Avoid These Common Speech Contest Mistakes
Over the years, I’m sorry to say I’ve seen certain easily preventable challenges occur time and again. Don’t get me wrong: I know running a contest is very hard work. It takes a lot of effort from a lot of people, and so much can go wrong. I’ve ran the most efficient triple-area contest in District 55. I’ve ran the largest club contest in District 55. I’ve had my share of headaches and last-minute disasters, and you have to give kudos to anyone willing to do all that work to put on an event for other people for no reward or recognition of their own. I can’t promise to make it effortless for you, but with these tips you can put on a contest you are proud of and avoid the stress of things left undone.
Don’t do it alone. Some people have strong feelings against joint area contests. I believe this is generally because so many are run so poorly and take far more time than is necessary. A well-run joint contest is a different matter. Combine two area contests, or three, or every area in your division. The area directors can share responsibilities (but make sure those responsibilities are clearly defined!) You then only need to arrange one day, one time, one location, one set of judges and other volunteers. On the other hand, you get more competitors and a larger audience. This is a better experience for everyone. Just make sure to run it efficiently and fly through those contestant performances and execute with excellence.
Similarly, don’t try to do everything in a contest single-handedly. Splitting up responsibilities among Chief Judge, Contest Chair and Contest Toastmaster is a good way to go, but there’s nothing preventing you from having, for example, more than one person recruiting contest volunteers.
Don’t leave your volunteers and contestants in communication limbo. “Should I go to this joint area contest tonight?” I thought. “Hmmm… on the one hand, I kind of don’t want to, on the other hand, I kind of do. Ok, I guess I’ll go.” I ended up going and was quite surprised by the reaction I got. “Chad! Where have you been?” I had a contest role to perform and didn’t know it. What happened? Well, two months ago I had mentioned to a fellow Toastmaster that I might be available to help with the contest if she needed me. I hadn’t heard from her since and quite forgot about it. Unbeknownst to me, she was relying on my involvement and had assigned me a role. I was not informed of this. She did not reach out to tell me when or where it was, or to remind me to come to briefings.
This happens as a contestant as well. I participated in an area contest recently where I received no communication until late the night before the contest, and that was just a quick reminder email with the contest address and the time for contestant briefings.
Surely we can communicate better than this. That’s what Toastmasters is about! The contest chair should be emailing the contestants and the chief judge should be emailing the volunteers on a regular basis. Not drowning them in missives, certainly. But several emails over a long stretch of time, and then certainly an email a week or so before the event and another one the day before would be quite expected. Remind them of what they’re doing, when they are, where they are. Provide them with tips: for example, reminding them that there will be a microphone with a belt clip to wear, so they might want to keep that in mind when choosing what to wear. Or information on handling unusual ballot counting situations. Or links to judge training videos. Whatever is suitable and helpful to prepare them. They should not have any surprises the day of the contest.
Do you think people don’t need these tips? We all forget things, and new people join Toastmasters all the time. I once was in a division contest where a table topics contestant launched into a 5-7 minute prepared speech. He was quite shocked when the red light came on. The real question is, how did he get through the area contest without learning what a table topic is? How did he get into the area contest without being told how to compete in table topics?
This note on communication also applies to your other major role players. It can be good practice for the Chief Judge, Contest Chair and Contest Toastmaster to CC each other on all communications, or to use Google Docs to share up-to-date programs and sign-up lists so everyone is coordinated and nobody is working at cross purposes.
Don’t run impromptu events before prepared. I have to keep saying this. For some inexplicable reason, there seems to be a shared misconception that impromptu events should come first. Nope. Do your International, Tall Tales or Humorous Speech first, and then your Table Topics or Speech Evaluation. If you are running multiple prepared or multiple impromptu events—well, that’s probably not an ideal way for your District to organize it, but arrange the events as you like.
Don’t obfuscate the order of events. The order of speakers should be one of the very first things announced in the contest. Bonus points if it’s displayed on a screen far enough away from the speaker that it isn’t distracting, or perhaps made available on a page people can view on their phones. The order of events in general should be on the program (or screen, or web page) and briefly announced. I recently was in a double-area contest with two speaking events, which meant four components to the speech contest. I had no idea mine would be the last section held until halfway through the contest.
Don’t keep people hostage while ballots are being counted. My District had a bad track record for this. Some contest organizers felt everyone needed to keep still and silent, or perhaps that the Toastmaster needed to just tap-dance, while ballots were being counted in a back room. I called Toastmasters International just to double-check. This is certainly not the case. Proceed with the contest. Do the next part of the contest, make announcements, do speaker interviews—just keep going.
Don’t forget to prepare. So many speech contest problems can be avoided completely with a little preparation. Ask yourself how much can be made ready ahead of time. Can you get contestant paperwork? Can you make sure your contest volunteers know how to do their roles? You’d be surprised how often nobody has even though of a way for contestants to draw for position. They get to that point in the briefing and are lost. Think through every part of the contest, minute by minute, and make sure you have what you need.
Don’t start late. An area (or higher!) contest should be a polished, well-run event. All too often it starts off on the wrong foot, typically by starting 15 minutes late. Come on. Prepare as much as you can ahead of time. Carefully think through how much time you need to set up and brief contestants and officials. Be aware of anyone who is needed to do multiple things and cannot be on two places at once.
Don’t keep people waiting for the first contestant. The first speaker should begin in less than five minutes after the event starts.
Don’t make the contest run longer than it has to. I’ve been in way too many contests that took literally hours more out of my day than was necessary. This is the result of not enough organization or planning, or too much patter or fluff. What people want is a well-run, efficient contest. Ditch cutesy themes and unnecessary filler. Running a double or triple area contest? Wait for all contestants in an event to go, from all the different areas, and then collect the ballots all at once—that’s more efficient. Get to the contestants as soon as possible when the speaker starts. Are there a lot of announcements to be made? Put the details in the program so you can allude to them without needing a five minute presentation for each one. Think about how much time is needed for each contestant (including transition time and time allocated for judges to fill in ballots) and plan out how much time you actually need for anything else to be done in the contest. You’ll likely find that you can rearrange, drop or compress pieces so that little time is taken except for actual contestants.
Don’t make the Toastmaster tap-dance. This most often happens when ballot counting takes longer than expected, or during the five minutes evaluation contestants have to work on their notes. Suddenly the contest Toastmaster realizes he or she has nothing worthwhile to do and time to fill. Plan ahead. Instead of recognizing dignitaries and making announcements at the beginning of the contest, why not save that for that five-minute gap in the evaluation contest? Can you make sure the ballot counters know what to do and how to handle unusual questions that may arise so they can complete their task efficiently? Can the ballot counters do some of their work before the end of the contest–for example, count the ballots for some of the events during a break mid-way through the contest? This is yet another reason to put filler like announcements at the end of the contest, not the beginning: at the beginning it delays the good stuff (contestant speeches). At the end, it fills time while ballots are being counted.
Don’t break more than you have to. All too often, a contest that should run for less than an hour includes a 15 minute break halfway through. Come on! Treat the contest the same way you would your meeting. A good rule of thumb is to not have a break unless your event runs for longer than 90 minutes. If you think your contest will run for more than an hour and a half, carefully scrutinize it to ensure that you actually need that much time. Practically no single-area contest needs a break, and extremely few double area contests do. Before you throw a break in there, first plan out how you can make the event run more efficiently and take less time out of the day of your attendees. They’ll be thankful. Also consider the length of the break; if the contest should run for two hours, do they need a twenty minute break? Probably not. Five or ten minutes should be fine.
Don’t forget contestant’s names or speech titles. This is largely on the contest Toastmaster. The Toastmaster should have, in writing, the name and title of the speech. In the contestant briefing the Toastmaster should say, out loud, the names and speech titles, and make notes on pronunciation if necessary.
Don’t add late contestants to the end of the speaking order. Multiple Toastmasters have noted that the last speaker to perform in a Toastmasters speech contest gets a statistically significant advantage. You can blame the judges and poor judging training for “going with their gut” instead of recording objective measurements after each speaker, but it happens. The real problem, however, is in a contestant briefing when a contestant is running late. “No problem,” I’ve heard people say, “if he shows up we’ll just put him at the end of the line.” No, no, no. Draw for ALL contestants. If the contestant appears before the contest begins, great, they go in their randomly assigned order. If they miss the start of the contest, they’re removed from the speaking order entirely.
Don’t assume nothing will go wrong. Always plan for possible problems. For example, in every single contest I have ever run, I’ve had judges drop out, typically on less than 48 hours notice. A good way to prepare for that is to keep communicating with your volunteers, and to get more judges than you need. But think of other things that can go wrong: what if a contestant shows up after positions have been drawn? Well, you’ll draw positions for all contestants, so it doesn’t matter. What if a ballot isn’t signed? Discard it, but you should make sure to remind the judges in the judge’s briefing to sign their ballots. What if the ballot counting takes half an hour? Hmm. Perhaps we can do a practice run with the ballot counters before the contest to ensure they know what to do and run through unusual situations so they don’t be stuck. But if it does go long… well, let’s make sure we aren’t waiting until the last minute to start counting, and put as much of the contest announcements and so forth after they begin. Plan through different eventualities, as many as you can think of. Odds are that one or two of them will actually occur, and you’ll be glad for it.