Heal The World
In November 2014, I was fortunate enough to win the inaugural District 91 Humorous Speaking Contest. It was an immensely rewarding journey packed with many life lessons and growth points. If you are in the contest, best of luck – you are about to accelerate your personal growth. If you are not, please read ahead and see why entering a speech contest might just change your life.
Though I predominantly focus on my journey in this article, there are many who helped along the way. I am very grateful to them and you can find them mentioned here.
- The humorous speaking contest presents unique challenges not found elsewhere
- You don’t have to be a “funny” personality, your speech has to be funny
- Focus on creating a speech with humour, not a stand-up routine
- Study humorous devices and choose the ones that fit your speech
- Work with a mentor to help you discover and refine your own style
- Respect the audience and contest by putting in the hours to polish your speech
- Visit different clubs and audiences to share your speech and find new ideas
- Accept suggestions from others but don’t lose your own intentions for the speech
During the journey to the final, via mentoring from others, the most important lesson I learnt was this: you can’t design a speech to win a contest. The best you can do is craft a speech to share a message. The next thing within your control is to show respect to each level of the contest by sweating and sculpting the speech to deliver your chosen message, in the best way possible for that audience. If you do that, then you will win, irrespective of the result, because you will have become a better speaker and served your audience in the best way.
A Daunting Challenge
Humorous speaking, in my opinion is the most challenging type of speech project to undertake. You have to have all the elements of a great speech along with the added pressure of real-time feedback. If the audience don’t laugh – and perhaps laugh often – you and the whole room know that to some degree your speech has failed in one of it’s objectives.
I’d been reluctant to enter the humorous contest; I didn’t know what topic to choose nor did I know how to make things funny. Put another way, I thought you had to be a naturally funny person to make people laugh. I wasn’t afraid of contests or competition, I’ve competed in all the other contests since the start of my Toastmasters journey, just not the “funny” one.
What compelled me to enter was the fact I didn’t like the thought of giving in. Our Toastmasters / EBS culture has a way of shaping us to frown on saying “I can’t”; I had to find a speech with which to enter the contest, even if it meant just being able to say “I tried”. The quote that best sums this up is this from Kobe Yamada: “Sometimes you just have to take the leap and build your wings on the way down.”
The Speech Concept
The idea for my humorous speech came from a project I had completed at a club meeting. I’d spoken about a series of challenging encounters I’d faced at the hands of others. I hadn’t thought of it as a humorous speech – but I didn’t want to drown people with depressive details so I sought to add a lighter frame to the stories. I was fortunate enough to win the speech award that day and was pleasantly surprised as to the audience’s jovial reactions; I also received a really insightful analysis from my speech evaluator, Gant Kemp (above) which helped me to understand why people might have found it effective.
After the meeting, a member came over and shared his thoughts: “That’s one of the best things that I have seen you do at the club”. Thanks to his input and other written feedback, I’d found the speech that I was going to put into the autumn contest.
At this stage I was completely oblivious to what made speeches funny or even what the core structure of a joke was. Like many others, I knew a funny speech when I heard it but I didn’t know how to write one. I was happy that, by entering, I would be able to say “I tried”.
The Club Contest
I didn’t do any more work on the speech until the day before the contest. Our Contest Chair emailed to ask me what the title of the speech would be. I hadn’t really chosen one as the original was called “A Tale of Three Journeys” but that didn’t feel catchy enough.
I remembered a previous Area Contest where one of the speakers had had a ridiculously long title and had got laughs even before getting on stage; thus “Heal the world, make it a better place for you, for me and the entire human race” was born. Our Chair then responded to ask if I would be “moonwalking onto the stage”. This made me laugh and prompted me to add in some Michael Jackson song references in an attempt to gain more laughs. See if you can name the songs of origin in the video above!
I was actually quite nervous before I came up to speak, the butterflies that I used to have at the start of my speaking journey had now returned, 5 years in. At this stage I was just happy to have met my goal of being in the contest, I’d had no illusions of progress or success at club level let alone success at the District level. As fate would have it, I placed second in a Club where the top two went through!
The Area Contest
Before the Area Contest I reached out to a friend and a great Mentor, Ola Aralepo, a District contest winner from 2011. I was seeking to improve my speech, primarily to avoid embarrassing myself at the area contest. I was irked by the thought of being a one-hit wonder. Ola’s first request was a speech transcript, I hadn’t had one at this point so I reviewed the club video and created one.
This process helped to flesh out the weaker parts of my speech and outlined where I could massively improve the speech. I made a fair few tweaks which included: simplifying the second and third stories and crafting a clearer message at the end. The content of the speech was also reduced, as per Ola’s suggestion, so that it was timed to be completed in approximately 5 minutes, thus allowing 2 minutes – hopefully! – for bouts of laughter and audience interaction.
To my surprise, I won the Area Contest. I was elated for a short while before I started to worry about the next level. After two rounds, I still didn’t think I was a funny person but somehow I was going to be in the prestigious Division B final. I had to find a way to deal with my lack of “talent” in this area. I was most heartened by the feedback from two other contestants – David Jones and Ian Hawkins, who both offered their support for the next round.
After much discussion with Ola and other friends in the Toastmasters family, I accepted that I didn’t have to be gifted at humour or to have a “comic gene”, I just had to craft a funny speech. This idea tapped into a “nature vs nurture” debate that always seems to come up at contest time.
Some argue you have to be gifted at something to truly excel, others point to an extraordinary work ethic being the key to success. The one thing that both schools agree upon is that hard work with positive coaching will help you to get the most out of any opportunity. As Thomas Edison said, “There is no substitute for hard work” and that “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”.
The Division Contest
To prepare for the Division contest, I travelled around to different clubs trying out versions of my speech. Some tweaks included telling different jokes, others the type of persona I was using to tell the story. The aim was to experiment with modified content – each speech test had a different objective: a new beginning, a different ending, it didn’t mean I was going to change the speech, just that I wanted to see how audiences might react and also to become more comfortable with dealing with “poor” jokes and the accompanying audience reactions.
One peculiar learning I gained was that my speech appeared to work better with larger audiences. In smaller venues, I wasn’t getting as many laughs. In those situations, having one person laugh at a joke was a success. If your speech only gets a few laughs with smaller audiences, don’t become disheartened, just keep on practicing and polishing, the laughs will come!
Along the way, I came across a great book: Greg Dean: Step by Step to Stand-up. It clearly outlined, for me, why jokes worked and how to craft snappier and wittier lines. Another great source of help was Craig Valentine’s blog which has fantastic tips about delivery and audience connection – this helped me to keep focused on the idea that I was doing a speech with humour not a stand-up routine.
Preparing For The Final
On the week of the contest, I did a final run of the speech with a new audience. I’d sifted through all of the feedback from different audiences and settled on a gold script. At times the feedback was contradictory and I would wonder what to keep and what to leave out. I chose the ideas that helped to keep the three stories coherent and succinct.
I also introduced a completely untried joke at the start; Ola had mentioned the need to get a few laughs in to get into a rhythm. The experience gained from the different clubs meant that I had learnt how to continue if the joke didn’t work.
The Final Speech
I’d never been to a District Final so I arrived early to soak in the atmosphere. I met with the other Division Winners and found a great camaraderie among all of the contestants, we knew that things – in terms of winning – were somewhat out of our hands. Our extraordinary Contest Chair, Chris Boden – (a 4 time district finalist and 2 time winner!), put us at ease by suggesting that we just enjoy the moment.
Many sports professionals talk about a routine before the big game, mine included standing at the back of the room and thinking about all of the positive experiences I’d had at Toastmasters.
A source of great comfort was the travelling support from our Club – 10 current and former Early Birds came down to whoop and cheer and made sure there were some in the audience who were going to laugh!
In the hour before my final speech, I reminded myself that I’d only entered the contest to say that I’d tried, I’d never expected to get this far. As far I was concerned, whatever the outcome of the final, the process of learning was the greatest reward.
Each of the Finalists delivered excellent speeches, funny, engaging and emotional. Anyone of us could have won on the day, fortune favoured me. Had I remained afraid of entering the contest, I would never have had such an extraordinary experience.
By quirk of fate, the founder of our Club, the amazing Hilary Briggs, was the District Governor who handed me the trophy. Seven Years earlier, Hilary had founded our extra-ordinary club with a vision of excellence, arduously encouraging us to become better speakers and leaders. An Early Bird winner at a District contest was a small, but fitting, tribute to her exemplary leadership.
There are many people who helped to shape and improve my public speaking, listening and leadership skills, please find a tribute to them here.