I find being Toastmaster for a meeting requires a serious amount of preparation. There are an awful lot of moving parts in a meeting. Compared to running a contest though, it’s nothing. The number of moving parts easily doubles, and they move in ways that can’t always be predicted.

Here’s how I managed the International Speakers Contest and Evaluation Contest for Casterbridge Speakers in 2016.

Before the contest

I started by splitting up the organisation needed before the meeting into three main strands: roles, contestants, and paperwork.

Paperwork

I was given a free pass when one of the club members (Andy Pettman) volunteered to help organise the contest. This is something that can be evaluated for the Competent Leadership manual (I think it’s Project 6), so it’s worth asking if anyone in the club is willing to give you a hand.

Andy took on the task of making sure we had all of the paperwork arranged, which included getting hold of forms for eligibility, judging, counting and results, as well as printing out the certificates for participants and winners. Having someone take that off my plate made everything more manageable.

Contestants

Ideally, you want to have several competitors — four or more — in each contest. Apart from making a more interesting contest, it also avoids the conundrum of having to tell someone (or let it be easily deduced) that they came last. We had three evaluators and four International Speakers, and could probably have done more to strong-arm people into participating.

We reminded people at meetings to sign up, and we mentioned it in the email newsletter, but we certainly weren’t banging on people’s doors saying “YOU! You ought to take part.”

Once you have people signed up, you can send them the contest rules, as well as some forms to fill out. We emailed out the eligibility forms and biographical details sheets ahead of time, so that contestants could fill them out before the meeting. Meanwhile, I checked that everyone was eligible for their contests, just in case they tried to slip anything past me.

We also encouraged speakers to give us their titles (or, better yet, put them on the website themselves) before the meeting, so I had a chance to practice introducing the speakers. Luckily, nobody had thrown in a tongue-twisting title this time.

Roles

The two key roles for a contest are the contest chair and the chief judge. It pays to recruit the chief judge well in advance, and work with him or her to arrange several other judges for each contest. You also need two timekeepers, a sergeant-at-arms and a couple of counters, all of whom need to be neutral.

Lastly, if it’s an evaluation contest, you need a “target speaker” to be evaluated. The sooner you arrange this, the less stressful it becomes. Ideally an exchange with a neighbouring club or clubs works best, but it depends if they are willing. We were in a tight spot with a couple of days to go and only rescued by one of our members (Andrew Knowles) stepping up to the plate to speak at short notice.

Contest chair!

Then there was my personal preparation.

I’ve tried running meetings directly from the agenda, but find that I continually lose my place and get flustered. Instead, I make up index cards before the meeting saying things like

“Sergeant at arms opens meeting, passes directly into President’s Introduction, who hands over to me.

  • Explain agenda
  • Explain clapping/shaking hands
  • Warm-up question: [whatever the warm-up question is]
  • Introduce timekeeper
  • Introduce grammarian”

I have one card for each time I’m on stage, numbered in case I drop them or they get out of order. They help me. Your approach may differ!

Two of Colin's notecards for chairing a contest

There are a couple of wrinkles to the system on contest night. The main one being that I don’t know until the briefing who is going to speak first. That’s easily managed though. I can simply have a card for each speech and arrange them into the right order once I know what’s happening.

The other major wrinkle is that there’s a gap in proceedings while the counters leave the room. You can stand there and twiddle your thumbs, furiously ad-libbing, or you can set up some table topics, which I did.

I also needed to come up with some interview questions. Interviewing is something I’m working on at the moment, and it’s not something I’ve often seen done well at contests. The contestants have been through a stressful time, so you want to make it as easy as possible for them.

My structure was to have a handful of open-ended questions about the contestants and their speeches that I could ask to anyone. You can supplement them with any ideas springing up out of the speech itself or the biographical information. Things like “how was that different to a regularly-scheduled speech?”, “what inspired you to enter the contest?” and “how do you structure your speeches?” are always questions that are answerable for the contestant and (hopefully) interesting for the audience.

On the day

On the day, getting the speakers together for the briefing (“These are the rules and requirements for any protests. This is how the lights work. Pick a card for order of speaking. Any questions?”) is the main thing to do before the meeting starts. Naturally, you’ll want to check in with everyone doing a role and make sure they know how everything is going to go down. For example, you want to make sure someone, usually a timekeeper, is in charge of filling out the winners’ certificates and ensuring you have them at the appropriate time.

If I’ve done the preparation right, the contest itself should just be a case of showing up and following the directions on the cards. Of course, it’s never that simple. I need to do all of the Good MC stuff like maintain eye-contact and avoid ums, and there’s always scope for something to go wrong. (I have a bad habit of forgetting to give the judges time to do their scoring, for instance, and it throws me briefly when I’m reminded.)

One of the reasons I find being Contest Chair exhausting is that the role requires being on one’s feet much more than the Toastmaster role does. The Toastmaster is forever handing over to Presidents and Topics Masters and Grammarians. On contest day, I think it’s the case that, Sergeant-at-Arms excepted, the Chair and the contestants are the only people who speak from the stage.

Although it’s exhausting, it’s also extremely rewarding! Almost as rewarding as sitting down with a cup of tea once it’s over, and smiling at the thought you won’t have to do it again for (hopefully) several years.

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