Maryann Murphy and Dan Kupferman achieved what most Toastmasters do not achieve: They both made it to the 2024 District 31 speech contest finals in the same year. Dan made it to the International speech contest finals and Maryann won the Tall Tales speech contest. What made their achievement even more impressive is that they achieved this feat as a married couple, living under one roof!

We interviewed Maryann and Dan about their experience; they shared insights on speech contests, discussed their Toastmasters journeys, motivations for competing, challenges and valuable lessons they’ve learned along the way. Enjoy their story and take away valuable tips that you can incorporate into your speaking engagements, contest or otherwise.

1. What is your Toastmasters history. Did you both join together?

Maryann joined Toastmasters in 2007 as she embarked on a new career path.  She started a professional organizing business and wanted to enhance her public speaking skills. Maryann planned to teach adult education classes on time management and organization and felt that Toastmasters would teach her the necessary skills. While she had some public speaking experience, she had never received any formal training.

It took two additional years, in 2009, that Dan joined Toastmasters, prompted by a combination of workplace pressure and Maryann’s persistent encouragement. Dan’s boss, concerned about his presentation skills after observing him with a client, strongly suggested that he take steps to improve.

Although they didn’t join at the same time,Dan joined the same club, and   they found a shared passion for public speaking through their involvement in Toastmasters, becoming supportive for each other’s growth, public speaking and in contests. Maryann joined another club in 2010 and continues to be active in both.

2. What is your history competing in speech contests and why both compete this year?

Maryann:  Maryann has competed in various speech contests throughout her 17 years in Toastmasters, though she doesn’t participate as frequently as Dan. She primarily focuses on educational presentations and finds comfort in that style of speaking.

This year, Maryann chose to compete in the Tall Tales contest as a personal challenge.  She anted to step outside her comfort zone of educational presentations and develop her storytelling and humor skills.

Dan:  Dan has actively competed in nearly every speech contest category for over a decade. He particularly enjoys the challenge and the platform it provides for both entertaining and delivering meaningful messages. Dan’s decision to compete in the 2024 International Speech Contest stemmed from his desire to raise awareness about social justice issues, specifically white privilege. He saw the contest as a platform to share his message with a wider audience.

3. What were your speech topics and how did you decide on them?

Maryann’s Speech Topic:  Maryann’s Tall Tales speech revolved around a humorous and exaggerated take on Toastmasters club meetings. She drew inspiration from her work on a new member orientation manual and her experiences attending and building various Toastmasters clubs over the years, observing diverse meeting styles and procedures. Recognizing her audience would primarily consist of fellow Toastmasters, she decided the speech topic would cleverly amplify amusing aspects of the shared experience, incorporating physical humor and relatable scenarios.

Dan’s Speech Topic:  Dan chose to focus his International Speech Contest entry on the theme of white privilege. It was a tough decision to speak on this emotional topic. The decision stemmed from his retirement in 2020 and the subsequent time and space it provided for reflecting on social justice issues, particularly following the events surrounding George Floyd’s death. Dan’s passion for this subject also led him to activism through writing letters to the editor and authoring a monthly column focused on equity and inclusion. He ultimately felt compelled to leverage the contest platform to raise awareness about white privilege to a broader audience.

4. How did you help each other with your speeches and practice?

Maryann and Dan’s collaborative approach to contest preparation is a story of teamwork and mutual support. They’ve established a structured process that contributed to their individual and shared successes.

Here’s how they worked together:

Dedicated Practice Space: They’ve designated an area in their home as their “stage,” creating a familiar and comfortable environment for rehearsals.

Formal Practice Sessions:  Their practices resemble formal Toastmasters meetings.  One person delivers a speech, adhering to time limits, while the other performs a detailed evaluation, focusing on both content and presentation.

Actionable Feedback and Iteration: Dan, as Maryann highlights, is a receptive mentee, readily incorporating feedback and experimenting with adjustments to his delivery, pacing, and movement.

Treadmill Rehearsals: This is also a tip. Both Maryann and Dan utilize treadmill time for speech practice, finding that the physical activity stimulates creativity and helps solidify memorization. This technique allows them to integrate movement and enhance their speeches’ physicality.

Attending Each Other’s Contests: As a couple, they make a point of attending each other’s contests, providing an additional layer of feedback from the perspective of an audience member familiar with the speech. They observe audience reactions and offer insights based on their shared understanding of the material.

Honest Feedback, Even When Difficult:  Dan acknowledges that receiving feedback, especially from someone as close as Maryann, can be challenging and sometimes evoke defensiveness. However, he recognizes the value of her experience and pushes through discomfort to refine his speeches.

Their commitment to helping each other improve was apparent throughout the interview. They view each other as valuable resources and sounding boards, continuously seeking ways to elevate their speeches through open communication and constructive criticism, a Toastmasters mantra.

5. Tell us about your experience in the contests

Maryann’s Experience: This year, Maryann chose to compete in the Tall Tales contest, a category that pushed her beyond her comfort zone.

  • Stepping Outside Her Comfort Zone:  Accustomed to educational presentations, she embraced the challenge of crafting a humorous and exaggerated story, drawing inspiration from her work and her observations of various Toastmasters clubs.
  • Evolving a Sports Theme:  While not initially intending a sports theme, her speech naturally gravitated towards sports analogies, incorporating more elements during the evolution of the speech, like penalty flags and a Taylor Swift-inspired cheerleading routine at the conclusion.
  • Adapting to Hybrid Challenges:  Maryann found the hybrid format of the contest, with both in-person and Zoom audiences, to be particularly demanding. She noted the difficulty of gauging audience reactions and the technical limitations of sound transmission in a hybrid setting.  However, she felt energized by the live audience and considered it a valuable learning experience in navigating the complexities of hybrid presentations.

Dan’s Experience: For Dan, this year’s contest was an opportunity to merge his passion for social justice with his public speaking skills.

  • Delivering a Message: He chose to address the sensitive topic of white privilege, inspired by his personal reflections after the events of George Floyd’s death and his desire to leverage the Toastmasters platform to raise awareness.
  • A Scary 25 Seconds:  During the District 31 International Speech contest, Dan experienced a significant challenge when he forgot his lines.  He described it as a complete shutdown of his thought process, a moment of darkness where he couldn’t recall the next line.
  • Confidence from Past Experience: Drawing on years of Toastmasters training, Dan managed to regain his composure without panicking, utilizing pacing and a moment of silence to re-center himself and find his place in the speech.  While disappointed that this occurred, he used the experience as a learning opportunity for himself and his fellow club members, demonstrating the importance of composure, preparation, and the power of leveraging confidence from past speaking experience.

6. What advice would you give to someone aspiring to advance to district level speech contests?

  1. Embrace the Challenge: Don’t shy away from contests, even in your first year.  As Maryann and Dan’s experiences demonstrate, previous speaking experience from life translates to the Toastmasters stage.  Contest participation early in your Toastmasters career offers invaluable learning opportunities and a chance to surprise yourself with your capabilities.
  2. Repetition is Key: Rehearse your speech frequently, ideally once or even twice a day, but be sure to take some days off to avoid burnout, as Maryann and Dan suggest. This level of commitment helps solidify your content, refine your delivery, and build confidence.
  3. Find a Movement Routine: Practice your speech while walking on a treadmill.  Dan points out that movement can stimulate creativity and help internalize the speech beyond memorization. Also picture a scene on the stage that you walk towards when delivering a section of your speech. Don’t neglect the power of physicality.  Practice purposeful movement and gestures to enhance your message and engage the audience fully.
  4. Simulate the Contest Environment:  Incorporate elements like timers and notecards into your practice sessions to mimic the contest setting as closely as possible.
  5. Find a Trusted Mentor: Maryann has been a mentor to Dan, and vice versa, both providing feedback, guidance, and accountability.  Choose someone experienced who will provide constructive criticism, and be open to implementing their suggestions, even if they push you outside your comfort zone.
  6. Master the JudgingCriteria:  Familiarize yourself thoroughly with the contest judging criteria.  Ensure your speech effectively addresses each element, from content and organization to delivery and vocal variety.
  7. Go Beyond the Words: Pay close attention to language choice, incorporating elements like metaphors, alliteration, and vivid imagery to elevate your speech beyond the ordinary.
  8. View Feedback as a Gift:  Be receptive to feedback, even if it’s challenging to hear.  Dan emphasizes the importance of being a “good student” and using critiques as stepping stones to improvement.
  9. Keep Your Speech Fresh:  Avoid letting your speech become stale from repetition. Continuously look for ways to refine your content, sharpen your delivery, and maintain your enthusiasm throughout the contest season. Maryann added sport aspects to her speech as it evolved.
  10. Don’t Be Afraid to Experiment:  Consider tackling a topic outside your usual comfort zone.  Dan’s choice to address white privilege demonstrates the power of using the platform to share a meaningful message, even if it carries risks, and Maryann used the Tall Tales contest as a new opportunity to deliver a speech with exaggerated humor.

Congratulations Dan and Maryann on your contest accomplishments this year, and thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience with the District 31 community!

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