Responding To My Public Speaking Failures

“If you keep playing, eventually there will be music.”

– Author Unknown

When I was 42 years old, I made it to the District 53 round of competition in the Toastmasters ( International Speech Contest.  Our district included slightly more than 100 clubs in eastern New York, Western Massachusetts, and Connecticut.  I had won three prior rounds of local competition.  However, for the district contest, I had to travel to Springfield, Massachusetts.  I had been warned that the competition would be much tougher there.  Now keep in mind that I had been in Toastmasters for less than a year – and really had no idea what I had gotten myself into at this point.  I was beginning to feel a little uncomfortable about the whole thing.

Prior to the contest, during the contestants briefing, I learned that I was competing against a couple of motivational speakers by trade and another individual who had competed at the district level for four years in a row.  If that wasn’t enough, then I met Doug Comstock – the eventual contest winner.  To say he was visually impressive is an understatement.  Doug was a former tri-athlete, who still looked like he could bike, swim, and run with the best of them.  He brought his own film crew to the contest – complete with a professional grade camera and lavaliere microphone.  At this point I was swinging and swaying on my metaphorical rope bridge – only this time I felt like I was over the ocean and feeling rather seasick.  I was a rank amateur amongst seasoned professionals.  I spotted an open door at the back of the ballroom – with a ray of sun bursting through on the floor – as if to light my path of retreat.  I thought to myself, sure looks like a nice day for a walk – maybe all the way back to Albany.

As I was heading toward the light, Doug stopped me and introduced himself.  He told me he had made it to this round the prior year, but hadn’t placed in the top three slots.  In contests they only announce the top three finishers – less humiliating for the people that finish fourth through sixth I suspected.  Doug said that he had been working on his craft all year and felt ready to give his personal best speech that very night.  He wasn’t kidding – his speech was gripping and inspirational.  He won the contest with ease.  I, on the other hand, didn’t place in the top three.  You could say I failed.

But, after the contest, Doug’s words got me thinking – it really didn’t matter where I placed that night.  I wasn’t competing against others – so much as myself.  Tonight, I had established a benchmark – to which I could compare myself in the future.  I wasn’t going to get caught up in comparisons to the other contestants – too much unhappiness is the result of comparing ourselves to others.  I had expected some discomfort and awkwardness – and sure enough, it came.  But I knew inside that it was okay.  How I responded to these feelings mattered most.  Would I learn from this contest and improve myself in future competitions?

Neal Benoit and Doug Comstock

Two years later I made it to the District round of competition again.  But this time I felt completely different.  I had a distinct feeling of confidence.  I had been here before, and I knew what to expect.  And this time, I knew my words would come out easier, my body would be looser, and my message would be clearer.  I did not feel awkward at all this time – and the rope bridge was holding steady.  I just needed to cross it.  Two years before, I had put myself in a position to succeed – eventually.  As I practiced my craft in the subsequent two years, I kept thinking – if I continue to play, eventually there will be music.  That night I gave my best contest speech ever, and finished 2nd in the District 53 contest.  As you can see on the photo caption, Doug finished first again!

The next year I made it to the District contest again and was quite humbled by my experience.  About halfway into my speech I lost my place and then rambled incoherently through the second half of the speech.  It was by any measure a terrific failure.  After the speech I realized what threw me off was an unexpected laugh from the audience at a point where I wasn’t expecting it.  During the contestant’s interview at the end of the contest I explained what happened and commented that anyone who was able to follow my speech must possess ESP.  The audience laughed and I went on to explain that from this experience I learned a valuable lesson.  Every audience is different and you can’t always predict how they will react.

“Take risks: If you win you will be happy; if you lose, you will be wise.”

– Author Unknown

These experiences demonstrated once again; in the whole scheme of things, it’s not the failure that really matters.  It’s how you respond that’s important.  In the first case I took my licks, but then buckled down, worked on my speaking skills, and came back a better speaker.  In the latter situation, I found some humor and a lesson to be learned, and shared it with other people.

By Neal Benoit

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Next Time: Dare to fail … but Why?

2 thoughts on “Responding To My Public Speaking Failures”

  1. Wow Neal. I remember talking to you about my fear of public speaking and how I admired you for taking on this challenge.

    I didn’t realize that you actually competed against others. I was actually nervous for you while I read this.

    Good outcome and nice lesson learned. Another good story.


    1. Ed, I’m glad you liked it. I was nervous for myself during the first contest! I had to follow Doug Comstock, and he had just delivered a hugely successful speech. I was hanging on to my rope bridge by one finger when I went on stage. Thanks for reading, and for commenting.

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