Toastmasters Speech Contest: Are You In?

Toastmasters Speech Contest Toastmasters 101

Sometime in the next few months, your Toastmasters club is going to hold a contest.  For new members, a Toastmasters speech contest sounds maybe a bit… childish?  unnecessarily competitive?  waste of time?

I suspect that you’ve never seen a Toastmasters speech contest.

On today’s podcast, let’s take a look at one of the biggest events in Toastmasters around the world, and the benefits to you and your club when you hold a contest.


Do you need to be able to speak to groups of people?  Do you have ideas that can help create a better world, if only you could get them out?  Then Toastmasters is for you.  In an hour a week, we can teach you public speaking and leadership skills and have fun while we do it.  This is Toastmasters 101 and I’m your host, Kim Krajci.

Toastmasters Speech Contests

I joined Toastmasters because I was a high school speech and debate judge.  My experience with public speaking was already competitive, so a speech contest in Toastmasters didn’t surprise me.

Whether or not you’re competitive in nature, it’s pretty natural for people to compete against each other.  My kids used to compete over whose side of the car had the better Christmas decorations on the houses that we passed as we drove around town.  Yes, that makes no sense.  Don’t try to figure it out.

Competition is built into us.  There are certainly those who think we ought to outgrow it when we become adults.  We need to be cooperative, not competitive.

I don’t disagree with “cooperative.”  I think we can do both and have everyone benefit from it.

Which is why I think that the Toastmasters contests are so valuable to all members, even those who will never compete.

Let’s start with those who don’t want to compete.

There are reasons to not compete in a Toastmasters speech contest.

Dislike the pressure of producing a “contest speech.”

That’s an issue for some people because Toastmasters speech contests are driven by some written rules and unwritten expectations.

Toastmasters International provides the official rule book for all contest events.  Timing.  Originality.  Type of speech – prepared, impromptu, evaluation.  The stage space.  Now, with covid, we have video recordings with strict instructions.  Disqualifications.

I don’t have a problem with a rules manual.  I’m sad that it has to be modified every year because someone finds a way to circumvent the rules – aka cheat.

There are clear rules – but there are also some unwritten expectations about speeches – in particular, the World Championship of Public Speaking.

I’m very close to opening a can of worms here…

The rule book says that any type of speech is acceptable for the international speech contest.  However, it’s one of those “everybody knows” rules that only inspirational speeches make it to the top level.  While the style of speech for that contest has changed over the years – as it should – it gets a lot of negative comments from people who don’t like the style that it developed into in the past 20 years or so.  Non-Toastmasters criticize the content – bland, lacking any substance – and the styles – clownish, or over-acted.  I’ve spoken with some people who don’t like Toastmasters because they think that’s what Toastmasters wants its speakers to sound like.

Your goal is your voice

That’s a big issue, I think.  Toastmasters doesn’t explain our goal to help you develop your own voice.

The contest – in particular, the international contest – has some problems at the local level, not at the international level, if the districts are only selecting inspirational speeches.  On the other side, I talked with a former Toastmaster contest winner at our district level who sat through the speeches and counted laugh lines where the audience responded and was accurately able to predict the winners based on that metric alone.  I started doing the same and… yep, that’s the strongest indicator of who will win.

The pressure of producing a contest speech  – when you talk to people who are serious – I mean SERIOUS – about the contests – they’re constantly working on speeches.  They start the week after their last contest ends to craft the next contest speech.

That kind of drive is admirable – but it creates a daunting aura in the club.  New members will think that they can’t possibly compete against a person who has been publicly talking about their next contest speech for months.

I admire several speakers in District 10 who I know take this speech contest very, very seriously – and never talk about it in the club meetings.  They downplay it because they don’t want new members to think that they don’t have a chance to win.

The benefits of writing a contest speech

What I think that the contest speeches provide an opportunity for all the different speech skills we’ve been working on, improving on in our own ways – to be put together into one presentation.

Toastmasters’ Pathways program has the Level 3 skills electives.  A dozen or so speech projects where we learn and practice discrete presentation skills – eye contact, body language, storytelling.  In the contest speech, we are challenged to put all of those skills together.  That’s not to say that the challenge isn’t here with every single speech you give in the club – but if the focus is on one specific segment of the speech skills toolbox, then we might forget another part.  Work on body language and maybe don’t concentrate on vocal variety?  It happens and, in this program, I think it happens a lot.  I know that if I’m working on descriptive language, I tend not to notice the bizarre things that I’m doing with my hands.

Benefit: Toastmasters speech contest pulls all our skills together

The contest judges have a schematic that lists several different aspects of the contestant’s presentation.  We’re asked to judge not the content but structure, organization, and value of the speech.  We assess the skills – body language, vocal skills, and the proper use of language.  The smart competitor pays attention to that schematic because most judges use it – they don’t have to, but most do.  I didn’t pay enough attention to it and lost the contest I was entered in earlier this year because I didn’t have a clear opening and conclusion to my speech.

I gotta pay attention to all the parts of public speaking and the contest does require me to put them all together.  That’s one of the greatest reasons we have contests.

So if you don’t want that pressure to write a contest speech, that’s fine.  You’re not required to compete.

But perhaps… you’d like to participate in another way.

Toastmasters isn’t just a speech club.  We build leaders and we do that by giving our members opportunities to develop those skills.  You don’t learn leadership from a book – you learn by experience.

And starting with a small task to learn and practice those skills is ideal.

Benefit:  leadership skills development

Running a contest isn’t hard – but it is a complex task that requires the contest chair to ride herd on a variety of people in different roles who probably don’t have a lot of experience in what they are asked to do – particularly at the club level.

Most districts are running judges training at some point, and I suggest you attend, whether you’re going to judge or not – because judge’s training helps people understand how a contest works and why Toastmasters does things the way they do.  In previous episodes 29 and 30 – the links are in the show notes –  I talk about the roles of contest chair, contest master, and chief judge.  Each role has specific tasks to be completed to make the contests official and run effectively.

Please don’t think that it’s too hard for you to do.  It’s not hard.  It’s mostly a matter of communication – the most important component of leadership.

I’m too new!

If you feel you’re too new and have never seen a contest before – well, they’re only held at the club level once a year generally, unless the club wants to host another one.

But most clubs have held contests in the past – those experienced members can help run a contest or you can help them.  Club contests are facing extra challenges right now and all hands on deck – or rather – all members need to step up.  If you’ve been a club meeting timer, filling this role in a contest is much the same.

What’s in it for you if you don’t like contests – either as a competitor or as a member of the contest team?

Because you’ll have a better club with a contest.  Contests can bring out the worst in people – but they also bring out our drive to improve and succeed.  That impulse improves the entire club because we respond to that kind of inspiration.  It attracts others with the same drive.

I’ve been in clubs that didn’t have that spirit – they closed.

Toastmasters speech contest = good club?

Is the club contest a sign of a successful club?

Hmm.  I’m not sure that I’m going to say that because there are clubs where the current membership doesn’t have anyone saying that they want to compete… so they don’t schedule one.  That’s a fairly reasonable decision-making process, but one that I think deprives the club of the contest experience.  People can be recruited to compete – I’ve done it.  People can be found to run contests – I’ve run them for new clubs and I’ve judged in other club’s contests.

But I do think that clubs that have contests are often the clubs that support their members in achieving their goals.

Remember when I said before that Toastmasters doesn’t do a good job of making sure that you develop your voice?  I think that contests do that.  If you compete, you develop your own style, your voice, and your message.

Those are what I see are the major benefits of a Toastmasters speech contest:  the competition challenges us to pull together all our speaking skills to present our best possible speech.  It also gives us an opportunity to start building leadership skills in small steps.

There are many reasons why people want to compete!  Whether you want to compete – and be a speech contestant – or cooperate – and be a speech official – we work together to build each other up.  That’s what we do.

Wrap it up, Kim

Our music is from Toastmasters 101 is a podcast production of Toastmasters District 10.

Do you know someone who you think needs Toastmasters?  What about you?  Do you need to improve your public speaking skills or build your leadership experience?  How about subscribing to this podcast to hear about how Toastmasters can help you achieve your goals?  We’re available on many podcasting platforms so you can listen on the podcast player of your choice.

See you next week on Toastmasters 101.