Contest Order Matters

Feb 08

Some Toastmasters are concerned that speaking order makes a huge difference in who wins or loses a contest—more so than actual skill. Unfortunately, they are right. Mike Raffety has numbers to show that speaking order makes a difference in Toastmasters contests.

If you are a contestant, this is just one of many unintentional judging biases you will face. There is no point in fretting about it. Whether you go first, third or last in a contest, do your very best, don’t be discouraged, and always look for ways to improve your performance.

If you are running a contest, however, then this is very important to keep in mind! Under current judging rules, we have no solution to really mitigate this bias. But there are some things that you can, and should, do to prevent contests from becoming more unfair because of this.

Train your judges well. Give them examples of different judging biases that can affect them. Stress how very important it is that everyone judge contestants on a consistent scoring mechanism, and to evaluate each speech completely independent of any other speech. Not to vote a speech down or up because of what other contestants say, and not to vote a speech down or up because of prior speeches from that Toastmaster. They are there to judge the speech, not the speaker. They should view each speech with a “blank slate” as much as possible and assign a score to each contestant as soon as they give their speech, instead of waiting for all contestants to finish and then “go with their gut.”

Since speaking order matters, ensuring a random speaking order is vital. Under no circumstances allow speakers to pick, trade or otherwise have control over their speaking position. If a speaker shows up late for a briefing, do not just add them to the end of the speaking order, giving them a significant advantage over their competition as a reward for inconveniencing everyone. Either redraw positions, or include absent speakers in the random drawing, skipping over them in the lineup if they do not show by the time the contest begins.

Some contestants will always, through luck, have an advantage in a contest. We must try to minimize that when possible and make sure any advantage is at least assigned randomly, so each contestant has an equal chance of having it. Let the best contestant win.

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