor. (A simile is a metaphor, but not all metaphors are similes.)

One of my evaluators, Tobias Stockler, helped me clarify the analogy for my speech title A Good Harvest. After grilling me for a few minutes I frustratingly replied, “A Good Harvest is like a farmer trying to raise good crops.” “Perfect.” he said, “Now the audience will know how to relate to the idea of A Good Harvest.”

I also added Patricia Fripp’s and Ryan Avery’s “circular technique” (a matching opening & closing). I cut out less-obvious references to my core message, reduced 4 story lines to just 2, reduced closing calls-to-action from five to one, created a more central tagline message (“reach out and mend a broken fence”), and added a “WHY” to the story (“happiness”).

  • Added more dialogue.
  • Added reference to book title in dialogue.
  • Added Patricia Fripp’s “Circular technique” (opening/closing speech with the same sentence, story, stage location).
  • Reduced my calls-to-action at the end from 5 to 1.
  • Reduced the amount of stories.
  • Spread storylines across different parts of the stage.
  • Added simile/metaphor: “Divorce is like a broken fence”
  • Added a call-to-action at end: “Reach out and mend a broken fence”
  • Added definition/analogy of A Good Harvest: “Like a farmer trying to raise good crops, parents trying to raise good kids.”
  • Deleted references to getting arrested and Dad calling every Sunday.
  • Added alliteration: “shorts and a short-sleeve shirt”
  • Added “why” I apologized to my ex-wife: to be happy.
  • Added “why” a good harvest is important: raises value of society.
  • Added alliteration/description of Dad: shorts and short-sleeve shirt.

Be prepared to make last-minute changes to your speech. At International, 2 hours before the contest, our Contest Chair informed us to address her as “Madam Contest Chair.” This “address” was completely different from the standard “Mister/Madam Toastmaster” that I was used to at my club and local speech contests.

A big thanks to the following District 39 members for their evaluations and support: Danny Pastores, Ceci Dunn, Zack Souza, George Jarosik, David Zic, Rick Pierce, Tobias Stockler, Rick & Marcia Sydor, Herb Long, Susan Hawbaker, Cliff Brackett, Tracy Harrison, Brian Hatano, Ruth Maloney.

What really helped me parse all of the feedback I was receiving, and to put it into context, were District 39’s previous winners: Russell Marsan (2012 District 39 Winner), Jeffrey Purtee (2011 District 39 Winner) and Jim Brennan (World Champion runner-up, District 39).

Step 3: Practicing for a much larger stage

Toastmasters outdoor practice space, Midtown Sacramento, CA
Toastmasters outdoor practice space, Midtown Sacramento, CA

Five weeks before the International Semifinals, I found an outdoor practice space in Midtown Sacramento, CA: 50 feet wide and 15 feet deep. And although it was outside in the glaring sun (or pouring rain), it was perfect. And the occasional foot-traffic helped me get used to distractions, as well as a few people that stopped and watched for a moment and asked what in the world I was doing – LOL.

Practicing staging and full-out body language took much more energy than I thought it would. The first time I practiced for an hour-and-a-half, and I was exhausted from the sun, jumping up and down, going through larger-than-life animations and just plain covering a lot of ground. A nice workout for sure:)

Editing my speech after an Advanced club evaluation had to include editing my staging as well. Does a new line of text put me on a different part of the stage? Am I going to end up spending too much time on one side of the stage?

I had to get use to the stage as one of the characters in my speech. I also had to allow for the extra time that walking across the stage takes up. In my 5-7 minute speech, I discovered that moving around on the stage adds approximately 60 seconds to my speech. So I had to cut out 60-seconds-worth of content to accommodate setting scenes/stories at stage-left, center-stage and stage-right.

The Painful Truth Makes You A Better Public Speaker

The first words out of Tracy Harrison’s mouth: “Well, do you want the truth?”

“Yes,” I said, smiling wide (not having any idea of the honesty that was about to sledgehammer me upside the head).

“I didn’t like your speech just now, and I didn’t like it when you gave it at the Toastmasters District Speech Contest,” Tracy steam rolled. “I wouldn’t have even placed you in the top 3.”

Keep smiling, I repeat to myself. People are watching.

“You just kept pacing back-and-forth on stage. You were very preachy. I felt very put-off. That is NOT going to cut it at the next round of speech contests,” she chastised.

Keep smiling, I repeat to myself. There are 15 people at the table and I’m not sure were this is going. And by the looks on their faces neither do they. Now people are really watching. I really need to bite my tongue and keep my emotions in check. Am I getting picked on or am I about to receive some serious wisdom?

Tracy had the guts to wake me up from my cloud-nine 1st-place speech contest win. She’s attended the International Conference for the past 10 years and has witnessed the professionalism and perfectionism at the next level. Tracy knew what I was in for and she knew that I was gonna get my ass handed to me if I didn’t change everything about my speech.

“Contestants travel from all over the world to compete at the next level,” Tracy explained, “and what you have right now isn’t going to cut it. You’re going to get clobbered.”

Actively seek out the wisdom of good speech evaluators who are both honest and productive.

She gave me great insight on changing my speech from being “preachy” to being “story.” Tracy burst my bubble of thinking I was hot shit. She told me the cold, hard truth and it set me on a 2-month, desperation-lead, learning spree. I watched as many of the World Champion of Public Speaking winning speeches as I could find on YouTube to see what I was up against. And it scared the hell out of me! I also gathered all of the Toastmasters Public Speaking Resources I could find.

2nd-place Semifinalist, 2013 Toastmasters International Speech ContestThat was June 2013. In August, I went on to place in the top 18 speech winners, worldwide, during the 2013 Toastmasters International speech contest in Cincinnati, Ohio.

This year I attended many of the local speech contests, scoping out my competition, as well as hearing and seeing speeches from a new perspective. I see some contestants making the mistakes that Tracy kicked my butt over: more statements than stories. And I see very little use of the stage. Now I know the difference:

  • A statement is preachy
  • A story is dialog
  • The stage is a canvas

The stage is part of your speech. Just watch your favorite TV sitcom. If you close your eyes you can tell me where the kitchen, front door, and couch are. It’s the same in a winning Toastmasters speech. The stage helps to paint different scenes in your audience’s mind.

This is what Tracy was referring to when she said to me, “You’re just pacing back-and-forth across the stage. It’s distracting. Stand still and make your point.”

Thanks Tracy!

Note: Tracy’s feedback was both sledgehammer-honest AND highly productive. It’s the only way to be a better public speaker. Look for both of these qualities in your speech evaluator/speech coach.

Lessons Learned – 2013 Toastmasters International Semifinal Speech Contest

What I learned: I have a lot more to learn! At this level of the game – at the Semifinals and World Champion of Public Speaking contests – it’s the minor things that make a major difference!

Do NOT go over time

Two of my competitors were automatically disqualified because they went over the 7 minute and 30 second time limit. So disappointing. All that hard work, dedication, extra time away from family and friends to prepare, practice, edit, travel – and to go over time… UGH!

There were 2 reasons these contestants went over time:

  • One speaker forgot part of their speech, had a long pause, and went over time.
  • The other speaker got caught off guard by an audience member’s supportive applause, got completely off track and went over time.

Lesson I learned: practice a truncated closing in case I forget my lines or get distracted – or both!

During the 2013 Toastmasters International speech competition season I forgot my lines twice, once at my Area contest and once at my District contest. The ONLY thing that saved my butt was the regular participation in my club’s Table Topics section! It isn’t perfect but it really helps me “fake” my way back into my speech. As far as making up for the lost time, I definitely need more practice altering my closing on the fly, so I don’t go over time.

Insight from judges

A previous-year’s judge spoke with me for 30 minutes about what she looks for, how she judges, what bores her and that I, as a speaker, need to really grab her attention within the first 20 seconds of my speech. Otherwise, she’s thinking about what she’s going to order for dinner after the contest.

I also spoke with people who sat in the same contest room and listened to all 3 contest groups back-to-back (approx. 6 hours), and what patterns they see emerge (topics, speaking-styles, copycats) and what becomes stale and obvious. In particular, one former judge mentioned getting tired of hearing about cancer and death all day long! They became more of a “downer” rather than inspiring, she said.

Get a Toastmasters coach

Competing at International requires 2 speeches: one for the Semifinal contest and another speech for the World Champion of Public Speaking contest. The speech for WCPS contest must be brand new, and it must never have been presented during the current year’s contests (Club, Area, Division or District). And they have to be presented only 2 days apart (the Semifinal contest was on Thursday, Aug 22, 2013; the World Championship contest was on Saturday, Aug 24, 2013).

So when do I start writing my Finals speech?  I Tweeted 2012 World Champion, Ryan Avery, and he said I should only start writing my Finals speech after winning at the District competition.

All of the winners that I saw at the 2013 Convention thanked their coaches, who were all sitting in the audience. Even the speakers who didn’t win had coaches. There are plenty of 2nd-place World Champions – and a few 1st-place World Champions – from previous years walking the hallways at the convention. They’re all easy to talk to and exchange business cards with.

When I do this again, I’ll get a coach. I’ll also put together a roster of Advance Club members and District-level Toastmasters that I trust to move me forward.

Pick a better speech topic next year

There is a difference between my local District 39 audience and judges and International’s audience and judges. A few 2nd place World Champions I met mentioned that I should craft a speech to win at my District level, then re-craft it to win at Semifinals, as well as separately craft a winning World Champion speech. A few of my District’s advanced-club members observed the need to transform my District-winning speech for Semifinals. And guess what, those few local Toastmasters that told me straight-out that my District-winning speech would not hold up at Semifinals were right. And I’m putting them in my mastermind group.

Also, the difference between my 2nd place Semifinal winning speech and Chris Nachtrab’s 1st place Semifinal winning speech was obvious to me: all things being equal, his speech simply touched more hearts and had far fewer words than mine did. He talked about family, memories and cherishing life’s important moments. His speech was easy to follow and easy to swallow.

Get more practice time in front of groups

Practice in strange, distracting, embarrassing situations, like Ryan Avery did while training for his 2012 win. He even practiced on the sidewalks of his hometown. Speak at other organizations: Kiwanis, Rotary, etc. Ryan says he spoke to 50 Toastmasters clubs in the 3 months leading up to his 2012 victory. From my calculation, it was like a second full-time job.

Networking for the future

I meet Ryan Avery, 2012 World Champion of Public Speaking and his wife, Chelsea. I also met a couple of 2nd-place World Champions from previous years, including Kwong Yue Yang, the 2011 2nd-place World Champion (his 2011 speech “Fortune Cookie“). Kwong is the nicest guy, with helpful advice for me and anybody else who was around. I also met Douglas Wilson, the 2006 2nd-place World Champion. Douglas sat down and mentored me one-on-one for more than an hour. He was also super-supportative of all the 88 Semifinal contestants who came in from all over the world. Kwong’s and Douglas’s knowledge and wisdom is readily available in the hallways, dinners and educational sessions.

This is another reason to attend the International Convention every year: everybody’s there and easy to talk to.