5 presentation lessons from Toastmasters’ top speaker

Deliver your story with emotion and humor, actively involving the audience, and conclude with a meaningful point.

Speaking tips from Toastmasters' champ

The top finishers in this year’s Toastmasters global competition offer takeaways for all speakers.

With some 30,000 people delivering five- to seven-minute speeches, the competition is fierce.

In “An Unbelievable Story,” first-place winner Aaron Beverly gracefully combines humor and seriousness, commands the stage and delivers the speech fluidly and energetically.

I also like the effort of the third-place finisher, Kwong Yue Yang, and his “Less and More.” Luisa Montalvo’s second-place speech is a delightful plea for tolerance and looking beyond clichés and first impressions.

What can speakers in general learn from this annual rite, particularly from Beverly’s speech?

Here are five takeaways:

1. Start with humor; end with seriousness. There is something essential about that ordering; it’s an old vaudeville maxim, too: Make ’em laugh, make ’em cry. Laughter engages us, disarms us, brings us into the world of the speaker, but if that’s all you evoke, it’s not enough. As audience members, we don’t want our time wasted, we don’t want to be bored, but we also don’t want to be entirely frivolous. So, engage us with humor, and close on a serious note.

2. Always be telling stories. All three winners launch immediately into a story, setting up the structure of the speech. Sustaining a story is easier when you’re speaking for only five to seven minutes, keep it in mind for longer speeches as well. If the story is the speech, the suspense and payoff will keep the audience engaged throughout. Too many speakers tell brief anecdotes and miss out on engaging the audience for longer stretches.

3. Amp up the emotion. As Beverly tells us about his role in the wedding of friends in India—and one particular tradition—he recalls the key moments, he embodies key members of the wedding party, and his voice takes on their emotions and attitudes. He’s hamming it up, and it’s very effective. Most speakers in business settings hold back, because they don’t think emotion is appropriate—and the result is boredom. Find places where strong emotions work, and the variety and emotional arcs will add to the interest.

4. Use repetition artfully. The groom has given Beverly a task—no, no, “a mission”—and Beverly repeats the line of instruction, and various other lines, several times in the speech. Each repetition of the key line has a precise gesture, making those words even more memorable. The audience has fun as he primes them to expect the repetition, making them feel intelligent and in the know. Too many speakers try to seem smarter than their audiences.

5. Get the audience to participate. Their active involvement is public speaking gold. In this case, Beverly uses good storytelling and artful repetition so that all he has to do is gesture to the audience, and they call out the line. That’s great fun for the audience, and it probably helped win the contest for him. Bring your audience into the speech and get them to co-create it with you, and they’ll reward you with enthusiastic participation and positive ratings.

Nick Morgan is a communication coach, speaker and author of “Can You Hear Me?” A version of this post first appeared on Public Words.

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