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Presentation tips from a “celebrity Toastmasters judge”

You’ve heard of Toastmasters, of course. And you might even have guessed that there are now Toastmasters clubs that are entirely online. And you might even conclude (correctly!) that there are speech contests online that include all the elements of offline Toastmasters.


But “celebrity Toastmasters judge?” Just what can I learn from that?


A whole lot, actually.


WHO you’ll learn from


Here at V2 we have an internationally-known speaker, trainer, and author who wrote some of the first books ever written about how to present online at webinars and virtual events. He was the first speaker in the world to earn the Certified Speaking Professional with a virtual business model, the first speaker in the world to earn a million dollars presenting virtually, and one of the first-ever judges for Toastmasters conferences online such as EVVCON.


And because of his background, he’s been asked to be a “celebrity Toastmasters judge” for an upcoming contest. You’re even welcome to attend.


And that happens to be me. Let me tell you what I’m going to be looking for.


WHAT you’ll learn (that relates to corporate presentations)


In this post I’ll share with you three things:

  1. enough of the contest format so you understand the context of my recommendations

  2. what I’ll be looking for in 8 different categories

  3. what any presenter in the “real world” of corporate events, virtual and hybrid events, and webinars can apply in a non-Toastmasters setting.


The context of the Toastmasters “The Webinar Contest” event


Typical Toastmasters speeches are 5-7 minutes, and there’s a penalty (or disqualification) for going too short or too long. This contest is the same.


Too, typical Toastmasters speeches are like “keynotes,” usually with little or no audience interaction (more like training). To their credit, however, Online Presenters Toastmasters club designed “The Webinar Contest” to test the skills required to host a webinar or deliver an online presentation, taking advantage of the virtues of the online format and overcoming its limitations.


Importantly, any interaction or Q&A a contestant bakes in must fit within their 5-7 time limit – a real challenge that will be addressed later.


Too, while audience members are encouraged to interact, this is limited to textual interactions.


Finally, some form of “call to action” is required.


Oh, and unlike typical Toastmaster contests, I’m not going to be anonymous.


Webinar contest scoring: the categories and what I’ll be looking for


A bit of background is in order here that will help you get the most of this celebrity judge’s thoughts. A founder and key leader of this group is David Carr (whom we’ve interviewed for our #ThoughtLeaderConversation series), and David’s an accomplished thinker and writer in the realm of digital. You’ll see, therefore, that the contest categories aren’t simply descriptive – they’re instructive in many cases as well.


Here are the contest’s eight categories from the contest’s website, highlights are mine.


Speech Development is the way the speaker puts ideas together so the audience can understand them. The speech is structured around a purpose, and this structure must include an opening, body and conclusion. A good speech immediately engages the audience’s attention and then moves forward toward a significant conclusion. This development of the speech structure is supported by relevant examples and illustrations, facts and figures, delivered with such smoothness that they blend into the framework of the speech to present the audience with a unified whole.


Roger: Great stories transcend a whole lot of other tactics (and by “story” I don’t necessarily mean “once upon a time…”). Structure is one of the most underapprecated elements of communication for amateur presenters. The nature of structure not only creates momentum from the outset, but particularly with a “call to action,” should leave the audience feeling like taking that action is a no-brainer next step.


Speech Value justifies the act of speaking. The speaker has a responsibility to say something meaningful and original to the audience. The listeners should feel the speaker has made a contribution to their thinking. The ideas should be important ones, although this does not preclude a humorous presentation of them.


Roger: The old adage to work from “What’s in it for me?” is harder to deliver well than you might imagine at first blush. The best way to get there in many (most) presentations is to ask questions. Universally ‘meaningful’ points are hard to make without sounding like clichés, so I think ‘bonus’ for anyone who finds new or poetic ways to deliver the punchline.


Call to Action is a clear statement of what the presenter wants the audience to do following the presentation – buy a product, vote in an election, or change their life in some way. How clear was the desired outcome?


Roger: I love that this category is included, but it does force presenters to focus on persuasion (versus presenting to inform or other purpose). Personally, I’d recommend thinking of ‘call to action’ as part of the ‘structure’ discussion above. The two are inseparable, and arguably ALL of a presentation should point to the CTA (and anything that doesn’t support the CTA should be eliminated).  


Audience Engagement is a score for how well the speaker engaged the audience through the chat or other means. This includes how well the speaker handled the time management challenge of fitting in time for Q&A or other interaction, as well as the quality of the interaction.


Roger: As a judge, I’ll use the contest’s rules as described, but I’ll say that as a trainer and consultant, I’d demand they remember that engagement begins with story (see the previous point) and may include brain triggers that have nothing to do with “vote in the poll” (e.g., asking a rhetorical question, use of a ‘rule of three’ mnemonic, etc.).


Visual Presentation includes all the elements conveyed through video, including body language and the use of slides or other content shared onscreen.


Roger: “Thinking visually” is, sadly, too often restricted to use of PowerPoint or Keynote. Thinking through the entirety of an audience member’s visual experience requires “seeing” things through their eyes.


Voice is the sound that carries the message. It should be flexible, moving from one pitch level to another for emphasis, and should have a variety of rate and volume. A good voice can be clearly heard and the words easily understood.


Roger: Audio without video works fine, video without audio is useless in this context, so being heard clearly is simply table stakes to me. Importantly, your microphone and proximity to it can make or break the subconscious way that your audience relates to you, because they experience you rather than just hear you. Check out this down-and-dirty mic comparison or just listen to how my mic sounds relative to an interviewee in one of these YouTube videos.


Manner is the indirect revelation of the speaker’s real self as the speech is delivered. The speaker should speak with enthusiasm and assurance, showing interest in the audience and confidence in their reactions.


Roger: I’ll be honest, this is about as subjective as it gets, so I’ll add some serious truth that is also subjective: Want to really connect with an audience? Love them. I’m not kidding.


Combined in our scoring are: Appropriateness of language refers to the choice of words that relate to the speech purpose and to the particular audience hearing the speech. Language should promote clear understanding of thoughts and should fit the occasion precisely. Correctness of language ensures that attention will be directed toward what the speaker says, not how it is said. Proper use of grammar and correct pronunciation will show that the speaker is the master of the words being used.


Roger: With this category I will again judge according to the guidelines given, but I couldn’t disagree more the characterization of “correctness of language.” Yes, grammar is good (I’m a geek), but how something is said also communicates something. See the next section.


7 advanced ‘celebrity judge’ tactics any professional can use to improve their virtual presentations


Note that each of the comments in the previous section communicate something of ‘how to,’ so let me close out with seven more advanced tactics that anyone can do (and almost no one does).


Structure: Begin with your “call to action” in mind.

If you want to maximize impact of your call to action, remember the physics of a hammer and nail – the sharper the point of the nail, the less work the hammer has to do (and the deeper the nail goes). In the short attention span environment of virtual presentations, minimize or eliminate anything that doesn’t directly serve the action you’re asking someone to take.


Planning: Remember, “Detail + dialogue = duration.”

You only have so much time to present. Unfortunately it’s rather tempting to try to pack in as much stuff as you can – unfortunate because usually the most powerful way to make your point isn’t proclamation, it’s conversation. But conversation, taking questions, asking for feedback and commenting on it, or any other form of interaction takes more time that simply saying something. You need both, but the more you add in ‘dialogue’ of some sort, the less detail you’ll have time to cover in what you present.


Voice: Complete your communication with what you emphasize

How you say something can be as important as what you say. And remember, in a shorter attention span environment, you may need to deliver something in a way that feels like overemphasis to you.


Here’s an example that’s even easy to teach others on your team. Say the following sentence multiple times, placing the emphasis on a different word each time. Do so in a way that changes the meaning of the sentence by HOW you say it.


"I didn’t say it was your fault."


I trust you'll find the meaning is quite different depending on what you emphasize. "I didn't say it was YOUR fault" and "I didn't say it was your FAULT" and I didn't SAY it was your fault" are all quite different.

Again, in a shorter attention span environment where distraction is potentially higher, how you use pace, pauses, and pitch, are crucial.

Presenting: Use “verbal body language”

As argued above, it’s useful to think about the entirety of the audience’s visual experience. This is more than just PowerPoint. But more powerful still is directing attention by way of explicit verbal reference. For instance, “On the right hand side of the slide you’ll see…” or “Look in the lower left hand corner of your Zoom player, and what you’ll find is…”


Presenting: Don’t use a tool unless the purpose relates to your purpose

Using a form of interaction just to demonstrate interactivity or to ‘be engaging’ is busy work. It’d be like an in-person presenter saying “raise your hand!” only to follow it up with, “I was just want to demonstrate interactivity.”


Presenting: (Re-)Direct attention by turning screen sharing and/or PowerPoint off

Obviously any tactic used too much becomes cliché, but this is a powerful point. Remember that the audience’s reticular activating system is triggered by change, but that could even be a moment of turning OFF screen sharing/PowerPoint and then turning it back on. On a platform like Zoom, turning off the camera is going to put the focus back onto you, the presenter, whereas when you share (again) it’ll direct attention back to your slides. It’s subtle, but it’s powerful precisely because almost no one does it.


Tech setup: Think “connect THROUGH, not TO”

Yes, the final admonition is attitudinal. Your real object is to connect with the audience.


Some of you will remember when PowerPoint animations because a ‘thing.’ For a good long while, corporatre presentations were filled with an overabundance of ‘flying crap from Mars.’ Over time we settled in to recognizing that an animation can add to the communication of something like relationship or directionality. But “whiz bang” quickly became as tired a 80s hair styles.


And that’s true of technical bells and whistles that should be subjected to the rule of conection – that your goal is connecting through the tools to hearts and minds and souls. This should govern how you use a virtual background, how you design a slide, how you choose and implement an interaction, how you set up your office, how you light yourself.


The bottom line

Online Presenters Toastmasters has done a laudable job of designing a contest to illuminate excellence in presenting virtually. It’s useful to remember that a contest has to have it’s own rules that guide what competitors are doing and what judges are judging.


It’s also useful to remember that a contest represents A (singular) presentation scenario, not THE ONLY presentation scenario. In the ‘real’ world, keynote presentations are not the same as training, and training isn’t the same as facilitation. There is no ‘one size fits all’ presentation style, and advanced presenters recognize and adjust to nuances that amateurs don’t.


If you want to excel in the above contest, you’ll need to choose what you do carefully, particularly in light of the weighting judges will apply to various aspects of your presentaiton.


But for professionals who speak (which is different than ‘professional speakers’), it’s totally ok to recognize your expertise is in your topic or role. In fact, true professionalism recognizes when it’s time to get professional help from others who are professional at what they do (like virtual event producers at V2 <wink>).




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