I interviewed Mark Brown on November 10th, 2012 and asked him just one question: “What are your three best pieces of advice on how to win the Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking?”
Mark gets to deliver an extended version of his winning contest speech almost every day in his role as an anti-bullying ambassador for Great American Opportunities, an educational fundraising company. That has given him thirteen years of perspective and wisdom on what make his speech successful.
Tip #1: Have solid message with universal appeal
“One can be humorous, entertaining, and engaging, but without a message, the audience cannot remember what you said. Your message translates into speech value for the audience first and only then on the judges’ ballots.”
“Contestants often ask me: ‘What is the perfect topic?’ There is no prefect topic. Just speak from the heart. Focus on connecting with the audience, not the judges. Don’t impress them, impress upon them the value of what you have to say. Change their lives.”
“Beyond having a powerful message and beyond being unique in the way you present it, you also have to make sure that your message is one that nearly everyone in the audience can relate to. In the semi-finals and finals, the audience is truly international. That means you need to appeal to people with different cultures, different customs, and different perspectives on life.”
Tip #2: Be Unique
“From time to time, I come across people who respect what previous winners have done so much that they lose themselves in the persona of the people they admire. You bring yourself, your experience, your voice, your life, and your message to the forefront. Strive to leave the audience with something of value and the rest will come.”
“Some people get the DVD set of past winners and deconstruct every speech. They count how many steps people take before they say a word and what color suit to wear if you are speaker number six versus speaker number three. I did not do any of that. There is a danger in over-polishing your speech. If you go too far, you will lose your sense of frankness and genuineness.”
“To be successful at the highest levels of the International speech contest, you must be unique. What makes you stand out from everybody else? In the case of 2012 winner Ryan Avery, he became characters in his presentation – his mother, a police officer, his drunk buddies. You could actually see Ryan transformed into these characters on the stage. That style has become important in recent years.”
“Back in 2010, David Henderson decked himself out as a fighter pilot complete with bomber jacket, goggles, and scarf. He reenacted his childhood and brought a very powerful message about love. He stood out with his costume, his presentation style, and had a really, really powerful message.”
“Over the years, people have integrated different elements into their speeches to be unique. Props were introduced in 1994 when Morgan McArthur used a life-sized, collapsible wooden horse. That evolved into creative uses of chairs and ladders. Humor became prominent with 1996 winner David Nottage followed by 1997 winner Willie Jones.”
“Most speeches have an introduction, three main parts, and a conclusion. My speech was unique in that I had an introduction, two main parts, and an extended call to action. After introducing the concept of intolerance with the statement that ‘You never get a second chance to make a first impression’, I moved into part one – the fantasy world of ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ In the second part of my speech, I wanted to move the audience from the world of fantasy to the real world. I asked myself ‘How can I make intolerance real for the audience?’ That was role television reporter Pat Harper played in my speech.” (Pat won an Emmy for reporting on her week spent undercover living as a homeless person on the streets of New York).
“I struggled with finding a third part for a couple of days. You always hear about the ‘power of threes.’ In a previous version of the speech, my 3rd example was based upon something that I read in the Bible. Well, not everyone is comfortable with the Bible; we have Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus – every religion and no religion – in the audience at that level. A Biblical reference did not seem to be the best thing for me to do. Then it hit me! Did I really need a third part? That rule is not written in stone. Instead, I choose to involve my audience personally in my call to action. For me, that was more powerful than adding a third story.”
“I guess that singing a line from a Disney cartoon did not hurt me either in terms of being unique. I still sing that line everyday when I speak at middle schools and the kids have a great time.”
Tip #3: Use visual language
“Speakers should strive to bring two dimensional concepts to life in three dimensions. In my speech, I could have talked abstractly about intolerance. Instead, I used the Beast from Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ to personify the concept of intolerance.”
“When I talked about Pat Harper in my speech, I said: ‘There she sat, huddled in the doorway, shivering, trying to fend off the bone chilling wind.’ I could have said ‘she was trying to keep warm,’ but that would not have given the audience a visual. Bone-chilling is a wonderful adjective to describe the depth of the cold. If you watch, you will see that I shivered as I delivered the line. That was all deliberate. It gave the audience both a verbal visual and a physical visual. In the contest, word selection can be critical.”
“It is wise to have certain language that you are going to use for certain effects. You want to generate an emotion in your audience. You want them to not only hear what you say, but also to feel what you say. Ask yourself, ‘what is the highest impact phrase I can use without sounding too pretentious?’ Think about that and put that in your speech.”
Try It Out!
Mark Brown’s advice mirrors that of every other world champion I have spoken with. Start with a powerful, universal message. Deliver it in your own voice. Use language and every other tool you have to change the lives of your audience. If you do that, you do not need to worry about the judges.