Why Dwayne Smith Says Preparation is the Key (to a Successful Speech)

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Imagine if you could learn from communication experts on how to master the art of public speaking through speech contests. Every Thursday, I invite speech champions who have crushed this challenge to share their stories, from competing in their first speech contest to becoming a prominent speaker who can captivate and motivate a diverse audience. If you want to excel in speech contests and become a better communicator, then keep reading to learn how to craft a memorable speech, command a room, and connect with your audience.

Welcome to episode three of the Speech Contest Champions Interview Series! 

Today’s featured champion is Dwayne G. Smith of The Speakers Coalition. Dwayne is an award-winning speaker, author, and speech coach. He is also a fellow Toastmaster of the two-time Select Distinguished District 14. In 2002, he helped put Georgia & D14 on the map when he became the World Champion of Public Speaking with his riveting speech “Music in the Key of Life.” 

If you’re interested in learning how Dwayne crafts a memorable speech, the lessons he has learned from competing in speech contests, and why he says preparation is the key (to a successful speech), then this interview is for you.

Why Dwayne Smith Says Preparation is the Key (to a Successful Speech)

1. Can you tell us about yourself and your line of work?

I am an award-winning international speaker, speaker coach, minister, and author. I have educated and inspired audiences, groups, and organizations to achieve their very best while delivering informative, practical, and motivational talks about improvement. These days I spend much of my time as a Church Administrator managing the business operations of the church and coaching up-and-coming speakers.

2. Take us back to your first speech contest. Why did you enter it and what happened?

I entered the Tall Tales Contest which was a 4-6-minute speech of a highly improbable nature or a wild tale. It was a license to stretch your imagination. A license to thrill. I had been a Toastmaster for a few weeks. I thought the contest was for a regular Toastmasters meeting to win Best Speaker. I had no clue that this contest went far beyond the club. 

Oops! 

Fortunately, I won at the club, area, and division and made it to the district final—and won. This was when District 14 included the whole state of Georgia. Who’d a thunk it? It was my first contest and I won at the highest level. That’s when the competition seed was planted.

3. Why should someone participate in a speech contest? Why shouldn’t someone participate in a speech contest?

Speech contests are the jet fuel of Toastmasters. It’s like pressing the “Turbo Boost” button on your DeLorean time machine car from the movie, “Back To The Future”. Speakers and speeches are so much better. Your preparation and focus are at the highest level and the effects continue long after the contests. If you want to challenge yourself and exceed your potential, then you should enter contests. 

You should not participate in a speech contest if you are full of excuses or easily offended. It can be highly upsetting and frustrating when you have convinced yourself that you should have won, and you did not. The reward is not always in winning, but in getting better for the next time.

4. What tips do you use to select a speech topic that will be relevant to a diverse audience? 

Explore topics that affect our humanity. Try not to make it an American story or a Lithuanian story or a Deep South story or Black or White, but all those. It must be a topic that we all can identify with. Falling in and out of love, having children or starting a new adventure in a strange place is something we all can relate to. 

I believe the death of a loved one is overused and misused in many of our contest speeches. On the other hand, we can even make the death of a loved one very special if we put in the time to develop our message.

5. Take us through your speech writing process. How do you usually create a speech?

Oooh. So much information, so little time. Whenever I get an idea for a speech, I consider what I want to say, then determine the theme or message of the speech. I condense the entirety of the speech in one sentence. Next, I go over the sentence with a fine-tooth comb, challenging the idea of the message. I look at the sentence in various ways to make sure that it will be meaningful to the audience. After much consideration, I finally outline and write the speech. Only after the speech is written do I do any research or add humor or stories.

6. What are the most important components of a memorable speech (content-wise and delivery wise)?

It must be a well-organized speech where a great deal of time has been spent determining the main message or theme. The message should then be dissected and challenged to determine if it meets the needs of the audience. There should be a call-to-action for the audience to apply the ideas and techniques from your presentation. The speech is trimmed of any excess fat in order to meet the time limits and so as not to overwhelm the audience with too much information. Also, one must be careful with the content because we all have the tendency to want to dump all our research onto the poor unsuspecting audience. The speech is then rehearsed and modified to make it interesting, informative, and fun. 

7. How do you rehearse and how often do you rehearse before a speech contest? 

When I competed, I rehearsed every day several times a day. While the speech was under construction, I memorized it so that I could rehearse a section, make mental modifications, then rehearse the revised section of the speech again and again. There was no need to write anything down or look at notes because it was all in my head. I could be sitting in a company meeting as they are talking about widgets, and since I don’t work in the widget section, I could take a mental break, get on stage, and give my speech. 

8. What tips do you use to stay calm, composed, and confident while delivering a speech?

I was very quiet and shy before Toastmasters and never imagined myself standing before an audience bigger than three people. It was practice and visualization that helped me move from unsure to undaunted. The more I practiced, the better I felt. I could see the audience sitting before me with smiling faces, following me closely, leaning forward and getting every one of my jokes. I would see hands that clapped so hard when the speech was over that it looked like butterflies in the audience. When you step on the real stage, you’re in familiar territory and you simply give the best speech of your life.

9. How do you usually command a room and connect with your audience? 

I no longer memorize whole speeches, but I do practice quite a bit. It is the practice that emboldens me and frees me to just be open and lighthearted. There is usually something that happens when you laugh and joke with the audience, call one or two of them by name, or allow the audience to get in a joke or two and respond with a smart reply.

Preparation is the key. When I have done my practice and research, I am more confident because I have the attitude that my message is what the audience needs to make a difference in their lives. It will move them from where they are to where they want to be. 

One more thing is to act as if it is your stage. You are in charge. Show confidence and have a good time.

10. Tell us about some of the lessons you have learned from competing in speech contests.

  • Judges don’t know real talent—unless you win (then they are the smartest people on earth).
  • No matter what your club members, friends, and relatives tell you, you are not the greatest speaker in the world.
  •  Just because you worked so hard on your speech doesn’t mean anything because others are working just as hard or harder.
  • If you don’t walk away with the first-place trophy, don’t moan and complain. Review your presentation and try to see what you could have done differently.
  • If I were competing today, I would ask each contestant if I could record their contest speech. Then I would analyze the speeches and compare them to my speech to see what I could learn. If a speaker did not allow me to record their speech, I would take notes while they spoke.
  • A speech contest is not about winning and losing. It’s about winning and losing the excuses when you don’t win. It’s about winning and learning. Learning that you might need more seasoning. Your time will come; just be patient, persistent and pursue your dream.

11. What’s the best communication tip someone has given you? What’s the worst communication tip someone has given you (or someone else)?

You may never please the whole audience every time. The best communication tip was to pay attention to those in the audience who were really enjoying your speech and avoid the few who are preoccupied. Focusing on the ones who are really into the speech adds to your energy and could bring others in line. Focusing on those who are preoccupied only adds to frustration and self-doubt. This only works if there are one or two people who are not getting the speech. If there are a bunch of people that seem distracted, then you may have to ad-lib or use your Table Topics skills to get through it. If that’s not an option, then end the speech prematurely, go home, cry and be better prepared the next time.

The worst communication tip is whenever someone reads or hears about a technique and then, without trying it themselves, they tell you about it. Nah! If you haven’t tried it and found it to be the best thing ever, then don’t bring it to me.

12. What tools do you recommend using to prepare for a speech contest?

Familiarize yourself with the basics of public speaking, particularly the organization of the speech. Most of the tools in the manuals or Pathways program are excellent. If you give a speech and you did not get the reaction you wanted, then do it until you get it right. There is no need to rush. Take your time. Do it right. 

Watch and study videos of past contestants. This should include the winners and other participants.

13. Where can we find you and link up with you?


Watch Dwayne G. Smith’s Winning Speech 


Over to You 

Are you planning to compete in a speech contest? If so, which of Dwayne’s tips do you plan to use to prepare for it? Share your answers with us in the comments below!


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