Winning a Toastmasters Speech Contest…Or Not

Last night I returned home from the Toastmasters District 33 Fall Conference.  I competed in the Humorous Speech Contest.  I was happy with the content and flow of my talk.  I got big laughs in all the right places. 

The winner was Colin Saunders from Las Vegas.  I had him picked as the winner before the results were announced.  His speech was a work of art…word choices of a poet.  Great physical delivery.  And most importantly…very funny.

Second and third places went to speakers Jason Gordo (Riverbank CA) and David Hillshafer (Edwards AFB).  They both had very funny speeches delivered with high energy, both vocally and physically (totally different from my low-key delivery style).  There were six speakers and they announced the top three positions.  That’s nice because the three of us who didn’t place can each assume that we were in fourth place!

This was the best Humorous Speech Contest I can remember in my 35 years of Toastmasters.  What fun to be in a contest filled with big laughs for every speech.  Reflecting on my past competitions I’ve come to the conclusion that is was much easier to win a District Contest in the “old days.”  I’ve won eight District Contests and although I sometimes feel like I’ve been-there-done-that, there is still nothing like a competition to give yourself a little push to work harder.  I love it.

My first District win was exactly 25 years ago at the fall conference for District 48.  I won three years in a row.  And in those days the Humorous Speech Contest went to the Regional level, one level above District.  This week’s contest was stronger than any of the three Regional Contests I’ve competed in.  But that’s the way it should be.

Almost every type of competition has become substantially more competitive over the years: Figure skating, track and field, gymnastics, golf, basketball, baseball.  Can anyone picture Babe Ruth making it in today’s major league baseball?  But he WAS one of the greatest of his time and because of that has become a legend.

I was reflecting on the Gold-Medal record that Michael Phelps recently took from Mark Spitz.  Phelps with eight Gold Medals at the 2008 Olympics topped the record of Seven Gold Medals set by Spitz in 1972.  It crossed my mind, “I wonder if any of Mark Spitz’s competition times would have won a Gold Medal in 2008…or in fact ANY medal?”  The answer was what I suspected it would be.  The times from his record breaking Olympics would not have earned him a single medal of any kind in 2008. 

But Mark Spitz was the best of his day, dominating the competition with the equipment, training and coaching available in 1972.  He deserves his sports hero status and is every bit the champion that Michael Phelps is.

How much better the competitors have become, in the 36 years between Spitz and Phelps, is astounding.  Keep in perspective that Phelps won his individual events by an average of 1.32 seconds per event and that he won his relay events by an average of 1.84 seconds.  Spitz’s Gold Medal times from 1972, for individual events, averaged 5.52 seconds behind the BRONZE (third place) medal times in 2008.  And his relay times averaged 21.43 seconds behind the 2008 Bronze medalist times.  Yes, that would be over 21 seconds behind the third place finisher.  That’s an amazing level of performance improvement.

It wasn’t just Michael Phelps being better than the swimmers of years past.  The entire field has improved a staggering amount.  And a stronger field pushes everyone to higher achievement.

So it is with speaking.  Many of the old, legendary speakers of the past…as great as they were…would not be competitive in today’s market.  The formal oratory of the past just wouldn’t connect with today’s audience in the same way that it did in their time.  The knowledge and coaching were not what they are today.  The level of competition was not as demanding.  On the other hand, if the legendary speakers were dropped into today’s speaking environment, they would be even better speakers than they were back then, and the fact is that they would be competitive.  Knowledge, training and compeition spur us on to higher achievement.

And over the years, Toastmasters Contest speakers have also grown in quality.  It’s hard to quantify it, like we can Olympic events.  But I suspect that the degrees of improvement are similar.  Speakers today are better trained than yesterday’s speakers.  They better understand the art and science of speaking.  And they’re pushed to higher levels by their fellow competitors, who also have become more effective.  That’s a good thing.  It’s challenging.  It’s stimulating.  And the bottom line…it’s not about winning.  It’s about growing.  It’s about getting better.

So push yourself by entering your club’s next contest.  Challenge yourself to work harder.  And remember:  To succeed today and tomorrow, you’ll need to exceed the standards of yesterday.