2001 Toastmasters World Champion Darren LaCroix Shares His Insights

I interviewed Darren LaCroix on November 14, 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?”

Though Darren is best known for his humor, the aspect I enjoyed most in our conversation was his view that we stand on the shoulders of giants.  As you will discover in his words below, he views every other speaker as a coach and mentor.

You can connect with Darren at darrenlacroix.com.


Tip #1: Focus on the process of becoming a great speaker, not the outcome

“Every time I speak at a conference, somebody asks me: ‘How can I win the World Championship of Public Speaking?’ The first thing I tell them is that simply winning the contest is a bad goal.  Your goal should be to become such a great speaker that you can win.  If you just create a championship winning speech, what are you going to do with it afterwards?  Focus on the process of becoming a better speaker.  If I could do anything, it would be to get the lust (for winning the championship for its own sake) out of people’s minds.”

“There are many world champions who have won whose lives have not changed in a meaningful way. And there are plenty of people who have not won and gone on to have amazing careers.  So, winning the contest is not the be-all end-all.”

“In fact, I do not know of too many people who won that actually set out with the goal to win.  Consider 2008 World Champion LaShunda Rundles – her goal was to get her message out there and this was just a platform to do it.” (LaShunda’s message was that our words are the seeds of our immortality.  Sadly, Ms. Rundles passed away on August 21, 2012 after a long battle with lupus.  You can follow her journey in the documentary SPEAK.)

“Rather than looking to win, I joined the contest in order to work on the stories that I was already telling in my keynote speech.  Those days, I was spending all my time either doing my day job, marketing myself, or speaking. I never had time to work on the craft of speaking.  Win, lose, or draw in the contest, I would win by putting those stories back into my keynote.  As Craig Valentine says, ‘If you want a masterpiece, then you have to master the pieces.’”


Tip #2: Build a team but trust your gut

“Having a coach is important. You don’t have a clue if you don’t have a coach.”

“You have to be careful who you listen to. There are two kinds of feedback.  The first is ‘here is what I thought and felt’.  Everyone is qualified to give you ‘thought and felt’ feedback though you do need to look for commonalities and not be swayed by a lone opinion.  Second, there is ‘here is what you can do to improve your speech’ feedback.  Not everyone is qualified to tell you what you can do to make your speech better. “

“When I fell on my face at the 22 practice clubs everyone said ‘Get up sooner, I was uncomfortable.’  My coach Mark Brown said ‘Stay down longer, they are uncomfortable. Darren, our job as speakers is not to make people feel comfortable, it is to incite change.’  I too was incredibly uncomfortable while I was lying down. If you watch the video of my speech, you will see my foot shake – that was not intentional. I overrode my discomfort by having Mark’s voice in my head saying ‘One-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, one-thousand-three… O.K. Darren, now you can get up.’”

“It is also important is not be coached out of who you are.  David McIlhenny was my phenomenal head coach up through the Regional contest.  There is a joke in my speech about my experience with a restaurant franchise where ‘I took a $60,000 debt and I doubled it. I turned a Subway sandwich shop into a non-profit.’  David thought I should take that line out. I said, nope, that stays. That was the one piece of my speech that I had done before; it came from my early days of stand-up but was a perfect fit into big picture of the speech.  I knew in my gut and from experience that it would work and I knew I had to do it. It is still going to be your speech.  Though you may be uncomfortable, you have to stay true to your own ideals.  When I won the regional contest, David chose to take a back seat and urged me to take Mark Brown as my new head coach.  Mark had been to the big dance and David was wise enough to recognize that.”


Tip #3:  Find a deep message to use as your starting point

“When I got to the finals, I had already used up my two best stories.  I thought I had to start from scratch.  It was then that my head coach Mark Brown said:  ‘Darren, don’t write a speech.  Instead, pick the most important child in your life.  If you were going to die tomorrow, what one lesson would you want to pass on to him?’ That stopped me in my tracks. I thought of my nephew.  It forced me to dig deeper.”

“Many people start out trying to write a winning speech. They are not going deeper inside themselves to find what lesson will resonate. I think a lot of people start with the wrong starting point. If you start from the wrong place, you can work really hard, harder than anybody else, and never ever make it. “

“I can work hard on perfecting a story, but if that story does not reinforce a core message then who cares.  There is a great story ooooh, it is entertaining, it is memorable but to what end?  You might win your Area contest, you might win your Division contest, but you are never going to win the whole thing unless you are your message. There is no perfect topic.  The only topics that will work are topics that you care about.”

“It is possible to start with a story.  But if you do, then you have to look very carefully at the message. It is better to begin from the other direction – to start with the message.”

“The gist of the contest is that it is supposed to be motivational or inspirational… a life lesson.  These are simply universal messages that we need to be reminded of.  My message was nothing new. But I put my own twist on it.  So, sometimes, we are in the business of being professional reminders.  Glenna Salsbury, a past National Speakers Association President, says: ‘You should be talking about your ah-ha moments.  Transfer your ah-ha to the audiences ah-ha. ‘  The point is not that you are simply telling a story.  The point is that that stories are there to drive home a powerful lesson.  Bill Gove, the founder of N.S.A. said that all speaking is: Tell a story, make a point; tell a story, make a point; tell another story, make another point.  I do not think there is any number that is the perfect number (of story/point pairs). I did not have 3 stories.  Ed Tate’s whole speech was one story, that’s it.”


Bonus Tip: Have a no-regrets mindset

“Two quotes resonated in my head throughout the whole process.  David Brooks 1990 World Champion said “Let no one out prepare you” and Otis Williams Jr 1993 World Champion said “Be so good, the only question is who comes in second”.  I did not want to regret that I did not prepare enough or that I did not follow through with an idea. For example, I had this idea about running.  I thought that if I am going to be under the most intense pressure of my life, then I should be in good physical shape.  So, I started running four miles a day. “

The night before the final contest, I saw a sign for a massage in the hotel. I was barely making a living at that point.  My cheap side said, ‘$70 for a massage, are you kidding?’ But my no-regrets voice kicked in and asked ‘What would a champion do?’  A champion would be under a lot of pressure – so get the filppin’ massage. That is an investment in winning.  I could not afford to be too cheap to do it.  I did not want to have any regrets.”


Try it out!

Darren’s tips very closely mirror those of every one of the Toastmasters World Championship speakers that I have interviewed.  Approach the contest as a learning journey.  Start with a compelling message that will change your audiences’ lives.  And, seek out great coaches but treat their feedback as advice, not law.