Armed with a large spreadsheet, videos of Toastmasters International Finalists, and an overwhelming sense of curiosity, I set out to learn what sets the champions apart.
I watched 10 champion speeches and 5 speeches that placed second or third. I manually recorded everything about them in a spreadsheet: aspects like how many laughs they received, what style of speaker they are, what kind of stories they told, and how many words per minute they spoke.
I discovered that there are many elements that are common to almost every champion. If you can create a speech with all these elements, you’ll certainly do well—and maybe even be the next champion.
1. Tell personal stories
In the last 7 years and out of the 15 speeches I watched, all but one champion told personal stories. Jock Elliott, the exception, gave a unique speech where he mentioned his personal life but only in general terms.
Even more surprising: statistics and third party stories are almost non-existent. My explanation is that they have lower emotional impact. While I didn’t record the amount of people that used statistics, I don’t remember hearing any. And of the 33 stories that were told in these speeches, only 2 were third party stories.
How many stories should you tell in a speech? It depends. Some people tell one story for the entire speech, others tell one story in multiple “acts”, and others tell a series of stories. Usually, all of their stories connect to show how they overcame some obstacle and learned a lesson that they now share with their audience.
2. Use humor early and frequently
Of the winners I analyzed, the audience laughed an average of 16 times in a seven and a half minute speech. Most of these speeches were in the 12-15 laugh range. Most speeches achieve their first laugh in the first 30 seconds. There are no speeches without humor at this level of competition: the lowest number of laughs I saw was from a speech in 1995, clocking in at 7 laughs.
That doesn’t mean that these speeches are comedy routines with exclusively happy themes! On the contrary, some of the best speeches wrestle with difficult topics and some even induce tears. The truth is, there’s no easier way to make your audience comfortable and eager to listen than to make them laugh early and often.
You may be thinking that you’re not very funny, so you can’t use that much humor in your speech. That’s nonsense—anyone can learn to deliver humor in prepared speeches. In fact, I wrote a guide to humor that you can use even if you aren’t funny.
3. Speak slowly and pause often
When people are nervous, they tend to speak too fast to compensate. While world champions still feel nervous, they are remarkably good at hiding it. Their speeches are slowed down by a conversational speaking speed and many, many pauses.
I cannot emphasize enough how important pauses are. They make your speeches more emotionally powerful, easier to follow, and funnier.
Speakers averaged around 110 WPM, with the lowest at 76 and the highest at 135. Both of these outliers were speakers whose unique styles called for slower or faster speaking. The low outlier is the 2013 world champion Presiyan Vasilev, who spent a large chunk of his time imitating the noises of a tire jack and acting out his speech. The high outlier is Kevin Stamper, who got 3rd place in 2017.
4. Use the stage
The World Championship is held in a venue with a fairly large stage. Good speakers use this space effectively—but using the stage doesn’t mean pacing back and forth throughout their speech.
Rather, the best speakers plan all their movements (a practice called “blocking” in theater). One common technique is to tell a chronological story and move from the audience’s left to their right over the course of the speech.
Some speakers move backwards on the stage to convey rewinding in their timeline. Some move forward when they want to really get a point across to the audience. Others create imaginary sets on stage and move around their sets as they tell their story. Many speakers make smaller 3-step movements in the middle of a thought, while moving longer distances when marking a transition.
About 80% of speakers made between 10-20 large movements (over three steps) throughout their speech, and the first place speakers I observed moved more than the second or third place speakers.
5. Tickle Toastmasters by talking about them
One of the most important principles of public speaking is to cater to your audience. And when you’re competing in Toastmasters, there’s only one thing that you know for sure about every member in the audience: they like Toastmasters.
It’s only logical to cater to this common denominator by making a joke or other reference to Toastmasters. In fact, although the speech club had little to do with most people’s speeches, it was mentioned in a majority of them. These references came in different forms, such as calling someone an “ouchmaster” or “distinguished jack master” or telling a story that involves a Toastmasters meeting.
Of the 6 that did not contain a Toastmasters reference, 3 were not first place speeches, and another 2 are very old ones (2001 and 1995). The key here is to make sure it fits. If you try to squeeze it into your speech where it doesn’t make sense, judges will see right through that.
6. Use relevant but simple props
The use of props in the World Championship is divided almost 50/50 based on my analysis. However, the past five champions have all had a prop.
What is consistent among them is that their props are simple and small. Four out of the fifteen speeches I analyzed had a piece of paper (ticket, letter, and two business cards) as their prop. The rest of the props were a flower, a cigarette, and white men’s briefs.
Many times, the prop is used at the very beginning of the speech to make a point or draw the first laugh. Notably, the 2015 champion pretended to smoke a cigarette before saying a word, and the 2016 champion put on the white briefs over his suit before speaking.
It’s important to use a prop that has an actual tie-in to your speech. The tie-in can be an analogy or a more literal one, like when the 2nd place speaker from 2017 pulled out an important letter than he received from his parents in the story.
7. Achieve a wide emotional range
One of the greatest signs of mastery of public speaking is the ability to take an audience from laughter to the verge of tears within moments. While it’s difficult to quantify, a large majority of the speeches I watched have themes of happiness and sadness in the same speech—often switching between the two in moments.
They often follow a redemptive story arc where the main character is at a low point and realizes something that changes the course of their life. Love and relationships, fear and anger, disappointment and triumph are all common themes in these speeches.
Take your audience through an emotional rollercoaster—make them feel what you felt at each point throughout your story. Let them live it with you.
8. Use callbacks
Callbacks are when you mention a concept or phrase early on in your speech, then bring it up later. In almost every speech, one of the callbacks was a clear catchphrase that you can repeat. Some examples include “Pull less, bend more”, “I see something in you, but I don’t know what it is”, and “Trust is a must”.
When applied to jokes, callbacks are also referred to as “shelving”. You make a joke, then later in the speech make another joke that references the previous one. You now have an inside joke with the audience that’s almost guaranteed to generate another laugh.
While the catchphrase is often the main message of the speech, it doesn’t have to be. Some champions had a catchphrase that they repeated which was more of a story element than a lesson.
9. Give your speech a clear but general lesson
Inspirational speeches, without any exception that I can find, are the only speeches that win. Speeches that merely entertain or inform do not cut it. And to inspire someone, you need to give them something to be inspired to do.
Speeches with an overly specific lesson don’t make it to the main stage. “Recycle more” is probably not going to make it. “Be a better boss at work” is even less likely, since it applies to less people. Your lesson should apply to essentially everyone in the room.
Some of the lessons in winning speeches (paraphrased):
- Sacrifice more in your relationships
- Don’t let your inner bully affect you
- Words are powerful, be careful with them
- Get help when you need it
- Give everyone a second chance
- Keep your friends close
Notice that these topics aren’t surprising—While they’re usually based on something that most people aren’t currently doing, they are things that people know they should do. In short, the speakers are encouraging the audience to be virtuous in some way or another.
10. Act out situations, but don’t overdo it
In every speech I watched, people acted out the conversations they had in their stories. While this may seem like a minor point, it helps your audience relive the moment with you. You don’t necessarily have to stop there—some simple actions were also mimed: driving, falling, and stamping a ticket, smoking, a dad playfully throwing and catching his baby, etc. These are all simple movements that can easily be shown to an audience.
That said, be careful not to overdo it. Some world champion speeches are a little controversial and riding the edge on this point. Some Toastmasters are of the opinion that the stage is too frequently occupied by people who are acting more than they are speaking.
I think this criticism is usually unfair. However, whether I agree with it or not, there are many potential judges of the contest that would be eager to dock points for being too “theatrical”. If you want to get an idea of which speeches are controversial, just check their like/dislike ratio on YouTube and read the comments (I’d rather not mention any by name).
11. Ask the audience questions
Practically every speech I watched had 2-6 questions for the audience throughout the speech. These weren’t rhetorical questions, but also in most cases they were not meant to be answered in any way (a couple times the speaker asked for a show of hands). They weren’t particularly profound questions either—they simply get people to apply the speech to themselves.
For example, one champion told a story and let the audience know how he felt at the time. Then he asked, “have you ever felt that way?” Another question asked was “What would you do in this situation?”
These sorts of questions get people to apply the emotions that you’re sharing with them to themselves. They let the audience into the speech, much like using the word “you” as you speak. Throw a few questions throughout your speech in key locations to get the audience thinking.
12. How to start and end your speech
The first and last thing you say will stick better in your audience’s head than anything else you say. So if you want people to remember your speech by something, make sure your introduction and conclusion are solid.
In the world championship, introductions vary far more than conclusions. Here are the types of introductions I found in these 15 speeches:
- Starting into a story (3)
- Using a prop (3)
- Talking directly to the audience (3)
- Asking the audience a question (2)
- Catchphrase (2)
- Audience participation (counting to 3) (1)
- Acting out a scene from a movie (1)
Although those stats don’t show it, many of these introductions included a catchphrase of some sort, but I only counted the introduction as such if it was the first sentence.
Intriguingly, of the speeches I watched, everyone who started directly into a story or used a prop was a champion. The sample size is too low to make much of that, but what you should note is that these types of introductions are conservative choices.
Meanwhile, conclusions are almost universally callbacks to something in the speech:
- Catchphrase callback (9)
- Regular callback (3)
- Call to action (speaker concludes with advice) (3)
All of these conclusions are safe options, with no clear trend of which type tends to do better.
While there’s always room for individuality and creativity in your speech, it’s safe to find a clever way to introduce a catchphrase and then call back to it in your conclusion.
13. Make your transitions clear with these 4 tools
You are never left wondering if the speaker is about to change topics in a world champion speech. They use a variety of tools to make their transitions clear, and wording is only a small part of that.
In fact, ideally you want to combine these four factors to make your transitions clear and easy to follow.
- Change of tone
- Transitional words
14. Don’t waste time
In this speech contest, you only have seven and a half minutes to make your point. And considering that you are disqualified if you go even a second over that, it’s safer to aim for the “official” seven minute time limit.
It’s critical to cut out literally every unnecessary word from your speech. Every word in a speech should either set up the main point or impact the audience emotionally.
Humor is critical, but are you making off-topic jokes that draw attention away from your story or point? Transitions should be clear, but are you wasting too much time between thoughts? Stories are great but are you telling too many? Details bring stories to life, but are you swamping the audience with them?
Cutting pieces of your speech may be more difficult for you than writing them in the first place, but it’s an important part of the process.
15. Simplify your language
Many people try to sound smarter by using large words, but that is usually a mistake. Newspapers are generally written at an eleventh grade level. It may come as a surprise to you that the average grade level for a Toastmasters speech is around sixth grade. U.S. Presidents speak at an average grade level of 6-8!
To keep your speech simple, use shorter sentences, shorter words, and more common words. Don’t try to string together a highly complex sentence that requires careful thought to capture.
16. Anyone can win
What’s incredible about public speaking is that—save for some rare exceptions—anyone can be good at it. Anyone.
Most people would never be able to do a back flip, win a yo-yo competition, or run a four minute mile. But aside from serious speech impediments, nothing is holding you back from being a world champion.
If you had heard me speak when I first tried (at the age of 14), you would have thought, “that boy will never be a good speaker”. I would have agreed. Even after 3 years, I still wasn’t good at it. But I was fed up with mediocrity, so I worked harder than ever before and intentionally worked on my speaking. One year later, I received 4th place speaker at a national debate competition.
Using books, blogs, and videos, I essentially self-coached myself to become a competent speaker.
Honestly, you probably won’t be able to do the same thing without some help. Not everyone can effectively self-coach. Studies have found that focused practice combined with coaching is the single most effective way to break plateaus and truly improve at difficult skills.
If you’re a speaker who is fed up with your perceived glass ceiling, look into one on one coaching from someone who has actually taken people from zero to first place in just a few hours. Click here to learn about Potent Speaking coaching.