Dear Toastmasters .. please close your eyes, and try to remember the most fun speech contest you’ve ever been to. Now open your eyes and read on..

How did the room look? How many people were there? Was there any additional activity, like a workshop or keynote speech? Were there many judges? But most of all .. were there many participants? Do you really remember the quality of the speeches, or was it more important that the competitors just did their best to outperform themselves? Was the audience any larger than the usual Toastmasters club meeting? Did people bring guests and friends that specially came for the contest? What was it that you especially liked about this great contest you once attended? Or did I forget to mention what are your reasons to make that contest into such a memorable one for you?

Can you now think of any single thing that every really great speech contest must have? One single quality without which you will never be quite satisfied that is was a really great event?

For me, that most important ingredient is to have a sufficient number of competitors! Once you have those, the size of the event has some critical mass. With enough competitors it is worth the trouble to look around for a good number of judges. You can dare to ask people to bring guests, because you just know one of these speakers will be excellent, and all the others will put in the effort to exceed their usual performance. The expectations are heightened, and adrenaline will flush through the veins of the speakers, as well as the contest masters, the chief judge. And if there is an evaluation contest, the test speaker will try as hard as anybody else. And the audience will sit there, hoping for them all to succeed, and exceed. But if any one of the speakers doesn’t live up to these high expectations, they will still get a thundering applause, for daring, and doing their best. My belief is that any really great contest event starts with having a good number of contestants.

But how many is enough? How many would be too much? My personal feeling is that it is difficult to have too many contest speakers, as long as they fit in the available time. I do not feel quite satisfied when there are only 3 competitors. At 4, it is so-so. With 5 competitors I feel satisfied. But with 6, 7, 8, or even more, I really enjoy the abundance of speakers.

So what is the most important ingredient .. if you want to organize a really great speech contest? My opinion is that you must try to find 5 competitors, or more. This will include those one or two most excellent speakers that want to win and continue to the next round. But it must really also include those brave people for which competing itself is already a heroic deed.

And once you have a good number of competitors .. then you’ll find the motivation to search for enough judges, if possible also from neighbouring clubs. And you may even need to find a somewhat larger room than you normally would have used. And you will prepare all the people involved in the event well, and in advance. And the room will be nicely prepared, and decorated. You’ll find a great presenter for the evening. And it will be fabulous!

.. that is how a really great contest should be. But that is my opinion. What is yours?

Make it big

In speed reading, one of the techniques used is to first read two pages so fast that you no longer comprehend the text. Then, when you start reading for real your reading speed will be higher than normal, as it is primed by the speed of those two pages. It’s the same effect you see when, after driving for an hour on the highway, you exit and drive country road: you have the tendency to go too fast.

The technique to prime yourself by exaggeration works everywhere. You can use it to tackle your areas for improvement in the speaking arena. By exaggerating and going out of your comfort zone you redefine what’s normal and increase your range of options.

An example: 2005 world champion Lance Miller once wanted to extend his vocal range. He wasn’t loud and forceful enough where he needed to be so. In order to change his set point he gave a full speech shouting.

Which brings me to an important point: exaggeration is practice, and you need to do it in a safe environment. Your Toastmasters club is perfect for this: let them know what you are trying to achieve and then experiment.

More examples:

You’re too energetic
For a humorous delivery you often need to be deadpan. I’m usually far from. So I gave a complete humorous speech Steven Wright style. Not everybody appreciated it. But that’s not the point. I’ve learned to keep my voice more monotonous and my face more serious when I need it.

Bad articulation.
Try a speech My Fair Lady style. Another trick is to speak with a cork in your mouth for about two minutes prior to your speech. The added effort of trying to articulate with the cork will automatically improve your articulation for the next ten minutes – they highway effect. (I got this tip from Olivia Schofield , 2011 world champion finalist)

Too fast / not enough pauses.
Many people, including myself, hear that they speak too fast. It’s often not the words per minute that’s the problem (unless you articulation needs work) but the pauses. The audience doesn’t get the time to absorb your sentences.
Write a three minute speech and try to do it in six minutes. Increase your pauses to 10 seconds and over. See what happens. In your next speech, a 3 second pause may suddenly seem natural. And it is.

Not enough body language
If your arms stay in front of your torso, it’s not big enough. Especially in bigger venues you need bigger gestures. This doesn’t feel at all natural for many people. Force yourself to talk like an Italian during several speeches to make bigger gestures feel more natural. Don’t just use your arms: find reasons to do thing with your whole body.

What’s your area of improvement? If you want to make progress fast, make it big!

6 ways to start a speech

The opening of your speech needs to be an attention grabber. You want the audience to sit straight in anticipation of what’s coming. A “thank you mr. chairman, I’m delighted to be here, and on behalf of my organization I would like to thank blah blah blah” won’t do – by the time you start your speech the first snores will be audible.

Here are six ways to open a speech with a bang.

The question
Immediately engages the audience. You could choose an open question, a closed question with a show of hands, or a rhetorical question. Do you want an answer? If you don’t, prepare your sentence if somebody does answer. If you don’t, prepare for an audience that doesn’t. Your question should be followed up by something related to the question. Most important: give the audience time to think after your question.

The statistic
Not any statistic will do. It needs to be a startling statistic. If you can, translate the statistic into something imaginable. One in 4 people suffer from some sort of mental illness. One two three four. It’s you, sir.
Make the statistic come alive. If you can’t find a way to do that, don’t open with a statistic.

The word
The trick is to utter one single word that triggers the imagination of the audience. After the word, you allow for a moment of silence. The word yanks them into your topic, and they will want to know more. Good starting words evoke emotions, are well known, but not overused. Compare Alcohol! Babies! Remorse!  (the connection between these examples is completely incidental) with Tables! (no emotions) Arachnophobia! (not everybody will know what it is). Economy! (so what?)

The action
Instead of talking, start doing something. I once started a speech by taking off my shoes  and people are still talking about it. Your act needs to be highly visible – if the back of the room can’t see it (because it’s either too small or there are people in between) you won’t catch everybody’s attention. Not all acts are appropriate. Taking off your shoes for example is not done in some cultures.

The quote
As Einstein once said: “If you need an appropriate quote, you can always find one on the internet.” A quote can be a strong opening, but beware: check the authenticy of your quote. Famous people, like Einstein, have a lot of quotes attributed to them, including things they never actually said. Two more things to take into account: if you quote is too well known it looses its strength. If the source of the quote is not well known, you’ll have to explain who it is that said that and why this person is an authority. And that may take away the strength as well.

The story
Nothing better than to draw them in than a story. It doesn’t have to be long, as long as it rouses some emotion (most stories do) and is connected to the point you want to make. Whether you choose a personal story, a business story or a fairy tale is up to you. Nothing grabs the attention like a story.

These are not the only ways to start a speech properly, but I think I’ve covered 95% of the regular cases. If you happen to have another favorite sort of opening, let us know!

Stories or statistics?

What has a stronger impact on people’s behavior: a story or a statistic. If emotional story and cool hard fact meet eye to eye, who will win?

I teach storytelling. So I was pleased when I read an article about a study conducted by Deborah Small, George Lowenstein and Paul Slovic on the persuasive power of a personal story vs. a statistic. The story won. But first, I had to find the original research paper, because I like my personal, emotional, convincing stories to be based upon cool hard fact. There are just too many stories that turn out to be fabrications. Fortunately, the research paper is real.

As in all psychological studies university students participated in the experiment under the pretext of another experiment. They would receive 5 dollars after completion of the fake experiment. The envelope containing the 5 dollars also contained a plight for help: people could make a donation out of the 5 dollars.

The victim was either statistical – average donation $1.14:

  • Food shortages in Malawi are affecting more than 3 million children.
  • In Zambia, severe rainfall deficits have resulted in a 42 percent drop in maize productionfrom 2000. As a result, an estimated 3 million Zambians face hunger.
  • Four million Angolans — one third of the population — have been forced to flee theirhomes.
  • More than 11 million people in Ethiopia need immediate food assistance.

Or identifiable – average donation $2.38:

    Any money that you donate will go to Rokia, a 7-year-old girl from Mali, Africa. Rokia is desperately poor, and faces a threat of severe hunger or even starvation. Her life will be changed for the better as a result of your financial gift. With your support, and the support of other caring sponsors, Save the Children will work with Rokia’s family and other members of the community to help feed her, provide her with education, as well as basic medical care and hygiene education.


Story beats statistics by more than a factor 2. The explanation could be that the facts make your donation feel insignificant while the story gives you the feeling that you can make a difference. As mother Teresa once said and the authors of the study quote:

“If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”

Story AND Statistics

But the research continues. So story beats statistics, nothing unexpected there. But what if we include both story and statistics? An appeal to logic and emotion should be stronger than an appeal to either of them, shouldn’t it?

Apparently not. The average donation when story and statistics were combined was $1.43. So the conclusion seems to be that if you want people to take action, you better leave the statistics out all together. Maybe include a link for the few people who are interested, but the majority won’t be bothered.

Good news for me as a storyteller, bad news for me as a human being. But there is hope. This single piece of evidence is (and should be) quite narrow. Story vs. statistics vs. both are only investigated in the context of the (identifiable) victim. I can imagine that in other cases a combination of both could be stronger. As always, more research is needed.

In the meantime, there are two lessons to be learned from this research:

  • When presenting, choose the story over the dry facts. If time is short, consider dropping the facts altogether, or move them to a handout or url;
  • When listening to a presentation, double-check the speaker’s stories. Apparently we don’t need facts to believe in things.

Amy Cuddy recently gave an interesting TED talk about body language. As speakers we know that our body language influences the audience, whether we want it or not. But our body language also influences ourselves! Let’s give it a try.

Stand up and act as if you just won something great and important. You most probably threw your arms in the air. A very open posture. The victory stance. And for a reason. This position raises your testosterone level, resulting in more focus and confidence.

Now that you’re standing, try a big yawn. Surprise, it’s almost the same position, maybe your back is arched a bit more, but your arms are again above your head. The yawn stance, It lowers your cortisol level, lowering your stress.

One position influences two important hormones. And you only need to stand like that for about two minutes for a measurable difference. Something you can do a few minutes before you have to get on stage (but please, in the back of the room, or somewhere private).

Strong and relaxed

Here is the TED talk by Amy Cuddy.

What Will I Speak About?

One of the biggest concerns most new toastmasters have is having to find something to talk about so let me share one little tip for you:

Repeat your speeches.

One common misconception people have is that they must give a different speech for each manual project. This is not a rule. You could use the same speech for multiple projects and for each one build up the power of the speech by integrating the recommendations from the previous versions and adding in the new objectives from the next project, for instance:

1. The Icebreaker: You tell a story of an adventure that you had in Disney World.

2. Organise Your Speech: Look at the speech you gave in your ice-breaker, can you structure it better? Give it an attention-grabbing beginning, a captivating middle and a memorable ending, make the transitions between beginning, middle and end smooth.

3. Get to the Point: Take any recommendations from the previous speech and strengthen the organisation of the speech. Choose your general purpose, is your story about Disney World informative, entertaining, inspirational or persuasive? Let’s say that it’s entertaining, then your specific purpose could be to entertain the audience with a story about your misadventures in Disney World.

4. How to Say it. Make your story more vivid, add descriptions: metaphors, adjectives, add in tastes, sounds, colours, textures and smells, make the audience visualise the your experiences in Disney World.

5. Your Body Speaks. Add gestures, use your hands and arms to express your experiences, use your facial expressions to add feelings to your experience, complement your words with appropriate gestures and actions. If the roller-coaster was doing a loop the loop then show it.

6. Vocal Variety: Use pauses to add suspense, speak faster at the exciting or scary sections, whisper when you’re in the haunted house, think about how changing the pitch, the speed of tone of your vice will add extra detail and nuance to your Disney World story.

7. Research Your Topic: Look at the rides and experiences that you had in Disney World and look for the information behind it, for example, if your story is about a scary roller-coaster ride then research the physics and psychology of roller coaster design and intersperse the facts and figures with excepts from your roller coaster story.

8. Visual Aids: use props like Disney characters or t-shirts to add a visual and tangible element to the story of your experiences or use photos or slides to show where you were and what you did, remembering always that the visual aids are only there to add extra value to your existing story.

9. Persuade With Power: very simply, persuade the audience to go and visit Disney World, use your stories and experiences to show them that their life wouldn’t be the same without a visit to Disney World.

10. Inspire Your Audience: Disney World is said to be a place where dreams come true, perhaps your dream was to go and visit Disney World and you can use your dream and story to inspire your audience to follow their dreams.


While there’s no need to fill a whole manual with just one speech, even giving a speech two or three times will help you learn more about speech-writing and connecting with an audience than you will if you give new speeches for each project.

It is time to revive this wordpress blog for and from Utrecht Toastmasters. In recent time our club has been growing rather quickly again, with many new members joining the spring of 2012. We have been adding many extra meetings on the ‘even fridays’ between the standard 1st, 3rd, 5th fridays of the month. And even during the summer holidays we have met outside in the Julianapark, and are even now planning some extra meetings.

We have also updated our web pages on the ‘EasySpeak’ website at http://UtrechtTM.district59.eu, where you can also find a list of the upcoming meetings, including any extra ones.


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