A Toastmasters Speech Contest

I’m going to share a Toastmasters Area Contest speech with you which was written and delivered by Steve Pavlina.  Steve is a serious student of humor.  He practices Observational Humor at the same Toastmasters club I attend.  He played with my improv troupe and performed in two of our shows.  And every week he beats me in 18 holes of Disc (Frisbee) Golf by about three strokes.  Very funny.

Here’s the text of his speech about polyphasic sleep.  My comments and a few observations by Steve follow the text.  (Note: Steve makes references to “act-outs” which is the technique of “stepping outside the speech” to bring drama and theater to the talk.)
39-1/2 Winks

Do you ever feel like you have too much to do and not enough time to do it?  What would you say if I told you there was a way you could gain an extra 6 productive hours every day?  Imagine what you could do with an extra 6 hours a day.  You could write a book.  You could learn a foreign language.  You could almost serve as Area Governor.

Mr. Toastmaster, fellow Toastmasters, and welcome guests.  Two years ago I learned about a strange experiment done by a group of college students.  They claimed to be sleeping only 2 hours a day, and they kept it up for 6 months.  Now my reaction was probably the same as yours.  It’s humanly impossible, right?  But it was true.  What the students did was called polyphasic sleep.  Polyphasic means “many phases.”  They slept only 20 minutes at a time…every 4 hours…around the clock.

Adjusting to polyphasic sleep is not easy.  Eventually your brain will adapt to the shorter sleep cycles, but until that happens, you’ll have to endure several days of severe sleep deprivation, including fatigue, irritability, and memory lapses.  It’s like being VP of Education.

I run a popular personal development web site, so I thought it would be fun to try adapting to polyphasic sleep as a public experiment, logging each day as I went along.  But when I announced my plans, my loyal readers said that I would surely fail, that it would probably kill me, and that they couldn’t wait to read about it! Would you like to know how it went?  Alright, here’s what I wrote in my logs.

[Days 1-6 act-out of progressively worse sleep deprivation]

Day 1.  The first night wasn’t bad.  A little TV, a little web surfing.  I felt like I accomplished something just staying awake, even though I didn’t really do anything.  It’s like I was VP of PR.  What actually worked best for staying awake was cooking. When I first told my wife Erin I was going to do this experiment, she said, “Sleep deprivation?  Why can’t I just have a normal husband?”  When she got up this morning though, she said, “Sniff sniff.  Is that sweet potato curry?”  After that she’s been very supportive.  But we both agreed I’ll stop the experiment if I show signs of suffering a psychotic break, like running for Area Governor.

Day 2.  Oh, the sleep deprivation finally hit me.  I’m taking all my naps on time, but they aren’t helping much.  I have to keep slapping myself to stay awake.

Day 3.  I feel like a total zombie.  I came this close to quitting, but a friend convinced me to stick it out a little longer.  It wasn’t until after my next nap I realized I’d been talking to a cantaloupe.

Day 4…or is it 5…no, no, it’s 4.  This morning Erin asked me, “Steve, why is your deodorant in the fridge?”  “I’m sorry, Erin; it was the cantaloupe’s idea.”

Day 5.  I stayed up all night cooking, but now I can’t find any of the food.  I really shouldn’t drive, but after five days of this, I’m going stir crazy.  So I made a quick trip to Costco.  I bought a 36-pack of kitchen timers.  I also picked up a sack of cantaloupe to keep me company.  They don’t say much, but they’re good listeners.  Apparently I bought some bubble wrap and duct tape too, but I can’t remember why.

Day 6.  Today is Halloween.  Erin unpacked her old witch costume and found this putrescent orange slime in the hat.  Turned out it was sweet potato curry.  Hopefully the cabbage rolls will turn up soon. When it got dark, Erin took the kids trick-or-treating, while I passed out candy.  When Erin came back, she said, “That was weird, Steve.  All the neighborhood kids are talking about some psycho who’s passing out kitchen timers.”

[Narrator mode] Now it took about a week, but I did successfully adapt to polyphasic sleep.  I had more energy than ever, and my productivity skyrocketed.  There was only one problem.  The rest of the world was still monophasic. 

Here’s a log entry from day 150:

[Acting psycho] These past 5 months on polyphasic sleep have been incredible, but the long nights are getting lonely.  I tried to convince Erin and the kids to get up earlier just so I can have someone to talk to.  Unfortunately they’re not into coffee, but I found another natural stimulant that will help them wake up…adrenalin.  Just before dawn I grab one of those kitchen timers and head upstairs.  I set the fuse for 5 seconds, and then I quickly open the bedroom door, lob it onto the bed, and shut the door.  When that piercing alarm goes off, oh they’re wide awake…especially since it takes them a while to remove the bubble wrap and duct tape.

[Narrator mode] 5-1/2 months after beginning this experiment, I decided to return to monophasic sleep.  I was sad to see it end, but my family threatened to have me committed. Even though it didn’t work out, I’m glad I tried polyphasic sleep, and I learned some valuable lessons.  I learned that people are more important than productivity.  I learned the migratory patterns of sweet potato curry.  And I learned there truly is no greater insanity than to serve as Area Governor.

JOHN:  Terrific speech.  It was delivered at the Area Contest.  How was the speech different from the one you gave to win the Club Contest?

STEVE:  I improved the speech a lot after the club contest, but unfortunately I overdid it, and I got disqualified for time.  (A contest speech is suppossed to fall within a 4:30 and 7:30 time frame.)  When I practiced it myself, I came in between 5:30 and 6:00, and that included what I thought were reasonable pauses for laughter.  I figured a 90-120 second buffer for extra laughter would be plenty.  But many of the jokes got such big, sustained laughs that I had to wait a long time for the laughter to die down.  I saw the red light come on and tried to wrap it up quick, cutting about 30 seconds from the end, but my final joke still got too big a laugh.  Even so, I thought I managed to close on time, but apparently I didn’t quite make it.  If I’d done the whole speech as originally planned, I’d have run well over 8 minutes.

JOHN:  Moving up the competition ladder is challenging.  One of the biggest differences is that you usually get more laughter the higher the competition level.  There are several reasons for this.  First, the audiences are usually larger.  Because of the contagious nature of laughter, this usually means more response.  Second, your speech is usually better written, thanks to your own analysis and the feedback from members at your club.  Third, you know your content better and can focus on your delivery and connection with the audience.  These three factors all help you earn more laughter from the audience.  Because of that, you need to allow time for the laughter and also be prepared to cut a segment near the end of the speech, just in case.

JOHN:  Here are some observations on the speech content:

1.  Notice that Steve doesn’t rush into getting the laughs.  He takes time to set the premise and lets the audience know where he’s going.  Then he alerts them that he’s moving to the next part of the speech with, “Alright, here’s what I wrote in my logs.”

STEVE:  The slow build-up at the beginning was intentional, with only three laughs in the first 90 seconds.  As I gave the speech, I could see the audience becoming uneasy as I explained the details of polyphasic sleep.  I could see they were wondering where the humor was, and it seemed like I was launching into a dry factual speech that would at best be punctuated with some humorous commentary.  But I was using this time to establish a connection and build speech value while setting them up for later, so all of this was just premise.  This was very effective, since that early tension only made the later laughs stronger.

2.  He customizes his humor by making references to which the audience could relate:  Area Governor (the host of this competition), VP of Education, VP of PR.  If you were speaking to a corporate audience, reference to the Division Manager, the Director of HR, the VP of Marketing, might all be good for laughs.  You need to know the group.  You need to do your homework.

3.  Steve uses the Rule-of-Three very effectively:
  – You could write a book.  You could learn a foreign language.  You could almost serve as Area Governor.
  – My loyal readers said that I would surely fail, that it would probably kill me, and that they couldn’t wait to read about it!
  – I learned that people are more important than productivity.  I learned the migratory patterns of sweet potato curry. And I learned there truly is no greater insanity than to serve as Area Governor.

4.  Steve has picked funny-sounding words.  Note that all the ones listed here include the “K” sound, which many comedy experts say are funnier.
  – cantaloupe
  – kitchen timers
  – sweet potato curry
  – cabbage rolls
  – bubble wrap and duct tape

STEVE:  I didn’t even realize I was using so many words with a K-sound.  That was accidental, not intentional.  Interestingly, my original version used “napkin” instead of “cantaloupe” (also a K-word).  When I ran the speech past Darren LaCroix, he suggested using a kumquat because it was a funnier word (and also a K-sound).  I liked cantaloupe better, so I went with that.
5.  The speech is rich in call backs; making reference to things introduced earlier in the speech (cantaloupe, kitchen timer, sweet potato curry, etc).  By my count there are at least nine call backs.

STEVE:  I intentionally tried to include a lot of callbacks in this speech because part of the reason I wrote this speech was to specifically experiment with that technique.  Clever callbacks can work like punch line insurance.  If the first time I make a joke about an object doesn’t quite work, by the time the speech is over, the audience will think it was only intended as a setup for a future joke anyway.  But if both jokes work, the laughter on the callback can be doubly strong.
6.  “Steve, why is your deodorant in the fridge?”   “I’m sorry, Erin; it was the cantaloupe’s idea.”  I’d consider changing it to: “I’m sorry, Erin; the cantaloupe asked to borrow it.”  This gives the cantaloupe a more active part, which I think makes it funnier.  I also wonder if there might be a humor connection between Musk-scented deodorant and Musk Mellon, a name by which cantaloupes are also known.

STEVE:  There were several variations I considered.  One I almost used was, “I’m sorry, Erin; the cantaloupe said he was lonely,” but I ditched it because I thought some people might construe it as sexual, and I didn’t want to use any blue humor in this speech.   Another joke I almost inserted into the 2nd paragraph was this:  “It’s humanly impossible, right?  It’s like Bachelors & Bachelorettes becoming President’s Distinguished.”  B&B was one of the clubs in this area.  I thought the joke was too harsh and opted not to use it.  It might get a big laugh, but I thought it would more likely backfire and cost me the audience.

7.  “I bought a 36-pack of kitchen timers.”  A brilliant line.  When writing a speech a person asks, “What would be the most unusual thing to be bought in a quantity-pack?”  You’d ask yourself, what item would you only need one of.  Kitchen timer is a fabulous choice.  Taking it too far, like “a 36-pack of snow tires” would lessen the impact.  Kitchen timers are closer to something you could visualize as being real, but at the same time absurd.

STEVE:  In my first draft of this speech, I made a joke about a 6-pack of kitchen timers (not a 36-pack) because I had a segment where my alarm clocks kept meeting an untimely demise.  I’d smash them, flush them, etc.  So originally that line was there to show that I was buying alarms in bulk to replace the damaged ones.  During my actual polyphasic sleep experiment, I used a kitchen timer as my primary wake-up alarm, so I was simply using exaggeration for the joke.  But in the second draft, I found the joke worked even better after I cut out the earlier mentions of the kitchen timer, since it became even more absurd.  So this was a case where using a callback turned out to be weaker than using a fresh, totally unexpected, punch line.

8.  I like Steve’s closing line, a call back and a triplet.  One alternative closer might be:  “I believe it’s time to wrap up my speech.  (Pull a kitchen timer from pocket wrapped in bubble wrap and duct tape.)  My kitchen timer is vibrating.”
STEVE:  I love your closing line idea.  I could have put a kitchen timer in my pocket and set the alarm to go off at some time during the speech.  Maybe then I’d have been able to bring it in on time!

Steve Pavlina’s post on Polyphasic Sleep.