During my years as a member of Toastmasters International I reached a point where I needed a new challenge. That challenge became the International Speech Competition which involves making a seven-minute inspirational speech and proceeds through six stages with the final being the World Championship of Public Speaking.
My plan (ie. fantasy) was much the same as many of the 30 000 or so people who enter each year – become World Champion and find fame and fortune as a professional speaker. I didn’t become World Champion but what I learned in the process of trying has been invaluable.
Here are a few of those lessons – the big one is at the end:
1. I didn’t know what real fear of public speaking was before
Part of the reason many people have a fear of public speaking is they are aware that to some extent they are being judged by the audience. However for the most part audiences are looking for good points, not things to critique.
In a competition, there is no denying the confronting reality that the reason for you being there is to be judged on your performance. Not only by the official judges, but by everyone in the room.
The gut wrenching fear I felt at times was sickening but the feeling of achievement and confidence that came from getting through it was even more powerful and was one of the best personal growth experiences I could have had.
Want to conquer a fear of something? The only real way is to do that thing that you fear.
2. Make what you say count
When you have half an hour to do a presentation or speech you can include a substantial amount of content – often way more than is needed. Trying to convey an inspirational message in just seven minutes means you have to learn to cull everything but the most relevant material and make that limited material have the most impact possible.
3. Stories rule.
The best way to do the above is with a great story.
4. You can rehearse too much
I am a firm believer in practising before a big speech or presentation. However there were times before competitions when I rehearsed so much that I had every word memorised and every single gesture and movement choreographed.
This actually raises one of the conflicts I have with what is advocated by some people in Toastmasters. Being ‘staged’ to this level was at times a very successful strategy for meeting the judging criteria in competitions as well as getting good evaluations for speeches in regular club meetings. However sometimes it comes across more like really bad acting than speaking. Be careful with this – acting and speaking are different things.
5. Most Importantly – What it really takes to be a ‘winner’ with your audience
In my most successful shot at the competition, I reached the stage where I was one win away from heading off to the USA to compete in the semi-finals.
That day I came up against the gentleman who would later go on to become the World Champion of Public Speaking that year. It was a day that I got ‘schooled’ big time in the art of competitive speaking. His speech was well written, brilliantly delivered, thoroughly entertaining, and deserving of sending him on to the next stage.
Myself, having invested very heavily emotionally in the experience, all I wanted to do in the break afterwards was retreat to some privacy and have some time for personal reflection. However, I couldn’t because of a constant flow of people coming up to tell me that even though I didn’t win, they enjoyed my speech the most out of the six contenders.
The message of my speech that day was not to let the things that keep us busy crowd out the most important things in our lives. I told a story about how I had been doing exactly that and as a result, I was missing out on my young daughter’s childhood. It resonated with a lot of people in the audience and a couple of them actually had tears in their eyes afterward when they thanked me for telling the story.
It wasn’t until I was tackling the 8-hour drive home the next day and got to thinking about what some of these people had said, that I fully appreciated the real lesson I had learned from the experience…
Fulfilling the judging criteria for a competition is one thing, but it’s how you make people feel that ultimately determines your value as a speaker.
Even well over a year later, people who were in the audience that day were stilling telling me how that speech had impacted them.
One day I will return to Toastmasters as I have unfinished business with that competition. But in the meantime, I know that saying something that matters is way more important than a perfectly polished performance.