It was a rainy day in May as I boarded the train in London. I was destined for the 2013 Bi-Annual Toastmasters conference and, as a relatively new Toastmaster, it was going to be my first!
Each year, there are two Toastmasters conferences for District 71 (UK & Ireland). The November conference hosts the finals of the Humorous Speech and Table Topics contests. The May conference hosts the International Speech & Evaluation contests, and the new committee governing D71 is elected at this conference. The conferences are a great opportunity to socialise with other Toastmasters, as well as learning some new skills with the interactive workshops and top class speakers. Held in a different location each time, this time we were heading for Torquay.
And so it was that I found myself in a train that hugged the coast so tightly I felt sea sick! Heading my way to Devon for who knows what…
The program of events for the conference actually started at 12:00. But for myself and the fellow members of City Speakers who were also coming down for the fun (Christine Harris, Stella Meadows, Ga Lok Chung, and Isaya Taingwa), the Friday evening was where the main fun was going to start. You see, on the first night of the conference there’s always a fancy dress party, and this year the theme was “Musical Heroes”. Never one to back away from a challenge, I’d spent the previous 6 weeks growing a bushy moustache in preparation. On the night, I thought I’d be the best dressed – as Freddie Mercury – only to find that Christine had put on her LBD and come as Pink and Ga Lok had a head-to-toe robot suit. I guess I’ll have to leave up to you to decide whose costume was the best…
After such a successful night partying, it was hard to rise early for the 9am workshops! Struggling slightly with only a few hours sleep, I had concerns that I’d nod off as we listened. I need not have worried – the workshop I attended, entitled “Emotional Intelligence”, was presented by Karen Szulakowska. Karen was obviously an experienced speaker and conducted a thoroughly interesting, enlightening, and engaging workshop in which we looked at the ways to assess and then change how we think about, and how we interact with others. Despite the early hour, I found myself making notes and thinking about how I could apply these new skills to my everyday life.
After using up all my morning brain power at the workshop, we decided to skip the District Council Meeting and head out into the English Rivera for a spot of mini golf! It was cold and drizzling slightly as we picked up out clubs, and we tried to putt our way through the jungle – pretty much the perfect English summer event then! After an entertaining 18 holes (during which Ga Lok lost his ball and Isaya & Stella both managed holes in one), we treated ourselves to a cream tea (outside, of course) before heading back for lunch and the afternoon sessions at the conference centre.
The Saturday afternoon was dedicated to the main event of the weekend – the UK & Ireland final of the International Speech Contest for 2013. Over the past 2 months, various versions of this contest have been being held at Clubs, Areas, and Divisions across the country. This produced 12 finalists, whittled down to the remaining 6 by the semi-finals (which we’d missed on the Friday). Of these 6, only 1 would go on to represent UK & Ireland at the world finals in Ohio in August.
With such a prize to play for, all the contestants would have been nervous, and all put on a great show. The calibre of the speeches was excellent, and the topics were varied. The contest organisers provided a mock judging form in the programme so we each scored the contestants and made our own top 3 to see how it compared with the official result. I personally found it very hard to fairly separate the contestants – all the speeches were professional grade, and if one was weak in a particular aspect, it often excelled at another.
In the end, I had my top three, and was gratified to hear as the results were announced that the same names came up (although in a different order). Special mention to Ian Hawkins & Dave McEvoy for excellent speeches, but in the end it was William Dempster who walked away with the prize.
William’s speech told of his love of Scotch whiskey – how to drink it, what it tastes like, and what it does to you! It was entertaining, well constructed, and well delivered. If he’s not on the payroll of the Scottish Tourist Board, then he certainly should be by now!
The Speech Contests ended with a slew of awards and celebrations, and my hands were sore from clapping by the time we’d seen everyone up on stage one last time for a photo call.
After a short break (during which no scotch was served, disappointingly!) we moved on to the next contest – The Evaluation contest. There had been 1 contestant put forward from each Division for this contest, and during the afternoon, the 12 contestants would be reduced to the final 6.
There were two semi-finals, so we picked one at random to sit in on. First up we had the mystery speaker, Dave Toomey, giving a speech about TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms) – protesting at their proliferation. The speech was excellent, and demonstrated so many good points, that I would have struggled to find fault with it myself. Luckily, we had some top calibre contestants to do that job. It was an excellent and close run competition, with all the candidates putting in a fine performance – I was left looking forward to the finals immensely.
Before then, though, was the small matter of another party in the evening, this one Black Tie. So, with a quick trip back to my accommodation to get changed, I returned looking smarter than I’ve done in a good few years! Everyone had put the effort in, and I was amazed to see people who had been Elvis, Ozzy Osbourne, or Cyndi Lauper the night before transformed into presentable Toastmasters royalty. There was a great deal of thank you speeches (get a Toastmaster drunk and you know he’ll/she’ll start public speaking), and some really excellent food. There was also a disco provided (very retro, but very fun) so we partied into the wee small hours.
After another night of little sleep, we dragged ourselves back again at just gone 9am for the first workshop of the day – “How to Win at Table Topics”. David Jones has been UK & Ireland Table Topics champion no less than 4 times! His personal insight alone would have been invaluable, but in addition, he’d taken the time to question many fellow Toastmasters and previous champions on the subject as well. What followed was a run-down of tips & techniques and an obliteration of unfounded TT myths. We learned what commonly works, what usually doesn’t, and had opportunity to practice these skills. An excellent and worthwhile workshop that I was glad I got up for.
Crowding back into the main hall, everyone excitedly awaited the final contest of the weekend. The Evaluation Contest only proceeds to UK & Ireland level so this was the grand final for these contestants. Our Mystery Speaker made a dramatic entrance in a wheelchair, wrapped in a blanked, pretending that the stage was the balcony of his OAP flat! We were instantly involved in the story and listened intently as we were encouraged not to write old people off.
As with the speech contest previously, we scribbled our own furious notes as we secretly made out own evaluations of the evaluators! And, as with the speech contest, it was another close call for who was top – all the evaluations were a pleasure to watch, and there wasn’t much in it. In this instance though my guesses were spot on, with the judges agreeing that Andrew Bennett came in 3rd, Eddie O’Hanlon in 2nd, and John Webber a worthy winner.
John gave a great evaluation – speaking in a calm voice he delivered a series of well observed commendations in an encouraging and supportive manner. A well measured and well thought though evaluation.
After the rounds of applause had died down, and the awards and certificates had been presented, there was little left to do but sign off from the conference. Freddie Daniells, our district Governor, gave a massive thank you to this conference’s organiser Phil Barber, and handed the reins over to next year’s committee.
As I sat on the train home, thoroughly exhausted from lack of sleep but having enjoyed the entire weekend with some great company and great speeches, I reflected that next year’s committee have a job on their hands to beat this conference! Goodbye Torquay.