At toastmasters we get tips, have mentors, and get coaching to become better and more experienced speakers. That is exactly why there are contests, right? But what if you want to be an excellent contest chair? Is there an advanced communication manual for that? Or, better still, is there a contest for contest chairs? No! If you have ever thought of being a contest chair… or were just asked to do it in your club, area, division or district, you might just be interested in my confessions of a contest chair.
In November 2017, we had another great district 59 conference. It was in Milan, and I had the honour of being the contest chair for the finals of the Table Topics contest in English. Many toastmasters are familiar with our contests. There are winners, who get awards, and there are more winners who experience an intense learning curve in public speaking. But, there are so many more who benefit from contests: timers, sergeants at arms, judges and … contest chairs. Now, I have a very outspoken view on the role of a contest chair, especially for the humorous speech contest and table topics. And having just been one, I also have the experience. Brace yourselves for my confessions.
1. Know your job, your place and your goal
“Congratulations to all of you fellow Toastmasters. This is your contest. It is my job to engage and energize the audience so you will deliver your best speech ever. That is my promise to each and every one of you!”.
A couple of hours before the contest, I started my briefing with this pledge. The room was suddenly quiet. All eyes were on me. I had the attention of all contestants. It felt like a temporary brother and sisterhood.
It is not about you. It is about the contestants, right? It was not my first contest as chair. It was my first at a district level. I had heard disappointed feedback in previous contests about my approach. Some contestants, especially one from someone who hadn’t won an award, said I drew too much personal attention. Ouch! And there was me thinking that that I’d done everything to energize the audience! So, the second time around, I was going to make sure I covered all the rules and energize the audience in… less than 5 minutes. Yes, that’s right. Covering the rules AND energize the audience and keep them quiet in between speeches. That sounds like a challenging goal, doesn’t it? But that is exactly the job of the contest chair.
2. Get a coach
“If you don’t prepare, you prepare to fail.” So, how do you prepare? Get a coach. Contestants that make it to the finals tend to have a coach. I had several, different people with different views and different styles. They don’t have to have been a contest chair; they’re mentors; they are people who have participated in contests, either as speakers and/or judges, or both, who can point out what they like or dislike in a contest. And that’s how I prepared my own briefing: watching other contest chairs performing on YouTube, giving workshops on how to host an event, and talking to people. One of my coaches got so tired of me, he said “Stop it man, you are probably better prepared than all the contest chairs in the last 5 years at District level!”. So, what did I do? I looked for another coach, until she said, “Boy, are you ready now…?”
3. Have a plan B
The organisation in Italy was extraordinary. I knew well in advance – 12 weeks before the event – that I would be table topics contest chair. I knew the program, I knew who would be the mistress of ceremonies, who the contest chair of the humorous speech contest was, and the contest chairs of the semi-finals both of table topics and humourous speeches. I prepared, talked to my coaches, other contest chairs, the organisation committee and prepared my introduction act. And then, during the sound check, only two hours before the contest, like a thunderbolt out of nowhere came bad news: “non è possibile!”.
After weeks of preparation, after a triple check with the organization about what I wanted and after the briefing of the contestants… reality hit the fan: my prepared act was not going to be possible. I was dumbstruck, disappointed, deluded. But, I immediately told myself “Get your plan B ready now!”. And so, I retreated from the soundcheck, left the contestants and spoke to no one so I could focus 100% on my plan B. There was no time to be angry or disillusioned. Easy to say after the event, but at the time, my heart rate was racing at 153 beats per minute and, despite the delicious Italian food, I lost weight that weekend! What saved the day? Having a plan B; without one, it would have been a whole lot worse!
4. Know the rules
The chief judge, in my case Andrei Popesco ,District 95 Governor, was in the room during my briefing. He was quiet and listened attentively as I explained the key points from the rule book. The rules are the rules, and there is little room for interpretation. But, there are some common practices that are NOT in the rule book and therefore not a rule. E.g. the Toastmasters International rulebook does not dictate a time limit on how quickly contestants must start speaking in reply to a table topics question.
Now, I was surprised to notice that my contestants seemed confused. But nobody could argue against this. Probably because it’s common practice for us to tell contestants they have 30 seconds to think before speaking. However, the timers do not time this period because they wait for the first word or gesture, and in Milan, one contestant took a very long time. Another example. Some people in the audience freaked out when one contestant jumped off the stage and then back again. Love it or hate it, it’s not a reason for disqualification. Really? Don’t take my word for it. Read Myth 7: You can get disqualified by going outside the speaking area (Toastmaster November 2016).
The only reasons for disqualification are time, originality, eligibility or if the contestant doesn’t show up. It says so, in the rulebook!
5. Keep the contestants calm
One contestant was late, another was concerned he couldn’t invite his family to the award ceremony and there was one who wanted to make sure he knew exactly where I would be on the stage when I announced the contestants. Since my pledge was to let them give the best speech in their career I listened carefully and took the time to answer all their questions. So, I asked every contestant what they wanted to share with the audience during the interview after the contest. How to pronounce their names? If they would like to receive applause after I had given my assignment? Would they like one handshake at the beginning or a second one before I would leave the stage? How I would call them on stage to make sure they get a big applause while being on stage. In my opinion it is extremely important that they are all confident, relaxed and self-assured so that all they have to do is focus on their performance. Try to involve the time keepers and SAA by introducing them to the contestants. Is it allowed? Well, it sure is not forbidden by the rulebook. And everything that is not forbidden, is allowed, right?
6. If you are in the lead, make sure you are
You own the program. Get in touch with the organisation team, your fellow contest chairs, your chief judge, your timers, your sergeant(s) at arms. If you are preparing for a warm-up act, don’t let anyone else get in your way and make that perfectly clear to the organisation committee. I always get confused with the conference chair, the (conference) contest chair and the master or mistress of ceremonies.
Make sure there are no unannounced warm-up acts and that you are sure who will be calling you on stage. And yes, that too almost went wrong. I was supposed to receive the key note speaker’s headset but when he, Darren Lacroix, left the stage he was probably cooling down after his performance and not really aware that I needed it. Meanwhile, the mistress of ceremonies was already introducing me! It was a close call when I was forced outside, got the headset rammed over my head, heard my name and jumped on stage with my plan B bag. Not sure if anyone noticed but I almost died up there!
7. What is a good table topic assignment
You know a good table topic assignment when you hear one. But, what makes a good table topic? One of my coaches suggested I send out a cross-section of e-mails to toastmasters across Europe to gauge their reactions to my ideas. Almost everybody replied immediately and concurred that the “question” be simple, easy to understand and leave no room for misinterpretation. So, assignments with idioms like “Burn the midnight oil” were probably not a great idea!
Looking back, 2016’s district table topic question is a perfect example: “Honey, I have a confession to make”. The contestant had carte blanche to dream up a situation, decide on who will be their honey, and make a confession…. Just perfect. Some liked “Sugar” from 2015. Myself, I had about 20 different ideas and questions ready. I could have chosen a prop, but that idea was used by the contest chair of the semi-finals, pulling a pair of yellow gloves out of a bag and asking the contestants to explain why the Italian police had found them in their room as part of an investigation! Very creative idea that stretched the imagination of many contestants! After lengthy discussions over dinner with club members who didn’t have an official role, I picked my favorite: “Oh no, why did I accept this bet.” The winner took home his award; everyone had a great experience! And isn’t that what a contest is all about?
As contest chairs, we are the glue between the contestants and the audience! It’s a big responsibility as it’s a district contest. We owe it to the contestants to make sure the environment and the atmosphere is perfect for them to perform at their peak. And, it’s a lot of fun, as long as we are prepared with a plan B!
Toastmasters Gent – ACS, CL
After failing to entertain guinea pigs, Karl discovered he loves to entertain people. He is owner of brand in cosmetics, is a certified MBTI practitioner and holds a business card that has “Marketing Director” printed on it. He analyses humorous speeches with a decibel meter and wrote his findings in an article “Humour is a serious matter”