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A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Podium

By Craig Harrison

Friends, Romans, Toastmasters, lend me your ears...
I bring you true tales from the stage of Shakespearean proportions:
drama, comedy, and mystery too.

In my eight years in Toastmasters I have seen some funny, funny things on the way to the podium. I bet you have too. Sometimes I laugh so hard it obscures valuable lessons found within the events. Consider some of the funnier scenes I've witnessed.

• All Points Bulletin: Missing Target Speaker

There was once a Target (AKA Test) speaker, Steve, who left immediately after giving his speech. As each contest evaluator re-entered the room and began his or her evaluation, there was that tell-tale pause as they struggled to find the speaker they were evaluating, alas to no avail. Finally, the last evaluator began with the customary "Thank you Madame Toastmaster, fellow Toastmasters, most welcome guests, and especially Steve, and promptly looked at me! Never mind that I wasn't the speaker to be evaluated. The evaluator needed someone to look at and for the next three minutes he addressed me as if I were Steve. It worked with the judges...he won that night's contest.

The lesson I learned: sometimes continuity and the greater good is more important than drawing attention to a lapse, oversight or glitch.


There was the time I was a guest speaker at another club and was scheduled to speak first. The second speaker, preparing the speak about dental hygene, was sitting near to the front, anticipating giving his speech #9, wherein he was going to use props to make his point. While I was in the middle of my speech I looked down at this man and saw he was fiddling with his props. Nonplussed, I continued with my speech. Suddenly a few sentences later one of his props, his electric toothbrush, sprung into action and started ambulating across the table, right in front of the lectern. In all my years of speaking I've been upstaged by coughers, sneezers, snoring, cell phones, pagers, fire alarms, crying babies, and even a minor earthquake tremor, but never an electric toothbrush.

The lesson I learned: sometimes as important as being unflappable, one must be unplaqueable. Some have a brush with death. I had a brush with distraction.

Speaking Has Its Ups and Downs.

There was the time I attended my District's Leadership Breakfast at a local hotel. Up on a wooden stage built of risers our District Governor was doing a wonderful job of recognizing nominees for the President of the Term award. As was his style, he graciously invited each nominee to join him on the stage. Before we knew it the stage was teaming with toastmasters. And then it happened, just like that. Whooosh! The entire stage collapsed and down they all went. Luckily it was a two-foot drop and everyone on the stage remained standing. It was the funniest sequence of events: 20 people drop down two feet and are suddenly out of sight. Then 100 people in the audience rise up in unison to see what happened. Our focused District Governor, in true Toastmaster fashion, never missed a beat. In fact, his humorous ad-libbing "set the stage" for the day's entertaining keynoter to follow.

The lesson I learned that day: In life it's less about what happens than how you handle it. A true leader is a situational leader. When no script exists, reflexes take over.

Smooth Sailing...NOT

Once every seven years District's receive a presidential visit. The president's visit to our district was my first opportunity to wear a tuxedo. In honor of the occasion I actually bought a tux, special shirt, cummerbund and even shiny new tuxedo shoes. What a thrill it was to wear these items for the first time at our District's Spring Conference. Midway through the evening's affair my opportunity to speak arrived. I pushed back from my chair, rose, and ascended the stairs to the stage regally. This was the thrill of a lifetime, to shake the hand of an International President. As I was walking toward the VIP (visiting International President) to shake his outstretched hand, it happened very suddenly. I slid into the splits and became invisible to the audience. My brand new tuxedo shoes had bottoms so smooth I had lost traction. The entire head table gasped. Among 200 Toastmasters there was utter silence. The suspense was palpable. Would he arise? Could he aright himself? Alas I did, and the MC was heard to say "He slides...and is safe!"

The lesson I learned that day: Sometimes one can be too smooth, or at least one's shoes can be too smooth! And many a mis-step can be adroitly corrected with a choice rejoinder.

Coming Together

I'll never forget the time at our Regional Conference when an International Director was presenting an award to the conference chairwoman and gave her a hug...that didn't end. We knew there was mutual admiration but the audience held it's breath and waited for the two women to break their embrace. But they didn't. More accurately, they couldn't! The director's brooch had become hooked to the chairwoman's sweater. This gave new meaning to the phrase "I'm stuck on Toastmasters."

The lesson I learned: There is great value in speakers' connecting with their audiences but one shouldn't take it literally! We never know when we will be expected to maintain our poise and dignity. That night, both parties did, seemingly forever.

• Clues and Cues: Return to Sender

I'll never forget the time a past District winner of the International Speech Contest was asked to serve as a test speaker for an evaluation contest. So as not to make the evaluations too hard for the contestants he deliberately committed faux pas and intentional gaffes. His title was deliberately "off" topic. His attire, by design, bore no relation to his topic. His speech was disorganized by design. Imagine his surprise when he was complimented on the very elements he had created for scrutiny.

The lesson I learned: Be authentic and let the chips fall where they may. Furthermore, it's easier to be good than to try to be bad.

Soon your district leaders will again be promoting upcoming contests and conferences. They will tell us about inspirational keynoters, wonderful educational sessions and other scheduled events being planned. What they can't tell you, are about the unscripted, unexpected and the unintended events that offer both entertainment and wonderful learning opportunities. So keep your eyes and ears open and soon you too will be telling audiences "...a funny thing happened on the way to the podium!"

Book Craig for a humorous program at your next conference, convention or meeting: www.ExpressionsOfExcellence.com/humor.html

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