How to Run a Successful Toastmasters Division Speech Contest–10 Lessons Learned

A.   Introduction–why create a “lessons learned” document?

As the Assistant Area Governor, I was called upon by our division governor Lee Jones for the South Division Fall Speech Contest in District 30 (Chicagoland) of Toastmasters International.

I put on the Club Speech Contest at my home club, Homewood-Flossmoor Toastmasters Club, and assisted the Area Governor to put on our Area Speech Contest, so helping the Division Governor put on the Division Speech Contest was the next step.   I observed some things that worked well in all three levels of contest, and I wanted to write those things down that I would like to do again in the future when I help run the speech contests next Spring.    Some things, however, didn’t go smoothly and I would like to an opportunity to create a “lessons learned” document that will also help me know what to avoid in next Spring’s Contest.

That’s why I’m writing this post.   I’m writing it from the point of view of the contest chair, the one organizing the contest.

B.   Lessons Learned

1.    Start on time

District 30 is the Chicagoland area, and after having lived in Los Angeles, one of the big risk factors for any event is traffic.   An accident on the so-called “freeway” can add a half-hour to your trip or worse.    So if there is an event that you need to plan for, add a contingency factor in terms of time to your trip.    For example, according to the map application on my iPhone, it would take 1 hour to get from my home in Homewood (southern suburb of Chicago) up to the contest site in Broadview (near north suburb of Chicago).    I started half an hour early, and I’m glad I did.    Road construction caused a delay when I got off the freeway, but even so I got there 15 minutes early, and was able to help set up.   If I started one hour before the event like the map application recommended, I would have been 15 minutes late.   

2.  Back-up test speaker

The contest ended up starting slightly later than planned due to the fact that the first contest was the evaluation contest, and the test speaker for that contest was delayed in … you guessed it, traffic.    You should have a back-up test speaker in case the test speaker is severely delayed or cannot make it to a family emergency, etc.    And ALWAYS have all of your contest participants and contest staff (judges, timers, counters, Sergeant At Arms, Toastmaster, and contest chair) on your telephone contact list so you can contact them to get an estimated time of arrival if they are running late.

3.  Back-up contest staff

You normally need the following staff for the contest.

  • 1 Toastmaster
  • 1 chief judge
  • 1 Sergeant-At-Arms
  • 5 judges and a tiebreaking judge for the area contest, 7 judges and a tiebreaking judge for the division contest
  • 3 counters
  • 2 timers

What happens if all those who volunteered to work on the contest don’t show up?    The crucial role is that of the Toastmaster, followed by the Chief Judge.    Those are difficult to back up.   You can ask any visiting Area Governors to be judges, because normally they are encouraged to have training as judges, so they can help at each other’s Area Contests.  The ones that can be substituted at the last minute from the audience are Sergeant-At-Arms, counters, and timers.    I’ve been tapped for all three roles when the person who was supposed to be doing that role didn’t show up.   

4.   Certificates of Participation

There are two sets of certificates of participation, one for the contestants and one for the contest staff.    The certificates of participation can be given to the contestants in the post-contest “interview” section of the contest event.   However, rather than giving the certificates of participation to the staff as part of the event, to save time it is best to put the certificate of participation with their printed on it together with all the paperwork that role requires in an envelope prepared for the contest that has the name of the role written on the outside.    When a person, say the counter for the contest, arrives at the contest site, you just give them the packet.   There!  You’ve already given them a vote of appreciation for having shown up and done their role.    It is also convenient to have a little envelope for the contest staff to take home their certificates of participation once their paperwork has been turned in to the chief judge or contest chair.   And it doesn’t take any time away from the contest event by having to announce the giving of the certificate of participation to each and every contest staff participant at the event itself.   

5.   Award Trophies and Award Certificates

If you have dignitaries from the Toastmasters organization (one contestant acknowledged them ironically as “Toastmasters royalty”), then having them help you hand out the award trophies is a nice touch to the contest and makes the winners feel that much more appreciated.    Now the award certificates won’t have the pre-printed names on them like the certificates of appreciation for the ones doing the contest staff roles, because obviously you don’t know who is going to win before the contest.   But one elegant solution that our Division Governor Lee Jones came up with is to have a sheet of pre-printed labels with each contestant’s name on it, double-checked for spelling accuracy.   

As a counter, I just had to peel off the winner’s names, and stick them on the award certificates, and voila, we were done!

6.   Congratulate the “Non-Winners”

This is not a procedural issue, as much as a psychological one.   When I entered my first contest, I put so much effort into my speech and, although I won in the Area Contest, I didn’t even get third place in the Division Contest.   I was so disappointed, and I resolved never again to enter a speech contest.    Then one of the people at the contest came up to me and encouraged me, saying that the speech was a good one, they enjoyed it, and that I really had talent and should consider joining the contest next year.    On the way home, I was already picking out the subject of next year’s speech, and I caught myself and had to laugh at myself.    Wow, if I’m picking out the subject of the speech for next year’s contest on the way home from the last contest, that means I’m definitely hooked on these contests!    And then I realized that just half an hour before, before I had received that encouragement, I had vowed never to enter a contest again.   Now I vowed to make sure that I encouraged those who tried their hardest in the contest only to “lose” that, in my eyes they were winners for having entered the contest.  

7.  Instructions for Judges

At the various contests, judge’s ballots have been disqualified for the following reasons:

  • Ballot not signed
  • Ballot not filled out completely (third place winner left off and only the first and second place winner listed)
  • More than one name put on the ballot in a single line (judge thought first-place was a tie and listed two people)

The first mistake of not signing the ballot can be corrected by having the chief judge instruct the judges at the judges briefing to sign their ballots right then and there.    One other great idea from Lee Jones is to have them pre-fold or bend their ballot so that the bottom portion is easy to separate after they have made their decision. 

Make sure the chief judge tells the judges that there is no trophy for the third-place winner, but there is an award certificate, so they need to make sure that they list the first, second, AND third-place winners on the ballot.    In the statistically unlikely event that they have a tie between two people, they must make a decision and put one person’s name on the ballot, and then put the other person’s name as the next-highest place winner.    There is a mechanism if the total from ALL judges forms a tie (that is why there is a tie-breaking judge), but there is no mechanism for a tie from any INDIVIDUAL judge.    

8.   Toastmasters Announcement of Contestants

One of the problems about announcing Contestants is that once the Toastmaster says, “and now our next contestant is … JOHN DOE”, everybody applauds, and if the Toastmaster then goes on to say the title, repeats the title, and then repeats the person’s name while everybody is applauding, nobody can hear the speech title.    This is especially true if the contestant is coming from the back, and then once they get up to the lectern, they think there is going to be an additional introduction as they were briefed in the contestant’s briefing, and so they are not sure whether they should go ahead with their speech or not.    Contestants have enough on their mind without worrying about whether the Toastmaster has given the correct signal or not to the judges.   

So in the next contest, the contestants will be told that they will be standing to the side or the back, and the Toastmaster will say, “and now the next contestant,” and GESTURE to the person to approach the lectern.    Then he or she can applaud, leading the audience to follow suit.   Once the applause has died down and the person is AT the lectern, the Toastmaster can THEN say the person’s name, the speech title, repeat the speech title, and then the person’s name.    That will allow the audience to acknowledge the speaker with applause without it interfering with the opening “ritual” of the speech which is there for the judges, timers, and the speaker to know when the speech actually begins.

9.   Contestant’s Speech Set-Up

Some people give a speech with props or with an accompanying PowerPoint presentation.    The contestant should not do the set-up for the speech.   This should be done by the Sergeant-at-Arms.   This is because if the person gets up and starts setting up the props, this may be interpreted by the judges and/or timers to be part of the speech.    This is because a speech technically starts with the “first definite verbal or nonverbal communication with the audience.”    Having the Sergeant-At-Arms do the set-up takes away any ambiguity.   Also, the contestant can focus on doing the speech, and not getting the logistics right regarding the props.  

10.   Toastmasters are the Masters of Ceremony, not the Ceremony itself

It is has been said that there are three stages of becoming an effective Toastmaster.    The first is when you are afraid to get on stage.   That’s the initial “butterflies” that people feel about public speaking that they are there to conquer at Toastmasters.    The second stage is when you afraid to get OFF stage.    This is when you are bursting in confidence and now see any public speaking event as an opportunity rather than a threat.    The point here is:    at a contest, it’s not about you, it’s about the contestants.    I have seen Toastmasters at Contests, not here in Chicago, but back in California, that were so intent on entertaining the audience that they made jokes and comedy routines that while making the audience laugh, also made the contest drag on too long and also put more emphasis on the audience paying attention to them rather than paying attention to the contestants.

So the third stage of being a Toastmaster is when you know when to get on stage, but also know when it is time to get off stage.    I can truly say that the Toastmaster for last night’s Division Contest, had reached this stage.   She was enthusiastic at the beginning, kept things going in an effective but cheerful manner throughout, and made the contestants feel as relaxed as they could be under the circumstances.    I intend to watch the video of the contest not just to watch the speeches again, but also to watch the Toastmaster, because that’s how I want to conduct myself as Toastmaster when I get to be the MC for a Division level contest.

These are my observations on what seemed to work well and what needed work in order for the contest to be even better the next time around.    Toastmasters is an organization devoted to self-improvement, and that includes their speech contests!



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