Published November 18, 2014 · Estimated reading time: 6 minutes · Filed under

The following post was written in Fall 2014 for a Toastmasters club Newsletter reflecting my own very memorable experience of participating in the Toastmasters international speech contest at the level of the district.

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Speech Contest: Finding the Body and the Heart
Marzieh Ghiasi (ACB, CL) Division G Governor, District 61 2014-2015

Visiting clubs and areas in this new contest season—the Fall Humorous speech and Evaluation contest— I’ve had a chance to see dozens of contestants give their best speeches, to make us laugh or to give feedback, and on occasion both. Being present for many of these contests as a division governor has been a unique experience, because it was only earlier this year when I was a contestant myself—standing in front of the room, first at the level of the club, then area, then division, and eventually the district.

When I was moving through the contests, I asked many other people what it would be like. Every person told me something different—which only reflected the uniqueness of each contestant’s experience. Of course, practice, integrate feedback, and watch previous contest winners are the tidbits everyone will tell you… so here are some less obvious lessons from the beginning and the very end of the journey.

Finding the body

When I ask people why they don’t participate in contests, they’ll often say “I don’t have a good topic!” Finding a ‘good’ topic, and constructing it in the right way can definitely be challenging. But not so challenging when you’re prepared.

When I decided that I was going to participate in the International Speech Contest, I already had several ideas that I could work with. These ideas didn’t just emerge overnight. They were things I had thought about or written notes on before—and when the time came that I needed a topic, I returned to these notes, and there I found the right topic.

So what is the right topic in this case? For me the criteria were as follows: a topic that was flexible but also cohesive, a topic that would allow me to showcase my skills as a public speaker, and finally a topic that would allow me to connect with a general audience (no formulas!).

After going through ideas, I realized two could potentially work.

However, one idea really didn’t provide me with much space to showcase my skills as a public speaker or connect with the audience. The other idea, however, was much flexible—it could withstand editing—elements could be taken out and put in without the entire narrative falling apart.

In fact after revisions in response to feedback I received from my mentors and audiences, the narrative I was working with only became stronger and more cohesive. The idea also allowed me to display my skills as a public speaker—by providing the opportunity to not only use, but to allow the speech to be conveyed in the best manner possible my body and my voice throughout. Finally, and most importantly, the idea that I picked could carry a message, something meaningful, challenging, and universal that could connect with a general audience.

Finding the heart

When you perform well at one level of the contest, you generally anticipate that you’ll do even better as you move up not worse.

At least this was my theory.

But reality can be a little different.

There’s been more than one occasion that I’ve seen someone give an amazing speech at a club contest, and then two weeks later deliver the same speech elsewhere and completely tank it. I’d always chalked this up to (a) maybe they hadn’t practiced enough (b) maybe they were just having a rough day or let the nerves get to them (c) maybe the audience was tough.

There’s a fourth possibility that I never anticipated until I participated in the contest. At each step of the contest, as I was getting to know every syllable of my speech, every intonation, every inflection and every body movement associated with it– I was losing the passion and heart of the speech. In fact I began to question if it had any heart to begin with. How could I believe myself when I didn’t feel what I was saying?

I thought I had developed a ‘technically’ good speech, and I had the ‘right message’ and the right body language to go with it. I still did get the nerves, but it wasn’t anything unusual. The audience wasn’t any less receptive. However, with each session my performance was becoming more mechanical, I could feel it, and I was sure the audience could feel it too (in fact they told me!). So as always, I turned to my gurus, people who had been through the contests for their help. I was surprised to hear that they had experienced the same thing.

One of the gurus told me, “you’re not lecturing the audience, you’re trying to share something with the audience…”. How could I share something with the audience, and expect it to reach their hearts, when it wasn’t coming from my heart?

This forced me to rediscover my speech, not just the technical aspects, but the core—and to make sure the message was clear, genuine, and from the heart. I had to realize that I wasn’t a puppet up there putting on a hollow ‘performance,’ but a person with something to say, something that I thought was important. Similarly, the audience was not a homogenous blob sitting beyond the stage… but they were there as individuals there to share a moment, a genuine bond and connection, with me.

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Of course, these are just two of the many lessons I learnt as I competed in the contests. And I consider myself very fortunate to have had the privilege of the experience, and the love and support of my amazing Toastmasters club.

On the morning of October 25th, contestants from four areas in Division G will be competing for a chance to participate in the District 61 contest. Each contestant has a different motivation, some want to stand in line among the best speakers in 5000 individuals, others want to see if they can make people laugh. Each contestant has a different technique, and there is something new to be learnt from watching each performance. Each contestant past and present has a unique experience, but what we all have in common is the willingness to push ourselves just a little bit further than we’re used to.

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