In the speaking world, there are two instances of "world's best" that are growing pet peeves.
First, there's the "World's Best Presentation" contest. The copy reads, "Enter your presentations and compete with the best presenters the world over." I would argue that the people who win this contest might be the best graphic designers, but how exactly is a slide show with no presenter, however well-designed and attractive, a "presentation?"
Presentation experts (me included) expend a lot of energy reminding our audiences and clients that a PowerPoint is not a presentation, but is meant to enhance the message of the speaker. A slide show on its own is not a presentation. Even an eye-catching slide show with a meaningful message (basically a well-illustrated picture book) is not a presentation.
Then there's the Toastmasters "World Champion of Public Speaking." Just to clarify, the word Toastmasters is outside the quotation marks. The winner of the competition, put on by clubs for club members, does not compete with all the top speakers in the world, only the top speakers who are members of Toastmasters.
Calling the winner of a Toastmasters contest "World Champion" is a little bit like calling the winner of the World Series (played in the United States, with American baseball teams, with mostly American players) "World Champion." When all the competitors are part of a club and the vast majority of other teams/speakers in the world are not part of the contest, how exactly does that make one the world champion?
But what is at the heart of my angst is the competition itself as a desirable training ground for presenters. Or that speakers can possibly compete with each other at all without drowning out the qualities that make each of us unique: different personalities, presentation styles, life experiences, types of expertise, target audiences, etc.
And I'm speaking as a former speech team member who competed in speech contests and occasionally won events. I know the drill. It was fun. It was kind of a game. And I learned a lot about presenting. But it was not the real world.
In the real world, we are not trying to please a panel of judges. And especially not judges who seem to reward one style of presenting, one that looks more like a dramatic acting monologue than a presentation.
Most of us are not motivational speakers, although a good part of presenting does, in fact, include motivating our audiences to take action. Most of us are not surrounded by people who are already adoring fans. And most of us are not celebrities.
I imagine that Toastmasters audiences at the World Championship level are probably judging the speakers just as meticulously as the actual judges (and surely counting all the "ums"), but when you're all members of the same club, it's a pretty insulated contest.
Most of us have jobs speaking in rooms where the boss has mandated our audience to attend, or we are tasked with delivering bad financial news, or we are speaking about a topic that the audience has no interest in, like OSHA compliance or sexual harassment.
We speak at conferences where an audience member is torn between three different breakout sessions, and might leave in the middle to catch parts of each. We speak in meetings where our colleagues are texting and reading e-mail through half the presentation, and nodding off through the other half. We are told to expect 300 audience members, and 25 show up. If we're lucky.
We also speak to audiences who are engaged, enthusiastic and supportive -- don't get me wrong. I would say that most of my audiences are like that, even the mandated ones. I appreciate the level of attention and focus my audiences give me, when much of the time they would rather be somewhere else.
But most of us don't have the luxury of choosing only to speak in this kind of environment, and we certainly don't have the luxury of taking an entire year to craft and refine one or two seven-minute speeches.
So why is it desirable to try to achieve a title that's so contrived, so far removed from the real world of public speaking?
And does being "the champion" have any real benefit or meaning outside the club?
Why isn't it enough to compete against yourself, always striving to deliver the most effective message and connect with audiences who are not trained in supportive evaluation techniques?
I ran my ideas past Rich Hopkins, my fellow presenter and speaking coach. You may also know him as a two-time finalist in the Toastmaster World Championship, finishing 3rd in 2006. If anyone has insight and answers for me, it's Rich.
"Well, the champions would agree with you, as would I.
There is a lot of merit in winning the World Championship out of a quarter million people worldwide, but that merit doesn't translate directly to the real world, in terms of credibility, financial success, or effective speaking in a real world setting. It's certainly a nice accolade, and something I still would like to achieve, but it is the Toastmasters World Champion, not the World Champion....
The contest teaches a lot, but in no way prepares a speaker for a 45-minute talk in front of an audience. It's essentially a mini-keynote geared to fit the criteria on the judging sheet. What it DOES do is teach contestants to put their audience first, to connect, to learn storytelling, to get to the point, etc.
Winners still have a lot of work ahead of them to make it in the professional ranks, and they all have found that out, and preach it every shot they get. As 2003 winner Jim Key often jokes 'I'm still waiting for the Brinks truck to back up in front of my house.'"
So keep in mind as you write that those who give too much credence to the title are often the ones still seeking it and the ones who will never achieve it, not the ones who have actually accomplished it."
And he also points out, "The real Toastmaster argument is more in the lack of a defining term: TOASTMASTERS World Champion of Public Speaking."
I appreciate Rich's help in formulating this post. I've been wanting to talk about it for a long time, mostly the idea that, in order to have validity as a speaker, one has to win contests. Or have a string of letters after their name. Or do anything that doesn't explicitly involve making meaningful connections with engaged audiences where ideas are shared, learning happens, and participants walk away armed for work and life.
And I am armed and ready for your comments. :-)