Speech contests are a huge part of Toastmasters and can be interesting to watch. While I’ve never competed, I’ve had the pleasure of acting as contest master and chief judge (on separate occasions, of course) and have really enjoyed being a part of them. But the big question about speech contests is whether or not it’s worth all the time and effort.
Like anything, it really depends on your goals. I know people that make thousands of dollars for each speaking engagement they do, yet have never participated in a speaking contest. I also know of people who have won the Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking that haven’t been able to leverage their win to create a successful speaking career. But on the flip side, I know people that haven’t participated in contests that have struggled to make a career out of speaking and people that have won contests and have done well for themselves. And of course, there are thousands of us in between.
I don’t believe that winning a speech contest means you’re a phenomenal speaker. As I’ve discussed in prior posts, I don’t have a lot of faith in the way the contests are judged – mainly because I disagree with the type of people that typically judge Toastmasters speech contests about what constitutes a good speech. But two incidents particularly negatively affected my opinion on speech contests.
The first incident was at a district speech contest where I felt the winner won because of the triumph she described in her speech rather than the quality of the speech itself. The second incident was when I was area governor and chief judge at my area speech contest. I noticed something that I had suspected for a while — that there are some people that will vote for who they like (such as a friend or fellow club member) rather than for who gave the best speech. I’m not saying that this happens all of the time, but I’m not confident that the contest winner is the best speaker, or has even given the best speech in that particular contest.
With all that being said, doing well in the contest world takes a lot of effort and sometimes a lot of luck as well. The process of creating a speech, practicing it to ensure it meets the time limit (which is probably the most important lesson of participating in a speech contest) and dealing with the result, good or bad, is certainly valuable. Focusing your time and effort just to tell potential clients that you won a speech contest, might not be the best use of your time.
Does the title matter?
Truthfully, being able to tell people that I’m a World Champion of Public Speaking would be a huge plus since I teach people public speaking skills and people are impressed by awards and titles. The fact that I’m not a World Champion of Public Speaking doesn’t harm me as I’ve taught these skills for over five years now and I have a number of success stories that I can share from people that I have worked with. But the title would definitely help.
As much as I hate to admit it, people just aren’t excited about public speaking. If you’re in sales or another line of work that requires you to give presentations, it might impress your boss and/or your coworkers but it won’t help you much with your customers. They care about what you’re pitching to them, not how good a speaker you are.
Winning a contest is a great boost for your confidence — there’s nothing like going up against some great speakers and coming out on top. Losing, on the other hand can be a different story. Losing a contest to someone better than you can be an eye opener and may motivate you to become a better speaker. Losing to someone that you think isn’t that good, or worse, feeling like you were robbed, can destroy your motivation. So it really depends on your personality.
There’s no better shortcut to the top in Toastmasters than winning speech contests. If you want to become a household name in your area or want something to put on your “resume” to help you run for a district office, than speech contest success will definitely help you.
One thing that amazes me is how few people outside of Toastmasters have heard of the organization. This can work to your advantage (“my speech was the best in the whole area”) if you spin it a bit. But don’t be shocked when you tell a potential client or employer about a big win and they think that Toastmasters has something about making toast (the kind with bread).
Like anything, it really depends on your goals. If you can leverage your contest success so that it translates to success in other areas, then by all means go for it. Otherwise, focus that time and effort on something that will help move you closer to your goals.
Also keep in mind that the judging of speech contests is very subjective and what constitutes a good speech to the judges of a contest may not necessarily be something you could deliver to a paid audience. In all of the contests I’ve seen, I can’t think of any speech that jumps out at me as something that someone would pay for (even if extended to keynote length). However on the flip side, many of the contest participants I’ve seen are good enough speeches that they have been hired to give speeches on their area of expertise. So look at your own situation and decide whether participating in a speech contest is something worth trying.
James Feudo owns the Boston Web Design Agency JVF Solutions and loves blogging about personal development and communication in his spare time.