A while ago, I was helping Joe with his first International Contest speech. During our coaching session, he shared an observation that confused him. It's seems that last fall, he watched me compete in the Humorous Speech Contest at my advanced club. I lost that contest. However, I eventually advanced through a different club, and two rounds later at the division contest, I defeated the exact same person with the exact same speech. Joe wanted to know how that could happen. Was it due to a different set of judges? Was the other speaker just having an off day? Did I practice more? Did I make a lot of speech changes? What changed? The difference between the club contest and the division contest wasn't the speeches, it was the size of the audience.
Creating your first speech toward the International Contest is unlike working on any other speech. For most speeches, you plan your speech for the audience to which it will be delivered. Whether your speech is for a Toastmasters club, a board of directors meeting or a chamber of commerce, you need to do your homework. You should research your audience and adapt your speech to be effective for that group. One of the most important aspects of knowing your audience is to know the number of people expected to attend. This is the key to answering Joe's question.
Different-sized audiences will respond better to different delivery styles. Here's the basic, breakdown:
Size does matter. In the humorous speech contest Joe referred to, I designed my speech to win the district contest - not to win the club. My competitor, on the other hand, had created a speech to win the club. Whereas the opponent's speech did win the club, it did not translate well to the division stage, where the audience size had grown considerably. Therefore, with each level that the two of us advanced, my speech grew stronger while my opponent's speech declined in audience response. By the time we reached division level and competed in front of 60 to 70 people, my speech was nearing its peak. The crowd responded better, I earned bigger laughs, my big hand gestures and exaggerated facial expressions could be seen all the way at the back of the room. My competitor's speech looked flat and lifeless, especially to the people seated in the back. Hint: some judges do sit in the back.
Joe understood but wanted more details. "How do you tailor your speech to each audience?" he asked. So, for Joe and everyone else, let's look at each group and discuss the differences.
"It's much easier to tone down a big speech than ramp up a small one."
Eye contact on any one person is now limited to three or four seconds. Laughter is contagious; the more people you have, the bigger the laugh. Take time for these laughs to reach their natural conclusion. Pauses up to 10 seconds long can be expected to allow audience members to get their giggles out of their systems. You need to practice facial expressions to use during these long pauses to let the audience know you are still connected with them. Posture becomes more important. You need to appear completely confident.
This also applies to your vocal expression. More variations in volume and pitch are necessary to get your point across. Forget one-on-one eye contact. It is now about relating to the group. Because of the decreased angle from your eyes to theirs created by the greater distance, everyone in a section of the audience will feel like you've made eye contact. Be well rehearsed, but try to make it look as if you just thought it up on the fly. This is a tricky thing to accomplish; it takes a lot of practice.
The big question is, how do you design a speech that will knock them dead at the district level in front of 250 people, but still play well at the club level for as few as 15? This is the trick.
Here are a couple of ideas I've uncovered over the years:
Some clubs and club contest judges already understand that they are looking to advance someone to the next level who can win at the next level. These clubs and judges may be looking for the big speech as apposed to the smaller, flatter speeches. This is a situation you will have to determine by knowing your club and anticipating the tastes of the people who may be selected to judge. It's always a delicate balancing act. But for the most part, you'll want to remember that people who play big, win big.