Welcome to episode five of the Speech Contest Champions Interview Series! Today’s featured champion is Aaron W. Beverly.
Aaron Beverly is an award-winning speaker, storyteller, project manager, and public speaking trainer.
In 2012, he entered his first Toastmasters International Speech Contest and came in second at the area level. In 2016, he competed in the International Speech Contest again and finished second at the Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking. In 2019, he came back for another round and became the World Champion of Public Speaking with his thrilling speech “An Unbelievable Story.”
If you’re interested in learning why Aaron believes the International Speech Contest is the best method in Toastmasters to improve your public speaking skills, techniques he uses to ease speech anxiety, and the 10-step process he uses to create commendable presentations, then this interview is for you.
1. Can you tell us about yourself and your line of work?
Currently, I am a project manager at J.P. Morgan Chase. I have been with that company for nine years. There is quite a bit of public speaking involved in that job, so I am thankful for my contest experience and Toastmasters International for the chance to practice and hone my skills. It really helps when your job has a corporate Toastmasters club. You are able to participate in your club while at the same time participate in a work activity. I go out of my way to make time for Toastmasters at work because it gives me so many networking benefits and opportunities for career advancement.
In fact, I would not have my current job as a project manager at JP Morgan Chase, if not for Toastmasters. I had no project management experience, but I did have a desire to be a project manager. One day I was sitting in the cafeteria where I heard the sporadic clapping. If you don't know, Toastmasters like to clap a lot. I recognized this type of clapping and I walked over to discover that there was a demo meeting being held. Even though this club started for a totally different department from where I was, I sat down in their meeting and still performed a table topic (impromptu speaking). Despite not being a part of their department, they still allowed me to join their club. It just so happened that there were project managers who had helped start the club. I talked with those project managers which led to an interview and ultimately led to me having my current job.
2. Take us back to your first speech contest. Why did you enter it and what happened?
I'll be honest; my primary reason for entering the speech contest was simply to win it. I saw other world champions of public speaking, and I thought to myself, “I want to do what they did, have a trophy and travel the world.” I wanted the benefits of being a champion. It was short-minded thinking.
I first started competing in the International speech contest in 2012. When I first competed, I was the best speaker in my club. The problem with being the best in your club is that you don’t know anyone who is better. I went to the area contest and immediately lost to a better quality speech. That helped me learn what a quality speech was. At the time, I lacked a compelling story with a meaningful message.
This is what prompted me to get speech coaching in 2013. Luckily I knew a man named Dr. Dilip Abayasekara, who was the International President of Toastmasters International from 2005 to 2006, and he just so happened to be an adjunct professor at my school.
With his help, I started to see the bigger picture of the contest. The contest was a medium to help people showcase and expand their speaking skills. Winning trophies and accolades were not the main drivers. Once I learned this, I started making the competition less about winning and more about getting better.
3. Why should someone participate in a speech contest? Why shouldn’t someone participate in a speech contest?
I believe the International Speech Contest is the best and fastest method Toastmasters has to help people increase their public speaking skills. In the International speech contest, you have to think about how your audience will react to your message. It puts you in the mindset of focusing on other people rather than yourself. You start to think differently. Over the years, as I spoke to more audiences, I learned more about what made them react the way they did. I became more open to other ideas and techniques that would help me connect with my audiences more effectively.
As a competitor in the contest, I have also been able to meet people from all over the world. This has opened my eyes to cultures that I would never have experienced before. If you are serious about the growth and the benefits outside of winning a trophy, you will find that the speech contest not only increases your skill as a speaker, but it increases your character as a human being.
4. What tips do you use to select a speech topic that will be relevant to a diverse audience?
There’s no one way to come up with a speech topic. However, whenever I competed in the Toastmasters International speech contest, I asked myself important questions. One of those questions was, “What message do I really want to share with an audience?” This question really helped me understand what my goal was at the beginning of the contest season. You need to think about the message you want to share. It should be something that is very important to you or something relevant to the time. For instance, in 2019, my goal was to talk about unity based on the political climate in the United States and the world.
Ultimately, this really comes down to you as an individual. What value do you want to share with the audience? This could be a lesson that you learned yourself that you wanna share. A lot of people fall into this trap of thinking “In order for me to be interesting, I have to make my speech grand or larger than life.” That way of thinking simply isn’t true. The most relatable topics are the topics that we talk about from our everyday lives.
5. Take us through your speech writing process. How do you usually create a speech?
While competing in the contest over the years, I built a process that helped me create, hone, and enhance my presentations. This process was built from years of trial and error. This is a process I now use in my everyday presentations, not just speech contests. There are 10 steps and they are explained below.
Step 1: KYA - Know Your Audience; find out what they want and need to hear. This can include using your previous experience but also includes getting information from people who have spoken to that audience before or even asking the audience outright through conversation and inquiry.
Step 2: DToKs – Summarize the message you intend for the audience to take away. Answer what you want the audience to do, think, or know in 10 words or less.
Step 3: Write a draft - Create your first draft and keep in mind that it won't be perfect.
Step 4: Record yourself reading your draft - Read your draft as if it were a script. Include all the tonality that you would use if it were the final performance.
Step 5: LISTEN TO THE RECORDING! – Pay attention to your words, pronunciation, enunciation, and pacing. Does what you say make sense? Do you think there is a better or simpler way to say what you said? Challenge yourself and be your own devil’s advocate.
Step 6: Re-write, record, re-listen, repeat - Repeat the previous three phases. Edit your written script and record yourself reading it, listen to it, and keep doing that until you have a solid version of your presentation that is ready to be tested before an audience. You’ll come back to this phase every time you apply feedback. Note: After completing this step, you should have a quality audio recording of your presentation that you can listen to over and over.
Step 7: Videotape in front of a live studio audience - Video record yourself giving a practice presentation in front of an audience and get their live feedback (i.e., emotional reactions to what you say). Review the recording and pay attention to your physical actions and staging to make sure you are not doing anything unnecessary or distracting. See if you can correlate your actions while speaking to the audience's reactions (or lack thereof). Make a note of anything that you notice. Revert back to step 6.
Step 8: Apply feedback with caution - Apply your feedback filters (e.g., time, focused feedback on a particular section, and your intuition). Create your “Circle of Council” (a small group of people whose opinions you trust and value). Always be willing to accept feedback from anyone willing to provide it, but be wary of advice to improve. Everyone can provide feedback on how your presentation made them feel, but everyone cannot tell you how to improve. Revert back to step 6.
Step 9: Set a cutoff date for editing – On this set date, you will not make any more changes to your presentation. Try to do this at least a couple of days before the final presentation. Avoid any more practices in front of live audiences, as this may cause you to want to make changes. At this point, you should have both a quality audio version of your speech and a quality video recording. Listen and watch them over and over in order to internalize your message. There is not a set number in which you need to do this; it all depends on what you are most comfortable with.
Step 10: Review the final product – Watch or listen to the final performance. Measure it against what you initially planned. Measure it against what you originally started with. See your improvement. Also, listen to the final audience reactions. Did you get any surprise responses? What were they? Why do you think they occurred? What lessons can you learn from this performance that you can apply to future presentations?
6. What are the most important components of a memorable speech (content-wise and delivery-wise)?
Content-wise, the most important components of a memorable speech are the central message and the story. Every speech needs a central message. This is the message that you want the audience to take when you are done speaking. This can be the call to action. It could be a moment of truth that you want the audience to think about. Whatever it is, it needs to be clear, concise, and compelling. I mentioned DToKs in my step-by-step process earlier. That step really helps you clarify what your central message and take away from the audience will be. If you don’t have a central message to your speech, then there is no point in you speaking.
Your story is the vehicle you use to explain your message. You can easily tell somebody your central message and be done. However, that would be very boring, and it would not engage the listeners’ minds. Humans are built mentally for stories. This is how we consume a lot of the information that we receive. Therefore, speaking should be no different. If you have a speech, you should support that speech with a story.
Delivery-wise, the most important component of a memorable speech is the voice and the body. The voice is obvious; if you don’t have a voice, then you can’t be heard. However, it’s just not a matter of being heard or not. It’s also a matter of engaging the listener through the sound and quality of your voice. We hear a lot about the term “vocal variety.” Vocal variety is extremely important when you are giving a speech because it allows the listener to hear something different, which engages their brain more and keeps them wanting to listen. If you have ever heard of a person who speaks completely monotone, meaning that they speak with the same tone throughout their entire presentation, you will know that these people are extremely boring and easy to tune out.
Your body is also important because you express a lot through the body. If a person tells me that they’re happy, but their body language says that they are upset or sad, then I am going to believe their body, not what they say. If you have such a discrepancy between what you say and what your body is doing in front of an audience, your audience will start asking questions in their minds about why the discrepancy exists. Worse yet, they won’t believe what you’re telling them and may consider you disingenuous.
7. How do you rehearse and how often do you rehearse before a speech contest?
I think of rehearsing and practicing differently than a lot of people, so it is hard for me to say how often I practice. I view any method of internalization of my content as practice. When I write out my speech, I view that as a form of internalization, just like I view reciting my speech as a form of internalization. My main method of internalization is to record myself and listen to the recording.
The most underrated action that you can take to become a better speaker is to record yourself. However, recording yourself is not enough. There is one other critical step you need to take—LISTEN TO THE RECORDING! When you listen to your presentation, it serves two purposes. The first one is that it helps you internalize your content. The second purpose is that it allows you to become your own evaluator. You can listen to your mistakes and areas for improvement.
Recording myself and listening to my presentations over and over is one of the main reasons why I did not need a speech coach for the World Championship. It potentially saved me hundreds (maybe even thousands) of dollars. The best benefit of listening to yourself in order to internalize your message is that you can do it over and over again. There are times where I would spend hours listening to and visualizing my speech. Since I count all of that as practice, cumulatively, I think my practice time would equate to hours a day during the height of Toastmasters contest season.
8. What tips do you use to stay calm, composed, and confident while delivering a speech?
People probably would not believe me if I told them, but I still get nervous before I speak. I don’t get nervous for every audience, but occasionally, I get butterflies in my stomach, my heart races for what feels like one million beats per minute, and my body begins to shake from anxiety. When the anxiety creeps in, I try a couple of different techniques.
First, I try to take deep breaths. Taking deep breaths will help slow your heart rate. By focusing on your breathing, you don’t focus nearly as much on how nervous you are.
Something else that I recommend if you have anxiety is to find a space backstage, if you can, and try to move around as much as you can because anxiety can create a lot of excess energy that you need to expel. For example, when I was participating in the World Championship of Public Speaking, I sat backstage, listened to music, and danced in my seat. That dancing helped me expel my extra energy.
Now even though I say all of this, please know that anxiety and nervousness are normal for any public speaker, not just for those new to public speaking. Anxiety can sometimes be considered an asset because it can be used as a motivator to perform at your best. This does not mean that you should try to be as anxious as possible. Like with everything, too much of a good thing is bad. However, a little anxiety is good.
Also, keep in mind that the anxiety and fear of public speaking will not go away just by sitting on the sidelines. It will never be as bad as it feels. You will never look as nervous as you feel. If you are afraid of public speaking, just confront it head-on in a supportive environment where people want to see you succeed. Toastmasters is the best place for that. I joined Toastmasters in 2009. It hasn’t been a short process for me. However, it has been an extremely valuable process. I got up and kept speaking. When I faltered, I got up and kept speaking. The key is that you learn from your mistakes, failures, and shortcomings. That will make you better not just in speaking but in anything that you do.
9. How do you usually command a room and connect with your audience?
I know from experience that humor is a great way to connect with an audience. People say that it has been scientifically proven that using humor makes the audience more receptive and helps them remember what you say. Now I don’t know who these scientists are, but I believe that statement. I aim to add humor to all of my prepared presentations; however, the perfect balance of humor depends on the person speaking.
The style I developed is connecting first with humor, preferably through a relatable story, then finishing with a strong message that ties into that story. But other speakers use humor in different ways. At the end of the day, you have to see what your audience likes, and that comes from practice and repetition. Remember, though, making sure you have a clear message surpasses any desire for humor. It won’t matter if your speech is humorous if people don’t know the reason why you were speaking in the first place.
10. Tell us about some of the lessons you have learned from competing in speech contests.
There are two key lessons that I want to highlight. The first one is that it's not about you; it's about the audience. I’ve learned that the purpose of speaking is to deliver a message, and that message needs to be relevant to the audience.
Therefore, a speaker speaks for the audience, not for themselves. As a speaker, your goal should be to help someone in the audience. There’s someone in the audience who needs to hear what you have to say. That is a responsibility to take seriously.
The other lesson I learned from competing is that the best strategy is to aim for growth, not for trophies. The contest was a great way to measure my growth as a speaker. Although I initially started off wanting to win for the sake of winning the trophy, I learned the value of growing. After my first year competing, I set a goal to improve my speaking skills. I ended up having a goal in every round of the contest. Having those goals helped me become a stronger speaker, which then helped me perform better in the contest. It came to the point that in 2019 I decided that my goal was not to win the World Championship of Public Speaking but to grow as a speaker. Ironically enough, that was the year that I won the World Championship of Public Speaking. I don’t think that was a coincidence.
11. What’s the best communication tip someone has given you? What’s the worst communication tip someone has given you (or someone else)?
The worst communication tip I've ever received is hard for me to recall because if I don't like a piece of advice, I will dismiss it as nonsense and quickly forget about it. However, I will share one popular piece of advice that drives me crazy, and that is when people tell speakers that they need to be more dramatic and theatrical during their speeches. My viewpoint is that you are performing a speech not a play. Now don't get me wrong, I do think that there are some acting techniques that can be employed to create a better presentation, but some people take it way too far to the point it becomes a cringe-worthy display of poor acting.
This leads me to the best advice I ever received: just be yourself on stage. The reason why I cringe when I see people being overly theatrical in their voice and body movements is that I know that is not how they behave in real life. They speak unnaturally all for the purpose of getting what they want (the trophy). However, more times than not, they don't get what they want because eventually judges and the audience will see through it. Do not over-complicate things; just try to be yourself on stage. Your speaking persona should only be a slightly polished version of yourself off-stage.
12. What tools do you recommend using to prepare for a speech contest?
A cell phone. In this day and age, a cell phone is a Swiss Army knife of productivity and growth. There are so many apps that you can use to get better as a speaker. The best feature on your phone to get better at public speaking is your voice recorder. Another feature that is built into most phones is the dictation function. You can talk to your phone, and it will transcribe what you say. This is great for those people who hate the process of writing their speeches. For me, it’s a great way to get content on the page so that I can edit it, which is something that I am much more inclined to do.
There are of course other applications that you can put on your phone to get better at speaking. I use note-taking apps to help store my thoughts and speech drafts. My favorite is the application called Evernote. With Evernote, I can draft a speech, and it will be stored in the cloud so I can pull up my drafts, on any of my connected devices, and edit them on the fly.
13. Where can we find you and link up with you?
You can reach out to me on social media. I am on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and YouTube. I am looking to release more public speaking tips and education on all of those platforms. You can find me on each platform by searching Aaron W Beverly.
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/aaron.w.beverly
- LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/aaron-w-beverly
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/aaron_w_beverly/
- YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCHVNLGTZBrLiyVcLYqYyETQ
- Website: http://aaronwbeverly.com
Watch Aaron W. Beverly’s Winning Speeches
Over to You
Are you planning to compete in a speech contest? If so, which of Aaron’s tips do you plan to use to prepare for it? Share your answers with us in the comments below!