Tips and Resources for a Stress-Free Speech Contest

The tips below were prepared by Distinguished Toastmaster Mary Lynn Edwards.
Edwards, a Toastmaster for almost 25 years has participated in numerous speech contests in many capacities, and even guided many contestants to outstanding achievements. Edwards is the go-to Judge in many of District 54's Area and Division contests.

- Val Horton, DTM - Program Quality Director


  • First, foremost, and above all else: Read the current Rulebook. 2015-2016 Rulebook.

    In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

    At a Toastmasters speech contest, the person who's read the rulebook is king.

  • Secondly, select the chief judge and contest chair with care. Make sure each has read the rulebook. Ideally all participants in any contest (every role) should read the rulebook. Realistically, few will.
  • The contest master needs to understand the protocol of announcing contestants, and the importance of not adding extra words or commentary before or after the speech.
  • Most important rule in the rulebook: "Modifications to rules may only be made through the administrative protocol review process. Exceptions shall not be permitted." Do not add, change, or ignore any rules.
  • When someone is attempting to enforce a questionable "rule", ask to see the rule in the rulebook. Many of our District 54 speech contest rules are merely things we've observed in other contests. It's shocking how many of them are bogus (well intentioned, but bogus). Sadly, in District 54 we've disqualified contestants over made-up rules.
  • In the past year, in District 54 area or division contests, dignitaries have stopped contests because 1) The Evaluation Contest and International Speech contests were "out of order" (there's no rule about this); and 2) Timing cards were used instead of timing lights (not a rule). KNOW YOUR RULES!
  • Many people have authored speech contest "helpful hint" documents (like the one you're reading). Many of these have made their way to the Internet. Use these documents with discretion. Be aware they may be out-of-date and they may represent personal preferences, not rules.
  • Some situations are not covered in the rulebook or any other Toastmasters materials. You can also email but expect it to take a few days to receive an answer. Best answer I've ever seen from them: "When situations arise that are not specifically addressed in the Speech Contest Rulebook, it is recommend that the contest chair and the other contest organizers treat the situation as a leadership opportunity to make a collaborative decision as to what is best for everyone. Contest officials must rely on good judgment to handle these types of situations."
  • Functionaries should be made aware of optional (but excellent) Toastmasters Learning Connection tutorial videos:
  • (This training does not replace the briefing that must be conducted before each contest.)
  • There's a very nice tutorial on YouTube demonstrating how to use the tiebreaker judge's ballot. Forward it to vote counters ahead of time.
  • Another resource is the session for area and division leadership: Conduct Quality Speech Contests, a training session for area and division leadership (though it doesn't really contain anything that isn't available elsewhere):


  • Lining up help is the biggest headache in getting a contest off the ground.
  • A lot of areas in District 54 have had great luck sharing contests between multiple areas. The contests are totally separate regarding the competition. The contests share common functionaries (judges, timers, vote counters, contest master, refreshments) etc. It makes for a LONG contest, and it's a little more complicated to execute. However, there's so much less work recruiting functionaries.
  • You need a certain number of people to hold a valid contest. You can start your recruiting with a mass email soliciting volunteers, but ultimately you'll need to reach out to people personally. As long as you aren't violating any rules, you're allowed to recruit helpers outside your areas and divisions.
  • No one can double-up on official roles. For example, the chief judge cannot also BE the tie-breaking judge.
  • Some roles are recruited by the contest chair and others by the chief judge. To prevent the appearance you're competing for recruits, try to coordinate your efforts.
  • How many voting judges should a contest have? The rulebook specifies the minimum number. The vote counter's tally sheet indicates the maximum to (ten not counting the tiebreaker judge). Go for ten if you can find that many. The more judges, the more muted the effect of no-show judges, judges whose ballots must be discarded, or unfair/unethical judges. Obviously voting is subjective. However, if you've ever been a vote counter or chief judge, you've likely encountered unusual voting patterns. Situations where it strongly appears a judge is attempting to "engineer" results to favor of a particular outcome.
  • How many sergeants at arms should a contest have? You'll need someone to help with microphones, someone to escort table topics or evaluation contestants into and out of the room. Someone to babysit the table topics and evaluations contestants at all times to watch for cell phone use. Someone to watch the doors so that no one walks into a contest speech. (This depends on the room.) In District 54 we usually provide a sergeant at arms to help contestants with set-up. You can use a sergeant at arms to help with the refreshments, get ice, etc. But if you recruit sergeants at arms, be sure to use them. Don't assume they'll figure out for themselves what to do.


Toastmasters International no longer provides a sample speech contest agenda.

Suggestion: Consider leaving anything off the agenda things that isn't required, and that's likely to change after the agendas are printed. For example, speech titles, and the names of people in roles that often change last-minute (timer and vote counter). Names of judges should never be included. Club/area/division affiliations and designations of contestants also should not be included.

Listing speech titles makes it easier for the audience to remember who the speakers were. It also causes a lot of contests to begin with the announcing of speech title changes. Contestants are often refining their speeches (including the title) up until the last minute.

What to include? The name of the contest, the contest master, and the expected contestants; the order of events including the intermission; generic thanks to the contest team members. Extra information that's set in stone (like details about the next level of contests) can be included.


  • Try to spread out work. Don't put too much responsibility on any one person. Don't ask someone to provide all the food AND be chief judge AND escort guests through security, for example.
  • The contest chair and chief judge should have cell phone numbers for all their functionaries (and vice versa).
  • In District 54, we typically tell contestants and team members to arrive for briefings 30 minutes before a contest. The chief judge must brief the timers, vote counters, and judges. That's difficult to accomplish (and do well) in just 30 minutes. It's impossible if you can't begin briefing on time. Often, when it's time to begin briefing, at least one timer, one vote counter, and one judge will be absent. Some ideas to avoid this: Ask the chief judge to arrive extra early. If possible, recruit extra helpers so no individual person is critical. Recruit a back-up who is qualified to time or vote count and who can arrive early. If you have extra judges (you can have up to ten), you can survive a no-show judge. Make sure your functionary team understands, they may arrive on time and still have to wait to be briefed. It's the nature of contests.
  • No matter how early the contest chair or chief judge arrives, or how organized they are, the 30-minute briefing period will feel like chaos. A few reasons:
  • People will show up late. Why? Because they showed on time at the last contest but they weren't briefed as soon as they arrived. Or they know they can show up late because so many other people show up late. Having extra volunteers and back-ups helps a lot!
  • When someone is attempting to conduct briefings, EVERYONE will want to talk to about SOMETHING. Be polite, but don't waste time on conversations that are unrelated to the contest or your briefings.
  • People will mess with your stuff! They will. You'll have all your forms and certificates laid out on a table, and someone will walk off with the ballots or the microphone, or obliviously choose that exact spot to sit down with a drink and a big plate of food. If possible, find someone to help watch your stuff.


The most important briefings are for the contestants and the voting judges. It's better to start late than skimp on those briefings. Obviously Toastmasters doesn't condone reading speeches. But for contest briefings, there's a lot to cover. A checklist or script helps.

It's not enough to tell voting judges and contestants they CAN protest for originality. They need to know that if they see an originality breach they should protest. It's uncomfortable and it's time-consuming, but it's unfair to the other contestants to let an originality violation go unchallenged.

For briefings, emphasize objectivity and a thorough understanding of the ballot criteria.

Make sure judges know their votes will be kept confidential. Tell them the vote counters and the chief judge will not tell ANYONE or leave any paperwork lying around that shows how they vote. Conversely, the vote counters need to understand the importance of confidentiality. From our clubs on up to our district, we're a fishbowl where lots of us know each other. The only way to conduct fair contests is for judges to be comfortable voting honestly.

Know how many judges you have. That way you easily (and quietly) can know if all the ballots are in just by knowing how many each vote counter has.


  • If you announce a 10-minute intermission, don't expect to restart for 15 minutes. Check with the chief judge that all judges are present before starting or re-starting a contest.
  • A sergeant at arms should be prepared to ask families with disruptive children to step outside the room. If that was covered in the contest announcements, it will be easier for that sergeant at arms. It's a touchy subject. Parents who bring small children to a contest are not always receptive to the idea that their children might be considered disruptive. Nicole Bagby has found an ingenious way to address this. When she opens a contest and is briefing the audience about cell phones and "housekeeping", she speaks directly to children present. She tells them she's glad they're there and impressed they're interested in speech contests. She tells them it's important to be quiet and attentive and if they need to be loud, they should take their adult into the hallway.
  • The contest master must be patient when the last judges are completing their ballots too slowly. Don't repeatedly yell -- are there any ballots outstanding? The chief judge will know when all ballots have been collected. Look to the chief judge. If the audience becomes restless, ask them to remain quiet until all ballots are collected.
  • The Toastmaster should be prepared to kill time for unexpected delays. Vote timing could run long. There could be a protest. Have something on hand.
  • The chief judge or a vote counter can pre-populate the tally sheet with names of contestants and judges, during the contest to speed up vote-counting.
  • The contest chair can pre-populate and sign certificates during the contest.
  • Allow voting judges to be as anonymous as possible. However, the mere fact that they must raise their hands holding their completed ballots for the vote counters means they cannot be 100% anonymous. Just don't do anything extra to draw attention to them. In the past year, we've had a contest were the judges were called ON STAGE for recognition; and a different contest where they were thanked BY NAME.


  • Toastmasters International's Official List of Contest FAQs
  • Who provides forms, paperwork, certificates, ballot envelopes, and trophies for Area, Division, and District contests? District 54 does. Also the paperwork can be downloaded free-of-charge from the Toastmasters International website.
  • The rules say "Contestants are responsible for arranging their preferred setup of the lectern/podium microphone and other equipment in a quiet manner before being introduced." Does that mean no one else is allowed to help them? No, it means no one else is obligated to help them. Others (including a contest sergeant at arms) may assist, if desired, and if available.
  • The rules state equal representation or a "greater than" number of judges. "….there shall be an equal number of voting judges from each club/area/division in the area/division/district, or a minimum of five/seven voting judges." If a contest has the greater number of judges, must they represent clubs equally? No. For example, if you have at least five judges at an area contest, the judges could all be from the same club. Not a great idea, but not against any rules.
  • The rules explain how under certain circumstances, up to two contestants per club may advance to an area or division contest. Does District 54 allow this? Yes. These rules depend on area and district size. District 54 allows two contestants to advance whenever the rules allow it. (This is not applicable for district contests because District 54 has more than four divisions.)
  • The rules say the tiebreaker judge is not briefed with the other judges. Does that mean the tiebreaker judge cannot be briefed at all? No, the tiebreaker judge can be briefed ahead of time, in private, by the chief judge. In fact that's a good idea.
  • Is serving refreshments at a contest required? No, but if you're expecting a long contest, it's a nice gesture.
  • How are the timers supposed to know if the music playing at the beginning of a speech is someone's cell phone or part of the speech? If the contestant walks out and falls on his face, how do they know if that's an accident or a staged act? The contest chair can make this situation easier by asking the speakers during the briefing if their speech starts in an unconventional way, and then make the timers aware.
  • Must the timers use the contest stopwatch? Most people have a smartphone with a stopwatch that's easier to use. Yes, that's fine. The smartphone should be placed on airplane mode so it doesn't get a call mid-timing.
  • Is what District 54 calls a "pattern speech" for an evaluation contest the same thing that Toastmasters International refers to as a "test speech? Yes. Same thing.
  • Is it okay to include speech titles on an agenda? This is allowed. Listing speech titles makes it easier for the audience to remember who the speakers were. However, it also leads to most contests starting with announcing all the corrections to the speech titles.
  • Is it required to list all the helpers on an agenda? With the exception of voting judges (and the tiebreaker judge), this is allowed. However you're likely to have last minute-substitutions so the more people you list the more likely your agenda will be wrong.
  • If a contest chair is drawing for speaking order, and a contestant has not arrived, should the contestant be included in the drawing? If the alternate for a missing contestant is present for the briefing, then he/she can draw for order. If the primary contestant shows up before the contest master is introduced, that contestant takes the spot drawn by the alternate. Even if there's no one (not even an alternate), it makes sense to draw for the missing contestant. It would be unfair to simply give him/her the last speaking position. There's a documented advantage to speaking last. If the contestant doesn't show up in time, whatever position he drew is omitted from the line-up. However……the rules don't address this situation.
  • New for 2015-2016 for the Table Topics and Evaluation contests: "Contestants may not use digital or other devices during the contest to gain an unfair advantage." Does that mean contestants may not use their cell phones at any point during the entire contest? Not sure, but definitely not after the Table Topic question is read or the pattern speech is delivered, and not before the contestant has competed. The sergeant at arms needs to watch for cellphone use when the contestants are waiting their turn. It would be incredibly easy (and unfair) to read a Table Topics question via a text.
  • The Contest Chair's Checklist says the contest chair should: "Ensure that each contestant is eligible under the contest rules before the contest, and notify contestants of disqualification if necessary. To check contestants' eligibility, contact the Member Services team at World Headquarters by email at" Is this necessary if the contestant was verified at the prior contest? Beyond the club level, it depends on timing. A member can only go from eligible to ineligible if the club (or if he/she) has not paid dues. Toastmasters International dues are due October 1 and April 1. There's a long grace period that follows. So members would not technically go ineligible until after November 30 or May 30. District contests wrap up before then. If a member has been voted out of a club, then contact or district leadership.
  • Is it true that contestants may not wear Toastmasters insignia (pins, medals, etc.) when they compete? The rules don't cover this, so not a rule.
  • Is the contest master required to ask the contest chair and/or chief judge during the contest if all functionaries have been properly briefed? No. They can ask before the contest and simply announce that the briefings took place, and that the contestants know the location of the timing lights.
  • Can contestants recycle their own old speeches from prior contest cycles? Yes, at contests being held at the District level (or lower) this is allowed.
  • Certain district officers or announced candidates for certain terms beginning the upcoming July 1 are ineligible to compete in contests. What if someone has told some people they plan to be a candidate, but have not told many people--because they want to be in a speech contest? The rules don't define "announced." The safest thing would be to NOT compete if you've told anyone at all. Appointed officers can compete in the contests until the July 1st date when they take office.
  • The rules say photos are not allowed and video recording is allowed only if all contestants have given written permission in advance, plus only with district chair permission at district conferences. However I notice people videotaping and photographing speeches with cell phones. For several years, Toastmasters International has allowed (when asked) this rule to be broken if a contestant has someone in the audience recording them for their own purposes. With cell phones, it's now difficult to even enforce the no-photo rule.
  • Is the recognition of dignitaries (and former dignitaries) required? Current dignitaries aren't allowed to compete, so it's not a problem to recognize them before the contest begins. If any contestants happen to be former dignitaries, it's an unfair advantage to recognize them before the contest. They can be recognized after the competition. Suggestion: Instead of making a list (which will probably be incomplete) of former dignitaries and calling them out one-by-one, ask them to all stand as a group, and applaud them as a group. Another idea: use recognition of individual former dignitaries as a time-killer (if needed) at the end of the contest.
  • If someone in an authority position at a contest is not in a position to protest for originality, yet they recognize un-originality, can you "nudge" a contestant or voting judge to protest? Others should not nudge the voting judges or contestants as it could be seen as unfair or biased. Again it is important that not only are the contest fair but that they also have the appearance of fairness.
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