Speech Contests Are a Team Sport

About support, spotlight and what Toastmasters can learn from road cycling.

“A team sport? But there are no balls nor goals!”

Okay. There’s no comparison between speech contests and basketball or ice hockey. Even if we go to Wikipedia for a definition, we might have a tough time fitting speech contests into the traditional Team Sport category. They are characterized as activities involving teammates “facilitating the movement of a ball or similar item in accordance with a set of rules, in order to score points.”

And yet, when you hear the World Champions of Public Speaking give an interview, they almost always highlight the role of those supporting them. A team, perhaps?

Let’s forget about balls and points for a moment. Consider the broader, more modern team sport definition (also on Wikipedia): “Team sports are practiced between opposing teams, where the players generally interact directly and simultaneously between them to achieve an objective.”


Alone in the Contests

A Toastmasters club mission states the following objective: “(empower) members to develop communication and leadership skills, resulting in greater self-confidence and personal growth.” During the club’s “business as usual”, this is clear-cut. This often changes, however, when the time comes for Speech Contests. Then, individual members are frequently left to their own devices.

Maybe it’s because the officers are sometimes busy enough organizing the contest itself. Maybe it’s because the less experienced members don’t even think of asking for support since they will be competing against their club fellows. But having no support for contests is missing the whole point. As stated in the Speech Contest Rulebook, the contests “(…) provide an opportunity for Toastmasters to gain speaking experience, as well as an opportunity for other Toastmasters to learn by observing proficient speakers.” It’s a big part of the learning experience, and the club members should team up to support each other!

“That’s all very nice,” you might say. “But in the end, there’s only one winner. So how can it be a team sport?”

The answer is simple: It’s not all about the person in the spotlight. It’s not all about the winner.


Winners’ Academy Brno

An example from Brno, Czech Republic. Jaroslav Kovac, former Division Governor, describes how they ran the “Winners’ Academy,” a support group aiming to prepare its members to perform their best in the speech contests:

“We were meeting in a group of six – five of us advanced speakers, and one’ rookie’. Each of us had our turn to present the speech they planned to do in the contest. The others then gave feedback and helped to polish that speech,” Jaro describes.

“Naturally, those of us who felt their speeches would not stand in the competition dropped out of the race over time. In the end, it was just two people working on their speech. But the others were supporting them and giving feedback.

Interestingly, it was the “rookie” who bested us all and made it to the Division level. We worked on addressing his weak spots. He feared blacking out under pressure. To address that, we created the following practice for him: Together, we went to public places, such as a tram stop, the main square, or a shopping mall – and we made him deliver his speech there. We kept tuning it in challenging conditions until it was perfect.”


The Mutually Supportive World of Road Cycling

A group’s approach supporting its strongest member in their individual performance is not unique to Toastmasters from Brno. Take road cycling, for example. In a stage race such as the Tour de France, a cycling team comprises of a leader and up to 7 supporting riders (called “domestiques”, from the French word for “servant”). Their job is to make the leader’s life easier, cut the wind for him, prevent his competitors from breaking away or help to chase the competitors attempting a breakaway of their own. The domestiques rarely place at the top and are referred to as the “unsung heroes of road cycling.”

If you’re asking yourself: “Why would anyone want to do that,” here’s an answer from Tim Declerq, a domestique at the Deceuninck-Quick-Step team:

“I know I’m not the guy to make those three-minute sprints that win you races, but I take what I am good at, improve on that and become the best at what I do.”

Tim Declerq in an interview for cyclist.co.uk

On top of that, a cycling team comprises additional riders (waiting their turn for the next race) and supporting staff. If you Google “2012 Tour de France winner”, you will most likely get a result like this:

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But if you dig deeper, you’ll find out that it was no one-man show. Besides his team “domestiques” riders, the Sky Team’s supporting staff counted 38 people

“comprising coaches, sports directors, sports scientists, mechanics, operations and administration executives, carers [soigneurs], physiotherapists, massage therapists, nutritionist, two full-time doctors, and a chef.”

from Richard Moore’s Sky’s the Limit

A lot to support one guy’s win! But the other way to look at it is that it was the Sky Team’s win. And that Bradley Wiggins just played the role he was best at, like everyone else – and that everyone shared the victory.


The Team Sport of Personal Growth

When the contest season is around next time, why not borrow the team attitude from road cycling? After all – for most of us, Toastmasters speech contests are not the ultimate goal. They are just a proxy for assessing our progress. They measure how we improved our communication, a skill we want to use in our real jobs and real life. With that in mindset, it’s easy to see that while there is only one contest winner, there is no limit to who wins in the game of personal growth.

Having said that – sometimes, a domestique in road cycling can grow into a leader and win trophies himself. In the same way, supporting your fellow Toastmaster’s win one year can boost your chances in another.

“(In the Winners’ Academy) we all learned a ton: How to build a story, what tricks are used by the world champions,” Jaro adds. “The experience was a great asset for me. It was thanks to that I made it to the District Finals a few years later.”