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How to prepare and win a Toastmasters Speech Contest

Toastmaster | Public Speaking | Impromptu Speech | Ice Breaking ( first) Speech| Evaluation

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by Andrew Dlugan


Imagine yourself speaking at the World Championship of Public Speaking. You’ve written a speech from your heart, and you deliver the best performance of your life. When the winner is announced, it’s you!

Possible? Yes.
You can win.

That which separates those who win from those who do not win is not lifetime speaking experience nor contest experience. Not gestures. Not vocal variety. Not rhetorical devices. Not overall delivery skills.

The most critical discriminator between those who win and those who do not is preparation.

Believing You Can Win

Henry Ford observed:

Whether you think you can or think you can’t – you are right.

If you believe you can win a Toastmasters Speech Contest, then you can win. Believing you can win will motivate you to give it the proverbial 110% (even though that is a mathematical absurdity).

There are no shortcuts. The lessons contained in the previous nine articles of the Speech Preparation Series apply to speeches of all types, including Toastmasters speech contests. So, a necessary first step to preparing a great contest speech is to prepare a great speech. Period.

However, a Toastmaster speech contest is a unique speaking situation, just as pitching a business proposal to angel investors is a unique speaking situation. Both require additional preparation steps which are customized to the situation.

Toastmasters Speech Contest Criteria

To see what makes a Toastmasters speech contest unique, look no further than the Judging Guide set forth by Toastmasters International.

The Judging Guide consists of seven categories totalling 100 points as follows:

  • Content (50 total)
    • 20 points: Speech Development
    • 15 points: Speech Effectiveness
    • 15 points: Speech Value
  • Delivery (30 total)
    • 10 points: Physical
    • 10 points: Voice
    • 10 points: Manner
  • Language (20 total)
    • 10 points: Appropriateness
    • 10 points: Correctness

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that your goal is to attain maximum points in as many categories as you can. Study these criteria and check them against your speech iteratively.

10 Tips for Winning a Toastmasters Speech Contest

Here are the top ten lessons I learned through years of competing in Toastmaster speech contests.

1. Craft Compelling Content

Content counts for one half of the judging points. i.e. content is king. Still, many inexperienced speech contestants sacrifice content in the pursuit of perfect delivery. Don’t make this mistake. Delivery is important, but content is more important.

2. Make it Universal

Once you move beyond the club level, your audience in general (and the judges in particular) almost certainly comprise a broad demographic cross-section. Highly technical topics or those which appeal to only a subset of the audience must be avoided. Winning topics are those which have universal appeal.
e.g. life lessons, love, family, personal development, beating the odds, adherence to a code of conduct

3. Include Humor

You won’t see humor anywhere on the judge’s guide (there is a separate Toastmasters Humorous Speech Contest). Nonetheless, humor is an essential element. Humorous anecdotes or phrases should be used to support your core message.

4. Ask Probing Questions

Because you know your topic so well, it can be difficult for you to analyze speech development and speech effectiveness from the perspective of your audience. When you rehearse, ask your practice audience specific probing questions such as:

  • What was the key message? If they respond with something that doesn’t match the message you intended, you have a problem.
  • Was the message clear?
  • Were there any confusing words, phrases, or parts?
  • Did it connect with you? [There is no speech which will connect with every person, but if your test audience is bored, then there's a good chance your real audience will be as well.]

5. Avoid Forcing Unnatural Gestures

With a full ten points for gestures (i.e. “Physical”), it is tempting to force gestures into a speech where they might not belong. To avoid doing this, practice the speech out loud before you deliberately script any gestures. Notice the gestures your body naturally makes, and then work on perfecting the delivery of those gestures.

6. Avoid Forcing Unnatural Vocal Variety

Don’t write a speech, and then say “I need to insert loud elements, soft elements, high pitch, low pitch, fast pace, and slow pace using the words I’ve written.” Rather, apply vocal variety naturally to enhance the words. If the resulting speech is still vocally flat, then perhaps you need to rewrite sections.

7. Improve at Every Level

As you progress up through the Toastmasters speech contest levels, competition becomes increasingly stronger. While good speeches may win at the club level, they may not win at area or division. Don’t relax and think that your victory at one level will earn you victory at the next. Solicit feedback and improve your speech at every level.

8. Seek Magic Moments

Assuming your competition is as prepared as you are, the judges will be faced with a difficult decision: how to distinguish between two comparable speeches? The best way to distinguish yourself is to incorporate at least one utterly unforgettable moment. It might be a prop. It might be a gesture. You might sing. You might have a particularly effective method of interacting with the audience. Your speech needs some quality that no other competing speech has.

It may not be enough for you to leave the impression “That was a great speech.” Instead, your goal should be to have the judges thinking “Wow, did you see that?

9. End Positive and End Strong

You can take your audience for a ride on an emotional trampoline, but always end with a positive emotion or a feeling of hope. Judges are human. Humans like to feel good. The last impression you leave before the judge marks the ballot should put them in a positive frame of mind.

Your conclusion is always an important speech element, but its importance is heightened in speech contests because it is the last thing spoken before the judges switch their attention to the score sheet. Equally important, a strong conclusion will increase applause from the audience. In turn, this will have a positive effect on judges.

10. Don’t “Try” to Win

As you stand ready to deliver your first words, the right frame of mind is critical. For example:

  • I have seven minutes to deliver an important message to the audience.” The focus is on the audience and the message.
  • I have seven minutes to impress the judges and win the contest.” The focus is on you and your ego.

Adopt the former frame of mind. Your passionate performance will propel you to victory.

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