I interviewed Jock Elliott on November 20, 2012 and asked him just one question: “What are your best pieces of advice on how to win the Toastmasters’ World Championship of Public Speaking?”
Jock is a master of the written and spoken word, making his living as a speaker, speech writer, author, and speaking coach. His latest book, Speak Easy, is available on Amazon.
Tip #1: Push yourself out of your comfort zone
“It is very hard to define what actually wins (the World Championship) because I have seen some very peculiar results over the years. I come from a much more restrained culture than in North America. I have always struggled with the difficultly of doing the showmanship that so often seems to work over there. Instead, I have always pursued oratory.”
“When I speak in the real world as a professional speaker, I cannot do some of the things that seem quite acceptable on the Toastmasters stage. I would just get mocked. However, that is not to say that I don’t hold Toastmasters in the highest esteem – I have been a member for 37 years and will continue until I drop. It is fabulous training ground for learning to be comfortable as a speaker. The problem is that it is easy to become complacent. People can be equally comfortable as a good speaker or as a bad speaker.”
“It is only when you are forced beyond your comfort zone that you grow as a speaker. Both competitive speaking and professional speaking put you under the gun. Among the two, competitive speaking is the better training ground since you are most directly putting yourself under the gun. The Toastmasters environment has the added advantage that constructive evaluation is the norm.”
Tip #2: Know what you want to say
“The primary thing is to know what you want to say. And so often, people do not. Instead, they fall in love with particular lines; I am as guilty as anybody of that. Often, a particular line or concept is not to the point – it is a diversion. You have to have the luxury of being able to walk away from your preparation and then come back to the speech cold and say: ‘Yes, lovely as it is, I will keep this idea for the future because it is good, but it does not live in this speech.’”
“Until you can get down to exactly what you want to say, then your speech will lack focus and you are not going to have a speech of any significance. The old principle of being able to write down what you want to say on the back of a business card holds true. You might not achieve that in the early days of (crafting) the speech. Often, you have to work your way through your theme until it is refined. That can be based as much on your own intuition as on the feedback that you get in rehearsal. Ultimately, until you have that hard, crystal clear message in your own mind, you are never going to get it across to your audience. And of course, then it has got to be a message of value. To me a speech without substance is just froth. You must have something that people can take away.”
“You have to know your audience well enough to express what matters to you in words that matter to them. The better I know my audience, the closer I am to where they live in their heads and in their hearts, then the quicker I can move them to where I want them to be in terms of accepting the point of my speech, if not necessarily agreeing with it.”
“In the Toastmasters International speech contest, your message should have a universal appeal. Some messages are merely topical; for example, the war in Afghanistan. Current events and many social issues will not endure 5, 10, 15 years down the road. I wrote a speech 30 years ago about a certain type of Australian beach bum. Well, he does not exist anymore. So, that speech only rings a bell to people of my generation who can cast their mind back that far. It does not rob the speech of its value in certain respects, but it no longer has universal appeal.”
“At the end of the day, only one person takes home the trophy. But if 1 person or 10 or 100 or 1,000 or 10,000 people take home my message, then I have also won. I am not trying to change peoples’ lives. What I am trying to do is give them something to think about; what they do with it is entirely up to them. In fact, in the writing of a speech, sometimes I change the way that I think about life myself and modify my behaviour accordingly. That is one of the merits of actually writing speeches. It clarifies your thinking; it discharges emotions; it gets rid of the baggage.”
Tip #3: Express your true self
“I know a lot of contestants look at the DVDs (of past winning speeches) and say: ‘Right, that is good (from one) and that is good (from another). I will put them all together like Marilyn Monroe’s smile and Sophia Loren’s eyes and all the rest of it and get the perfect face or in this case, speech, but the end result is that it gets very plain looking. Watching the DVDs is fine but only if you focus on trends rather than tactics and personal style.”
“If someone wins and they have a component in there which is replicable like a song, a dance, or climbing up a step ladder, then you will see a number of copycats in next year’s contest. Some do it well, and some do it badly, but they are rather missing the point. Most winning speeches do incorporate a gimmick – verbal or physical – that rings a bell with people. But it needs to be uniquely yours.”
“I don’t do gimmicks and I don’t do props. I work on the principle of being able to operate in total darkness without a sound system. To me, it is the words and the images I create with my words enhanced by body language and vocal variety that should do the job. I draw the line when body language and vocal variety overshadow substance. Because it is the substance which people take home.”
“In the end, you have to do what works for you. There is no right or wrong.”
“If you are very tall you play basketball, and if you are very short, you play billiards. You do the thing that you can do most easily. That goes for your vocal and physical style as well. My “Just So Lucky” (winning) speech was relatively still and quiet, because that is how I usually am. I knew that would either count against me or count for me. I knew there have been rumblings about too much show. I was happy to take the risk because, as always, it’s what I wanted to say.
“There is one right way of doing brain surgery; but almost every other activity has any number of right ways. It is comes down to the person, the event, the audience, even the time of day. So, for example, I can be at a conference, speaking at a rather informal lunch and there will be a different expectation then, then at the very formal gala dinner later that same night. Not only will my message change, but also my style of dress and use of language. Many changes are automatic. It is just the natural persona we adopt in these circumstances. You talk to your boss in one way, your dog in another, and you mother in another. That is just the “you” that you are showing to each different person. “
Tip #4: Touch your audience intellectually and emotionally
For many years, I missed the point. I was probably too academic. I was passionate about what I was talking about, but I was obsessed with issues that did not have an emotional resonance. Ultimately, you have to touch your audience both intellectually and emotionally.
I was in Brunei the other week and a very new Toastmaster said something I thought was so profound. She said: ‘You are the bridge between your point and your audience.’ And I think that is very, very significant. I certainly know from years of sales and marketing that if your target customer does not like you, then they will not buy from you. You need to be at least respected as a speaker. Your audience may have no experience of you before. So you have to establish likeability and respect and credibility with your audience quite soon. Otherwise, they are saying: “Alright, he is just talking at us. He has got this thing that he is saying.’ If they are thinking that, then you have failed.”
“I try and put myself in the audience’s shoes. I try to get as close to where they live in their heads and in their hearts and start from there. My audience in the United States is middle aged, middle class, middle income, and generally a little bit to the right politically, if you can generalise from an audience of 1500+. I don’t think there is anything you cannot talk about – even sex, politics, and religion but it is entirely comes down to treatment. There is no point in needlessly offending people. I I am quite happy to deliberately offend butI go to a lot of trouble to not accidentally offend. To accidentally offend reflects poor research or carelessness in writing. At the same time, you cannot please everyone. No matter what you do, there will be 3% of the audience that hates you. And odds are, they are sitting right in the front row, scowling heavily, with their arms crossed (laughs).”
Tip #5: Hit the judging criteria quickly, clearly, but subtly
“For many years, whilst I gave very careful consideration of the judging form and addressed all the points, I do not believe I addressed them in the right way. The judges are looking for very particular criteria. You have to give the judges landmarks they are looking for. You’ve got to address it in a sufficiently clear way for the judges to say: ‘Right –that bit is done.’ But, you don’t want to be too obvious such as saying: “That was my introduction, now into the body of my speech.’”
“As a listener, I am more than happy for a point to emerge a long way into the speech as long it is going somewhere. However, the judges have to hang their judging criteria on a point. They need to see your message fairly early or at least have a useful departure point.”
Tip #6: International speakers should acclimatize to the host country
“Some years ago, I used to come over to the United States a week in advance and go around to as many as ten clubs. It is very expensive and time consuming but it gets your body clock in order. Though you are sometimes exposed to foolish evaluation, the feedback is usually very good. Most importantly, it shows you what is working in terms of timing and language use. This helps you make sure that your message fits your audience. Generally speaking, it is harder for those outside North America to compete, simply because we are not immersed in the images – cultural and visual – that are second nature to most North Americans.”
Tip #7: Strive for no audience member left behind
“We have far too many ‘deaths’ in the contest. Some of the stories are so harrowing and so personal as to destroy the relationship between the speaker and audience. With ‘Just So Lucky’, I very deliberately did have not a lot to say in detail about ‘me’. Instead, I created a series of images which the audience could put themselves into. “
“For example, when I talk about friends of our family I say: ‘We had our differences, but we got over those.’ When I was practicing, a woman came up to me and said: ‘You lost me there because I have family differences and never got over them, so I could not be with you from then on.’ What I did was add the words ‘Well, I’m just so lucky because we got over those.’ By saying I was lucky, I acknowledge that not everyone gets over their family issues. I hope that allowed her or others like her to move on with me to the next bit. All the way through, my images and language are crafted for people to say. ‘Yeah, I am there, he is talking about me.’
Try It Out!
When you listen to Jock’s winning speech ‘Just So Lucky’, you recognize how he meticulously crafted every word. Most world champions do not discuss this effort much since it has become second nature to them. When you deliver your next speech, engineer one or two key phrases tied closely to your key message that deliver powerful emotional or intellectual impact to your audience.