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Donn King


Thing I Learn Chairing a Toastmasters Contest

I was the contest chair for our club's contests this morning. If you're not familiar with Toastmasters, it's a worldwide organization that seeks to foster communication and leaderships skills, which we primarily do using public speaking in various ways. Today's contests were for International Speaking (think of short motivational speeches) and Table Topics (impromptu speaking). You can progress through various levels from club to area to division to district to region to International. I have won various contests several times, once reaching second place in the district and last year winning the district to compete in regionals. It is one way among several in Toastmasters to develop and test your skills.

I decided not to compete this year, so it seemed like a good opportunity to serve in one of the roles that supports the contest. Things look a lot different from this side of the lectern.


    1. There's a lot more that goes on behind the scenes than you realize.

    Though the metaphor is overused, nothing gets at this better than the iceberg metaphor. When a contest goes smoothly, it's because a bunch of different people have done a bunch of work outside the audience awareness—scheduling, setting up the room, printing certificates of achievement, providing means of drawing for speaker order, collecting the required forms, reporting results, getting publicity to the newspapers, and more. I confess that when I volunteered as contest chair I was really only thinking about the emcee aspect, with which I am quite comfortable. I forgot about all the organizational duties prior to the contest. I took care of some of them, but I am very grateful that another club member took on many of those tasks. It not only made my load lighter, but made sure those tasks would be done to a higher degree of effectiveness.

    2. You can't really listen to the speeches.

    While a given speaker is speaking, I'm focused on what I need to immediately after that speaker as well as what I need to do to get the next speaker going.

    3. The teamwork is really satisfying.

    I really love it when a plan comes together. It's not any one person. It's a lot of people working together.

    4. Interviewing is fun.

    While ballot counters pull together the input from judges, the contest chair interviews the contestants. It's not just a time filler, although it is that. It also gives audiences a deeper sense of the people who have just competed. I had some prepared questions, but my old newspaper/radio news background came into play, and we had some questions and answers that really touched the hearts of speakers, and through their responses the hearts of the audience.

    5. Silence is hard.

    After each contestant, we observe one minute of silence to allow judges to mark their ballots. I think for most Toastmasters that one minute is the hardest part of the whole event. For me as chair, it was really hard to avoid filling the time with patter. It's related to....

    6. Avoiding commenting is hard.

    When I emcee most any other event, including regular Toastmasters meetings, it's appropriate and helpful to comment about speakers, speeches, newsworthy events, etc. That absolutely cannot be done between contestants, since it could skew results. For each contestant, there is a prescribed pattern: Name, topic, repeat topic, name. Give the speech. One minute of silence. Next. No other introductory material, no commentary after the speech.

    I kept thinking of all kinds of emcee-type material, and couldn't use any of it. That's related to....

    7. During the actual contest, there's not a lot of emceeing.

    After a contest, sure. During contestant interviews, OK. If we finish the interviews and the chief judge hasn't come back with the results yet, then absolutely. In fact, that happened this morning when I need a little bit of filler material. The challenge, then, is to switch between contest mode and emcee mode.

    8. Adaptation is more important that perfection.

    Things always go wrong somewhere. For instance, part of the protocol during interviews is to give each contestant a Certificate of Participation. But I accidentally left them with the Chief Judge along with the certificates for first and second place in the International Speech contest, so they weren't available. I just announced that we would give such certificates to participants at a later meeting and moved on. It bothered me more than it did anyone else.

    9. Switching out of familiar patterns can be a challenge.

    A lot of the above comes out of this one factor. I'm used to chairing a Toastmasters meeting. I'm used to emceeing events. I've given hundreds of speeches. Switching out of the familiar is not just a bit awkward. It's also a bit refreshing. It's one of the reasons for doing something out of the ordinary. It breaks you out of a rut.

    10. Surprising impact of no formal evaluation.

    As a speaker who has taken part in contests multiple times, this is what I find most disconcerting compared to a typical Toastmasters meeting. Every regular Toastmasters meeting has three major portions: planned speeches, Table Topics, and evaluations. There is one evaluator for every speaker, who will spend two to three minutes offering observations on the speech. That not only helps the speaker improve. It also helps the evaluator to become a better speaker by helping them observe other speakers in a structured manner.

    You don't get any of that in a contest. Of course, contestants can ask audience members for all kinds of informal feedback, but it's not quite the same thing, since no one is taking notes during the speeches, especially not on a specific evaluation form.

    That's not a bad thing. It's just different. That's why I say that contests are simply one way among several to help members develop more effective communication and leadership skills.

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