Why you should enter speaking competitions

While public speaking is not everyone’s favourite pastime, entering these types of competitions is actually really beneficial and not as terrifyingly awful as you might think.

Speaking competitions usually have a vague theme but are opportunity for you to speak about anything you have an interest in. In the competitions some of my research colleagues and I have entered, we’ve spoken about our research because that’s our field of interest and expertise (apparently). Choosing to discuss your research is certainly very helpful: you cement your own knowledge of the topic, get used to explaining your research to non experts and can often get really good outsider feedback and insight that you might not get otherwise. Additionally, speaking events like this push you outside your comfort zone in terms of speaking in front of and to strangers. In both competitions I’ve participated in, some of the best feedback and discussion actually occurred over the refreshments in the breaks.

Nobody really enters a speaking competition for the glory, but there are often benefits to participating beyond networking over some biscuits. Competitions I’ve entered have given out cash prizes, sometimes even just as a participation award. There’s also non-financial gains up for grabs too. Winners may be asked to compete further, be included in a societal magazine or  invited to other events organised by the hosts. I’ll be attending the North West branch of the Nuclear Institutes annual dinner this year as part of my second place prize.

So having convinced you that speaking competitions are worthwhile, here are some tips from myself and others in my department who have done well in various competitions:

  1. Pick a topic you are passionate about. Where you have the leeway to obviously. Passion and enthusiasm for your topic really comes across well when giving a talk and therefore will always be more interesting.
  2. Smarten up your slides. There’s potentially some marking criteria that judges how snazzy your slides are and it’s easy to put in this work beforehand.
  3. Time yourself. Again, in the marking criteria there’s often some consideration given to how long you talk for. If it’s a ten minute talk, with five minutes of questions, you should be speaking for ten minutes. I actually hold a kitchen timer in my hand so I can see how long I have left. I also try to make a mental note of where I should be in the talk by 5 minutes, 7 minutes etc.
  4. Practise! For the love of god practise and out loud too, be that in front of other people or solo. What you think is a fifteen minute talk in your head could be way longer in reality. The day before I had my first year assessment by presentation, my fifteen minute talk was 34 minutes long, 26 if I rushed.
  5. Structure your talk like a story. Beginning-middle-end, regardless of what content you’re putting in there. Something that tells a story and pulls together to a conclusion goes down really well with judges and audiences.
  6. If you can, use props. Being able to hand some items around (at least in smaller audiences) is always a crowd pleaser and really helps to tell your story.
  7. Try to enjoy it! I know, it’s hard especially if you really loathe public speaking but it’s just a talk. Competitions aren’t going to be as harsh question wise as a conference might be and your audience want you there.
  8. Ask questions. When it’s the turn of the other speakers, if they’re fielding questions from the audience and you have one, ask it. It pays to be shown to be engaging in all aspects of the competition.

I would certainly encourage people to enter competitions like this. For the sake of an afternoon pulling together a presentation (or tweaking one you have already) and an evening actually speaking to people, you could come away with a lot more than you had intended.


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