How to Win Every Contest

by David Brooks

1990 World Champion of Public Speaking
Austin, Texas

Having spoken to nearly 100,000 Toastmasters over the past 18 years, I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard someone say: “I’m going to win the World Championship of Public Speaking.”

I say, “Congratulations, you’ve taken an important first step. You have established a challenging goal.”

If you ask anyone who has achieved something significant, they will all tell you, success is grounded in belief. In fact, the phrase “If you can believe it, you can achieve it,” is standard in just about every motivational speaker’s message. You hear it over and over and over again.

Yet, the fact is that phrase, “If you believe it, you can achieve it,” is simply not true.

You see, I don’t care how fervently I believe that someday I will play in the NBA…it’s just not going to happen. My belief, no matter how steadfastly I hold it, will not supersede my complete lack of basketball talent.

There simply are a lot of things you can believe that you will not achieve.

Motivational speakers and other well-intentioned optimists have it backwards. What they should be telling you is “If you don’t believe it, you won’t achieve it.”

There’s a big difference. “If you believe it you can achieve it,” is overly optimistic. But, “If you don’t believe it, you won’t achieve it,” is realistic. It simply means “success starts with belief.”

So how does this relate to winning speech contests?

First, define “winning.” And then, define “success.”

Toastmasters International “contest season” usually begins each February. A few weeks or months before, the strongest contenders are usually already preparing, with “winning the contest” as their goal.

But before you become too fixated on winning, go back a step and define the term.

In the strictest interpretation of the word, one person wins…while the rest lose. But that’s a narrow and unnecessarily restrictive definition. So once again, I challenge you to define “winning.”

When I entered my first speech contest in February of 1987, winning was simply not on my mind. I merely wanted to represent myself well in my first-ever club contest.

As you may have experienced, the fear of embarrassment can be a huge motivator and that’s what got me going back then. I didn’t say “I’m going to win.” Instead, I approached it with an eye toward maintaining my dignity. I said, “I’m going to do my best.” My goal was not to be club champion. My goal was to represent myself respectably in front of my peers.

And I’m pleased to say that in that first club contest, I won…twice. Yes, I won the contest by finishing first. But I won even more…by performing better than I had before.

So which of these two wins was more valuable? Unquestionably, it was the second. I earned a title: club champion, but in the process of preparation I learned to be a better speaker. And in anybody’s book, that’s a win.

So my advice for true competitors is this: forget about titles and trophies. Instead, focus on what’s important.

To illustrate, consider this story of a true winner:

More than a decade ago, I saw on a talk show a man named Dr. Thomas Amberry. He was, as I recall, a retired podiatrist. He said as a young man he had dreamed of playing in the NBA, but that dream didn’t come true. So he redirected his energy into a successful medical career.

When he retired from medicine, he still held a dream of making his mark in basketball. But at age 72, he knew that no matter how much he believed he would not achieve his earlier goal. So he redefined his measure of success.

He decided to become the best with a particular basketball skill. He decided to become the most accurate free-throw shooter in history. And on Nov. 15, 1993, Dr. Amberry stepped up to the line and sank 2,750 free throws in a row.

Did he achieve his original goal of starring in the NBA? No. But was he successful in the sport he loved? Absolutely.

So how does this relate to speech contests? There are several answers.

First, be a realist. Not everyone who wants to win…will win.

Second, even if you don’t achieve your original goal, you can always redefine or refocus your goal.

And, third, titles and trophies are not as important as growth, improvement, and the attainment of personal excellence.

Because if you achieve these, you will be a winner every time.

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Author’s credit:
David Brooks, DTM, won the Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking in 1990. Since that time he has coached and/or mentored six subsequent World Champions and dozens of finalists. You may contact him at

Author’s note:
If you want to learn more about becoming a better speaker, visit David’s website. Under the Resources tab you will find many free resources for writers and speakers. And, when you are there, sign up for David’s free blog-azine so that you can receive nuggets of knowledge from him on a regular basis.