Sunday, November 14, 2010


   One great way to assess, and probably improve, your skill in something, is to enter competitions.  Some people claim that deliberate competition is evil, "macho", or the turf of chest-beating neanderthals.

   Horse hockey!  I think these people are just afraid of competition themselves.  Getting over such fears is what this blog is all about, so here we go!

   Competition has many benefits:

  • You'll be exposed to the audience/public.  As I've said before, you don't want to let down your adoring fans, do you?  So you're going to do your best... and that often improves your best.

  • You'll be exposed to the other competitors.  At first, their skills will likely be better than yours.  They may have some tricks up their sleeves, that you can observe and learn.

  • Even if you don't pick up on the others' tricks, there will be no shortage of people willing to give you helpful hints for improvement, some of which really will be helpful.  :-)  (Depending on the context, you may need a decent BS detector.)

  • Make it to the upper levels of a competition, and you're likely to wind up with a coach.  That (almost) always helps.

   Take for instance... Toastmasters speech or evaluation contests.  Many people are afraid to give a speech or feedback in front of a small audience like their work group, so they join Toastmasters, a safe and supportive environment in which to practice and gain confidence.  So you'd think that people would jump all over the chance to enter Toastmasters contests, right?

   Nope.  Many people are afraid that they'll look bad next to all those people who are so good at it.  How good?  Well, good enough that they dare to enter contests!

   Don't let that stop you.  Believe you me, I've seen (and even given!) some pretty bad speeches in contests.  Those folks who are up there doing so well, are probably not doing it for the first time.  Their first time, they were probably no better than you.  Maybe worse.

   Ask yourself, what's the worst that can happen?  Most likely, the worst is that you won't do very well.  Okay, fine.  Whoop de doo.  Fact is, you'd do just as poorly in another context.  So what is it really?  More likely, you're scared that people will see you do poorly.

   But ya know what?  People (especially Americans) tend to like the underdog, the little guy, the scrappy contender.  It goes all the way back to David and Goliath.  They won't remember you as "the guy who gave that really awful speech".  Chances are, they're no better themselves!  That goes for almost any kind of competition that people are watching.  No, they'll remember you as the guy who gathered up his courage to compete against the best, to streeeeetch out and reach for the brass ring, to go for it!

   I was originally formulating the ideas for this blog entry during Toastmasters Spring Contest season, when we do the International Speech Contest and the Evaluation Contest.  I entered both, coming in second in the Speech Contest at the club level (BAE Lunchbreak Toasters).  As of the actual writing, though, I had won the Evaluation Contest at the club and Area (42) level, and will compete at the Division (D) level Friday evening next week.

   (Update: I lost.  But I'd do it again.  Since then, I've made a New Year's resolution to enter all my club's speech and evaluation contests.  I'm no longer with BAE Lunchbreak Toasters, but I'm still in Fairfax Toastmasters.)

   (Alternately, you may find yourself in a competition without even trying, due to need for a scarce resource, but that's a whole 'nother story.)

   Your turn to sound off!  What do you like to compete in?  How did you get started, especially getting up the nerve?  How have you done?  What have you learned, especially anything that helped you improve?  Would you do it again?  Have you?

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