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 one of the Speech Contest Champions Interview Series! Today’s featured champion is Mohammed A. Qahtani of qahtanispeaks.com. Mohammed is a communication coach, engineer, author, and the 2015 World Champion of Public Speaking. Yes, he took home the ultimate speaking title (in Toastmasters) in 2015 with his speech “The Power of Words.” If you’re interested in learning how Mohammed prepares for speech contests, from selecting a topic to executing his speech, then this interview is for you.
1. Can you tell us about yourself and your line of work?
My name is Mohammed Qahtani, the 2015 World Champion of Public Speaking. I am a security engineer working for an oil company in Saudi Arabia. I hold a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Arizona State University.
2. Take us back to your first speech contest. Why did you enter it and what happened?
When I joined Toastmasters in 2009, my first few speeches were all humorous, starting with my Ice Breaker, because I take great joy in making people laugh. Therefore, my club president at the time convinced me to enter the Humorous Speech Contest in 2010. So I did. As for the International Speech Contest, I only started competing in 2014 just because I wanted to test myself in other types of speeches aside from humorous.
3. Why should someone participate in a speech contest? Why shouldn’t someone participate in a speech contest?
You should participate in a speech contest for two reasons. First, you get to test your level against others who might excel in the field and learn from the process. Second, every level of competition gives you a chance to speak to a larger audience which means your messages get to be heard by more people.
You should not enter the speech contest if your sole purpose is winning a trophy. With all honesty, this isn’t the place for that.
4. What tips do you use to select a speech topic that will be relevant to a diverse audience?
Always follow the news to see what is the common topic people are talking about or problems that the world is going through. This will give you a chance to come up with a speech topic that is relevant to everyone.
5. Take us through your speech writing process. How do you usually create a speech?
First, I write what comes to my mind regarding the topic that I chose. Then, I try to structure what I wrote into three segments: the introduction, body, and conclusion. This will make me either add more words or take out some that do not fit. Then I run my speech by my mentors who I know are good in terms of writing because that is my weakness; I am not a good writer. They might suggest some changes. Then after the speech is refined, I read it 10 times in a row and that is it. I do not memorize it, but reading it several times will make the flow stick in your mind. I would also recommend that when writing your final draft that you do it by hand and not on a computer. When you write it by hand it sticks in your mind more.
6. What are the most important components of a memorable speech (content-wise and delivery wise)?
As for content, you have to have a personal story that touches the audience's hearts and emphasizes your message. People relate more to stories especially if it sounds like something that could happen to them. As for delivery, my only advice is to live your speech and not just say it. When you speak with passion and about something that you really care about, the audience can tell the authenticity of the speaker.
7. How do you rehearse and how often do you rehearse before a speech contest?
My first rehearsal is me alone, in front of a mirror, in my bedroom. And I know this might sound strange but I do it naked because usually, people are uncomfortable looking at themselves naked in the mirror. So I am training myself to deal with being uncomfortable while speaking. Then my second rehearsal is with a single person, a friend, over a cup of coffee. And after delivering my speech to that person I would ask the following three questions:
- Is it clear?
- Is it interesting?
- Did it motivate you to change something in your life?
And if the answer is no, I would see which part needs work and repeat. Then I rehearse my speech in my Toastmasters club for further feedback.
8. What tips do you use to stay calm, composed, and confident while delivering a speech?
It is a mindset really; people get nervous on stage because they are afraid they might make a mistake. So I always tell myself this before speaking:
“You are doing something that most of the people in the audience can’t even dare to do, so why should you be afraid? You are already better than most of them”.
I do not say it to myself to be arrogant, but to feed some pride into myself.
9. How do you usually command a room and connect with your audience?
I often start with a joke—when people laugh with you it calms you down and forces them to listen to what you have to say. If there is a lot of noise in the audience when I start speaking, I usually speak with a louder tone of voice. That always grabs the audience's attention.
As for connecting with the audience, I do a three-second stare where for three seconds I pick a random person in the audience and look at that person. After three seconds, I switch to someone else for three seconds and so on and so forth. This gives them the feeling that the talk is personal.
10. Tell us about some of the lessons you have learned from competing in speech contests.
I learned that when you compete to win a trophy, you set yourself up for failure. There have been a lot of times where I lost even though I believed I was better than the other. But at the end of the day, the judges are people, so you win or lose just because of people’s opinions which you do not have control over. And I have seen great speakers and Toastmasters who quit Toastmasters as a whole after losing a contest where they thought the judging was not fair. Just remember, it is people’s opinion. You might think you did a great job, but a single judge might not like what you said and therefore you might not win.
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 best communication tip is to speak from the heart and to speak about something you are passionate about with the sole purpose of changing someone’s life. You will always touch the audience’s heart that way even if your speech was not perfect.
As for the worst communication tip, it is researching who the judges are before the contest. Aside from this being considered cheating, it is like you want to only please a handful of people with disregard to the rest of the audience. And that is selfish.
12. What tools do you recommend using to prepare for a speech contest?
Record your voice on your phone and play it on loop while you are going to work or working out in the gym. That way you are programming your mind to say the words the way it needs to be delivered.
13. Where can we find you and link up with you?
Watch Mohammed A. Qahtani’s Winning Speech
Over to You
Are you planning to compete in a speech contest? If so, which of Mohammed's tips do you plan to use to prepare for it? Share your answers with us in the comments below!