How I fell on my face... all the way to the top
As I waited my turn to take the stage every fiber of my body started to vibrate. And then my name was called and my world shifted into slow motion. I stepped onstage. I could see nothing past the blinding lights. But I could hear the audience. And I started to visibly shake.
Have you ever felt like that?
This wasn't the World Championship of Public Speaking, but it might well have been. That nerve-wracking event took place on April 25, 1992 at an "open mic" night at a Boston comedy club. Nine years and four months later I became an "overnight success" winning the World Championship of Public Speaking on August 25, 2001 with my speech "OUCH!"
Whether you dream of being a World Champion or just want to be a better speaker you can learn from those who have succeeded before you, just as I did.
Unbeknownst to me my preparation for the World Championship of Public Speaking started on that night in 1992. Being good at anything is a process and there are many "ouches" along the way. Don't let falling on your face stop you. Understand falling is an inevitable part of the process.
In my winning speech the emphasis was on Dr. Robert Goddard, America's first rocket scientist, and how he referred to failure as valuable negative information. What did I do right? What were the "Ouches" along the way?
OUCH # 1 - BE A FARMER?
Every "ouch" contains a lesson. The failure of my Subway Sandwich Franchise was no exception. I thought I knew it all. I was twenty-two years old and fresh out of business school. A dangerous combination. Subway told me that the most successful franchisees were farmers. Farmers? And the worst franchisees? Business graduates. Franchises are proven success systems. Farmers understood that they had bought into a different type of business and followed the system to the letter. Being right out of business school and a little over confident I felt I knew better and tried to change the system. Boy, was that an ouch!
OUCH #2 - STAGE TIME, STAGE TIME, STAGE TIME
"It must be nice to have the ability to speak in front of people. That is a gift." I laugh when I hear that because most people think speaking comes naturally to good speakers. It took me nine years to look natural. I can show you videotapes of early speeches that would have you shaking your head. Most don't understand it can be a learned skill.
The best advice I ever received was from my comedy mentors. They all concurred that the three most important things to becoming a good comedian is stage time, stage time, stage time. Not necessarily in that order. One explained it to me, "Darren, how can you be funny onstage until you are comfortable?" For Toastmasters I ask, "How can you communicate effectively until you are comfortable?" Get comfortable first, then worry about the little things! There are no short cuts. In my opinion 95% of your growth as a speaker comes from being in front of the audience.
It is easier to see the growth in others than in oneself. Which speakers grow the most? People who speak more. Compare everyone’s tenth speech to their icebreaker. Their first table topic to their twentieth. Are they better speakers? Yes! Are they more comfortable? Yes! What is often the most comfortable moment at a Toastmasters meeting? When someone at the meeting volunteers to speak before the scheduler points to you. Whew! "Sure," you think, "I'd like to speak more, but I don't have time to prepare. I'm too busy." Have you ever seen anyone get a table topic that they are passionate about? You can't get them to sit down! Have an outline ready to go.
So, why don't you speak more? Are you afraid of looking unprepared? Just to clarify, I called Toastmasters International Headquarters and found out that in the history of the organization there is no record of spontaneous combustion as a result of lack of preparation. Get up and speak! That is how you will grow. Challenge yourself.
I originally joined Toastmasters as a means of getting more stage time because comedy clubs are only open at night. Then I joined four clubs to fall on my face more often, to learn. I disciplined myself to get in front of every audience I could. I was more concerned with my long-term growth than with looking foolish giving a five-minute speech.
Ouch #3- PREPARATION
Have you ever been intimidated by an incredible speaker? He or she didn't start out that way. No one does. Watch other people at your level and get advice from people who are ahead of you. After winning the first few contests I got serious about winning my district. I asked for coaching from Dave McIlhenny, someone in my district who had won it before. My style of writing a speech was always from outline form. I had never written a speech out word for word. I just did not like writing it out. When Dave told me I needed to write out my speech I never questioned it. He had been there and knew what it took. I followed his success plan. After winning the Region VII contest Dave introduced me to Mark Brown the 1995 World Champion who had offered to give me some guidance. Whatever Mark said I took to heart and never questioned. I completely trusted his judgment. I became a better student. I asked better questions. I drove two and a half hours (one way) to work with him, twice. Yes, I'm glad he never told me to jump off a bridge. I would have.
When I asked David Brooks, the 1990 World Champion, what helped him the most he replied, "Let no one out-prepare you." I took his advice to heart. I knew I was probably not the most talented speaker, nor the best speechwriter. What I did have going for me was my resilience to get stage time. One of my comedy mentors, Dave Fitzgerald, prepared for each of his national TV spots by getting on stage every chance he could to practice the same five minutes over and over. He would run from one Boston comedy club to another for a week. That's what it takes to deliver with confidence and precision and to be able to deal with the unexpected when it's showtime.
Let me give you the hard numbers. I watched 90 World Championship contest speeches on video (10 contests), presented my speech to 22 Toastmaster clubs, received 151 written evaluations, videotaped 6 hours 46 minutes 43 seconds of my practice speeches and verbal evaluations - all this to make the most of SEVEN minutes in Anaheim. That's what it took to deliver it with confidence and precision. To be able to deal with the unexpected. Some days I would go to a Toastmasters club in the morning, go to work for a few hours, hit another club on my lunch break, back to work, and finally another club in the evening.
One of my final "live" practice runs was at a Toastmasters cookout. I had practiced earlier that evening at a club thirty minutes away. By the time I reached the party it was dark and the mosquitoes were biting. There were too many Toastmasters there to fit in one room, and I needed a large area to use as my stage. What would you do in this situation? My solution was to practice the speech outside in the back yard, under a flood light, while standing in the wet grass. I didn't think twice about it and I got a lot of great feedback to go along with my grass stains. Some people may be envious of my award, but few are envious of that much preparation. I am willing to bet that the few people who are willing to work that hard will be on the stage next year in San Antonio.
Ouch #4 - FINDING AN "11"
Knowing I would be compared to eight of the best speakers in the world, I searched for an eleven. I knew that my fellow contestants would rate as ten in most of the categories on the judges' forms. Many people will say that you can't be an eleven out of a scale of one to ten. You can if it has never been done before in a contest.
To my knowledge David Brooks was the first person to wear blue jeans and get the audience involved in his speech. Know yourself. I understood that my strength was my gestures and my weakness was my writing. I had to bring my writing up to a "ten" and tried to make some of my gestures better than everyone else's. I kept looking, and asking myself, What can I do to rate an eleven and stand out? The constant asking of a good question usually results in a good answer.
I questioned my gesture: falling on my face. Many people had dramatically gone down to one knee or described falling, but no one had ever gone down completely. I asked myself, "How would most people fall on their face?" In my opinion most people would fall down, then get up immediately and brush themselves off. I believed that you can't win the contest by being like most people. I chose to stay down and deliver the speech from the floor. It seemed to make the most sense, and be more dramatic. Although I knew it was risky, I also felt that since "falling on my face" was the essence of my speech the judges would reward the risk rather than take points away. It was a gesture that allowed me to stand out and made my point even clearer. What eleven can you develop?
Ouch #5 -EVALUATIONS
Three times I thought I was done and thought I had the perfect speech. Three times it was ripped apart by an advanced Toastmasters club. Three times I went to bed ready to quit. Three times I woke up with a better speech. Being evaluated by advanced clubs was difficult. I stood there and took my slashes and asked for more. It was like college hazing, "Thank you, sir. May I have another?"
I knew that if my message was not clear to advanced Toastmasters how would it be clear to 2000 people in Anaheim? People for whom English is not even their first language? Other winners' messages seemed to be simple, clear, and entertaining.
The biggest problem I found with the flood of feedback was what to listen to and what to throw out. Since I was speaking about America's first rocket scientist I had a brain flash of taking a scientific approach to the feedback. I developed my own evaluation form. I asked only two questions. What inspired you? What grabbed you? After each question I gave evaluators an A, B, and C encouraging three responses to each. I told my rough draft speech containing all of the stories I wanted to tell. It was ten minutes long. I took the evaluations and started a list of the points mentioned and put hash marks next the ones already mentioned. I was surprised by the results I got. It effectively helped me narrow the speech down to my most powerful stories and points.
Ouch #6 - SELF-EVALUATION
Another one of my favorite lines that I had to cut from my speech was, "Did you ever watch your own presentation on video? OUCH! Did you learn anything?" This didn’t ring true. Your body speaks to the audience louder than your words. Know what your body is saying. Turn down the volume on your TV when you watch it. Is your message coming through? I didn't like lugging the video camera around from speech to speech, but I knew the value of watching yourself. It was an ouch that I was willing to endure so that I could touch the 2000 Toastmasters in Anaheim.
When you are relaxed and away from the situation you can think clearer and evaluate yourself better. Some of the best ideas come while you are watching with a more relaxed state of mind. These new additions will make the speech better, clearer, and more entertaining. Yes, it can be painful. However, I guarantee you will learn from it. This is an ouch we need to learn to love.
Why do keep going after all of these ouches? It's all about your impact on the individuals in the audience. When I wanted to rest I remembered my responsibility to 2000 individuals that would make up the audience. The only road to the trophy was through the hearts of the audience. In my opinion, the trophy is not as much a symbol of success, as it is a symbol of a willingness to fail and learn from it. Every World Champion got there with a different approach. Your approach must fit you! Be authentic, be an Ouchmaster. I was not given the gift of being a great speaker, I was given the process to learn by doing. So were you. Like great jokes, the best speeches are not written. They are rewritten. Above all, if you want to be more of a speaker... speak more.
copyright 2004 Darren LaCroix, 2001 World Championship of Public Speaking