On Friday 8th March 2013 I represented my Toastmasters Club in the Area 34 contest. There were a total of 6 contestants and although I wasn’t in the top three, I felt that I had made my best effort and given a good performance.
My speech topic was “Talk to a Stranger” and my purpose was to encourage people to make contact with people they don’t know or haven’t met. My topic might have been a bit lightweight to fit the mould for this contest, but it is a subject I am passionate about and practice daily.
Here is my reflection on the experience of preparing for this contest and giving the speech to a bigger audience and a different venue.
I enjoy writing speeches (and blog articles) and the processing of choosing the right language and structure. But I am weak in using gestures to enhance the message and using vocal variety for maximum effect. My other big challenge is memorising the words and the language I have cleverly crafted. It is essential not to use notes in a speech otherwise the audience assumes you don’t know the material. Using notes is detrimental to using eye contact and body movements.
My practice strategy has been to rehearse the speech in a quiet place outdoors and attempt to remember as much as possible. As long as I can remember the overall structure and the opening and closing sentences I am not so worried. I do want to remember the words that I have spent so much time to write and refine. My mentor asked me on the morning of the contest. I said I was feeling neutral – neither nervous or exicted. She gave me this advice:
“I suggest you clarify your intention statement first then work on the speech. You have the experience and ability to use what you have and make it great. In fact the looser the better, gives you room to react to your audience creatively.”
I wrote out my intention statement on the top of the first page of my text:
“My intention is to get you [the audience] to drop your fears and inhibitions, find common ground then start talking to strangers”.
I practice my speech during my Friday lunch break as well as on the 20 minute walk from Chatswood Station to the contest venue at Willoughby. I was the last of the six speakers but I made my best effort. Parts of my speech were impromptu using fragments of what I had memorised. I commented on a man sitting in the front row wearing a sloganed T-shirt to illustrate one of the points in my speech.
After the contest my mentor congratulated me saying it was the best delivery she has seen me do in a contest. She also said I got the most laughs from the audience. The reason? I aimed to have fun, and to “hang loose” allowing some improvisation and interaction with the audience. A moved around, projected my voice and used more gestures. Several people came up to me after the contest and said how much they enjoyed the speech and thought it was relevant and useful. A lady from another club and friend from a book club sent me email saying:
Loved your speech, Charles! Good topic, well acted out. You obviously got the better of your nerves this time and gave a very flowing performance, with good vocal variety, pauses and pacing. Good reaction from the audience to humour. 🙂 It must be a tough job being a judge….you were all high calibre!
In a speech contest, there is only one real competitor and that is myself. If I can improve myself in each speech I do, then I am winning. Being placed in the contest would be a bonus!
The Speech Text
Here is the text I used to practice. I wasn’t able to record the speech so I can’t compare the performance to the text. The headlines are the anchors to help me memorise the structure.
Do you remember the first time you went to a Toastmasters meeting? Maybe you were nervous and shy. Terrified of meeting a new group of people?
I had similar feelings attending 21st birthday parties and weddings when the only person I knew was the guest of honor. All around me was a sea of unfamiliar faces . So many strangers to talk to!
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be given the gift of conversation – to talk to anyone in the room – yet feel relaxed and confident.
I want to share a couple of techniques I have used to talk to a stranger without needing introduction and not feeling awkward.
What is a stranger?
So what is a stranger? Quite simply, a stranger is someone you haven’t met – yet.
Everyone we know – with the exception of our family – was a stranger at some time in the past.
Something in common
It’s easy to talk to people you already know because you have something in common. But talking to strangers pushes most of us way out of our comfort zone, with many barriers to cross – most of them self-imposed. You might think “I’m too boring” or “I’m too young or too old or not good looking . Maybe you fear being rejected, or not having anything in common.
Let’s examine the barrier of thinking you have nothing in common. We all have something in common – at the very least being human and living on planet Earth. There are many situations where the location automatically provides something in common, an office party, conference, a school function or a Toastmasters meeting. You can always find something in common – apart from talking about the weather.
So how do you get started? It doesn’t really matter too much what you say to begin with – the important thing is to make the connection by just speaking. I realise this takes courage but it isn’t too hard to just ask a question.
At the 21st party you can ask “How do you know Susie?” or “Were you at school or university together?” At Toastmasters a shy guest could ask “Tell me what happens at this meeting?”. Club members can ask guests how they found out about the organisation and this club. What happens if the person ignores you or the conversation fizzles out? It’s not your fault – go and talk to someone else!
Less in Common
But how do you talk to a stranger when there is less in common? What can you say without your opening sentence being threatening, or sounding like a pickup line?
A caution – you should be selective about where you talk to strangers and what you say .
You can always ask strangers about the time or asking directions but be careful about being too personal.
I work with a Malaysian lady who asked me “Do I look Japanese?”. She knows my wife is Japanese and I told her she didn’t look particularly Japanese to me. “Why do you ask”? She said a lot of guys say that to her when she is walking in the city. I said – “That’s a pickup line!”
So the first step in talking to strangers is using what you have in common as your starting point.
Objects and Name Badges
And now for another strategy – look for something of interest the person is wearing or carrying that you can make a comment about.
[Find an audience member as a target] It could be a sloganed t-shirt, a piece of jewelry or even a name badge. Why do you think they give out name badges at conferences? They are tools for introductions – make your own name badge – encourage people to talk to you!
The focus of your opening conversation is the item, not the person, so you won’t appear threatening or imposing. If you want strangers to talk to you, then wear something that can start a conversation.
Second tip – Find an object then start talking
Sense of Humour
My final suggestion in my brief survey of conversation starters is to use your sense of humour, delivered with a friendly smile. People appreciate humour that lightens their day and adds some fun.
Earlier I said we were all citizens of planet Earth. In Sydney a large group of use are City Rail commuters. Imagine you are standing on Clarence Street waiting for a bus because City Rail has failed again. Everyone is angry and stressed – but you can use the current crisis as something to talk about – or in this case – rant about. Try and have a laugh and a smile to lighten up your mood.
My third and final tip is to use your sense of humour.
You never know what connections you are going to make until you start a conversation.
Drop any fears about talking to strangers – be courageous and start talking to someone new every day. Who knows what great friendships are ahead of you until you start making your own introductions?
In the world of strangers, you will find new friends, new inspiration, and new business and career contacts. And for those seeking it, you could find new romance!
So what are you waiting for? Who knows what connections you can make.
Click this link to read the earlier version of the speech.