Listening for Victory


Last night, I won a very different type of Toastmasters contest than the one I was involved in around this time last year.   That one was the International Speech Contest, one that culminates each year in the World Championship of Public Speaking.  That contest focuses on 5-7 minute-long speeches, usually of the inspirational or motivational variety.  I’ve always had a decent facility in those types of speeches, but they do not excite me like those telling historical stories, or those that convey my other passions (such as architecture or music or volcanoes and the like).

The Evaluation Contest, on the other hand, is a completely different beast.  Contestants in this contest all hear a test speaker.  We then have five minutes to prepare a 2-3 minute long evaluation of that speech, which is delivered verbally.  None of the contestants gets to hear other contestants do their evaluation until we’ve finished our own (as the fifth of five last night, I did not get to hear any of the other competitors).  We have to hand back our notes while the competitors before us present their evaluations, so as not to give unfair advantage to the later competitors.

Evaluations are a regular part of Toastmasters meetings–because feedback is most effective when given as close to immediately as possible.  We work on giving good evaluations as much as we do on giving good prepared speeches–a good evaluation has a good structure as a type of impromptu speech of its own.

What makes for a good evaluation?  First, one must listen carefully and effectively.  We look for all kinds of things–the content, structure, and flow of the speech itself, but also the use of gestures, body language, and eye contact, choice of language, use of pauses, and vocal variety and intonation. While the speaker is speaking, we usually make notes, but it’s even better to have good recall, because you want to put as much attention on the speech itself as possible.

Next, we prepare the evaluation.  During meetings, we usually have maybe ten minutes to put this together while other parts of the meeting proceed.  During the contest, we have five minutes. Regardless of whether this is a contest or a regular meeting, we are very interested in both calling out what a speaker did correctly as well as what he or she can do to improve–and to do the latter in an encouraging manner.  A good evaluation rides that razor’s edge between being too critical and being a whitewash.

Finally, we present the evaluation.  During a contest, we have a strict time constraint in which to do so;  if we go over the allotted time,  we are disqualified.  This presents a particular challenge to the evaluator–to put together a structured evaluation that touches on the most important aspects of the speech they just heard without going overtime.  It forces us to be succinct.  It also helps us exercise our own impromptu speaking skills.

Learning to do these evaluations has been enormously beneficial to me.  It’s made me a better listener, and has honed my skills and increased my comfort level in giving feedback that is both constructive and supportive.  That has certainly helped me outside of Toastmasters –SCA A&S judging comes to mind, but I’ve also used it as a project manager.

This particular contest has four levels.  You start at the club level, then move up to the Area level (an Area has 4-6 clubs), then to the Division level (a Division usually has 4-6 Areas), and then, finally, to the District level (our District has nine Divisions).  I won the Division C contest, which means that on April 14, I’ll be competing in the finals against all of the other Division winners.  (The International Speech contest has a fifth level–the International semi-finals and finals, which bring together winners from over 100 Toastmasters districts).

I’ve reached the District finals before twice, in Table Topics, but this is the first time I’ve gotten there with Evaluation.  I really think that two things have helped me in the past year to up my game to get to this point:  First, I’ve been writing more.  That’s been helping me express my thoughts more clearly, but also with more style.  Second, I have been listening to more music, and analyzing what I hear rather than just passively absorbing it.  That has helped me be more observant in listening to speeches as well–I find myself picking up on things I might not have noticed before, particularly in use of the voice–tone, inflection, and pacing, and what I’ve called elsewhere “white space” – how pauses and silence are used to create structure. But I didn’t go too overboard with the parallels with music. Last night, I came very close to describing the speech I was evaluating as like a piece of music, but pulled back from that and stuck to my original plans. Why?  I strongly feel that evaluations should not be about how wonderful my own metaphors are, but on the speaker and giving effective feedback.  I wanted to connect with him, not go down a geekery rabbit hole with terminology that might not ring true for him.  I’ve seen evaluations in these contests be more about the theatrics of the evaluators, and while a little flair can give colour to your words, an evaluation is not about the evaluator.  I also made sure to be succinct–picking the most important things the speaker did well and where he could improve. I concluded with a summary–and I was told afterwards that I was only one of two competitors who did so (and there are significant points awarded for doing this on the judging sheet).

I’m looking forward to the next level of competition.  Unlike with Table Topics, where you are at the mercy of the topic selected (and I blame that on my lack of success at the District finals both times I competed there),  I think you can always find something to say about just about any speech–things to praise, things to note for growth.  And this type of analysis really is what I love doing more than anything–not just to listen, but to hear, and then to communicate.