The darkened ballroom is hit by a barrage of flashing lights and a thunderous musical score that sounds like a call to battle.
“ARE YOU READY TO WITNESS THE BEST? THE BEST OF THE BEST?” a caption flashing across a jumbo screen asks the audience. The crowd roars approval. “LET THE CONTEST BEGIN!”
It’s the finale of the 2016 World Championship of Public Speaking, but it feels more like fight night in Vegas. Ten finalists warm up backstage like boxers psyching themselves up for the ring. Some bop their heads and shimmy to dance music on their headphones. Others pantomime dramatic hand gestures while rehearsing their lines out loud.
They’ve come halfway around the globe to get on a stage and do something most people find frightening. They’re the renegades in an increasingly mute society where people prefer to text and tweet than actually talk to one another. They’ve emerged from a field of 30,000 contestants from countries as far away as Australia, South Korea and Zimbabwe. Their seven-minute speeches draw laughter and gasps of surprise. They reduce the audience to silence with heart-tugging confessions.
Then something happens that causes an awkward silence to fall on the festive crowd. One finalist, a boyish-looking man with a mop of black hair, walks out to give his speech – and pulls on a pair of white cotton Calvin Klein underwear over his pants.
“Oh, no,” someone mutters as nervous laughter spreads across the Marriott Marquis ballroom.
The world championship of public speaking is about to take a strange turn.
Talking out loud in a post-verbal world
Look around: Couples on dates stare at their texts instead of gazing into each other’s eyes. Smart phone zombies shuffle mutely along sidewalks, their eyes fixed on their screens. Some companies say they can’t find enough young workers who know how to talk to customers.
We’re moving toward a post-verbal world.
“I spend the summers at a cottage on Cape Cod, and for decades I walked the same dunes that Thoreau once walked,” Sherry Turkle wrote in an essay. Turkle is author of “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other.”
“Not long ago, people walked with their heads up, looking at the water, the sky, the sand and at one another, talking. Now they often walk with their heads down, typing. Even when they are with friends, partners, children, everyone is on their own devices.”
Yet we still hunger for the human voice. Amid this post-verbal landscape, a subculture of storytelling is thriving. TED Talks, StoryCorps, the Moth Radio Hour and National Public Radio’s “Snap Judgment” – all are popular shows built around people telling stories. Even American politics is still shaped by the spoken word. The next president of the United States may well be determined by who is deemed the best public speaker during the presidential debates.
But it is the improbable success of this international speaking competition – and its 92-year-old sponsor, Toastmasters International – that offers striking evidence for the durability of the spoken word.
Toastmasters is one of the oldest public speaking groups in America. Its name evokes images of nerdy men in bow ties giving corny speeches at retirement dinners. But Toastmasters is flourishing. Its membership has doubled in the last two decades; it has almost 16,000 clubs worldwide.
According to Forbes magazine, Toastmasters is “growing like crazy” at Fortune 500 companies such as Google and Apple. Executives realize it’s not enough to be brilliant – you have to be able to communicate. Whether you’re trying to sell yourself at a job interview, lead a meeting at work, return defective merchandise to a store – everybody eventually becomes a public speaker.
Even the investor Warren Buffett, who once hated public speaking, says learning how to talk is invaluable.
“One of the things you would want to be sure to do is, whether you like it or not, get very comfortable … with public speaking,” Buffett once told a young woman who asked for career advice.
“That’s an asset that will last you 50 or 60 years, and it’s a liability if you don’t like doing it.”
But what happens when public speaking is transformed from a necessity into an art form?
That’s what can be seen and heard each year at Toastmasters’ “Olympics of Oratory.” Who are these contestants? Why do they do it, and what can they teach people who can barely mumble through an order at a drive-thru restaurant? To answer those questions, we must go back to round one of this year’s competition.
‘Please humiliate me’
It’s 8 a.m., and the first round of speakers is set to take the stage. It’s going to be a long day – 98 speakers will compete in 10 separate contests held throughout the hotel. The winner of each group advances to the finals.
Each group gathers in a dimly lit meeting room that looks like a movie theater. People scramble to get the best seats near the front. Others take out pads to scribble notes. In each group, nine voting judges are scattered anonymously in the crowd with their own scorecards. They’ll grade the contestants on everything from grammar to body language and the flexibility of their voice.
An emcee stands behind the podium, peers into the audience and announces the name of the speaker and the title of her speech: “Please Humiliate Me.”
Julie Miyeon Sohn has traveled here from Seoul, South Korea. She shakes the emcee hand, turns to face the audience and announces:
“Hi, my name is Julie and I have a confession to make. I have a fetish for humiliation.”
It’s not how one might expect someone to open a “speech.” But nobody in this contest gives speeches in the traditional sense anymore. People want to hear a story.
Sohn tells a rollicking one about how her biggest humiliations led to her greatest periods of growth. She mentions her fumbling attempts to master English and the advice she received one day to get an American boyfriend.
“But my mother told me a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” she says as the crowd erupts in laughter.
Next up comes Richard Hardon, an engineer from Georgia. He has a shaved head, a goatee and a megawatt smile. Hardon has his own fetish – Superman. He wears Superman belt buckles, cuff links, even Superman underwear during competitions.
He tells the audience, in a speech about resilience called “Up,” how he survived a mid-career malaise after his company was bought out by another.
“Now under a public disclosure agreement, I’m not supposed to say the name of the company that bought out my company,” Hardon says. Then he leans toward the audience as if he’s whispering a secret. “But the company’s initials are IBM.”
Every speech is a story because the best speakers know that people don’t remember information; they remember stories, especially funny ones. A study by Jennifer Aaker, a marketing professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, says that people remember information when it is weaved into stories “up to 22 times more than facts alone.” Ryan Avery, who won the contest in 2012 with a speech called “Trust is a Must,” cites a Native American proverb:
“Tell me a fact, and I will learn. Tell me a truth, and I will believe. But tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever.”
Even in an age of texts and tweets, there’s a primal need for people to hear stories.
“Stories are how we learn,” Avery says. “Every value that you have learned was learned through a story, whether through the Bible or the Quran or from your grandmother. We are hardwired to want to experience and feel stories.”
But it’s not enough to tell a story; the best speakers relive their stories on stage. They transform their bodies into storytelling instruments. They vary their vocal pitch at dramatic points and engage the audience with provocative questions. They never linger in one spot but position themselves in different locations to connect with the audience.
Most of the stories are inspirational – Toastmasters likes to call them “secular sermons.” One doctor tells a story about getting a new perspective on life after holding an emaciated baby who died in her arms. A man tells a story about a deathbed reconciliation with his emotionally distant father. And another shares how he learned to accept himself after going through a divorce.
It’s all heavy stuff, but there are some unwritten rules to lighten the rhetorical load. A speaker can choose any topic, but conventional Toastmasters’ wisdom says don’t dwell too heavily on religion or politics. Never say the word “cancer” in a speech. And be wary of “body count” speeches that focus on death.
Despite those suggestions, being constantly inspired is, well, exhausting. Hearing about one life-changing moment after another, the neurons get fried. You feel like you’re being pummeled by inspiration.
But the emotional fatigue evaporates when someone special takes the stage. At 6:16 p.m., near the end of the first day of competition, the emcee announces the next speaker: Darren Tay.
Tay bounds onto the stage and shakes the emcee’s hand. He turns and faces the audience with a big smile. Though he’s dressed in an elegant business suit, he looks like a teenager who crashed the party with his boyish face and wiry build. He’s actually a lawyer from Singapore. The name of his speech is “I See Red.”
Tay opens by telling a story about a high school English teacher who often used colors to describe people’s emotions. If they saw green, they were envious; red, they were angry.
“As I grow older, I tend to see red most of time,” Tay says. “I don’t know why.”
Tay says he was constantly irritated by other people’s shortcomings: his nosy neighbor who always asked him the same question every morning as she watered her plants; his mom who pestered him about learning how to use the internet; his demanding boss.
Then one day a psychology professor visited his law school and showed Tay’s class a white legal paper with a red dot in the corner. He asked them what they saw. Everybody saw the red dot. The professor told them he was looking for another answer. No one mentioned the pristine whiteness that dominated the page.
“And I came to see the light,” Tay says.
It’s easy to see the blemish in others but not their good, Tay says. So he tried an experiment. He began to praise those who made him see red. He praised his mom and boss for taking an interest in his life. And he thanked his nosy neighbor for her interest and offered to buy her dinner.
Tay crouches and asks the audience: Do you think my neighbor stopped asking the same annoying question every morning – “Going to work, Darren?”
“The next day she asked me the same question,” he says, his voice rising in exasperation as the crowd laughs. Then he pauses and softens his voice to add: “But this time instead of watering her plants she came over to my house to water the plants for me.”
The audience sighs at the twist to Tay’s story. He steps back and scans their faces.
“My friends, do you see red in your life? My challenge to you is the next time you see the rainbow, don’t just focus on the red, look at the beautiful spectrum of the seven colors because you may find your pot of gold at the end of the day.”
The audience sends him off with whoops and cheers. A delegation from Singapore whistles and waves their national flag.
The emcee then asks for quiet as the judges add up their scorecards. A big smile spreads across the emcee’s face.
“Let’s give a big drum roll for the winner. And he is none other than … Darren Tay.”
A woman squeals in delight from the crowd. Tay jumps onto the stage with a smile and bows twice as he accepts the trophy. This is his first international championship finals. He took a 24-hour flight from Singapore to attend the contest.
“Yesterday was my birthday,” he says. “And this is the best birthday present I could have had.”
The emcee turns to the audience. “Let’s all sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Darren.”
The crowd serenades Tay as he stands on the stage holding his trophy. He bows again and smiles to acknowledge them. Then his smile crumples and he dabs at his eyes.
He lowers his head and starts to cry.
The grind behind the words
The morning after winning his individual group, Tay explains what’s behind those tears.
He sits in the lobby of the Marriott, glancing at a menu, and tells his own story, one of years of grinding practice and a quest to overcome self-doubt. He wonders aloud whether he’s practiced enough for the speech he’ll give the next day in the finals. One of the quirks of the Toastmasters’ contest is that the winner of each individual group must give a different speech for the finals. Tay is thinking about going to a local Toastmasters’ club tonight to get feedback. He’s thinking of calling his speech “Outsmart; Outlast.”
He’s completely different from the animated performer on stage. He’s quiet and reserved, but it’s clear he’s passionate about public speaking. He arrived a week before the contest began so he could practice at local Toastmasters clubs. The son of an engineer and entrepreneur, he’s been participating in public speaking and debating since he was a teenager.
Tay approaches public speaking like an athletic contest. He studies great speeches like NBA players study the moves of leading scorers. He keeps a library of 300 speeches and a mental vault of 10 speeches he’s memorized that he can produce on any impromptu occasion.
“Even at this level, I still feel anxious when I’m on stage,” he says. “You’re always going to have butterflies; you just have to learn how to get the butterflies to fly in formation.”
Tay is such a student of public speaking that’s he’s opened a speaking academy in Singapore and written a book on the subject called “Express to Impress.” In it, he explains why he chose to become a public speaker. He cites the impact of Abraham Lincoln and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Learning the art of public speaking is not about winning trophies and accumulating accolades. It is about influencing the lives of others for the better,” he writes.
First, though, he had to overcome his shyness. One of the oddest revelations about the Toastmasters’ contest is that many of the best speakers say they are introverts. Tay wouldn’t even make eye contact with his teachers in class because he feared being called on.
Others tell similar stories.
The winner of last year’s Toastmasters championship, Mohammed Qahtani, says he couldn’t even speak for a period in his life. He won with a speech called “The Power of Words.”
“I was mute until I was 6,” he says. “I used to be the laughingstock at school because I stuttered.”
Speaking champions offer themselves as public speaking myth busters. In his book, Tay writes: “One of the great myths of public speaking is that you will need to be a natural talent before you can speak well.”
There are other perks to public speaking. When you find your voice, you find yourself, says Dananjaya Hettiarachchi, the 2014 world champion. Hettiarachchi used a rose as an ingenious prop in his winning speech, “I See Something in You But I Don’t Know What It Is,” which has been viewed over 1 million times on YouTube.
He is now a motivational speaker, a public speaking coach and the author of a forthcoming book entitled “Storytelling for Leaders.” He says he was a “thug” flunking out of school before he joined Toastmasters.
“I walked into a Toastmasters club and what it really gave me was an outlet to speak at a difficult time in my life,” he says. “I discovered I was good at something. And the more I grew in confidence, the more I was able to transfer that confidence to other areas.”
The youngest finalist at the world championship is Dan Martin, a 20-year-old from Veracruz, Mexico. Like all the others who compete in the finals, he had to go through five rounds of local and regional contests before he made the final 98 contestants in Washington.
Martin joined Toastmasters because he was trying to meet a cute girl but ended up falling for public speaking instead. He’s now a professional storyteller and public speaker.
“It was the strangest experience of my life,” he says of his first Toastmasters meeting. “People sitting down, listening to the one with the mic. And no matter if you got it right or not, they would clap.”
There are also potential financial rewards for entering the contest. A champion can snag lucrative gigs on the corporate speaking circuit or charge $300 an hour or more for consultations. Some go on to write books, offer online courses and sell how-to DVDs to fans around the globe.
Avery, the 2012 champion, recently quit his job to become a full-time professional speaker and speaking coach.
“It’s not like it’s going to change your life like you don’t have to work anymore,” Avery says of winning the championship. “But there are about three or four former world champions who are doing this full time. It can get pretty lucrative.”
A good speaker doesn’t even have to win the championship to get a bounce, says “Superman” Hardon, the speaker from Georgia. Every speaker who makes the final will be in demand – and can charge, he says.
“You will fill out your calendar for the rest of the year,” Hardon says. “There’s a difference between speaking for free and speaking for fee.”
Yet there’s something special about being called the world champion of public speaking for the rest of your life. But first, you have to win.
A champion is crowned
A crowd gathers outside the Marriott ballroom before the doors open for the finals. The atmosphere is festive, like a family reunion. People rush to their seats, chatting excitedly and dancing to KC and the Sunshine Band’s “That’s the Way [I Like It]” pumping over the loudspeakers.
There’s plenty to like as the 10 finalists take to the stage. Virtually all of the speeches are gems – inspirational stories that somehow avoid sounding like Hallmark greeting cards. Most are flat-out funny.
Aaron Beverly, a finalist from Philadelphia, gets one of the biggest laughs before he even takes the stage. Speech titles are expected to be short and punchy; the emcee reads out the title of Beverly’s:
“Leave a lasting memory using as few words as possible and strive with every fiber in your being to avoid being the type of person who rambles on and on with no end in sight more likely than not causing listeners to sit and think to themselves oh my goodness can somebody please make this stop.”
The crowd roars and Beverly walks onto the stage in silence. He scans the crowd before breaking into a huge smile and asking: “Be honest, you enjoyed that didn’t you?”
He then proceeds to tell a charming story about the power of using fewer, not more, words. He cites the shyness that kept him from saying much as a child; the incredulity his friends experienced when he joined Toastmasters (“Wait a minute. Aaron can talk?”); and how he learned from one woman’s stammering tribute to her mother that it’s what you say, not how much you say.
The crowd gives Beverly thunderous applause. He seems to be the favorite. Then the underwear man strikes.
The emcee announces the speech’s title, “Outlast; Outsmart.” The speaker is Tay, the lawyer from Singapore. He takes center stage and smiles. Then he reaches into his right pants pocket, pulls out the Calvin Klein underwear, and slips it over his slim frame.
The audience titters nervously as he scans the crowd in his underwear, his hands resting on his hips like a gunfighter.
Tay jumps right into his speech by giving voice to his childhood tormenter, a school bully who once draped a pair of underwear over his head.
“Hey loser, how do you like your new school uniform now?”
He’s off and running. Tay recounts how he was a small kid trying to “outsmart and outlast” the bully. But then, Tay says, he encountered a bully he could never run from or outsmart – the one inside him. He beat himself up for not being good enough.
Tay takes his audience on a journey. He prowls the stage acting out characters, moving his story in unexpected directions and weaving poetic analogies – all while wearing underwear over his elegant suit.
He ends the speech by saying he has learned to vanquish his inner bully by acknowledging its existence and stepping back from it to gain perspective. That’s why he can now talk to an international audience in his tighty-whities.
“I’m not afraid anymore,” he says. “I’m in control. Because I’m acknowledging it. I’m stepping out of it.” And then he steps out of the underwear, holds it up and tosses it aside.
“My friends, let us all not run away from our inner bullies anymore.”
He salutes the emcee. The crowd whistles and applauds.
The finalists all file back onstage for a chat as the judges count their scorecards. It’s a version of a Toastmasters’ practice called “table topics,” in which speakers are asked to improvise on an impromptu topic. The finalists keep charming the audience even after the contest has ended.
“Where do you get ideas for your topic?” the emcee asks one finalist. “Where everyone does – the shower,” she answers. Another is asked why he joined Toastmasters. His answer: “To win an argument with my wife.”
Then the moment comes. The judges have a winner. The emcee announces the third- and second-place winners. He presents each a trophy and poses with them for photographs. Now comes the world champion.
“And the winner is … Darren Tay.”
Tay jumps from his front-row seat and pumps his fist. As he walks onto stage, he high-fives an usher and – pulling his smart phone out of his pocket – takes a selfie as he accepts the trophy.
He thanks his supporters and speech coach before turning to a camera that will beam the event back to Singapore and says:
“And Mom, Dad, and my younger brother” – he holds up his trophy – “I’m the world champion of public speaking.”
Tay is whisked backstage for a news conference. Flanked by Toastmasters officials, he accepts the congratulations of well-wishers.
But he no longer looks like the poised speaker who commanded the stage these past two days. His eyes widen and his chest starts to heave. He looks petrified.
“This is surreal,” he mumbles.
And for a brief moment, just before he steps in front of the cameras to take questions, Tay leaves his audience with one last surprise.
The 2016 world champion of public speaking is speechless.