Evaluate, Motivate and…Celebrate?

Last week, I was a guest at a Toastmasters club meeting in Pennsylvania, and was called to the front of the room by the Table Topics Master…


…For the non-Toastmasters among my readers, I’ll offer an explanation or two. That may be enough to keep you here; if I’ve alienated fellow Toastmasters members already, I’m in trouble…


During table topics, you are asked to respond to a “new” question; you may take just a moment to gather your thoughts before speaking extemporaneously for one to two minutes—the suggested duration. The master—whom I had met at previous district conferences—embarrassed me in the nicest of ways. He mentioned that I had won the two previous District 38 Evaluation (speech) contests; my topic was to provide some tips for competing in these events. I was flattered by the question, but only did a somewhat satisfactory job of answering it in the two-plus minutes I utilized…


Toastmasters International, dedicated to helping people find their voices as public speakers since 1924, also sponsors a number of contests each year for members who wish to participate. In my district, which comprises about 150 clubs from the central New Jersey shore to central Pennsylvania, International Speech (5-7 minutes, typically of an inspirational nature) and Evaluation are held in the Spring, while Table Topics and Humorous Speech are contested in the Fall.


In an Evaluation Speech, each contestant listens intently to the same speaker (their target speech is also of a five to seven-minute duration) and then has five minutes to either continue to take notes or to refine his/her scribblings. After those five minutes have expired, the rule is that all but the first evaluation contestant has to give those notes to a contest official. You are given your notes shortly before you are introduced to the audience as you move to the stage to deliver your two to three-minute evaluation…


Of the four contests that our district holds, I have fared best in evaluation. In 2009, still fairly new to Toastmasters and contests, I was runner-up at the club level, in each of the next three years, I won at the club, area and division levels to advance to the District—the final level for this event. I wasn’t awarded a top-three position (out of six division winners) in 2010; I won the district contest in 2011 and 2012, and retired (at least, temporarily) from it subsequently.


In many ways, while Evaluation is not the marquee event of Toastmasters, it is the most difficult, as it combines the most disparate elements. To give an effective evaluation, one has to watch and listen closely. and balance out critique and praise while listening to the speaker and taking notes.  Having done that, the contestant then has to quickly organize one’s notes, and also display many of the qualities used by a successful speaker while keeping one’s own perspective, and that of the target speaker and the audience all in mind. It may not be brain surgery, but it is tricky and fraught with danger of a sort. Of course, it also affords each contestant the opportunity to hone and showcase all of those skills.


There may be other effective methods others utilize to excel at this contest but now that I’ve thought more about it, here are 10 tips that I would pass along, given my experiences. Thus, if I could answer that table topics question again and borrow just a little more time to do so, here is what I would say.


1. Prepare As Best You Can Prior To the Event


You don’t know who the speaker will be and what (s)he will be talking about, but you can control a few variables. It sounds simple enough, but make sure you have a favorite pen or two and a comfortable writing pad. Once you know the name of the speaker and the title of the speech, write that prominently on the top of the page. You may even want to have a few pages just for brainstorming and another page or two laid out to organize those notes.


Unlike other Toastmasters evaluations, you are not evaluating the speaker from a manual that lists items that you are specifically listening for. In some ways, that makes it difficult because you don’t have a way to focus your notes. On the other hand, it gives you the freedom to come up with the categories that best reflect the content and delivery of the target speech.


Another way to prepare is to get to the event early enough to pick a seat that gives you an optimal vantage point from which to see and hear the speaker. This comes more into play for the District contests, where there may be close to 200 people in the audience. In both 2011 and 2012, I asked the contest organizers to set aside seats for all of the contestants. Why that wasn’t done as a matter of course is beyond me, but then again, and to my next point, one can only control so much.


2. Don’t Sweat the Draw and Other Small Stuff


Prior to the contest, the contestants draw for position, choosing playing cards or pieces of balled-up paper. In my experience, Toastmasters spares no expense on these things, usually using those balled-up papers (with the numbers from 1-6 on each) multiple times. To my knowledge, no district stages arm-wrestling or more creative methods to determine speech order.


The key is to embrace whatever position you draw as a winning one. If you go first or second, the speech is clearer in your mind, and you can hold onto your notes a little closer to your presentation time. You also have the advantage of making points that the audience (and those anonymous judges) have not yet heard. By rule, evaluation contestants do not hear competitors who precede them.


If going fifth or sixth, you have the advantage of preparing a little longer before delivering your presentation. Even though you are working without notes after those precious first five minutes, make good use of that extra time to plan what you will say.


What if you draw the third or fourth position? You get a little bit of the best of both worlds. You don’t have to wait or be without your notes too long and you also get some extra time to prepare mental notes. In my experience, contestants win (and don’t) from each of the six positions; don’t assign any importance to the draw.


One also can’t control how effective the target speech will be, or frankly, if you will be impressed by it. In 2011, I wasn’t in love with the speech that was presented, but the speaker came off as very likable and there were elements that I enjoyed. In 2012, I was greatly impressed with the speech. Both speeches yielded effective evaluation presentations, if for different reasons.


One also can’t control how the judges will fill out their ballots. Adopt the mindset that you will make it very difficult for them to vote for someone else. With your performance, of course.


3. Find a Few Themes and Focus on Them


In the course of evaluating Toastmasters (manual) speeches, you have probably had the opportunity to evaluate speakers on 20 or so different criteria, ranging from physical gestures to pace of delivery to word usage and persuasive techniques. As you listen to the speech and then refine your notes, try to distill your notes to three (or four, but no more) areas that the speaker did well. If you can then find a unifying theme or technique to group them together, try to do so. This isn’t a must, but the audience will generally enjoy a speech that has the appearance of being more organized—even if you only had minutes to do so.


For example, if it fits the speech, you may wish to comment on the speaker’s preparation, poise and pacing. Or not. You might also want to build your comments around more specific themes that were used in the speech. Don’t force it, but if it comes off naturally, doing so will help make your own presentation more enjoyable and memorable for the audience.


4. Lose Those Notes You Worked So Hard On


I do take copious notes during speeches, and then write like an ink-stained maniac during those precious five organizational minutes. It hurts to have to turn them into the contest official, and it’s comforting to get them back for another look-see prior to my moment on stage. So, what do I do with them as I’m being announced? I either put them in my jacket pocket or leave them in the green room.


Why? I don’t want to have to flip through my notes when I’m speaking. I may very well not recall every detail of the target speech (and this becomes truer every year), but I trust myself to remember the main elements—whether themes, word usage or gestures. I’d rather have a good flow to my delivery, even if it’s not perfectly realized or memorized.


5. Cite Specific Examples


With this in mind, do try to cite specifics from the speech. As a speaker, it feels good when the evaluator picks out something from my speech and points it out as something that impressed her enough to repeat or mimic. It is important to demonstrate that you really took the time to listen. By the same token, if you feel that the speaker could have improved on something, be as specific as possible with that recommendation.


6. Address the Speaker and the Audience


Note where the target speaker is sitting so you can address him directly, but don’t lose sight of the audience—both in your comments and with your eye contact (or eye connection, as well stated by public speaking blogger Olivia Mitchell.) Keep in mind that an effective evaluation—and that is what you will be giving—benefits everybody in attendance. Even those who were dragged to the event.


7. Err on the Side of Praise


I have seen evaluation contestants praise speakers as if they had just delivered The Gettysburg Address or “I Have a Dream.” I’ve heard some very good target speeches, but nothing that memorable, so don’t overdo the praise, especially if it’s insincere. By the same token, it’s your opinion, so if you think you just heard a Lincoln or MLK-level speech, then praise it as such.  On the other side of the ledger, I have also seen contestants all but lambaste the speaker with a litany of critiques, which are sometimes harshly delivered. Of course, you should stake out a middle ground, and if you do err, err on the side of praise.


Toastmasters International has a learning module entitled Evaluate to Motivate, and while I have re-written this in part (twice) for my own presentations, I agree with that title. Evaluations should be both encouraging and motivational for all in attendance. In that light, if you utilize the sandwich method or some variation of praise/critique/praise, you should try to avoid stuffing too much meat (criticism) in between the breading (praise). Afterward, you can celebrate by going to a deli that utilizes the opposite ratio. And then, return to your regular, if healthy, diet/health regimen.


8. Don’t Rewrite the Target Speaker’s Speech


Yes, be specific when citing examples from the speech, and no, don’t rewrite the speech. That is a line that I try never to cross. It’s okay to point out why you felt a certain section of the speech fell short (whether you find it lacking in content or delivery), but it’s insulting to rewrite or otherwise redo what the speaker has worked hard on. You are there to give helpful suggestions based on your expertise. Be motivational; don’t be a know-it-all.


9. Don’t Apologize


If the above suggestion is a nicer way of saying “Don’t be arrogant”, you also need not be meek in your presentation. You don’t need to walk on eggshells, tiptoe through the tulips—or quote ancient and cheesy song lyrics for that matter. Don’t apologize for offering a helpful suggestion, unless it’s apology-worthy. Be encouraging and sincere, and utilize as many of the prior suggestions that work for you. If you approach it from that point of view, there is no need to apologize. What did Ali McGraw’s character say in Love Story? Love means you never have to say you're sorry. If your cheese-ometer just went off, I’m sor…er, so be it.


10. Enjoy the Moment


Yes, you’re trying to win a contest, but this is not a matter of life-and-death. It is an aspect of life, and Toastmasters life, but death shouldn’t come into play, should it? Do whatever you need to do to compose yourself, and yes, enjoy the moment. Smiles are contagious and so is humor that comes from the heart. Work some in, if it comes naturally to do so. Keep in mind that the target speaker, the audience and those anonymous judges will have to listen to several evaluation speeches back-to-back-to-back-to…


Endeavor to make it fun for everyone, including you!


Following these tips may not be a fool-proof way of winning an evaluation contest, but there is no such thing—nor should there be. If it helps you prepare for your next contest (or your next evaluation at your regular club meeting), then it was time well-spent writing and reading.


Mr. Table Topics Master, thank you for your question and for allowing me this extra time to formulate my answer.



I know you're not a follower,  but please follow me on Twitter

My Facebook Fan page is right here.

To order my new (co-authored) book, please click me.




4 Responses to Evaluate, Motivate and…Celebrate?

  • Matt — very informative article. Thanks very much for sharing some of your chamionship secrets!

    • admin says:

      Thank you so much, for your read and comment, Dr. Dilip. Coming from a true champion, that means a lot to me.

  • Steve Fraundorfer says:

    Matt, Great points and an effective way of looking at competing in contests. Most contestants  are jittery when competing but following your method takes the worry out of the process.

    • admin says:

      I'm grateful for your read and comment, Steve,  If this helps smooth over even half of those jitters – especially per those tricky evaluyation contests – that would be wonderful.