5 Lessons Learned in Putting on an Area Contest

Last Saturday, I put on the Area Speech Contest for Area S56, of which I am the Area Governor.   Having helped the Area Governor last year as his assistant, I learned a lot of what to do, and what not to do, when putting on an area contest.

The contest went over well, but there was some behind-the-scenes chaos that wasn’t visible to the audience (fortunately).  As I have said before on many occasions, the job of being a Toastmaster, either for a meeting or for a speech contest, is the art of making everything look on the outside like it is running like the Cirque de Soleil, even though it may feel more like the Keystone Cops on the inside.

In order to reduce the chance of these chaotic elements from ruining a future contest, however, I decided to put down some lessons I learned so that the Spring Contest can run even more smoothly.


The staffing “plan” for the Area Contest says that the Chief Judge needs 5 Voting Judges, 1 Tiebreaking Judge, 3 Ballot Counters, and 2 Timers.   I found 5 Voting Judges from other areas to come my contest.   However, one of them ran into some sort of construction that was going on and she said she was going to be half an hour late.   I was not going to start the contest late just for her, so we got someone from the audience who just happened to be an eligible Judge to fill in for her.   However, what I should have done is to find 6 or even 7 Voting Judges, and tell Judges #6 and #7 that I have them “in reserve”, and if they aren’t needed, they can fill in for another role (like an extra Ballot Counter or Timer).   As long as you tell them up front what your plan is, they won’t mind the flexibility of their role.


One of the procedures you are supposed to follow in a contest is to read off the names of District, Division, or Area officers who may be visiting your contest.   The problem with that is that many of these people may be in the contest, either as contestants, or as Judges, and so their names cannot be read if you are doing this at the beginning of the contest.  

For that reason, we read off the dignitaries’ names AFTER the contest was done.   However, I announced their names, and their roles, but NOT their designations.   For example, I said, “Mr. Charles Brooks, former Division Governor.”   I should have said “Mr. Charles Brooks, DTM, former Division Governor.”   This is more than a formality.   We call them “dignitaries” rather than “royalty” because royalty is an inherited position.   These people who are holding or who have held positions at whatever level have earned their titles, but that also applies to their designations within Toastmasters, like DTM.   Even if it is just “CC”, if they earned it, you call it out!   It deserves everyone’s respect AND their applause!


I saw contests in California where they would take 10 minutes to pass out the certificates of appreciation to all those who played a role in the contest, and I thought that in reality the audience didn’t care about it–for them it was just a delay in what they really wanted to hear, which was the winners of the contests.

So we have decided to hand them out to people during the break in the contests.   However, I was so busy I forgot to do this.   So I think that next time, I will designate someone, maybe the SAA, to help me do this so that by the time the second half of the contest rolls around, everyone who has helped will know that I appreciate their having done so.


Have someone in the audience who can be the backup for the test speaker.   Our test speaker ran into the SAME construction area that one of our judges did, but the test speaker at least started out earlier, so that means she made it to the contest with 5 minutes to spare, whereas the judge was half an hour late and we had to write her out of the contest and get another judge.

If there was no replacement judge, we could have done the contest with only 4 judges, although it would not have been optimal.   But there is no way we could have done the contest without the test speaker.   This is another risk factor I have to control for in the future.


If you are using a public facility, like I was when I was used the local library to do the contest in, make sure you check and see if someone is using the room right after you are.   We ended the contest at 12:40, and we had 20 minutes to spare so I thought, “oh, we’ll be out of here by 1:00”, which was technically the time I had put for the end of our contest.

But then, I remembered that before I left the house to go to the contest, I checked on line and saw that no group was using the room after we were.   So even though it was getting closer and closer to 1:00 PM, I didn’t worry about it because I knew there was no other group coming after us.   People love to stay around and chat after a contest is done, not only to have a chance to visit but to use their last chance of finishing off the refreshments before they hit the road.

If we HAD had some group come after us, I would have had to be strict about telling people to clear out.  But since no group was coming, I could just chill out and let people chat to their hearts content.


Many of the factors I mentioned above are classical examples of reducing risk.   There are certain people who are critical to the functioning of a contest, and you need to account for the possibility that they may be waylaid by circumstances beyond your control.   The more people you have working “redundantly”, that means the more slack you will have to play with when certain roles get strained by absences to the breaking point.   Having more people there means you are less likely to come up against that risk.

So I plan to remember this in the Spring and use it to make the contest even better and to have it run more smoothly.


5 Lessons Learned in Preparing for an Area Speech Contest

Last year, I helped our Area Governor put on an Area Speech Contest for our local Area in Toastmasters International.

That experience helped me this year when I myself became the Area Governor. Here are 5 points which I found helped me prepare for the contest.


Let’s say your contest “season” is going to start at the end of August. When should you create a project plan? Ideally it should be at the beginning of July or the middle of July at the latest.

Why? The hardest parts of organizing the contest are a) securing a venue, b) securing a test speaker for he Evaluation Contest, and c) securing the Judges you will need. You need enough time to accomplish these.


You know, the last two items I mentioned in paragraph 1 above take one because the test speaker and Judges need to come from outside your Area. If you get together with your other Area Governors on your Division, and agree to be each other’s Judges, you’ve got the problem mostly solved! Also agree to get them test speakers of they agree to get you yours.


This is important because the winner of each club contest will have to be free on the date of the area contest in order to represent their club. In my area, I had one person cancel due to something that came up, but all the other contestants are going through with the contest, so it will still be a good one.


I found that pre-printing all the documents needed for the roles, then putting them in clearly marked folders for each role, helps on contest day. Also, print out first and second place (plus third place if you need to) certificates with each contestant. They will each get a nicely printed certificate rather than one with a hasty signature attached.


To entertain a crowd, food and drink are sure-fire crowd pleasers. But you will also need all the “infrastructure”, meaning plates, cups, utensils, etc. Also, bring a plastic tablecloth or even use colorful sheets of tissue paper to put over the table. Buy it on separate occasions and don’t wait until the last day. If you can get clubs to each contribute something towards the refreshments, so much the better!

I hope these pointers help you if you end up running your own area speech contest!

The Toyota Way: Work for the Right Reasons

In the conclusion to his book “How Toyota Became #1:  Leadership Lessons from the World’s Greatest Car Company”, David Magee sums up what lies behind Toyota’s success.   It can really be summed up by the title of this concluding chapter, in that you have to work for the right reasons.   Don’t just ask yourself “what do I want to accomplish in my job?”, but ask yourself “why do I want to accomplish it?”   What need does it fulfill in society?   What need does it fulfill in yourself?   If you have a job that fulfills your passions and also contributes to society, then that is the job for you, no matter what anybody else tells you.   

Yes, other jobs may pay more, but they are not for you if they don’t fulfill those two why questions.

For Toyota, they have held the same principles for more than eight decades since Sakichi Toyoda passed his business on to his son Kiichiro in the 1920s.   The principle of humility, for example, allows company executives to listen to their customers and not presume what their customers want without finding out from them first.   Also, the company has always striven to make a positive contribution to its community and the world at large–this has not changed from the beginning of the company either.

For example, its commitment to improving the global environment, which automotive emissions due a great deal in harming, led it to an investment of more than $1 billion in the early 1990s in hybrid technology in order to build a car for the future.   

Now the specific methods and processes they have used, however, have constantly been changing and are continuously upgraded.   The company’s financials are never the means, they are the result of doing all the things that have gotten them this far.   So profit becomes the pleasing end result of having done the right things, rather than an end in and of itself, as it is with most companies in the West.   

It’s not that profit is not important, because Toyota is a publicly traded company, and it therefore has obligations to its shareholders and its employees.   

The ultimate objective is build cars that improve consumers’ lives in every conceivable way.   It is possible with fuel-cell cars 10 years down the line that cars, rather than creating a reduced amount of automotive emissions, may actually be so clean as to be able to make the exhaust cleaner than the ambient air.   

This is a formidable technological challenge, but Toyota is definitely up to the task.   Toyota has achieved one success after the other, but only because they don’t rest at the top of the mountain.   When you get to the top of the mountain, then the next day, the air clears, and you see that you actually are at base camp, with the next mountain beckoning for you to climb it next.   Jim Press, President of Toyota North America says, “as long as Toyota continues to focus on the heart of the customer, remaining true to the mission of working to improve society, it can keep this going.”   

That is an ambition not just worth admiring, but worth imitating as well…

The Toyota Way: The Power of Paranoia

In this fifteenth chapter of his book “How Toyota Became #1:  Leadership Lessons from the World’s Greatest Car Company,” David Magee outlines the underlying attitude behind kaizen, the practice of continual improvement.   It’s fear, fear of two things:   the fear of failure and the fear of success.   The fear of failure keeps one constantly vigilant about shoring up weaknesses in quality, efficiency, and communication.    But the fear of success means that you must always keep that vigilant attitude, and if success breeds complacency, then that vigilance may slide and with it, one’s progress.   

1.  Exercise Great Caution

In 2006, Toyota had posted tremendous results across the board for the entire year of operations . And yet, an internal report warned that Toyota’s future profitability would be threatened if costs were not held down in the United States.   Consider what Ford did after losing more than $12 billion that same year.   In the beginning of 2007, millions of dollars in executive bonuses were handed out for the previous year’s work.   It almost seems that, instead of examining the basis for the previous year’s results like Toyota did, they were almost to the point of ignoring or denying it.    

The source of Toyota’s worries was a projected increase of $900 million in U.S. manufacturing compensation in the coming decade.   The recommendation was that, rather than paying workers the traditional level received by union automotive workers in the Detroit area, as the Big 3 were doing, they would tie future benefits and wages to the levels in various regions of the United States.   They could offer $20 an hour to skilled workers in Mississippi, for example, $8 per hour less than what Ford’s union employees were earning in Michigan, and retain those workers since that $20 an hour was higher than what other companies were paying in the area.   This is not just true in Mississippi, of course; Toyota typically pays the highest waves in any areas where its plants are located.   

From the standpoint of the employee in Mississippi, for example, yes it is true that they are making $8 an hour less than their peers at Ford in Michigan; however, if you compare the number of American jobs in the automobile industry that have been eliminated by the Big 3, as opposed to the number of jobs Toyota has created in the same period, then the growth potential of the job at Toyota and its relative security might easily be seen to outweigh the short-term advantage the worker at Ford might have.  

2.  Don’t Believe the Headlines



The Toyota Way: Carefully Cultivate and Support Partners

In the fourteenth chapter of David Magee’s book “How Toyota Became #1:  Leadership Lessons from the World’s Greatest Car Company”, he discusses how Toyota cultivates the company culture, which is one of the most important ingredients of its success.

When people are hired at Toyota, the emphasis is more on whether the employee will fit within a company’s culture, rather than on whether the employee has this or that specific skill.   Once selected by the company, a new hire will typically spend three months working in the factory in order to learn about all aspects of the company’s manufacturing process.   Then the employee will be sent to work in Toyota dealerships to learn about the sales process and the importance of customer satisfaction.   

The two principles that are constantly reinforced during this first year of apprenticeship are:  a) continuous improvement and b) respect for people.

Another way of inculcating the company culture is to assign each new hire an experienced mentor with whom they work for three years.   The role of the mentor is to support the new hire, but also to help that person grow and make progress by pushing them out of their comfort zones.  

Nowadays, after Japan has experienced a decade of stagnant growth, many Japanese companies, including Toyota, no longer abide by the practice of giving their employees jobs for life.   One positive aspect of this, however, is that this gives Toyota the opportunity to hire more experienced professionals in mid-career.   

1.  Reinforce Culture Through Deep and Thorough Teaching

Throughout one’s career at Toyota, one is expected to help other employees and to share with them the knowledge and experience one has accumulated through the years.   That is why many senior executives end up teaching at the Toyota Institute.  A similar institute has been set up in the California for non-Japanese employees called the “University of Toyota.”  This human resources approach of Toyota’s puts them in a good position vis-a-vis their competitors such as the Big 3 or Nissan, who continually shed employees due to layoffs, losing not just the employees but their experience as well.


The Toyota Way: Manage Like You Have No Power

In the thirteenth chapter of David Magee’s book “How Toyota Became #1:   Leadership Lessons from the World’s Greatest Car Company,” he discussed the management style of Toyota where a leader needs to be a facilitator more than a dictator.   In a company that is run like a dictatorship, power is disconnected from execution, and this disconnect can result in a quagmire of inefficiency.   Those who need to make the decisions do not have the power to do so, and must defer to the levels of authority that do.   Those that need to take action don’t understand the consequences of those actions, and those holding the power to not understand the ramifications of their decisions.   

In 2006, Bill Ford, the great-grandson of the company founder Henry Ford, realized that his plan to institute cost cutting measures and to become a leader in environmentally friendly vehicles was falling on deaf ears in the organization.   He brought in Alan Mulally from Boeing to help him rebuild the company, and Mulally went straight to the chairman of Toyota, Fujio Cho.   This is an historical irony, because it was the founder of Toyota, Kiichiro Toyoda, who got his start in the automotive industry by studying Ford and its lean production many decades earlier.   

Mulally found that at Toyota, leaders empowered team members to think and act on their own, whereas at Ford, lower-level employees were NOT expected to ask questions, but rather to just do as they were told.   The best visual metaphor for Toyota’s management style comes from Toyota executive vice president Mitsuo Kinoshita, who compared it to a stone wall that surrounds a Japanese castle, where the stones of various sizes support each other, no matter what their size.   The small stones are just as important to the structure as the large ones, and without them, the wall would fall.

1.  Distribute Authority Widely

When Gary Convis went from General Motors to NUMMI to Toyota, he maintained his old dictatorial leadership style he had inherited from GM, but when he went from managing Toyota’s Georgetown plan to overseeing all of Toyota’s manufacturing facilities in North America, Convis was told something that change his management beliefs forever.   He was told to avoid being a dictatorial boss and to manage as if he had no power.   Employees were no longer to be told what to do:  they would be coached and taught to help themselves.   Rather than having employees come to him and ask him to make the decision himself, he would ask them to come back to him not with a request but with a recommendation, with the facts to back it up.  A manager must be a coach, must be willing to learn, and to leave ego out of the equation.   A manager must maintain a “go and see” attitude where facts are determined in order to ensure that viable decisions are made.   This makes sure that facts rule over popular opinion.    In meetings, participants are expected to avoid conjecture, hearsay, and opinion and to either presents facts or go back to do more research.