Mr Contest Chair!

If you’re going to speak in public to different types of audience, especially audiences involving people of more authority, influence, or in some other way different from the norm and you’re a bit concerned about it, then it helps to get practice of being in that scenario. This is one area that Toastmasters can really help with.

Recently I volunteered to chair the Area Humorous Speech Contest for the six Toastmasters clubs in my area (although only four clubs actually fielded competitors). At the time I didn’t think much of the implications of taking this role on.

Not too long after however, it dawned on me that I had signed up to host a contest in front of not only my club’s Area Governor, but also the Presidents of up to six Toastmasters clubs in the area, including my own club’s President, and also our Division Governor.

To add even more spice to the mix, when I arrived at the contest venue I observed even more authority figures: our past Division Governor, and at least one other current and past Area Governor. And after all was said and done, I’d then have to face a mention in a contest report write-up in our Divisional newsletter. No pressure there then!

When it came to crunch time, I was surprised at how quickly I got rid of the nerves. I felt relaxed and comfortable pretty quickly. This was somewhat ironic. I was in a strange venue and with only a few familiar faces from my club present, yet despite all the important figures, and carrying on my shoulders the expectation of successfully handling this important contest, I felt more comfortable chairing this contest than I’ve felt doing a standard role in some Toastmasters meetings at my own club!

One of the things that helped give me a strong start was I did have some notes prepared – pretty much just a checklist to ensure I covered all the essentials. And I used them only in that way as and when needed.

The evening was opened up by my Area Governor who then gave me a warm introduction before calling me to the speaking area. It didn’t take me long to launch straight into the warm up and energise the room. It was fun. GREAT FUN!

I began by congratulating all contestants and guests that had come along to support their club’s contestants and then I got members of each club to stand and be applauded by everyone else.

Then I got everybody else that wasn’t a member of any of the clubs to be applauded for their part as functionaries and guests for the evening too. I thought this was right in the spirit of things at Toastmasters – except with a twist, instead of getting everyone to speak, I got everyone to be applauded for taking the time to be at the contest.

Then I got everyone to speak. Each person saying a word each and seeing where things went. There were a few giggles along the way!

Lastly I did an applause sound check, to make sure everyone was awake, alive and ready to energise the room as each contestant was called to and departed from the speaking area.

With the contest proper, I ensured all points on my checklist were delivered to the audience and contestants. I did have a couple of minor hiccups initially, nothing too obvious or distracting to the audience. As soon as it was time for the second speaker to be called up, I was fully back in my stride.

One thing I did quite well here and was commended on in later feedback was memorising all of the contestant’s speech titles so I didn’t need to refer to my notes while calling each contestant up to speak. One of the speech titles in particular was quite long and awkward, albeit wonderfully creative. I wasn’t sure if I could commit it to memory. I did manage to do so!

After the Humorous Speech Contest was done and dusted, and as my Area Governor thought I’d handled the Humorous Speech Contest well, I was then asked if I could also chair the Table Topics Contest that were to immediately follow a short break. The scheduled chair for the Table Topics Contest hadn’t arrived and had advised beforehand that he couldn’t guarantee he’d make it in time. I agreed to take on the role and perhaps handled it even better than the first contest, despite some initial nerves due to not expecting I would be taking this role on.

Additionally at the end of the contest I had to launch into another warm up – a table topics session with the audience, to keep everyone entertained while the judges votes were being counted and verified. Luckily I didn’t have to prepare most of the topics myself. Being that I had no time to prepare the topics in advance myself due to being asked to take on the role at the last minute, my Area Governor prepared some for me.

I was thoroughly enjoying myself at this part of the evening, especially as my first volunteers were a couple of people that had “difficulty” observing the silence period that followed each contestant’s speech or table topic response for judges to mark their ballot papers. At this moment, they were suddenly wishing they had observed the silent periods and each started nominating the other to go first! There were some good responses to these questions, some provoking laughter from the audience. Objective achieved!

Did the audience seem to agree I had nailed it? They sure did. As well as the abundance of verbal commendations I received following the contests (which I was quite taken aback by, humbled by, and gratefully received) the icing on the cake was that my performance as chair of the two contests was summarised in the Divisional Newsletter as a performance that was “expertly handled.”

So the lessons I’d like to share from this experience is to step up. Be willing to expand your comfort zone. Dare to take something you can currently do to a higher level. Trust yourself that you’re capable of doing just that and will achieve it! And then follow through and DO IT!