I've always liked speaking, both conversationally and with a more formal audience. Despite this though, I resisted joining Toastmasters for a long time, probably due in some part to the supposed need to differentiate myself from Dad, who was an active member for many years.
Having resigned myself to the notion a certain degree of fatherly imitation is both inevitable and laudable, I finally became a charter member of the club they founded three years ago at APS where I work, and even ended up coining the name we went with (ToastmAPSters).
Our first two years saw us finding our feet as a new, virtually all rookie club, and learning the ropes of public speaking and leadership through the manuals and projects provided by Toastmasters International, the umbrella organization. This year one of our executive is actually involved in both our club and another one that meets in the evening.
Cheryl's broadened perspective and active encouragement has seen our club slowly creeping out of the rather insular shell we have created for ourselves and interacting with other clubs and the larger network that connects them. For example, after one of Cheryl's club mates helped to judge our humorous speech contest, I went and served as a judge on theirs.
As I was congratulating the winner, an earnest and engaging fellow named Clint, Cheryl came over to confirm if we were both going to participate in the Area contest (as I had won the ToastmAPSters contest the week before). Clint and I looked at each other, shrugged and said, "Sure, why not?"
The Area 51 contest featured myself, Clint and two other speakers from clubs in southwest Edmonton, one of whom was a very capable public speaker despite still being in high school. This time three members from my club were helping out and another had come along to cheer me on, which was very encouraging. I had tweaked the speech I had used at the club level, using my recent experience as a judge to make it a bit more thematic and ballot-friendly, and emerged victorious for a second time.
This made me eligible to represent our Area at the Division level hosted in Devon in three weeks' time. Now, I am nowhere near the most competitive person in the world, but I found myself becoming very focused, adjusting my speech a little more and rehearsing it in the car on my way to work most days, using the dashboard timer to make sure I wasn't going too far over the 7-minute limit.
The Division H contest featured the stiffest competition yet: six speakers including myself, all of whom had won two previous contests to be there, as I had. Once again, three clubmates came out to help with timing and judging, and to cheer me on.
The speaking order is determined by random draw, and I can't recall if I was last or second last. Either way I got to watch most of the other speakers do their thing, and they all presented very well. Two in particular stood out for me, and I thought a bronze or silver against this grouping would still speak well of my efforts, but lo and behold, I won again, and was asked to represent Division H at the District 42 Finals, which encompasses all the clubs in Alberta and Saskatchewan.
In addition to facing off against the best 11 speakers from over 250 clubs, this development meant travelling to Saskatoon this past weekend for the District 42 Fall Conference. I guess my my last time in a hotel alone would have been back in 2007 when I worked for Games Workshop, and my last conference like this would have been with them as well.
The two organizations wouldn't appear to have a lot in common at first glance, but when you take a group of people who are passionate about their interests and put them in close quarters with shared meals for a period of time, perspectives are shared and connections are made. Even without the contest, I would have been glad to attend the conference.
At the contestant briefing on Friday night, I had the misfortune of drawing the very first speaker's slot. There are varying opinions about speaking order, and of course, they can vary based on the number of contestants; but no one likes to be first out of the gate, and I was concerned that after listening to speeches for two hours that mine would have difficulty distinguishing itself against the other eleven.
On the plus side, I got to get my speech out of the way early, and could then enjoy listening to the rest. The second speaker had a great story about an eccentric character he met while hitchhiking, a young lady spoke about being in the 4th grade with a symptom reference guide and diagnosing her discoloured hands as syphilis, while another one ranted about Toastmasters culture permeating her home life to very humorous effect.
Listening to highly accomplished speakers for a couple of hours was an enjoyable way to spend the afternoon, especially once I had delivered my speech to 200+ people without a time disqualification, passing out, or soiling myself. All the while though, I had to keep reassessing my chances, and by the time the final speaker wrapped up, I thought I would be fortunate just to get on the podium.
I had been happy enough with my material, although afterwards I thought it could have used greater laugh density, as some competitors got an audience response with nearly every line. My speech had a nice structure to it, I felt, and featured a couple of twists, but in all honesty, with me just getting over a cold, I think my delivery could have been better.
When they announced third place, I was pretty happy to hear my name called, and the hitchhiking story and 24/7 Toastmaster speeches took second and first place respectively. I got lots of compliments from people I had never met, many of whom were surprised to discover that this was my first time competing out of my own club.
The recognition and encouragement are hallmarks of the Toastmasters experience, and are the kinds of things likely to keep me in the club for a while, but the best thing to come of it actually happened at the Division contest in Devon.
I had waited for an opportunity to tell one of the other competitors how much I had enjoyed his speech, and to express my admiration for his stage presence. He smiled as he shook my hand and said, "You may be the most articulate person I have ever heard."
I was flabbergasted. "But...you're in Toastmasters..." I sputtered unbelievingly, but he was adamant, so I thanked him profusely and made my exit as gracefully as possible with a dangerously swollen head. No trophy or certificate could compete with that feeling.
I'm hoping my experiences on the contest trail and attendance at the District conference will encourage more members from my club to participate in area competitions and perhaps attend the spring convention in Red Deer, but in the meantime, I am busy trying to find the kernel for another humorous speech for next year.