Toastmasters Contest Rules

Twice a year, Toastmasters turn their thoughts to contests. In September each club stages a Humorous Speech Contest and a Table Topics Contest with the club winners going on to compete in Area, Division and District competitions.

The organization required for these competitions can be quite daunting to newer members but it’s very important that everything happens in accordance with the official rules. To help ensure that people know how to run a contest successfully there are training sessions held to help get them up to speed.

In the past, I’ve competed, judged, chaired and mentored speech contests so I’m fairly confident that I know my way around one, but I know that you can never know EVERYTHING, so last weekend I attended a speech contest training session run by District 21 Division B in Vancouver.

Despite having experienced many contests in the past and despite being very familiar with the contents of the official rulebook, I learnt LOTS. I took lots of notes and decided to pass them on in the hope that they might help someone else too.

This information isn’t a definitive guide on how to run a contest but it expands on the information in the Toastmasters Speech Contest Rulebook. You should probably be familiar with the rulebook in order to get the most out of these notes…

The main goals of competing in a contest are:
– to experience a new audience
– to challenge ourselves

Why is it important to run a good contest? It’s important because the competitors have put time and effort into taking part, you owe it to them to ensure that your contest is FAIR and abides by the rules.

Contest chair:
  • Be organized
  • Make sure you have plenty of copies, plus spares, of all the papers & forms
  • Confirm who’s bringing the timing lights & ensure at least one backup
  • Have a copy of the contest rulebook
  • Keep in contact with Area/Division/District Governor
  • Hand out and collect eligibility and bio forms IN ADVANCE of the contest – that way you’re not scrambling to get them all signed and collected at the beginning of the meeting
  • Brief contestants/judges before the contest starts (ie don’t announce the meeting start, welcome the audience and THEN break for briefings) that probably means asking contestants & functionaries to arrive 30 mins early or advertising the meeting start as 30 minutes later
  • Get the chief judge to pick an experienced member as tie-breaker judge, known only to them
  • Keep tie-breaker & counter forms after contest in case of complications/enquiries or if top 2 competitors can’t compete at the next level & the club needs to send 3rd place
  • Double-check name spelling & pronunciation
  • Rehearse your briefing, don’t wing it – the contest briefing at District level takes 30 minutes!
  • Check the District 21 website… there are example briefing scripts on there
  • Eligibility form must be filled out for ALL contests
  • Originality section is only required for appropriate contests
  • Contestants can reuse a speech that they’ve already given
  • Contestants must attribute ALL quotes
  • Contestants arriving late can compete only if they arrive before the contest chair has been announced but they have to waive their right to the briefing if they’ve missed it
  • Sit the judges scattered around the room so they can check for voice & eye contact
  • Judges should be anonymous – don’t put their names on the agenda
  • Draw for speaking order on the night – not in advance
  • For Area contest, each club should provide 2 judges
  • For District contest, no clubs with members still competing can provide judges
  • No photos are permitted
  • Video is a grey area – if ALL contestants agree then you can do it but DON’T put on YouTube until the winner has been knocked out (so there’s no chance a judge from a higher contest level might see the speech in advance)
  • Sgt-at-arms is responsible for dealing with talkers in the audience or removing hecklers
  • For a serious interruption, eg fire alarm, speaker gets 30 seconds grace on timing
  • Chair stays at podium for the minute’s silence… they’re still in charge of the meeting
  • BEFORE contest starts, brief visiting dignitaries & ask them to help present awards
  • Ensure the results are passed to Area/Division/District Governor immediately after contest so they can plan the next level contest
  • When collecting ballots, don’t hover over the last judge completing their ballot. Totting up the scores is a stressful time for judges and hovering doesn’t help them
  • Double-check the count: one counter reads scores from ballots, another writes them down, another adds them up. Then switch roles & repeat AT LEAST once
  • Prefill the counting sheet with the judges’ and contestants names before the count to help speed things up
  • Each ballot MUST be signed, names must be legible, can’t have 2 names in one space
  • Must have each competitors’ full names on ballot
  • If a name on the ballot is illegible, you can call the judge out for clarification
  • If one ballot space contains 2 names eg “Smith/Jones” or ballot not signed, ENTIRE ballot is spoilt and must be ignored
  • Ensure you have backup lights (and coloured cards), use two stopwatches for timing AND have a spare
  • When speaker gets close to time limit, don’t keep looking up at speaker & looking down at watch. That constitutes a visual cue to the speaker & is prohibited
  • The speaker always gets the benefit of doubt if two stopwatches show different times eg if one watch says 7:32 & the other says 7:29, the contestant gets 7:29 & isn’t disqualified
  • Lights should be only visible to speaker so audience doesn’t follow along with the timing
  • Contestant’s dues must have been paid and club must have paid them on to TI
  • Club must be in good standing with TI
  • Only speakers, chair & judges can protest
  • Contest chair is responsible for ensuring contestant eligibility (for club contest they could delegate this eg to President or VP Ed)
  • Easiest way to check eligibility is go to TI website before contest & print out club member list – if they’re on it, they’re eligible, if they’re not then they’re not
  • Doesn’t matter WHO the contestant has given their dues to, TI MUST have their money or they’re ineligible
  • For Table Topics, it’s important to ANSWER the question
  • For evaluation contest, it’s important to give tips and give a summation
  • If you have a tie on your ballot for 1st, 2nd or 3rd pick the person you think did the best overall job TONIGHT
  • Only write one name in each space on the ballot
  • Poor word choice and/or clothing may be part of the speech so don’t judge on those until you’ve heard the full speech
Contestant interviewing:
  • Gives audience a light break from the contest
  • Gives counters time to count & recount ballots
  • For timing, base it on how long you estimate the counters will take. Typically 2 minutes per contestant
  • Take question material from the bio sheet
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for extra information before the contest or even ask contestant in advance “is there something you’d like me to ask you?”
  • Simplest questions come directly from info on the bio sheet
  • Can also ask (eg) “How has Toastmasters helped you with {item from your bio sheet}”
  • Can take question material from the speech itself
  • Interviewer isn’t the centre of attention – don’t upstage the interviewee
  • Respect the speaker, don’t ask awkward questions & don’t make them difficult – this isn’t Table Topics!
  • Interview should be inclusive… direct the questions at the audience as well as the speaker and use body language so that the audience doesn’t feel excluded
  • Ask open-ended and short questions
  • Compliment & congratulate the speaker
  • Choose questions appropriately to get answers of suitable length
  • Be prepared to cut off interviewee if over-running… step forward, offer handshake

I was guest judge at a neighbouring club’s contest this week and noticed several things which didn’t go smoothly so I guess I can add a supplemental set of tips:

  • Remember that if a contestant in the FIRST contest is also taking part in the SECOND contest then you shouldn’t interview them after the first contest. This is to prevent the judges for the second contest hearing anything that might sway their opinion
  • Make sure that no competitors wear any badges or other indication of rank or awards
  • If you’re using borrowed lights or anything else that isn’t your club’s usual equipment then make sure that everybody who will use this or be affected by it is given a full demonstration beforehand to ensure there are no slip-ups or misunderstandings
  • Prepare your questions before the contestant interview – don’t be reading the bio on stage
  • If you’re handing out participation certificates then do it when you interview the competitors. This saves you having to call them all up to the stage again later on

There were also plenty of things that went RIGHT, and I picked up some tips myself:

  • If you’ve finished interviewing the contestants and the counters haven’t finished calculating the result yet then call up one of your visiting dignitaries to talk to the audience. If you’ve got an Area/Division/District Governor in attendance then everybody would love to hear from them and this way you don’t have to tag on extra time for that at the end of the contest
  • I think it’s reasonably well understood that you only announce third place if you have five or more competitors in a contest. The reason for this is to ensure that there are at least two contestants whose names are not announced. This makes sure that nobody knows who came last. However what do you do if you only have three contestants? You need a second place because you need to have a reserve in case the winner can’t represent your club at the Area contest. But if you announce second place then everybody knows who came last. The answer is that you only announce first place and then you discretely present the second place contestant with their certificate after the meeting has ended. That way you have your second place backup but the audience don’t know who came last. (That tip came direct from our current District Governor, Tom Jones, who was in attendance)

I mentioned earlier “be sure you have plenty of copies of all the forms”. Here’s a quick checklist of the forms I think you need for a contest:

  • contestant eligibility & originality form
  • contestant bio form
  • a sheet to record the speaking order for both contests
  • humorous speech judging form
  • table topics speech judging form
  • tie-breaker judging forms for both contests
  • timing record form
  • counters record form
  • notification of winner form

I’ve got one final tip that I put into our Club Contest agenda when I last ran a contest and has now spread down the road to our neighbours. When you’re giving a prepared speech in a contest and you’re NOT speaking first, you gain an advantage over the first speaker as you have one minute of silence before you take the stage in which to gather your thoughts. This is the one minute that the judges are using to write their scores for the preceding speaker. With nobody speaking before them, the first speaker doesn’t get this time. In order to balance things out and make everything as fair as possible I added one minute of silence to the agenda before the first speaker speaks – I think it’s a nice little touch.

3 comments to Toastmasters Contest Rules

  • Lots of great tips. Thank You.

  • Bill Bishop


    I am curious – why should the judges be anonymous?

    Bill Bishop

    • Jon Jennings

      Hi Bill, thanks for visiting and leaving a comment.
      The rationale behind anonymous judges is mainly to ensure that the speaker doesn’t give them favorable treatment – eg giving the judges all the eye contact and not looking at other members of the audience.

      In a small club, the speaker can probably spot the judges pretty easily, but it’s a good habit for the Contest Chair to get into.

      The Chief Judge also helps to evaluate a speaker’s eye contact by scattering the judges through the audience. If some of the judges are at the back or sides of the room then a speaker who, for example, only looks at the people in the front row will be noticed.