Lessons learned from a Toastmasters humorous speech contest (Oh, and video of my winning speech)

A couple of weeks ago I won the fourth and final round of a Toastmasters humorous speech contest, beating out representatives from about 75 other clubs along the way.

I learned a lot from the experience, and I’ll happily share a few key lessons with you in a minute. If you’re not into the public speaking thing, I encourage you to give this post a quick read anyways, since many of the lessons can be applied to other areas.

First, here’s the video of my winning speech (recording started about 15 seconds into it):

Now on to the lessons. I want to emphasize here that I am by no means an expert on public speaking or humor, but this stuff worked for me, and hopefully you can find something in here that works for you, too.

1. Preparation wins

The guy who came second place in the contest had actually beaten me in the previous round. (Luckily, the top two moved on from that, which was how I made it into the final.) He definitely deserved to win that previous round, because his speech was much better than mine. However, for the final, he admitted to not having practiced at all in the week leading up to the contest, whereas I had practiced my speech at least 20 times in the 24 hours before.

I recorded some of my practice sessions on video and reviewed them to see where I could improve. I even put the audio from one of my better practice runs on my iPhone and listened to it on repeat as I drove to Baton Rouge for the contest.

Excessive? Absolutely. But to paraphrase Will Smith: “Somebody might be just plain better than me, they might be more talented or they might have more experience. But I can always work harder than them. That’s within my control.”

Also, if you practice your ass off, you can rest a little easier right before you get on stage, because you know you’ve put in a ton of prep work and you deserve to do well.

2. Get feedback (and use it!)

There’s no way I could have won without help from my Toastmasters club. At our club meeting before the contest, I delivered my speech and had everyone give me feedback. It was golden. I made lots of tweaks in light of the advice I received. In fact, you can see for yourself just how much my speech evolved between rounds three and four, since I have video of my round three performance, too:

To note a few specific things that I changed:

  • Lots more gestures. Where I talk about running up the hill and tiring myself out, I was advised to actually look exhausted on stage, have my body language emphasize my words.
  • The armpit sniff. That was an idea straight from a fellow Toastmaster.
  • Vocal variety. In round three I was at pretty much the same pace and volume for the entire speech. But in round four I mixed up a lot more, slowing right down in some places, whispering in others, then raising the volume significantly for the more dramatic moments.
  • Less foot movement. I paced and shuffled a lot in round three. Moving between spots on stage isn’t a bad thing, but those movements must have a purpose. Just wandering around aimlessly can distract the audience from what you’re saying.

3. Give the audience blanks to fill

For storytelling, I’ve learned that it’s a good idea to let the audience fill in the blanks. In the earlier rounds, I described what Bridget looked like (“brown hair, more cute than sexy”). A fellow Irishman from another club advised me to be more general in my description and let the audience use their imagination. So, in the final, I described Bridget’s appearance simply by saying, “she… was… beautiful!” Everyone listening could then envision their own idea of a beautiful young woman and thus become more invested in the story.

In other words, it’s not always a good idea to spoon feed the audience. If you’re giving an informative speech, details become very important and you want to make sure the audience has a specific picture in mind. But for an entertaining speech, you want them to use their imagination.

Many popular TV shows leave blanks for the audience to fill. They don’t describe every little thing. Think of The Sopranos, Lost and The Wire. These shows assume the viewer ain’t stoopid and let you connect the dots yourself.

4. Letting loose

A few weeks ago I wrote about giving yourself permission to suck. That in a nutshell: you shouldn’t fear those first few weeks/months/years of trying something new, that phase when you inevitably suck and you’re tempted to quit and avoid the awkwardness and embarrassment. You have to give yourself permission to suck for a while, and eventually you’ll get better.

Likewise, I’ve found that you often have to give yourself permission to be awesome. There’s this strange resistance we encounter when we set out to do something remarkable. I encountered it in the first three rounds of the contest. My speech was good enough to get me through those rounds, but I was holding back each time. I was fine practicing the speech alone in my bedroom, but when it came to delivering it in front of an audience, everything was dialed down a few notches.

It made no sense. I knew that my speech would be better received if I went all out, exaggerated my gestures, raised my voice, kept my energy high. Yet there I was, reluctant to let loose. It was as if I was afraid to succeed.

In the hours leading up to the final performance, I kept telling myself that I had permission to go all out. I even stood in front of the mirror in the restroom for a few minutes, giving myself permission to be awesome.

And hey, it worked!

Even if I had lost the competition, I would have come away satisfied because I really gave it my all up there, held nothing back. It felt great.

Next time you’re trying to achieve something, make sure you give yourself permission to really get after it. It’s okay to suck for a while, but don’t hold yourself back.

5. Visualization and the breath

I meditate for 10 minutes every morning. In the week leading up to the contest, I used that time to sit quietly and visualize myself delivering the winning speech. I imagined myself being confident, going all out, and wowing the audience.

I had never given a speech with a microphone before, but I knew I’d have one for the final so I visualized what that would be like and imagined being comfortable with it. Likewise, I knew it would be the biggest audience I had ever spoken to (~50 people), so I tried to picture in my mind what that would be like and how I could feel good about it.

I also did some breathing exercises right before I delivered my final speech, exercises I learned from an Art of Living course last year. I felt that helped me keep calm and focused.

I believe all that visualization and the breathing exercises made a big difference. Even though the stakes were higher and the environment more intimidating, I felt more at ease getting up to deliver my speech in the final than I did in any of the previous rounds.

Wrap up

I still have a lot to learn about humor and public speaking, but I’m happy with the leaps I’ve made in the past few weeks. This whole contest experience showed me once again that you can make significant progress when you step out of your comfort zone.

Last week I dropped by a local bar to check out an open mic comedy night. They had about 15 comics do 3-7 minute sets throughout the evening. The crowd was rowdy and some of the comics failed miserably. I left feeling intimidated, thinking I’d have to be crazy to get up there and try it sometime.

I woke up the next morning, determined to give it a shot.

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  1. I really enjoyed that speech Niall, the use of that subtle reference near the end to the question you first asked Bridget was very clever and something I’ve noticed comedians often use – it kind of makes the audience laugh but also feel quite witty and smart for recognizing the reference.

    How does the toastmasters system work and do you know if they have similar competitions in the UK, one of my lifetime goals is to do a comedy set in front of a large audience who doesn’t know me (so no friends or family in the crowd to make it less challenging) and I think weekly or monthly opportunities to practice and watch public speaking through something like Toastmasters would be brilliant.

    Keep up the good work on the blog!

    1. Thanks, Lewis!

      That reference at the end wasn’t actually intended! I never even realized it until just now.

      Toastmasters is everywhere (I just went to a meeting in my hometown in Ireland this week) and I’m pretty sure the contests are structured the same way worldwide. You should be able to find a club near you no problem. Try toastmasters.org.

      Also, in some of the larger UK cities you may be able to find open mic comedy clubs. I tried doing that a few weeks ago in the States. It was nerve wracking, but a good experience.

      Thanks again! Let me know how you get on with Toastmasters.

  2. Hey Niall, I really enjoyed your speech, it had me laughing at my laptop. I have my first district level humorous speech competition in three weeks (District 59 – Continental Europe) and I found your tips very insightful and helpful 🙂

    Keep up the good work!

  3. Hello Niall, I was trying to search for tips on this since I’ll be joining a contest soon. Funny that I found you. I hope everything is doing well with you. I love the tips!

  4. Thanks for the tips! My club has bullied me into participating in the upcoming Humorous Speech contest (even though I’ve only delivered one speech!), so I appreciate the advice! Can’t wait to watch the videos when I get home.

  5. Thanks for much for your insight. I am participating tomorrow night at a Humorous Speech Contest and find your comments spot on. I took 2nd place at my local Toastmasters club. The 1st place winner was unable to attend. I’m it. I have rehearsed the speech so many times and it’s been critiqued over and over again. How do you keep the spontaneity that you experienced the first go around? This is my first competition – frightened yet excited. Thanks again for your thoughts and sharing your wisdom.

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