Road to Final

By James Cross, District 91 Evaluation Champion 2019

Pacing up and down outside a hall filled with a 150-strong, expectant audience, heart thumping, knees shaking, repeating a 3-minute mantra over and over again, breathing deeply… It’s safe to say there aren’t too many moments like the one just before you deliver an evaluation. 

My Journey to becoming the District 91 Evaluation Competition Champion has been an incredible ride. All-consuming, intense and, at times, overwhelming (especially having only delivered my Icebreaker in November 2018!)

James Cross with Tazud Miah (Div C Director)

 Learning to deliver an effective, award-winning evaluation in such a short space of time hasn’t always been pretty, but thanks to the need to learn so quickly, it has meant I have gained experiences and learnt lessons which will stay with me for a long time to come. Here are three of those things.

Lesson 1 – structure is key. 

After delivering my very first evaluation in January 2019 I thought it was ok but I knew something was missing. Over the coming weeks, ahead of my club competition, I continued delivering evaluations and improving, but found myself struggling to find the right words to articulate effectively what I had just seen. 

When I discovered I was going to be representing Kings Cross Speakers at the Area 34 contest (despite finishing second at club level as the winner dropped out) I decided I needed to find words and phrases in order to build my vocabulary. I thought having a deeper well to draw from would allow for a richer and more plentiful evaluation. 

I picked the brains of experienced and accomplished Toastmasters, googled ‘descriptive words’, and made sure I knew what sort of things I’m looking for in a speech and the sort of things I would say about them. 

Most importantly of all, I learnt the golden structure of Toastmaster evaluations: commendation, commendation, recommendation, recommendation, commendation, summary.  

When it came to the competition, I drew the ballot and found out I would be delivering my evaluation first. I was nervous and inexperienced but knew what to say and how to say it. 

Thanks to structuring my speech clearly and having more confidence in the words and phrases I used it meant, despite having the smallest amount of time to prepare, I was able to communicate my points clearly and succinctly.

Lesson 2 – be yourself on stage.

Despite winning the Area Contest, I was enamoured by the evaluations my competitors delivered. When my name was called for first place I was genuinely shocked and surprised. Having not watched my own evaluation I couldn’t believe I’d won and not them.

In preparation for the Division Contest I was able to reflect and work out why I was the one going to the next round and not them.  

I won the competition thanks to structuring and timing my evaluation best on the night. However, I was also able to realise that what I was missing was a bit of an x-factor, the ‘something’ which made my evaluation unique.

Crucially, I worked out that the best speeches are the ones delivered by real people, not from a textbook.

The evaluations I watched had personality, humour, vulnerability and, as a result, were engaging and convincing.

If it wasn’t for one or two structural decisions they made they could (and perhaps should) have won on the night. I realised that we, the audience, look to see a real person on stage, someone who is re-living, not re-telling, someone who is truly invested in what they are saying and not just drawing on learnt phrases and words.

By allowing yourself to just be yourself it means you’re speech is inherently unique. It’s full of the words and ideas many of us have learnt and heard before but delivered in a way that’s impassioned and built on moments which resonate most with you. Crucially, delivering in this way makes you engaging, believable and credible.

Lessons 3 – practice doesn’t make perfect, but it makes you bloody hard to beat!

By combining structure with more personality I was able to navigate the Division C competition and advance to the final, the big one, the District 91 final. 

Just before writing this article I was on the phone with my Brother and he shared with me a quote which summarised perfectly the lesson, the most obvious secret, I’ve learnt from my journey.

It isn’t how to use the pace of the speech in order to allow an audience to absorb every word you say,  nor how to use body language to paint a clear picture in someone’s mind, and it certainly isn’t how to handle your nerves better (definitely still working on that one!)

Simply put, it is “good people practice until they get it right, brilliant people practice until they can’t get it wrong.”

The biggest lesson I learnt from the whole process was that commitment, passion, investment, dedication and good old fashioned, unbeatable hard-work really does pay off.

My success was my preparation. 

In the run-up to the final, I consistently practised evaluations in my flat. I was able to draw on a rich, intelligently organised, priceless archive of Toastmaster meetings  in the form of Early Bird Speakers TV (anyone looking for a wealth of speeches dating back to 2011 to learn and develop your craft from look no further!) before graduating on to Ted talks and world-renowned speeches in order to prepare, prepare and then prepare some more. 

Through sheer determination alone it meant that when I took the stage in the District Final, I had a wealth of knowledge, history and experiences I could draw from. Thanks to this, despite not delivering the perfect evaluation on the day, I was able to deliver a speech structured clearly with a considered use of language which was performed in a unique and impassioned manner in the confidence that I’d done it all before. 

I didn’t deliver perhaps the perfect evaluation, but I made sure I delivered the best one on the day.

I know you’ve most likely heard these three lessons before, and you will probably hear them again, but hopefully by reading a bit of my story and how I came to learn them will give you the opportunity to grow as much as I have and be best evaluator, speaker and communicator you can be.It’s been a rollercoaster of a ride going from icebreaker to District Award Winner (if I write it enough times I think I’ll eventually start believing it…) and absolutely none of it – including delivering my icebreaker – would have been possible without the support, guidance and mentorship of fellow Toastmasters. Amongst the many members of Kings X Speakers, I’m hugely grateful for the time, generosity and advice given by Stella Meadows and Tariq Pasha of Kings X Speakers, and Taz Miah of Early Bird Speakers. Through their combined wisdom and experience shared it meant I was truly able to stand on the shoulders of giants and achieve something I wouldn’t have ever believed possible.

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