Press On. Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not. Nothing is more common than unsuccessful individuals with talent. Genius will not. Unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not. The world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
– Calvin Coolidge
At a Toastmasters district conference in 2002, I had the good fortune of meeting Darren LaCroix, the 2001 World Champion of Public Speaking. In a workshop he presented at the conference he shared his “success story.” Shortly after graduation from Bryant College, Darren decided that he wanted to be a stand-up comedian. He told his family and they replied, “There’s one problem – you’re not funny.” But Darren felt they were comparing him to comedians like Jerry Seinfeld – a man at the top of his game. Undaunted by skeptics – Darren committed himself to becoming funny. He accepted every chance he got to perform – in local comedy clubs, open microphone nights, and two hour trips to Maine where he would perform for a mere 5 minutes. He practiced his craft relentlessly. He audio or video taped every performance – including his debut in 1992 – which he played for us. In his debut he was so nervous that his hands were visibly shaking as he perused the notes he kept on a barstool beside him. He got one laugh – when he messed up a line in the act.
For the next 10 years he persisted – and put himself in a position to eventually succeed. He not only realized his dream of becoming a professional comedian, he also became a fabulous public speaker. At the workshop, he told us about something that irritated him following his Championship Speech – the comments by people that he had a natural gift – and that he was lucky to have it. He told us, “Yea, I was real lucky, if you discount the hard work in the 10 years preceding the contest.” Darren knew he had triumphed with persistence and determination alone.
Later, at the conference, I met Darren in the hotel lobby. I mentioned to him that I was one of the contestants in the evening competition and I asked him for some advice. I told him I was really nervous and I didn’t want to bomb in front of so many people. He said to me, “It doesn’t matter whether or not you bomb! All that matters is you get on the stage and work through this experience. You are setting yourself up for a future victory.” Then he gave me some advice I could use for the next competition. “Let no one out prepare you.” This was something he learned from David Brooks (1990 champion) and was his fundamental philosophy when preparing for competitions. For example, in preparation for the 2001 final round, Darren practiced his speech in front of 23 audiences, reviewed 151 written evaluations, and studied 90 World Championship final round speeches on video tape. He said, “I might not win, but I am confident that I will be better prepared than everyone else in the contest.” Then he told me something I will always remember: “Some people may be envious of my award, but few are envious of my preparation. What would that much effort do for your talents?”
I realized it was a little late to change my preparation for the competition I faced only hours away. Backstage, before the contest, I felt like I was on the brink of humiliation. I was a first timer up against seasoned speakers and worse than that – they had likely out-prepared me. The result was inevitable. But as I stood there, I thought about Darren’s comment in his workshop – how his parents were comparing him to Jerry Seinfeld. Then it hit me – I’m comparing myself to speakers at or near the top of their game. I should be comparing myself to Neal Benoit – he of six months or one year ago. Could he have gotten up in front of two hundred people, without notes, without a lectern to hide behind? The answer was NO – not maybe – definitely NO. I realized this contest was just a step on my perseverance journey. Click here for an essay on my contest experience.
Below is a video of Darren LaCroix’s championship speech, titled Ouch! It has one of the best physical gestures I’ve ever seen to open a speech. I think you’ll like it.
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