The Roller Coaster of a Speech Contest

Those of us in Toastmasters are about to enter a new Humorous Speech Contest season.  My club contest is September 8.

In this article, I’ll share with you some contest ups and downs experienced by Ken Egervari from Windsor, Canada, during last year’s contest cycle.

Ken is a relatively new Toastmaster, a member for about two years, and he is in his late 20’s. 

I’m impressed by his hard work and the analytical mind he applied to the task of writing and delivering a contest speech.  He belongs to four clubs.  He lost the Humor Contest last fall in his first club.  Then lost at the second club.  Then lost at the third club.  Finally winning at the fourth club, Ken went on to win the area contest and placed second at the division competition.  How many of us would have kept going after the second or third loss?

Let me share with you some lessons learned, in the words of Ken Egervari:

JOHN:  How did you get started on your speech?  How did you pick your topic?

KEN:  I thought, “What’s a big problem around here…something everyone could relate to?”  And the answer came to me–unemployment!  Windsor’s unemployment rate is one of the worst in Canada, and that’s the city I live in!  When I started brainstorming I had tons of ideas.  At Starbucks, I wrote for a few hours every single day for 30 days.  By the end of the process, I had 47 planned laugh lines…the very best of the hundreds of lines I came up with.  I think at that point, I had put over 80 hours into the speech.

JOHN:  At the first contest, did you try anything that turned out to be a mistake?

KEN:  One of the ways I wanted to separate myself from the other contestants was to use an unusually long title–47 words in fact.  After the contest, judges actually came up and told me they wanted to write me off the ballot because it took 1.5 minutes to say the title!   Whoops!

JOHN:  So you had 47 planned laugh lines.  How was the speech received?

KEN:  40 out of the 47 lines connected with the audience, and 20 of them were very good laughs.  However most of the laughs came in the beginning.

JOHN:  How do you account for fewer laughs at the end of the speech?

KEN:  I completely lost the audience when I said the word “prostitution.”  The energy in the room completely changed at that point–you can even feel it when listening to the voice recording.  I started to understand that Comedy Club and Corporate humor are two different things.  I thought the majority of the people would still laugh anyway, but I was wrong.  I learned that when you cross the line, offended audiences aren’t going to be on your side anymore and that it’s going to take a lot to win them back to your side. 

JOHN:  You decided to take the speech and enter it at a second club.  How did it go?

KEN:  Unfortunately, the speech went over horribly.  I managed to score 2 laughs from the audience with the same speech.  I felt like they were trying not to laugh!  Their lack of response threw off my pacing.  I began to anticipate their lack of response.  I may have even run over potential laughs.  Worse still, when I got into the adult entertainment industry, the smiles even dropped from the audience’s faces.  Between lines, all you could hear was silence.

JOHN:  So taking the speech to your third club, you decided to give the speech a major overhaul?

KEN:  That was a difficult thing to do…to “un-marry” myself from my own material.  It’s difficult to throw out 80-plus hours of work and start over.  I didn’t want to give up on the unemployment theme, I’m very stubborn.  So I looked at the old speech and asked, “Is there anything I can use from this?”  After looking at all the offensive material, or even potentially offensive material, I kept only 4 lines and started with a brand new document.  I really began to believe the old adage, “If in doubt, leave it out.”  I no longer had the urge to test lines just to “get it out of my system.”  I got audience response 30 times during the speech and ended up in third place.

JOHN:  I’m starting to think you’re the Energizer Bunny of Toastmasters.  You took the speech to your fourth club?

KEN:  Yes.  And then to the area contest with 37 laughs and a first place win.

JOHN:  And then on to a second place division contest finish.  Congratulations.

KEN:  For the first time, I genuinely felt good about my performance.  I knew I rocked the speech, prepared the best I could, and pretty much gave one of the best speeches of my life.  Sure, it would have been nice to make it to the district contest…but it didn’t matter anymore.  The biggest accomplishment was that I knew I did my best.

JOHN:  What lessons did you learn from this contest experience?

KEN:  First, brainstorm lots of topic ideas to find your passion.  When you find a speech that you really connect with, you’ll create lots of funny material.

Second, come up with more lines than you need…and select the best ones.  Create dozens of variations on the same line to find the funniest punch line for each one.

Third, don’t let the audience response throw off your pacing.

Fourth, if your speech has no chance to win, don’t be afraid to scrap it, regardless how much work you put into it.  Don’t ever get married to your material.

Fifth, listen to the old adage:  “If in doubt, leave it out!”

Sixth, it’s important to set the premise of your speech before you launch into your funny material.  Then all the humor makes sense because you have a strong premise to support it all.

And last, I learned how to handle myself better emotionally during and after a contest:  Dealing with losing.  Dealing with judging.  Dealing with audiences not finding you all that funny.

JOHN:  Thanks for sharing your roller coaster ride with us.  Any final words?

KEN:  Feel good about doing your best!

To listen to Ken’s speech CLICK HERE.