In May 2015 I was honored to represent Switzerland at the South European Public Speaking Competition in Porto, Portugal. This was an enlightening experience for me, both from a learning as well as a personal growth perspective, and one that I would encourage fellow Toastmasters to partake in to reap similar benefits for themselves.
One take away from this experience though was that, for women, competitions and first place podiums often do not go together.
Let me explain.
In 1973 Toastmasters opened its clubs to women. Since then, only four females have become international champions. This equates roughly to one female champion every ten years or so, which in my opinion is too infrequent.
Is there a gender bias?
While the above statistic does not prove gender bias per se, it does point to a prevalence of gender imbalance. Whether the lack of triumphant women over more than four decades is due to a specific resistance or is simply an anomaly, I for one, believe that it is time to address this situation and establish more balance in the gender equation.
Women are great at writing and delivering meaningful speeches as well as giving intelligent and entertaining performances, which need to be seen and heard. As such, women have all it takes to rise to the level of champion. But since women cannot change their DNA, nor should a public speaking competition be the motivator to do so, let’s focus on what we can do.
With this in mind, I have decided to encourage more female speakers to not only participate, but to do so with an eye on ultimately winning at the International Speech Contest. Ultimately, my dream would be to see, while I am still alive, a 50/50 winning rate on a gender basis amongst all participants.
Let’s keep in mind that if you lose to a competition, it means that somebody did better than you.
How can I help? Where do I start?
In order to have winning female international speakers, we need female contestants. The following are the main reasons why women refrain from competing in the first place.
Not enough time
Scared of being judged
Scared of losing
Too much on their agenda (work, family, etc…)
Personal development always comes last
Less competitive mind set than men
Sources: This has been gathered by asking Swiss female Toastmasters, also gathered via members of the international “Vocal Women “ group lead by Olivia Schofield and Chelsea Avery.
Interestingly enough, when women do compete, their speech quality is adversely affected for these same reasons. Why is this? Well when women do compete, the competition is still not a top priority for them, mostly because they have too much on their plates.
That’s when I came up with a concept, an idea (Thank you S. Sandberg):
“We must raise both the ceiling and the floor.”
Raising the Ceiling: This means improving speech quality by spending more time and resources to perfect it.
Raising the Floor: This means marketing! Encouraging more female speakers to compete and making them aware that while it requires time, effort, evaluations, and a number of iterations, support is always available!
Female Speaker Workshop
This event took place on the 29th of January 2016 in Zürich. It enabled a special time where 7 female speakers (4 in English, 3 in German) managed to:
Be evaluated by experienced speakers
Receive a workshop on stage confidence skills
Improve their speeches on the spot
Select a coach from the pool of evaluators present (think of “The Voice”!)
The Main Benefits:
Women speakers could make time in their schedules to work on improving their speeches
They got twice as much time to practice
Received direct access to multiple evaluation resources
Learn valuable insight about onstage presence
Direct access to an individual coach = increased speech quality
Committing to a coach instills accountability to continual improvement
I was absolutely amazed at how resilient all the speakers were and how quickly they integrated the feedback they received into the second round of delivery, especially with so little extra preparation time (no more than 20 minutes). Practice, support and a positive mind set seem to be the perfect equation to increase their respective performances. That evening, there was a high standard of overall quality was maintained and built upon.
What were the main points of feedback everybody could benefit from?
The feedback was divided up into 2 main categories: Content & Delivery
It works best when you stick to one message and one message only. Begin with a strong structure, introduce your message earlier and in a clear manner, use short sentences and simple words, go deeper in the message and when possible support the message with a story or anecdote that underpins a clear meaning/message to the story.
It makes your speech more impactful if you enunciate properly. Take the time to breathe, stand correctly to project your voice better, move with a sense of purpose and avoid props unless they are absolutely necessary. If you do use props, please ensure that a 100 people audience can benefit from it and will not be distracted by it.
Outcome and results
When all was said and done, the overall comments from both the speakers and evaluators involved were extremely positive. I hope I raised awareness and the importance of re-working speech quality and illustrated that even two or three subtle changes can have a profoundly positive impact on an audience.
When competing, what matters most is capturing the audience’s heart. However, breaking the glass ceiling in the first place is still something we want to do on a regular basis, and that is why we are working so hard. Of course, I would love to see one of my speakers step on the top position of the podium as early as the Spring Contest 2016, let’s see, are you game?