In 2009, I wrote a speech for Project Six in the Toastmasters’ Competent Communicator manual. I was more than half way to my competent communicator goal of ten speeches and was very proud of my progress. A fellow club member said that I should enter the upcoming international speech competition. My response was, “What competition?” I had no idea there were speech contests. I am a competitive person by nature, so I entered. Being introverted like so many people within the Toastmasters organization, I could see the value of being thrust in front of a bunch of people I didn’t know to share a story that I had only shared in front of my club—I think. Being a consummate learner, I knew my learning curve would grow exponentially with the added pressure.
I need to set the tone that I had just learned to let go of the lectern with clinched fingers and was only starting to understand that I didn’t have to stand behind it. I was also still weaning off my addiction of looking at notes. The contest day came quickly. I stood in the middle of the floor at my very first contest. I looked good—for a stiff, upright, tensed shoulders-looking speaker afraid of moving from one spot. Apparently, I owned that space on the floor and feared someone would steal it if I moved—so there I remained for my six and a half minutes. The verdict was announced. I didn’t win. However, I finished second in our club and would move on to the next level—the area contest.
I was given feedback going into the area-level contest that I could actually move—if I wanted. Being a literal guy, I let it all loose at the area contest. I think I scared the audience, or at least distracted them a little, as I quickly scurried back and forth across the stage with no thought of anchoring my story, let alone stopping long enough to have the audience absorb the poignant points that must have sounded like a training whistle speeding by. I didn’t win. Yet, my content must have been strong enough to get some of the judges’ attention since I received the second place nod to move on to the division level. I had yet to win a contest, but was finding some success, was having fun, and was gaining confidence. At the divisional level, I was blown away by the other competitors’ speeches. I didn’t even close to placing. To make excuses, I didn’t write my speech as an “international” contest speech entry since I didn’t even know what one was. I did learn more about how contests work and found out that I had grown. Additionally, I learned a valuable lesson of looking at the speech ballot so I would know how I was being judged going forward.
I was feeling good enough to try the next humorous speech contest. I was fortunate enough to move on to the division finals—again, I finished in second place. I still had yet to win a contest, but second place continued to be good enough to advance. As I stood in front of about fifty people, the first line became locked in my head and I didn’t have the key. My brain refused to release my thoughts to my mouth while the second line was bursting to come out. There I stood in silence wondering what to do next. After what seemed like an hour, I chose to skip the first line and just started on the second. I finished in third place. I had learned another lesson. I realized my preparation technique of standing in front of a mirror or talking to my steering wheel in my car while I drove wouldn’t cut it if I wanted to succeed in speech competitions. I significantly revamped my preparation by finding live practice audiences beyond waiting for Toastmaster meetings.
The following year, I made it to the District 45 finals of the international speech contest. One of the competitors jokingly told me before the contest, “I hope I win the world championship so I can quit my day job.” I said, “What’s the world championship?” I had no idea the winner would advance to the world semi-finals. My confidence took a little hit when I found that a few competitors were professional speakers. Additionally, during lunch one of the organizers announced that two-thirds of the conference attendees were from Canada. As a U.S. member who had written a speech with U.S. statistics, I panicked and modified my speech two hours before the competition. I stumbled on a line mid-way through my presentation later that night. I didn’t place in the top three. I learned another lesson. Know your audience better. More importantly, I learned the value of having mentors. The contest winner provided me support, encouragement, and feedback after the contest. He became a mentor and a long-time friend.
Fall rolled around again and it was time for a new humorous speech. In the middle of my contest speech at the division level, a jackhammer was hard at work in the background. I was so distracted that I lost my place. Although I had made some changes to my practice preparation, I would typically search for complete silence so I wouldn’t be distracted. Yes, I lost again—I didn’t even place in the top three. Lesson learned! I started searching for distractions, whether it was my daughter playing the piano or turning on the television or radio.
The competitions continued. During the international speech competition at the district level again, I had a picture of the main subject that I flipped around for the audience to see in the middle of my speech. After losing again, I was given feedback that the props weren’t needed for this speech since I had already painted the picture for the audience with the descriptive words I was using. The blank sign was also seen as creating too many questions in the mind of the audience until it was shown while making my stage movement predictable. I was learning lessons about the appropriate use of props.
I am a loser—and I wouldn’t want it any other way. There can be only one winner who gets a trophy, but I can’t count the number of wins I’ve had while competing without receiving the hardware. These losses led me down the path of in-depth concentration on understanding audiences, learning to play to my strengths, and setting my goals higher. More importantly, I realized who I am and who I want to be as a speaker. During this time, I’ve continued to participate in contests, including having the fortune to win the District 45 Table Topics Championship in both 2012 and 2013. The desire to better myself led me to write two books on personal growth which include many of these same lessons. I’ve also started my own business. I blame Toastmasters for much of this. I tell you this not to be boastful, but because I am a loser. I am better because I joined Toastmasters. The Toastmasters program has given me confidence to try things I never thought I would while showing me the importance of the journey, not the end result. I am better today than yesterday, but not yet as good as tomorrow—and that’s okay. Every loss turned into a win when I found nuggets of information that could make me a better speaker—and person. The contests are just a microcosmic look at what has driven me to become who I wanted to be. The contests, for me, became a spring board to look at my life as a whole and became a driving factor to make many other decisions to personally and professionally transform me. Each loss catapulted me toward another challenge and more success. Have you lost, yet really won lately? You too can become a loser!
Thomas B. Dowd III’s books The Transformation of a Doubting Thomas: Growing from a Cynic to a Professional in the Corporate World (Honorable Mention at the 2012 New England Book Festival) and From Fear to Success: A Practical Public-speaking Guide (2013 Axiom Business Book Awards Gold Medal Winner and 2013 Paris Book Festival Honorable Mention) are available under “Products” on www.transformationtom.com. Book and eBook purchase options are also available on Amazon- Please click the link to be re-directed: Amazon.com