Insights from 2010 Toastmasters World Champion David Henderson (Part 1 of 2)

I interviewed David Henderson on November 6th, 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?”

The stunning thing you discover immediately about David when speaking to him is that he is a passionate disciple of the storytelling masters of cinema and literature.

He started off by saying “Oh boy, it is going to be hard to whittle this down to three points.”  David did shine the spotlight on three tips; however he threw a bunch more in for good measure.  Part 1 includes his top three tips.  Part 2 includes several bonus tips.


Tip #1: Tell a personal story

“When you look at the greatest speakers in history, speakers like Martin Luther King, you will notice that their messages were urgent to the point that listening was not optional. In Toastmasters, we do not have that same luxury; generally, there are no important historical circumstances.”

“Listeners do not have to listen.  Part of what people don’t understand about the International speech contest is that the audience does not want to hear a ‘speech’ – they want to be entertained by a story rooted in a profound, inspirational message.”

“We have been conditioned to learn through stories from an early age.  Stories help convey information in an interesting package.  If you tell a story the right way, you can convert people without their ever realizing that you preached to them in the first place.  That is where the power of storytelling comes into play. And yet, when you listen to speeches delivered in Toastmasters meetings on any given night, you hear very few examples of stories told for maximum impact.”

“The protagonist in the story must be at the opposite place at the end of the speech (compared to where they were at the beginning) to generate emotional momentum. Your story has to go through a limited version of the hero’s journey in order to have the real impact.”

I went to a Toastmasters meeting in my first year and listened to a wonderful woman deliver a really boring speech about horned toads. When I spoke with her after the meeting, she revealed that she got to dance next to Dick Clark when American Bandstand went to her high school.  As she spoke, she was beaming and animated. So, I asked ‘How could talk about horned toads when you have a story like that?”’

“The question I am most frequently asked is ‘How can I be funny?’  I reply, ‘Do you have kids?  If so, then talk about the most frustrating thing your kids ever did.’ People will instantly relate to where you are coming from. When you tell a personal story drawn from your experiences, the mechanics such as humor, hand gestures, and vocal variety get automatically corrected.”


Tip #2:  Make sure your speech solves a real problem that everyone can relate to

“One of the authors that I really enjoy is Tim O’Brien who wrote about his experiences during the Vietnam War in ‘The Things They Carried.’  The reason why I like that book is that he talks a lot about storytelling.  He says that great stories universalize your personal experience. You take something that is unique to you and make it something that other people can relate to. If you do it the right way, people forget that you are telling a story about yourself and they think about things that have happened to them.  That is what makes a story powerful.”

“When people study the International speech contest from years past, they come to the conclusion that you are supposed to deliver a light, happy, positive message.  In my (winning) speech, people think the biggest risk I took was coming up in a costume; I think the bigger risk was choosing to talk about something I believe is a real problem.”

“Author Cormac McCarthy wrote that death is the most serious subject we face. He said, if you are not writing about death then you are not a serious writer.  I am not suggesting that everyone who enters the International speech contest needs to talk about death, but they do need to talk about a real, universal problem.  Losing loved ones in my own life is the most difficult subject I cope with.  In the speeches I used in the semi-finals and finals, the main person in the speech dies. In my semi-final speech, I shared the story of watching my mother forgive her mother on my grandmother’s deathbed for abandoning her as a child. It was about hope and we called ‘The Best Medicine.’”  In my final speech, a little girl gets sickle cell anemia and she dies.”

“When you lose someone, it feels fundamentally unfair. In my speeches, I focused on finding a way for people to move forward from loss in a positive way. Everybody has a story like that.  People are not responding to the story, they are responding to the manner in which the story is told.  There is nothing even slightly remarkable about my stories.”

“Often, I hear a speech and am left asking myself, ‘O.K., but what were they driving at?’  The message needs to be simple and it needs to be something that everyone can relate to. In my semi-final speech, the message was ‘hope is the best medicine.’ In my final speech it was ‘Sooner or later we all fall down, but a little love can lift you back up.’”

“Now, having a tight message is necessary but not sufficient.  The message is the solution.  You also need to clearly identify the problem being faced.  You often hear speeches with messages like ‘dream a bigger dream’ or ‘live with more enthusiasm’, but the speaker never defines why that is critically important in the first place.  The illustration of what is at stake is what generates real momentum during the speech.”

“Last, it is important to illustrate how you get from the problem to the solution.  Here is the best analogy I could have come up with on this point.  If you take a math exam and simply write down the answer to every question, you are probably going to fail the test even if you got everything correct. Your professor will assume you cheated. But let’s say you have some gift – you are a genius or a socialized savant. They still want to see the work that got you to the answer.”

“When you write a speech, the message of the speech is the answer, but the story is the work. And the story needs to demonstrate the message so clearly that even if they speaker did not say it explicitly, the audience can figure it out on their own.”


Tip #3:  Make your audience laugh, cry, and fall in love

“There are very few things I would tell a speaker that you must do to win the International speech contest.  That said, the one thing you must do is make people laugh.  People have accepted it as a universal truth that good speakers are funny.  But, I think people do not understand the role that laughter plays in winning the speech contest. Laughter is not just about entertaining people, it is about generating an emotional response.  And, emotional responses should not be limited to laughter.”

“There was a contest speech I delivered early on in Toastmasters where I started crying.  Everybody in Toastmasters is driven to improve their speaking in order to overcome an insecurity.  Everybody thinks their insecurity is more significant than everybody else’s.  I did feel insecure about becoming emotional when I spoke.  Funny enough, my original goal in Toastmasters was to never ever cry again.”

“After the speech people came up to me and said they loved my speech.   I then realized that my real goal should be to come up with a way to make the audience feel the emotions with me.”

“A little while later, I listened to man cry during a speech and I felt awkward. As I thought about it, I realized the difference.  The speaker was talking about his experience in the military using a display case of coins and medals he had received.  As he came to one section, he just broke down and started crying out of nowhere.   If you blindside your audience with emotion, it feels really awkward.”

“Do you like to cook?  Have you ever tempered eggs? The basic idea is that if you throw eggs straight into hot liquid, they will curdle and scramble. You need to slowly bring them up to temperature.  That is what you need to do with intense emotion in your speeches – provide a clear indication early in the speech that something bad is going to happen.  If I can explain why I feel an emotion through foreshadowing, then the audience will be there with me and won’t judge me. That was a major breakthrough for me.”

“If you build a speech by studying the last ten years of the International speech contest, you will win the District contest and have a very good chance of getting through the semi-finals.   In the finals, at best it is going to be a tossup since most of the other competitors will have done the same thing. There is no way to differentiate between you.  If you want to have a chance at a definitive win, you are going to have to be a bit bolder. You are going to have to do more. If you can make people laugh and feel an additional emotion or two like crying or falling in love, you are going to have a chance at convincing them that you are a more effective speaker.”


Try It Out!

David left me with the following thought: “A piece of information becomes valuable only when I have practiced it to the point where it works consistently for me.”  Now, go practice telling a personal story addressing a real problem that makes people laugh, cry, and fall in love.

(Check out Part 2 of my interview here).