I pace the hall. My mouth has gone dry and my hands are sweating in the gaps between my fingers.
The audience applauds the current speaker. A minute later my name is announced and I stride to the front of the room before a group of 60 people.
The title of my speech is announced. Taking the place I’ve planned out on the stage, I begin speaking.
Last weekend, I competed in my area’s division level contest for the International Speech Competition put on yearly by Toastmasters. The third round of the competition, I was up against seven others, each of whom had won their club level contest, and then their area contest.
… or if they were like me, they got 2nd place in a contest and then had the person who won dropout due to other circumstances (I won my club contest, lost the area contest, and then got another chance when the area winner couldn’t attend the division contest because of a trip to Italy).
More than 20,000 people compete in the contest annually, so even getting past the 1st round is an achievement. Getting past the 2nd is even bigger, and the 3rd?
At each level the stakes are higher, and the competition gets tougher. Stress comes with it. When you’re competing, you of course want to do well. You want to give a performance you can be proud of, as well as one that will leave a good impression on the judges.
I wasn’t calm before I spoke. I was completely stressed out! But I wasn’t worried. I was getting hyped up. I did everything I knew to do to make that stress energy work for me.
The result? I won first place, and this weekend I’ll be competing at the District Conference.
The stage will be bigger. I’ll be speaking in front of hundreds. And the competition? Some are professional speakers.
The stakes are even higher. Am I stressed out? Absolutely. And am I excited? You bet.
Why You Should Compete
I’m a naturally competitive person. You might not be. But if you have the chance, you should compete – it might not be in public speaking (it could be hobby you have, or a competition at work), but I recommend you give it a go.
Regardless of the competition, there’s two ways to do it. One is very ego-driven, and the other isn’t.
I used to look at competition as a way to prove that I was better than others. The more I beat them – crushed them! – the better. I think this is why a lot of people don’t like competing.
This way of competing also had the side effect of me being an incredibly sore loser and coming up with excuses to protect my ego (like, “The judges don’t know anything,”) when I lost.
There’s another way to look at competition. It’s the way I view it now.
Instead of seeing it as an opportunity to thrash others, you can see it as a way to make yourself better and compete against yourself. Sure, you’re still going against those other people, but they’re there to inspire you to do your best.
They’re not obstacles, they’re your guides whether they know it or not.
One of the other speakers in my division contest was so good I wasn’t sure if I could win against her or not. It didn’t matter.
When I saw her speak, saw her inspire the audience, it made me want to do my best. I could’ve stood up with the intention of trying to crush her.
I might’ve still won if I did, but I wouldn’t have felt good about it even if I had.
Instead, I saw the energy she went up on stage with and let it help pump me up.
Competition Helps You Become Better
I was reminded of it all to well a few days ago. With the next competition coming up, I was invited by Evening Stars Toastmasters to practice my speech and get feedback.
Before I stood up to give my speech, I realized something was off.
I was completely relaxed.
There was no energy to pump me up, no stress to get me going.
The result? I didn’t completely bomb the speech, but it was hands down the worst performance I’ve given of it.
After, people came up to me and said, “You looked really nervous.”
I wasn’t nervous at all. What they saw was me trying to stress myself, to squeeze some energy out, and it didn’t work.
We might want to avoid stress and pressure in our lives, but when it comes in intervals (as opposed to it being chronic), it helps us grow – literally. Stress helps us learn.
Add that into the benefit of heightened performance, and the stress of competition takes on a different meaning than trying to prove that you’re better than others: it’s a way for you to learn and grow as a person more quickly than you would’ve otherwise.
How Can You Compete?
You might know off the top of your head something you can compete it – maybe a hobby you have or something going on at your work. (And you might have a job where competition is the norm, from winning contracts to court cases).
Even if you don’t have an official competition to enter into, there’s always one person you have to compete against: yourself.
In most cases you can measure your own performance and work to do better. And even if you have no direct measure, you can still feel you did better than last time.
Each time I’ve competed with my speech (even when I didn’t win), I know I’ve given a better performance each time.
Competing against yourself is really the only person you should be competing against.
The International Contest of Public Speaking
I like talking about public speaking. I find getting up in front of a group of strangers and talking fun.
Most people don’t, and you might be one of them. If you are, you probably still know why being a better speaker is beneficial. If you want to improve, (or even compete!) you can join a Toastmasters club near you.
And if you’re just curious and want to improve your speaking in general, a reader recently sent me this great infographic they made about How to Master Public Speaking. (see below).
The next step for me is the District Conference. If I win that, I’ll be going to the semi-finals in Washington D.C. And if I win that… well, I’ll get a shot at the finals of the World Championship of Public Speaking.
Whether I win or lose, I’m thankful for the experience – and the stress that’s come with it. I’m a better speaker now than when I won my club’s competition a few months ago, and I’m looking forward to improving even more.
Wish me luck!