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How to Win the Toastmasters Speech Contest

Girgle, girgle, twitch, sweat. Girgle, girgle, twitch, sweat.

These sounds are familiar to me now. They are my friends.  Not long ago, they were my enemies.  Just before starting a speaking contest, my body would turn from serenity into a symphony of bodily noises.  Yes, I could hear my body sweat!

If the words “speech” and “contest” together in the same sentence cause you to fret, don’t worry, you are among friends.  I’ve been there over 100 times.

100 times I waited to hear my name.  100 times I waited to shake the hand of someone called, “Contest Chair.”  100 times times I sat or paced, biting the inside of my lip, breathing deeply, or holding my knees tightly together to suppress the urge to escape to flush central although I’d been there three times in the past fifteen minutes.

Why do I subject myself to this mental and physical torture?  It’s very simple.  Every contest squeezes the best performance out of me.  Every contest stretches me a little more.  I’m not done stretchin’.  I gotta enter some more contests!

While I work to make my best a little better, perhaps I can share some ideas to make your best a little better too.  Let’s divide these techniques into Preformance, Performance, and Postformance.

Photo: Erick Sodhi                                                             


In preparing for your speech, first, ask yourself, “Why am I entering this contest?”  Is it to beat other speakers or to become a better speaker?  Is it to compete against other speakers or to compete with other speakers?  If you enter to compete with other speakers and in the process help yourself and others become better speakers, then you’re on the right track.  If you enter to win trophies, ask yourself the question again.

If you happen to win a few contests and start thinking you’re a pretty good speaker, think again.  Go listen to the fabulous speakers at the District, Region, or International level.  You will return to the contests with renewed humility and purpose.

Now that your head is bolted on straight, let’s hone your skills.

Look at the Judges Guide and Ballot for the contest you intend to enter. Get intimate with the scorecard.  No need to hug it, but really get to know it.  Dig into the criteria to fully understand what it means to fulfil them.  What does it mean to structure your speech?  How can you demonstrate your flexible voice?  How will you demonstrate self-assurance without parading around like a peacock?

Then select a topic for your speech.  Selecting a topic for Table Topics and the Evaluation contest is easy but the International and Humorous Speech contests present greater challenges.  For the International Speech contest, select a topic with broad audience appeal from which the audience can take home an action, an idea, a value.  If your speech succeeds, they will remember you by the one idea they apply in their lives.  For the Humorous Speech contest, perhaps take something real in your life and exaggerate it.  For example, my 1999 Humorous Speech entitled “The Power of Procrastination” had no redeeming value, but it was an idea to which everyone could relate and silly enough to entertain.

Next write the speech.  I suggest using the method “5 Steps to Impact.”  Ensure that the choice of topic and the writing supports voice flexibility and a variety of delivery mannerisms.  Know the number of words you can cover in seven minutes.  For me it ranges between 650 and 750 words.  The higher you go in contest levels, the longer it takes for the audience to finish responding to you.  At the District level, I like to rehearse my speech at 6:15 to 6:30 minutes.  Then I can give the audience all the time they need and still bring it in on-time.

One question that will confront you is, “Should I memorize my speech or know the outline and basically wing it.”  That’s a good question to which I have no patented answer.  I’ll answer the question by presenting the risks and you can answer it for yourself.  If you memorize the speech you risk sounding memorized or robotic.  You might simply forget it too.  I’ve done that and seen it happen to others.  The risk of not memorizing it is your ideas sound muddled or you miss getting the right word at the right time.  The challenge is to get the right words at the right time without forgetting and have it sound like the first time you presented it.  It takes a lot of practice to be spontaneous, clear, concise, and effective.

Rehearse your speech as often as possible, trying every time to become emotionally connected with your material and the audience.  Every time you deliver it, it’s like the first time.

If you do not know the contest room, bring two pairs of shoes to the contest: your lucky shoes and a pair with rubber soles. Some rooms have hard flooring that echoe hard soles, causing a distraction, so you might choose to wear the rubber soled shoes.

Fill out your Speaker's Certification of Eligibility and Originality and Speech Contestant Profile before the contest, so you do not need to think about it on the day of the contest. One less thing.

Contest day. The contestants' briefing:

  • give all special instructions to the Contest Chair:
    • do you need the lectern? If not, ensure that it is completely removed
    • advise the Contest Chair of any props you need to set up before you speak. You or someone else will set them up between contestants (it is not the responsibility of the contest chair or any other contest official to do so). Practice placing the props until you do it easily.
    • will you remain out of the contest room before you speak? I recommend to stay in the room to hear the other speakers, listen to their sound, watch their use of space
  • Ensure the contest chair correctly pronounces your name and speech title.  I once gave a speech entitled, “Hello, My Name is C-C-C-Craig.”  The contest chair needed a few tries to get the stutter just right!
  • ensure the Contest Chair describes the exact procedure for introducing contestants, the walk up, handshake, Contest Chair's position during your speech, and finishing handshake after you speak. When I am Contest Chair, I practice the handshake with each contestant.
  • If he/she doesn't describe it, ask whether she/he will sit or remain standing until you say "Contest Chair." If he/she plans to stand, unless there is a physical limitation where it is impractical for them to leave the stage, suggest that she/he does not remain standing. There is nothing in the rulesbook about the Contest Chair doing that and it takes away from the presentation. If she/he plans to sit behind the contestant as the contestant speaks, ask him/her to sit in the audience.
  • clearly understand the speaking area.  Ask for a change if you need it. Depending on the room, you might bring the speaking area right up to the first row of chairs, or 2 to 3 rows up the aisle. Look for creative ways to use the space. One of the rooms we often use has a raised speaking area and the audience sits in a pit. Walking down those steps in the conclusion can be a magic moment, as long as you stay on your feet! The speaking area is now one of the criteria on the Judging Guide and Ballot, so get it right.
  • walk around the speaking area and imagine the audience seated in front of you.  Become comfortable in the space.
  • look at the physical space. Are there spots where you are more easily seen? Hidden? Plan to use the space closest to the audience. You will appear larger and if there is no audio support, louder.
  • listen to the acoustics
  • look at the lighting. Are there spots where your face is better illuminated? In one contest, I noticed illuminated spots and at the right time in my speech, I "entered into the light." It was a magic moment

Practice with the audio equipment.  Try the microphone.  If using a clip-on mic, try it on to get the correct height. Use the same height during the contest.  Speak at your loudest and softest level to ensure room coverage.  Know how the clip works so that if you have to move it during your performance, you can do it smoothly.  Find out if the audio technician will be present during the speech contest and how he/she will adjust the sound, if at all. Walk around and speak. Are there any locations that experience feedback. The only feedback you want is positive feedback from the audience!

Encourage the other contestants.  In the process of lifting them up, you will lift yourself up.  They will feel positive towards you too. We compete WITH each other to bring out the best in all.

Before the contest begins, mingle and meet members of the audience.  Shake their hand; give them a hug; do whatever you do when you’re excited to meet people.  Exude positive energy. When you connect before you speak, you will reconnect as you speak.  Some of the people you greeted might be judges.  They need hugs too.


You wrote and rehearsed a dynamite speech.  You’re ready.  Still, your body is in overdrive and you have trouble controlling the adrenaline rush.  Be mindful of your breathing. Breathe deeply, fully inhale and exhale slowly.  Picture yourself presenting your speech and the audience responding to you.  If it helps, find a quiet space to collect yourself.  Each of us has a unique way of getting in the groove.

When your name is called, no need to leap out of your seat and race up to the stage.  Sit at the back of the room to get a long walk up.  Wait until you hear your name a second time before you start moving. This gives you a moment to collect yourself and “feel” the audience.  Shake the hand of the Contest Chair and smile.  Breathe.  Wait comfortably in silence for him/her to sit.  Judges will appreciate your composure. Timing begins with your first definite verbal or nonverbal communication with the audience.

Look directly at the audience with absolute certainty that what you are about to say is important.  Then launch your speech!  If applicable to your speech, open with a smile. If you feel nervous, pretend you are comfortable.  If you are fearful, have courage, and fight on.  You are unstoppable.  All rockets fired and you’ve taken flight.  Now steer this thing.

If you ever need to think about what you are about to say next, never look down at the floor or at the ceiling. For the judges, it a dead giveaway that you lost your place. Always look at someone in the audience.

If the mic level is too loud and it sounds distorted, without looking down, smoothly reach for the mic clip and slide the mic down a little. If doing that freaks you out, just adjust your volume until the sound technician compensates. If the level is too low, move the mic up, or increase your volume without raising your pitch. If the mic fails completely, relax, breathe deeper and open up to generate more volume. This happened to me a few years ago at a District contest. I heard the audience gasp. Without skipping a beat, relax, strong diaphragm, full lungs, fill the room of 300 with resonant sound - I won the contest. Be ready; be aware; dare to be powerful.

Your entire being must now gather together in a state of congruence to deliver your important message.  Every breath, every facial expression, every hand movement, every body movement, every subtlety of voice must convey every moment of your message together and believably.

I used to believe that when you speak in a contest, you speak only to the judges.  Now, I believe that if we speak for the audience, judges will be there too.  Listen with them. Are you ready to receive their listening and approval or are you over-the-top, hammering them into submission?  If you connect with the audience by first connecting with yourself and bringing them into your world, then you will connect with the judges.  If you try to put on a show for the judges, you might miss them because you forgot about the audience.  Judges will notice if the audience laughed, cried, or listened in rapt attention.

As you bring the audience into your world, take them through an emotional journey, the Disney formula if you will.  I suggest upbeat in the beginning, down to touch their hearts, and upbeat again at the end.  Contrary to popular myths about the Toastmasters speech contests, you don’t need to kill anyone in your speech to touch hearts.  If you do bring the audience down, salvage their hearts, as professional speaker Michael Scott Karpovich suggests.  Give it some levity.

In my first few years, my speeches plodded along at 650 words.  In the last couple of years, I’ve tried to focus on increasing the pace through unimportant parts and really slowing down when the audience needed the time.  Now I achieve about 750 words.  One of the greatest delivery challenges is becoming comfortable in silence without verbally stomping on the audience when they needed to laugh, think, or experience an emotion.

If you timed it right in preparing your speech, you can ignore the timing lights for the International and Humorous Speech contests.  Just deliver it, fully present with the audience, giving them the gift of your speaking.

At the end, wait for the Contest Chair to return. WAIT for the Contest Chair to return, shake hands, turn comfortably and return to your seat.  Smile at the audience and receive their congratulations for a job well done.  I once lost my mind, stayed on-stage until the audience stopped clapping, and returned to my seat in silence.  It came across as arrogance even though I didn’t feel arrogant at the time.  A few friends had the courage and caring to mention it to me.  It happened only once.


After your speech, try to get as much specific feedback as possible.  Platitudes are of little value.  If people say, “You did a great job!” then receive it with gratitude and open arms.  Ask questions about your speech to try to get specific feedback, "Thank you! What did you like about it? What stood out for you? What resonated with you?"  Focus on feedback that made you feel uncomfortable.  Look to the people with the courage and understanding to give you the guidance you need to improve.  If you receive criticism, ask several other people about the same element.  Don’t necessarily change your speech based on one opinion.

If you can get a copy of your speech on videotape, great!  Watching yourself on video will provide some of your greatest feedback.

If you don’t win a trophy, remember that the greatest prizes were the lessons you learned and those one or two people who expressed their gratitude for your speech because it touched them.

I encourage you to enter a speaking contest if only to improve your speaking.  With adequate Preformance you will achieve an excellent Performance.  Every moment you spend in Postformance will add to your cycle of success in communicating with audiences.

Girgle, girgle, twitch, sweat. Girgle, girgle, twitch, sweat. These sounds are your new friends.

Craig Senior

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