This weekend I attended the District Conference for Toastmasters.  This conference included over 300 people from all over Ontario, as far east as Markham, south to Niagara Falls, north to Sudbury and West to London (excluding Toronto itself). Although I did not attend the entire weekend, I did have a chance to sample some of the events. Toastmasters is a very deep organization – there are many different levels, not only in regard to regions but also in regard to all of the awards and accomplishments that you can earn as a Toastmaster. I have actually been surprised at the true quality of the organization and the professionalism, while at the same time the kindness and friendliness of other members.

On Saturday afternoon, I attended the International Speech Contest. This is the last stage before the World Championships, which are being held in Palm Desert, CA this summer. There were 8 different speakers, from 8 different Divisions.  Each had to win at the Club, Area and Division level before reaching this stage.  One of the things I noticed was how different not only the speeches were, but how different and varied the background and ages of the participants was. It was a true representation of the multi-cultural population of Ontario.

The International Speech Contest is the most prestigious contest in Toastmasters. The requirements are fairly simple, create an original 5 – 7 minutes speech, on your choice of topic, that delivers a message and/or inspires your audience. This leaves the content wide open, and it’s very hard to judge when the topics can be so different.  I was able to pick the top 3 competitors, although not in any order.

The winner, Gregory, spoke about a Genius of a Different Kind – a very powerful speech about other kinds genius in people that may not be evident in a traditional school system. Second place went to Frédérique, a colleague of mine from Oakville, who competed with me all the way to the end (I represented our division for the Evaluation Contest).  She spoke about Finding the Fun in everything you do, based on a wonderful story about an usual GO train conductor named Kevin. And third place was Annette, who taught us about finding our L.O.P. – likeness of a parent, through different stages of our lives. Gregory will now represent our District at the World Championships in August.

An early start to Sunday morning, as I had to be ready for a 7 am microphone check. I also had the chance to meet the other competitors for the Evaluation Contest, which was taking place in a few short hours. Oddly, I had been imagining that I would draw #5 speaking position – and when it came my turn to choose, I pick #5. The Law of Attraction at work again! The Evaluation Contest is a very different type of contest.  All of the contestants (and the audience) first listen to a target speaker, a Toastmaster who performs a 5-7 min speech.

Evaluation is a part of every Toastmasters meeting, so it is a skill that we get to practice. The difference is that when someone is doing a speech project at the club, there is a manual and criteria that they are trying to achieve, so you can evaluate them based on the criteria.  When you are evaluating for a competition, there is no specific criteria for the speech, so you have to look at all of the different skills and criteria for all of the speeches in the Toastmasters manual. It can be a challenge, especially when the target speaker is an excellent speaker, as was the case on Sunday.

After the speech, all of the contestants leave the room and are sequestered in another room, far enough so that we cannot hear the main stage.  We are giving 5 minutes to write our notes for the speech, and then our notes are taken away until it is our turn to speak.  One at a time, the contestants are lead into the room to deliver a 2-3:30 min impromptu evaluation speech to the target speaker and the audience. Once you have completed your speech, you can stay in the room to listen to the other competitors.

The advantage of being first is that you get to hear everyone, but you have the least preparation time. The advantage of being last is that you have the most prep time (you can practice in your head without your notes of course) but you don’t get to hear anyone else. Finally, if your speech is even 1 second over 3:30, you are disqualified (there are stop lights to help us to gauge the time – the red light comes on at 3 minutes).

It is such a fun and challenging contest, and what I really like about it is that evaluation is about the target speaker, not about you. Judging is based on the quality of your evaluation, giving positive feedback and solid suggestions on how to make it better for next time. You are judged on how the message is delivered and if you left the speaker inspired to continue to improve. There are no points for your style or mannerisms. It is really about the speaker.  This has been such a great learning experience for me, taking myself out of the equation and truly focusing on helping someone else to become a better speaker. This is one of the reasons I had originally joined Toastmasters.

And the results?  Harry from Mississauga came in first, my new friend Katherine from Markham was 2nd and I was a very proud 3rd. I was also very proud to have the largest cheering section – there were a dozen members from Trafalgar Toastmasters cheering me on.  It was a wonderful experience and I am proud to have represented our club.

The morning finished off with a brunch and a very special guest speaker. We were honoured to have last year’s World Champion of public speaking, Mark Hunter, all the way from Australia.  A very humble man, his keynote speech was not only powerful, but effective and full of suggestions on how we could make our speeches world-class as well. He performed 2 of his 5-7 min award winning speeches during the keynote.  I had encouraged members of the club to stay for this event. I believe that the best way to become the best you can be at anything, is to learn from the best.  So why not take this opportunity to learn from the best in the world? How to compete as a speaker in Toastmasters

It was a great opportunity to learn and to be inspired. I met some new friends and re-connected with others. I really value this organization, and am very proud to be a part of such a well-known and well respected club. You are welcome to join us as a guest any time! We meet on Monday nights, 7:15 pm at the Oakville Central Library in Downtown Oakville.

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