As a competitive person, second place is pain. If I’m second, I might as well be last. That’s why taking second place at the Division level of the International Speech Contest in Toastmasters knocked something out of me.
My goal had been Semifinals: and I was stopped two steps short of it. Worse, it was a public failure. I have five videos on this site titled Road to Semifinals. That’s how confident I was that I could get it!
In short, it’s embarrassing. I have a public speaking blog and have coached dozens of people, and I failed at the Division level. That’s not a good look if I want to be a trusted source of public speaking tips. This result shook me up and made me want to doubt myself. And yet, even though my inner voice is doubtful, a competition result doesn’t change:
- The value of the tips and advice I give
- The fact that they work (I’ve seen numerous people transform as speakers due to my advice combined with hard work)
- My ability as a speaker
What went wrong
In short, I don’t really know. Toastmasters contests give you no feedback other than the chance to achieve 1st-3rd place. If you lose, you just need to wait until next year and hope you’re better. After some self-analysis, my best guess is that it came down to these three things:
1. Stage usage
Rebecca Murray, who received first place, is an experienced public speaker. If I recall correctly, she’s been speaking for as long as I’ve been alive. She has clearly worked on using the stage to its fullest potential. She used every corner and placed certain imaginary objects and ideas into specific places.
While I used the stage and engaged all parts of the audience, I didn’t focus on covering every part of it or placing certain parts of my story in certain parts of the stage. I didn’t want to appear rigid and over-polished. As a result, I likely got docked points.
2. Gesture polish
I practiced my speech—a lot—but left many of my gestures up to improvisation as I spoke. Rebecca seemed to have hers really dialed down. Her speech was tight and choreographed, and it was beautiful. While my speech was definitely polished, it was also more organic—and that can be controversial.
3. Random chance
The reality of any sort of speech contest is that it is subjective. What works on one person may not work on another. Rebecca and I were neck-and-neck, and when two contestants are close together, small differences in judging become important. I could sit and speculate what tipped the scales in her favor, but I could have easily won due to a specific judge’s style as well. Rebecca was more than deserving of the title!
What we can learn from losing
Here’s what matters: I got out there and chased a big goal. One with a very real chance of failure. For me, that’s monumental because I don’t like failing. I like to pick and choose things I know I can do. But if I’m not willing to take risks and put myself out there, I’ll never be able to move forward in leaps and bounds.
Do you stick with what’s safe? If you’re reading this blog, you are probably further ahead than most people. Most people aren’t actively trying to improve themselves, and certainly not their speaking skills. But don’t just be content with being above average. Instead of comparing yourself to others (technically, I compared you to others for you but who’s counting), take a look at the places where you’ve become complacent with your life. Maybe you have improved in public speaking, but you’re holding yourself back from competing because it’s out of your comfort zone.
Maybe that’s the next thing you need to conquer.
The second thing I learned is that I can’t compete on autopilot. I prepared carefully for the Area contest, but I didn’t have the time to properly prepare for the Division contest. They were a week apart and I had so much going on that I didn’t practice my speech again until the day of the contest, and I didn’t make any edits to improve my speech. As it turns out, two of my judges had seen the speech the past week.
Without new humor, gestures, or storytelling, there was nothing to engage these judges. Is that why I lost? Who knows.
All I know is this: defeat should not be something to be ashamed of. It’s a sign that you’re stretching yourself. When you stretch yourself enough, you’ll grow until you no longer face defeat.
And that’s what makes victory sweet.