I have long been a proponent of Toastmasters. When I competed for the World Championship of Public Speaking in 1977, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada two interesting things happened.
First, the judges came to me to show me their ballots (as they are obligated to do), which indicated I was the winner. The bad news, they told me “You have regrettably gone overtime and therefore are disqualified.”
You can be disqualified in two ways in Toastmasters International Speech Contests. One is for originality and the other is either exceeding or not fulfilling the time requirements of seven minutes and thirty seconds.
When competing on the International Level, you are required to send in copies of all previous speeches, none of which you can duplicate. The originality of you material is also researched to make sure the speech is all yours.
I was so sure I was within my time limit. However I received a standing ovation right in the middle of the speech that lasted eight seconds, which was exactly the amount of time that I went over.
I won’t lie to you. That was one of the most disappointing days of my life and yet was clearly the most valuable. I could handle the fact that the other eight speakers were all better than I was. I could handle them beating me. I couldn’t handle me beating me.
When you do something stupid like being disqualified, that calls for a pity party in pity-city (the Toronto International Airport). Let me set the scene for you. There I am, sitting on my pity-pot (my suitcase), feeling sorry… as my plane taxied off without me. It was then that I realized I wasn’t going to be winning that year.
One year later, I went through the entire process all over again, winning the Club, the Area, the District and the Regional competitions. There are nine Regions in the Toastmasters International Speaking World and over 350,000 paid members worldwide today.
In 1978, the Toastmasters International Convention went back to Canada for the second year in a row to Vancouver, British Columbia. It was the same drill all over again but the problem for me is I couldn’t replicate my speeches from a year earlier.
It wasn’t that I could not use earlier material I had previously used. In Toronto the year before one of the great all-time Toastmasters Fred Winiki used a speech he had done years prior. He had made it to the International Finals 22 consecutive years. He was told that he was disqualified for using a speech he had used in years prior. In all his efforts, he never won. Once you win, you’re not allowed to participate again.
I had already made one mistake of going overtime and I was darn sure I wouldn’t be disqualified for replicating a speech. The hard part of that is I did not have this untapped reservoir of information. I had used up all my good stuff in 1977. I had nothing left for Vancouver in 1978. My stuff was watered down.
To be honest, my mind was not exactly where it should have been. My wife Christine just gave birth to our twin sons, Cory and Jason, only one week prior. I questioned whether I could even attend. The good news is she delivered early allowing me to sneak off while grandmothers and aunts fussed over the gruesome twosome.
I knew the drill. I prayed that I’d be the last speaker in the competition which would allow me to be the most recent in their minds and closely watch my competition.
I was searching for an unfair advantage. Just before the competition, I asked Toastmaster Executive Director Terry McCann if there was a rule against moving around on the stage.
He said no but quickly added he had never seen a speaker move around in all the years he had been a Toastmaster. I drew the last slot but was seeking the “unfair advantage.” Movement was the key. Since that competition, many speakers competing today race around, fall down, and in general move all over the place.
Long story short, I won the competition. In my acceptance speech, I told the 2,500 people present that you have to go through Toronto to get to Vancouver.
Doug Dickerson is a syndicated columnist. He writes a weekly column for this newspaper. To contact Doug Dickerson, email him at ddickerson@ lasvegastribune.com.