December 16, 2010

What's the point of speech contests?



I admit it; I get a little bent out of shape at the title "World's Best" or "World Champion" when it's thrown around willy-nilly. Maybe I have a problem with competition... I take it too seriously, for one thing. As a high school basketball player and discus thrower, I HATED losing. Or coming in second. Which I did, frequently. I also hate board games, for the same reason, although I have a much better track record at those than sports.

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.

Rich says:

"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. :-)

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9 comments. Please add yours! :

Rich Hopkins, Speaker, Author, Coach said...

One of the comments Lisa doesn't include from the emails we traded was about the quality of speakers that do reign as champions in Toastmasters. Some were professional speakers/seminar leaders/comedians before they won the title, others have done extremely well as keynoters/trainers since.

Well known speakers such as Patricia Fripp, Les Brown, and Albert Mensah all competed at one time or another - with Albert talking second in 1999 before launching his career to huge heights.

The contest is valuable, and offers speakers a wonderful journey where they discover themselves and what they are capable of that they may not have believed prior to competing.

Is the World Champion the best speaker in the world? No - and they may not even be the best speaker in Toastmasters at the time. But they are the best Toastmaster Speaker in the World who chose to undertake the competition, and survived to the end. There's a lot to be said for that.

Competition and titles in any venue are there to create and recognize excellence. There are always varying levels of excellence, and subjective disagreements over excellence.

The one piece of wisdom I've gained over my 8 years of competing, having finished in the Top 20 five times, is this: Don't go after the wrong trophy. Embrace the journey, learn the lessons, and come out of the competition - ANY competition, a better speaker than you entered it.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Thanks for adding to your already useful comments, Rich. I hope my readers can learn from your experience, and pay attention to the most important takeaways.

Michael Cortes said...

I found your last sentence most stimulating... "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."

I have even heard group memberships called into question. The accusation the being a Toastmaster member is just being an amateur. I have heard that being an National Speakers Association member just means you are speaker, not a good one. (i.e. the technicalities/craft of speaking)

But as I consider where I learned about speaking the list goes somewhat like this:

Toastmasters, N.S.A, websites, books, blogs, audio lessons, paid coaching, video lessons, magazines, DVDs, dancers, webcasts, teleconferences, theatre, the U.S. Marine Corp, and more.

I have met people who are only enamored by the Champ or PHD or professor, but me it is quite simple...

Look at every resource and experience and ask what you can learn from it. Take knowledge from every source. And find an effective way to share it. Share it with others, with colleagues, with students, with clients... with your audiences.

When it comes down to the bottom line... It is what you know that is valuable, but only if you can convey it with others.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Thanks for commenting, Michael.

I agree with you; we take what we learn from as many places as possible. Like you, I find plenty to learn about public speaking from nontraditional sources.

When we are willing to look at all sources as having some value and extract the most from those sources, and then convey what we've learned, we will be fully actualized and hopefully, successful!

Anonymous said...

The Toastmasters contests use the same, familiar five-to-seven minute format as eight of the ten speeches in their basic Competent Communication manual. Any novice can appreciate, and be inspired by what they are seeing in a contest. It is just a much more refined version of what they currently are struggling with. That’s also why American Idol is compelling - everyone is familiar with a three to five minute pop song.

I saw Rich Hopkins at a District conference a few years ago and was very impressed. From watching him I could learn to refine each one of the five minute chunks that form one of my 45-minute presentations.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Great point, mysterious anonymous one, about using the short chunks as fodder for larger presentations. Again, as a training tool, I can see the value of this kind of feedback, as long as it is truly critical and constructive.

Kevin Kane said...

Lisa, thanks for a courageous post.

The biggest problem with Toastmasters is that you repeatedly make 5-7 minute speeches to the same group of people.

You don't get experience at:
- Making longer presentations.
- Speaking to different audiences.

One solution:
- Volunteer to make longer presentations within other organizations.
- Speak at different clubs.

And Toastmasters, for the love of all that is sacred, let's please stop delivering these dramatic acting monologues. Let's instead start having real conversations with each other.

My favorite tips: http://www.kevinkane.com/2010/11/how-to-make-sure-that-your-toastmasters-experience-doesnt-suck/

Anonymous said...

Back in May on his Presentation Dynamics blog R. L. Howser wrote a great post on the value of Toastmasters speech contests as a form of practice, even though "There are no tires on a football field":
http://www.presentationdynamics.org/?p=225

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Kevin, yes, the dramatic acting monologue has to go, unless you're never going to present anywhere but Toastmasters. Thanks for the link to your tips on making sure one's Toastmaster experience doesn't suck!

Anon, thanks for your link as well. I'll go check it out!

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