Every year Toastmasters organize speech contests, one of them is humorously speaking contest. The goal is to give a speech which is funny (duh), but at the same time has great delivery and content. In Europe, this contest happens in the fall usually starting in September at club levels.
Last year I was fortunate enough to not only take part in the contest but reaching district finals. District comprised of 18 countries in North, East and Central Europe with 13 contestants reaching the finals.
This journey had many ups and down, not only because it is a very competitive contest, but also because I AM NOT FUNNY. At least not on purpose. But damn me if I would give up a chance to give a speech, even if it would mean making a fool of myself. Turned out, I did make a fool of myself, at club contest.
I finished 3rd out of 5 contestants. Both 1st and 2nd placed contestants were, well funny. But destiny/fate/god/ (whatever hypothetical higher power you believe in) had different plans. Both the 1st and 2nd placed contestants couldn’t go to the next level due to date conflicts. So, I got a chance to go forward.
And thus, started the most fulfilling journey as a speaker for me. Those 2 months of speaking and competing not only took me through new levels of self-pity, stress and “WHY ME” questions , but also through new insights, confidence, and maturity as a speaker that I won’t have gotten even in 2 years.
As the new Toastmaster contest season is upon us and many Toastmasters will be taking part in the humorously speaking contest, I would like to share 3 things that worked for me and 3 mistakes I wish I hadn’t made, while competing.
Before I go into detail, here is the video of the speech from district finals.
- Know the Audience
Product Manager is someone who was too extroverted to be an engineer and too introverted to be in Sales.
When I told above in my team, there was laughter all around, as we are all product managers. When I told this to my girlfriend, she had a blank face.
Audience matters. It matters in all kind of public speaking but with humor, you must be even more mindful of your audience. What may work for one type, may not work for another.
I went with the easy option. I am a Toastmaster, taking part in Toastmasters speaking contest in front of Toastmaster audience. What better topic do I have than to talk about Toastmasters. It worked great.
The second underlying topic is dating, considering the average age of a Toastmaster in my part of the world is about 25-35, the age you are most likely to be seriously dating.
Looking back, it worked great through the early stages of the contest.
- Make it all up
“Tragedy + time = Humor”. Mark Twain
But it isn’t the only way.
Most of the time when we make our friends laugh, it is while telling a story from our own past. In fact, 4 other competitors on my club level contest, all had personal stories as the main theme of their speech.
I also tell a story in my speech, but here is the secret, it is not real. Nothing like that ever happened. If you really think about it, it will be absurd if it really happened. But you will be surprised at how many people took it to be true.
A year earlier, I had told a personal real story in the humorously speaking contest, this time I wanted to do something else. So, I made it all up. In fact, at club level, it was not even a story, only at the next level did I decide to turn the same content and joke and tell it inside the frame of a personal story.
So personal real story is not the only way to be funny, you can make it up.
Every joke has pretty much the same structure. Setup <pause> punchline <pause> punch word.
It is this Pause, which is the hardest thing to master. Do it too short, too long or at the wrong moment and no one will laugh. Do it just right, instant laughter.
During different levels of the contest, the same joke got no laughter, small laughter or a big laugh depending on my delivery
So, whatever you do, get your pauses right, practice it with your friends, once you figure the right pause, the joke will always work.
- KNOW THE AUDIENCE
Yes, know the audience, but don’t get comfortable with the same one.
First 3 levels of the contest were all in Poland. Where the indeed average age of Toastmaster is between 25-35, so the topic of dating (with some subtle hints or not so subtle hints of sex) worked very well.
Unfortunately, the final level was in the Czech Republic with an audience comprising of people from 18 European countries. There were member present who were above 50 and from Germany. They didn’t find me funny. It was unnerving to see half the audience having blank, serious, somewhat angry faces while the other half was laughing their ass off.
Older people in the audience, not all, but the majority didn’t even find my jokes funny, but some clearly even found them offensive.
Knowing the audience is must, but if you are taking part in the contest and subsequent levels are in front of different audiences, adjusting your content based on the audience is even more critical.
- Uncanny Valley
Due to lack of time as well as a conscious decision to not over-rehearse my speech, I only rehearsed my speech on average about 5 times before each level.
The speech at the Division level, just 3 weeks before the finals, was arguably my best performance. I was in good mood, I was confident, and I performed without a single hesitation and doubt in mind that I will win. I got a huge response.
On the finals though, in the morning I met other competitors during the contestant briefing and that unnerved me a bit. It finally dawned on me that these are the best of the best from all over Europe and I am underprepared. So, I escaped from a wonderful conference back to my hotel room and rehearsed my speech about 10-15 times without an audience. I felt better.
I delivered a good speech, I didn’t forget a word, all my pauses and jokes were on time, yet something was off. I could feel it on stage and I can see it whenever I see the video. I was just not present.
I had unfortunately gone to the “Uncanny Valley”, which is the worst thing that can happen as a speaker in a contest. Read more about the Uncanny valley in my earlier blog post here.
So, do whatever you want, but avoid the “Uncanny valley” at all cost.
- No Message, No Speech
The first step to writing a speech, write your message. Your message is the core of the speech which binds everything together. Which helps to craft the right arguments, use the right aids and do the right delivery.
You may think, this is true for all speeches except humorous speeches. After all, the goal of a humorous speech in a humorously speaking contest is to make people laugh, not make them think.
This was the worst mistake I made. I had no message. Nada, zero, zilch in this speech. This whole thing was crafted to make people laugh. That is all. That is not ENOUGH.
At some point, I did realize that I need a message, but coming up with a message out of an already written speech is like squeezing your belly to fit into a tight shirt. It doesn’t’ work, sooner or later the shirt is going to pop and people will see the truth
Speech is a gift and the core of that gift is your message. Everything else delivery, humor, content is just decoration to make it look presentable and to get attention. And it is true for all speeches even the ones that are supposed to be humorous.
I learned this lesson when I saw the winner performing an amazingly well-crafted speech but more importantly a speech with a clear message in the final. Aleksandra Lewandowska showed how it should be done and, in the process, took home the 1st place.
So start your preparation by writing your message.
This year, I won’t be taking part in the contest. Not because I don’t want, but because I have taken a leadership role in the District which prohibits me from taking part in the contest. Instead, my focus is to work with the members of my club as a mentor and help them win. And my first advice to them is, find a message you believe in, we can work on humor later.