It’s that time of year again and as I get ready for my annual assault on the Toastmasters International Speech Contest, I find myself thinking a lot about last year’s winner.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t me. My friend, Naoki Tamura, was the 2013 Toastmasters Japan Champion of Public Speaking. His speech, titled “You Decide”, was not only good enough to win the championship contest, it also taught me several important lessons about how to construct and deliver a powerful and memorable message.
A Toastmasters speech is far too often, in Shakespeare’s words, “A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. Though the “idiot” part may be debatable, the tale tends to be an entertaining, emotional and histrionic performance, full of sound and fury.
In fact, so skilled are some of the speakers at delivering that performance, that the content sometimes gets short shrift. The same tired truisms of “Be yourself”, “Don’t give up” and “Appreciate your loved ones” are recycled, ad nauseam, through the lens of each speaker’s unique experiences.
They are truisms because they are true, but the result is that watching a Toastmasters’ speech contest can be like judging an angel food cake baking contest. There may be subtle differences in the skill of the baker and the quality of the product, but after a while the cakes all start to taste the same.
That’s why Toastmaster Tamura’s speech stood out so clearly. His journey as a young executive – from being a follower who asks permission, to becoming a leader who makes decisions – was something I had never heard anyone else speak of.
It was his story, but it was about more than his own narrow experience. His story mirrored one of the most fundamental and profound transitions that we pass through in life; the coming of age, when a dependent child becomes an independent adult. It is a transition that we all pass through, in many forms and to different degrees of success in our lives.
Whether it’s an artist learning to have faith in her unique vision, a new father discovering that he can trust his parenting instincts or a businesswoman finding her own particular management style, the transformation from follower to leader, from novice to master or from subordinate to boss is a fundamental change that forever alters how others see us and how we see ourselves.
Tamura took this rich, complex and universal experience of transformation and boiled it all down to two simple words; “You decide.”
With those two words to guide him, he wrote a lean, tight script packed with humor, vivid language and subtle emotion and he delivered it with his usual confidence and style. His skill as a speaker would have meant nothing though, if he hadn’t been using it to deliver a profound, powerful and original message.
It’s a formula for effective speaking in almost any context. Take a new idea, boil it down to its absolute essence and deliver that with clarity, concision and conviction.
Of course, that’s easy to say, not so easy to do.