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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.

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