Let the Toastmasters Contests Begin: Contestants

Toastmasters Contests Toastmasters 101

Ever heard of the World Champion of Public Speaking?  Toastmasters contests recognize one speaker a year as the best.  It starts at the club level and goes all the way up to the International Speech Contest held annually at the International Toastmasters convention.

Toastmasters Contests

The speech contests are a long-time component of Toastmasters program.  Most districts host 2 contests per year.  For some members, this competition is an important part of their Toastmasters experience.

There are pretty much 3 perspectives on the contest.  Some people love them.  Other people loathe them. And in the middle are people who don’t care.

I think that our attitude to the speech contest can change over time. I know several people who were disappointed by judging and gave up.  Others discover that the competition drives them to really push themselves to better speech writing and presentation.  Then there are the people who put all their efforts into competing because they’re competitive – and never leave until they make win.  I’ve bounced between the love and disdain.  I’ve been in charge of the contests and I’ve chosen not to be any part of it.  Right now, I’m pro-competing.  I will enter the contests this year.

If you’re intrigued by contests, please tell your club that you want to compete.  They may ask for contestants, but some clubs don’t bother unless the officers know that you’re interested.

If the club only has one competitor, the club can appoint a representative to move up to the area contest.  It’s not ideal.  You can use the practice and getting up with a speech that you may give several more times at the different contests at different levels is smart.

Here’s the virtue to the appointment.  If you club holds a speech contest – official, with a contest master and chief judge – and you disqualify – you don’t get to move on to the area contest.

Moving Up In Toastmasters Contests

After you win at the club contest, you can move on to the area contest.

We haven’t talked about the organization of Toastmasters here on the podcast, so let’s take a brief digression to explain it because the contests follow the same path.  You know the club level – you’re in a club.  A group of 4 to 6 clubs are grouped together into an area.

Then we group 4 to 6 areas into a division.  Four to six or seven or eight divisions are put together into a district.  Now understand that these numbers are pretty fuzzy and at the district level, a club may be moved from one area to another, or from one division to another.  Realignment happens every year when new clubs come online and other clubs close.

You compete at area, division, and district levels.

Why do I explain that now?

Because some contests end at the district levels.  The only one that goes further is the… International Speech Contest.  That would be why it’s called International, right?

The International Speech contest also differs because of the requirement to have completed Level 2 in a pathway before you can compete.  For members on the classic program, the requirement is 6 speeches completed in the Competent Communicator manual, but I don’t know if that option will still be in place after 2020.

The other official Toastmasters contests are

  1. Tall Tales
  2. Humorous Speech
  3. Table Topics
  4. Evaluations.

The times for the  humorous and International contest speeches are the same as they are in the club.  Speeches are 5 to 7 with a 30 second grace period on either end, so the speech could be 4 and half minutes to 7 and half minutes.  The Table Topics contest asks you to speak from 1 to 2 and a half minutes.  Evaluations need to be 2 to 3 and a half minutes.  The Tall Tales should be 2 and a half minutes to 5 and half minutes.

I don’t know of any districts that have all 5 of the contests, but there may be some out there.  Every district must hold the International Contest, but the others are optional.  District 10 has usually done the evaluation and International Speech contests together in the spring at the district conference.

Do You Want to Enter the Contests?

If you want to enter the contests, I’m sure you have a lot of questions about how the contests work and your topics.

Table Topics Contest

If you’re entering the Table Topics contest, well, they’re going to give you your topic when you walk in.  I don’t know who engineered this system for the contest, but it’s pretty smart:  the Contest Master (sort of the Toastmaster of the Day for the contests) will ask the sergeant at arms to escort all the contestants out of the room.  Once they are secluded and can’t hear the prompts, the first contestant will be brought in to stand at the back of the room.  The Contest Master will announce the speaker’s name, and prompt, then repeat the prompt and end with the speaker’s name.

Then you have the time to walk from the back of the room to the stage to think about what you’re going to say.  The timer doesn’t start until you move or speak.  You can buy a few seconds by keeping your head down, but when you look up, the timer should start the clock.  The timing signals are green, yellow, and red.  When the red comes on, no further signals will be given – like when you’ve gone beyond the 30 second grace period.

When the first speaker is done, the next speaker is brought in and the process is repeated for every contestant.  This way, the last speaker doesn’t know the prompt in advance and have the advantage of extra prep time.

Evaluation Contest

Evaluations need prep, right?  You have to listen to a speech and then try to figure out what you want to say, your points of growth, and how to wrap it all up.  So again, this part of the contest is pretty ingenious.  The test speaker gets up and gives a 5 to 7 minute speech about any topic.  No level or project is announced, but this speaker can use this as a project speech – just get someone else to give a written evaluation.  Because every evaluation speaker is about you give you an oral evalualtion.

Personally, I LOVE being the test speaker (we used to be called the target speaker, but someone decided that sounded too… I dunno… violent or something.) Whatever they call the speaker, I love hearing several evaluations of the same speech because everyone will bring their own points of growth.  If I hear the same comment several times, I know that’s something I need to work on.

After the test speech, the contestants are escorted from the room for 5 minutes.  They can take their notes from the speech and do whatever they want with them – but at the end of the 5 minutes, the notes are confiscated by the sergeant at arms.  Just before each evaluator goes in, their notes are returned to them.  The other evaluators remain secluded and can’t hear the others.

The timer starts the clock at the first word or action.

Tall Tales and Humorous Contests

These two speech contests focus on specific types of speeches.  Tall Tales probably exist in all cultures, but I’m most familiar with the American style – mostly ghost stories or campfire stories.  Stories of the impossible, often with twists.   Humorous speeches have become stand up routines, which annoys me, but I think I’m in the minority.

All of contestants remain in the room for these Toastmasters contests.  The contest master introduces the speech and speaker with the speaker’s name, and prompt, then repeat the prompt and end with the speaker’s name.  So you don’t have to write an introduction… but then you can’t count on the introduction to lay the foundation for your speech.

I did once hear a contestant who submitted a 40-word title for his contest speech.  And then the first thing he did in the speech was – make fun of himself for writing such an absurd title. He didn’t win, but he got some big laughs.  Starting a speech with a laugh always helps.

International Speech Contest

This the big one.  The one that goes to the top.  The final stage is at the International Convention.  This year, that was Denver and Aaron Beverly took first place.  I’ve linked the video of his presentation in the podcast show notes.  Personally, this was one of the best I’d ever heard.  Instead of lots of antics and emotional drippings on the stage floor, it was a simple story with a profound lesson.

I’ve heard a few of the World Champions speak after they won.  Some of them, I get why they won.  Others… well, I wonder what the competition was that this speech won.

It’s a very subjective speech judging process.  Most of the International Speeches now tend toward inspirational speeches with stories about overcoming adversity.  Keep that in mind – but what you really need isn’t a heart-wrenching story – it’s the judges form.

What?  You can see the judge ballots?

You sure can.  Log into Toastmasters.org and search for judge ballot.  You Speech Judge Tutorials Toastmasters 101can download each of them at no charge.  Study this sheet because the vast majority of judges use it as their exclusive way to determine the winners.  I should say that it is not required for a judge to use this paradigm to pick a winner.  In fact, a judge can use any criterion they want to decide on their top speakers.

As well as looking at the ballots, take a look at the judge training videos on the Toastmasters website. You’ll find those under the Leadership Central tab from the main menu.  Pick Speech Contests and then Speech Contest Tutorials.  There’s also a presenter’s guide to Speech Judge Training, number 1190a.

When you understand what the judges are looking for, you can craft a speech that they will give high marks.

Anything else I should say about Toastmasters contests?


After every speaker, there’s a 1 minute silent pause for the judges to fill out their ballots.  After the final speaker, there’s a break that will last as long as necessary for the judges to complete their ballots and get them collected.  This contributes to Toastmasters contests running long.  The judges are instructed to be as fast as possible.

If you want props, such as chairs or equipment, talk to the sergeant at arms before the contest begins.  It’s their responsibility to position what you need on the stage.  Don’t start speaking until your props are where you want them.

Always ask for a microphone and use it.  If one is available, it’s because the room is known for being hard to hear the speakers.  That’s why they put a sound system in.   Lavaliere microphones are best, but a handheld mic is better than the judge at the back of the room being unable to hear you.

Know your rights regarding protesting a speech.  I suggest you read the rule book for this year’s contests – also available at Toastmasters.org.  You can protest if you believe that an excessive amount of content has been taken from another source.

Plan for the contest to go about 50% longer than you expect.  Club contests generally will fill a single meeting or two – sometimes if there are too many contestants, they’ll break the contests apart and do International in one meeting and evaluations in another.  If you’re at the area or division level, challenges and complications will drag out a contest.  If you must leave, tell the Contest Master before you go.  I don’t know that you’re disqualified for leaving before the awards are presented, but if you’re being challenged, failure to answer the protest may lead to a disqualification.

Wrap it up already

Toastmasters has been hosting the contests for decades – long before Pathways.  I hope they always have them.  Toastmasters contests add a lot of value to the members – even those who don’t participate.  Why?  I’ll tell you next time on the podcast!

This is the first of at least three podcasts where I’ll cover contests.  Tune in next week for Toastmasters contests from the chief judge and contest master’s points of view.  The mechanics of a contest are all in the contest rule book – I did say to read that, didn’t I?

Thanks for listening to Toastmasters 101 podcast.  You and your friends can subscribe for free at Toastmasters101.net slash subscribe.

Toastmasters 101 is a podcast production of Toastmasters District 10.