Insights from 2010 Toastmasters World Champion David Henderson (Part 2 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.


Bonus Tip #1:  Eliminate Risk Through Practice

“People thought that I took such a huge risk wearing a costume in an international speech contest. There are five elimination rounds before the finals (club, area, division, district, and semi-final).  Each round is more serious than the round that came before it. By the time I walked on to the finals stage wearing a costume, it had worked five times in a row (David wore a doctor’s costume for his first five speeches then an aviator’s costume in the finals). You don’t call something a risk after it has worked five times. “

“There are a lot of rules that go into using a costume. Most adults do not walk around wearing costumes.  By incorporating a child into my speech, it was easier for me to do things on stage that were more of a stretch and still realistic.  A child would play doctor and would pull out a stethoscope to take somebody’s heart beat. “

“Additionally, tangible props also prevent you from having to explain a lot. When I pulled Jackie’s (David’s childhood friend who died of sickle cell anemia) scarf out at the end of my speech, there is a lot that I did not have to say because the scarf said it for me. Just showing it to the audience brought them emotionally and contextually back to where I needed them to be.  They remembered what happened with the scarf earlier in the story which cut out thirty seconds worth of explanation.”


Bonus Tip #2: Make your attention grabber realistic, meaningful, and purposeful

“During the finals of the International speech contest, everybody in the room is already expecting to listen to nine of the best speeches they have ever heard. So, speaking well is not enough.  You have to do something that makes them say WOW!  But, you have to make them say wow just enough without going too far over the top.”

One thing you notice about the speech contest these days is that contestants have this tendency to do things that are over the top. I have a hard time being that far out there for no real reason.

In the middle of my final round speech, I trip and fall.  A lot of people think that I put that there simply to have a big gesture like Darren LaCroix had in his winning speech.  But, being able to control the time in a speech contest is a major component of being able to win.  If you watch that part of the speech, it goes from being very happy to very sad.  I did not have enough time to (verbally explain the) transition. The fall made the transition very fast and also foreshadowed that something bad was going to happen.  It also illustrated the primary metaphor in the speech that sooner or later, we all fall down.


Bonus Tip #3: Analyze what works and what does not

“Believe it or not, I was too intimated to enter the International speech contest the first year that I was Toastmasters.   If I had worked hard, I would have had the chance to enter that very first International speech contest.  I wish I had listened to the two or three people that encouraged me to compete.  When I finally entered in my second year of Toastmasters, I made it to second place in the Division contest.  The next year, I took 2nd at District. In my third year of competition, I managed to go all the way.”

“Now, I did not have anyone that had won before to explain to me what to do. I did not know there is a culture where past world champions offer help to top competitors.  To a degree, I think that was an advantage for me because I was able to break conventions that I did not even know existed.  I just went to contests with my girlfriend Josephine.  When I lost, we sat down and thought critically about what went wrong and what went right.  We just kept doing that over and over again. We figured the rules out on our own. “

“Many people think there is familiarity bias during the early rounds.  However, when you lose, you have to ask ‘How did this person beat me?’  More often than not, there is a good reason (having nothing to do with bias) why it worked out that way.”


Bonus Tip #4: Deliver a speech within a speech

“My girlfriend Josephine and I go to the movies every single Saturday. Also, we typically watch a show every evening on AMC, HBO, or Showtime.   During and after each movie, we pick apart why we like a character or why we do not like a character… why a show totally offends us or what it is that hooks us in.  Great movies are often built around a great speech delivered by one of the characters.  If you understand how screenplay writers construct movie speeches, then you have everything you need for a great Toastmasters speech.”

“Notice that these speeches occupy only a small percentage of the time of the total movie. For example, think about Jack Nicholson’s speech on the witness stand in ‘A Few Good Men.’  The entire movie builds up to that one moment. “

“If you watch the speech I delivered in the final round, you will notice there is a speech built into the speech.  It is the speech my mother gives when I don’t want to go see Jackie anymore.  Everything else I say is built around that one moment. It gives you my complete message.  Everything that comes after simply puts into practice what my mother told me; it reveals how to apply the advice in an emotionally dynamic and entertaining way.”


Bonus Tip #5: Craft stories that appeal to both men and women

“When I competed, I noticed two things.  The first is that most of the competitors are men. The second is that most of the organizers and judges, at least at the local level in Texas, are women.  Men tend to choose subjects that are not of broad interest to women.  Men will talk about getting over their egos, or their frustration with technology, or their relationship with their father. I did give specific thought to writing speech that appealed more to the women who were listening and were judging. What I did not expect was just how strong of an emotional impact the speeches would have on the men in the audience as well.”

“I found myself wondering, what is it that everybody can relate to no matter where you are from?  One of the first answers that came to mind was that everybody loves their mom.  At some level, everybody should be able to relate to that.”