Toastmasters Contests: All you need to know!
Following the summer break, all Toastmasters clubs have a very busy schedule ahead of them. Not only is it to get reacquainted and hear some splendid speeches inspired by the time off, but it is also contest season.
But what are the different contests, why do Toastmasters have contests and why should you partake? This article gives the answers to all those questions, and to the ones you didn’t know you had.
The what, why and how…
1. What are the different contests?
Speech contests are a Toastmasters tradition worldwide, with thousands competing across 5 different contests throughout the year. Humorous Speech and Table Topics contests are usually held in October, and the International Speech and Evaluation contests are held around March. The winners of each contest progress to the next level.
Tall Tales however stays at the Club level, some clubs no longer partake in this event, but for us, its one of the most fun nights of the year!
2. The next level? What different levels are there?
The Humorous, Evaluation and Table Topics contests are competed at 4 different levels. The first is the club level, speaking to the people you share your Toastmasters journey with.
Upon winning your club contest, you advance to the Area level. The Area consists of about 4-5 clubs in the surrounding area. For Dublin South Toastmasters, our neighbouring clubs are Dublin 18 Toastmasters, Microsoft Onevoice, Tara Toastmasters, UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School Toastmasters and Salesforce Dublin Toastmasters. Whoever comes first and second in this book a spot in the Division Finals.
The Division consists of 3-5 Areas and usually a very big crowd gathers either online or in person to witness the best that the division can offer. It is not uncommon to speak to 75 or more people at events like this. These usually take place over a weekend morning a couple of months after a club holds their contest. At Dublin South, Division M covers South Dublin, Wicklow, across to Lucan. Following on from this, the winners progress through to the District.
The District contests are the most significant event in the Toastmasters year, and a large conference is held in May that usually alternates being held in either the UK or Ireland. District 71 contains our very own Division M along with 11 others, and spans the whole of Ireland and the UK (north of London). Getting here is some feat, and winning here is something else entirely. This is the pinnacle for the Humorous, Evaluation and Table Topics Contests. The International Speech contest, you guessed it, has a class of its own, heading onto the Semifinal and World Championships.
3. Why should I partake in a contest anyway, what’s in it for me?
No member is under any obligation to partake in a contest, many do it because its fun! Yes, you read that correctly! Participating in a club contest is a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Not only that when you win you can take home some silverware and have your name engraved on a plaque, but its also enjoyable to challenge yourself against and maybe even beat the fellow members that you have admired.
The thrill and self confidence that you can get from winning a contest can really help you in your Toastmasters journey and career. It challenges you in ways that you can’t find in a standard Pathways speech. It adds another bit of pressure, which some people desperately crave when trying to simulate a work situation where the stakes are high. Most Toastmasters learn more from contests than regular club meetings! As you progress, you get to hear better written speeches get delivered by more and more experienced Toastmasters. If you want to grow, if you want to be stretched, if you want to become a better speaker, then sign up for the next contest!
4. What’s in the rulebook?
The rulebook has a lot of material in it, but can be summarised very quickly. Stick to the allotted time! You need to keep an eye on the lights, as there is no saving grace with the bell. If you are 30 seconds below the minimum time, you are disqualified. Similarly with 30 seconds over the maximum allowed time.
For the speeches, your material needs to be original. You can be inspired from something from someone else, but your own originality must carry the speech.
5. How am I judged?
At the back of the judges ballot there is a list of criteria that must be satisfied to award marks, and are divided up into the content, delivery and language of your speech, so its a good idea to have a look through it so you know where you need to prioritise. There may be more points awarded to how you’re saying something as what you are actually saying! Many of the most experienced Toastmasters build their speeches around the contents of this ballot!
Humorous Speech Contest
What’s involved? It’s exactly what it says on the tin. Do you have a funny story from your past? Or maybe have you found a gold nugget of humour in everyday life? The Humorous Speech Contest is the night when contestants play their hand at making the audience laugh in a 5-7 minute speech. It is not a bunch of one-liners though, there needs to be a progression.
We asked Chris Werner, Dublin South’s most recent DTM to give an overview of the experience. Chris competed at the District level with his humorous speech whilst he was DSTM President in 2019.
“For the humorous speech, there is an extra pressure, because not only does it need to be a good speech, it also has to be funny. At the Norwich conference, there were two semi-finals, of which only half of the competitors went through to the finals. It was handy going second to then hear the quality of the speakers which came afterwards. They, and those who went through to the final were experts in using puns, and being able to play around with the meanings of different words, allowing time for the joke to sink in. No matter what though, there will always be someone in the audience who doesn’t get the joke. If the majority does, that’s all you can ask for! Give your audience time to laugh, pausing is the key!”
Chris Werner, DTM
Table Topics Contest
Held on the same night as the Humorous Speech, all contestants except one are required to leave the room. The remaining contestant gets asked a single table topics question, in which they have 1-2 minutes to come up with an answer. After them, the next contestant enters, is asked the same question, and the cycle repeats. If you can’t think of an answer… try your best! The topics are usually very generic and made in a way so that anyone can answer them. The best thing is though, you are free to take the topic wherever you want. It could be a serious opinion, pose a challenge to the audience, make them laugh, make them cry. The topic is your oyster!
Here’s a few words on the Table Topics contest, by Michael Kenny, ACG ALB, who has won the club contest multiple times and represented Dublin South at Division level in 2019.
“Table topics present a specific challenge, especially at contest level because of the lack of detailed preparation.
At division level a there may be 100 people present. When your name is called walk smartly to the lectern. This will give you time to compose a response. Go with the first thought that pops into your mind and run with this idea. If you are asked for an opinion, it does not have to be your honest or genuine opinion, you can play devil’s advocate and swear that black is white! Introduce humour or sarcasm if appropriate. For more serious topics, a tone of gravitas may be called for. Relax, look confident and you will feel confident, and above all, enjoy, whatever the result.”
Michael Kenny, ACG, ALB
For the Evaluation contest, the contest team will aim to find a speaker that the evaluation contestants have not heard before. Additionally, they are not allowed to contact the speaker beforehand. The speaker delivers their speech 5-7 minutes, then all contestants leave the room. Contestants make notes for 5 minutes before they are told to stop, and their notes are taken away. The first evaluator then re-enters the room, with or without their notes and give an evaluation for 2-3 minutes. After that, the second evaluator comes in and the process repeats.
I asked Stuart Parkinson, ACB, ALB about his experiences, widely regarded as one of the best evaluators in DSTM, who reached the Division Finals in 2021.
“For preparation, I reminded myself to use the basics of a good evaluation, I saw this, I heard this, and I felt this. In a sandwich approach (good x2, improve x2, what you did best in an intro, body, summary and conclusion. Remember to deliver and evaluation on he content and the way the speech was delivered. Be specific and don’t just summarise what the speaker just said. Competing at the Division Level was a privilege as I was representing the club and it was a great feeling to see and hear very competent evaluators. Evaluating is the core and heart of Toastmasters, as everyone relies on feedback to help them improve. So go for it, you will be pleasantly surprised that being an evaluator is a fulfilling experience.”
Stuart Parkinson, ACB, ALB
International Speech Contest
The grandest of all contests, so much so that anyone wishing to compete must have completed at least Level 2 in their chosen Toastmasters path to participate. The brief however is simple, 5-7 minutes on any topic. Sounds simple, however the key to success with this speech is connecting with your audience no matter what the topic.
I asked Colette Ainscough, our 2020/21 Toastmaster of the Year to give an account, as she represented DSTM at the Division level in 2021.
“I love when I get an idea for a speech especially when the words flow onto the page. Entering competitions is exciting, challenging and rewarding. I would treat the International Speech Contest or any competition as a learning curve! I have had limited success at ISC level and know exactly where I failed. My top tip Chris for Toastmasters who wish to compete in the ISC is to incorporate the judging criteria whilst speech writing. If this practice is carried out in the first instance it means that as a speaker you are combining your ideas around the benchmarks of content, delivery and language.”
Colette Ainscough, CC, CL IP2
Tall Tales Contest
Although Tall Tales is no longer competed above club level, it is still a thoroughly enjoyable event, and is often the most fun night of the year. The speech is short, 3-5 minutes, but that’s where the normalities end… here you let you imagination go wild. The definition of a tall tale is a speech whose subject is ‘highly exaggerated, improbable nature with a specific theme or plot’.
We asked Susan McDaid, our most recent contest winner, who won our Tall Tales contest in 2021 after competing in her first Toastmasters contest.
“I did some research and watched some winning speeches. I was actually excited when I realised, I could be as creative as I wished and just tell an exaggerated story. As I practiced, I started to add to the story by exaggerating aspects of it, enhancing the characters and adding some humour. I was absolutely thrilled to win first place, it was totally unexpected due to other wonderful entertaining Tall Tales that night. My tips, just go for it, do your research, practice and have fun!”
Editors Note: Chris Werner (DTM)
The majority of what I have learned from Toastmasters has been from contests. You will make mistakes, you will sometimes doubt yourself, but no-one ever achieves anything by staying in their comfort level, so just go for it. You will notice a significant change in your confidence and your speaking ability by doing so. It is always a tremendous learning experience, even as an audience member, as you have the opportunity to hear so many different viewpoints and approaches to the same thing. Give it a go, because you never know, you might just win it!