The District Experience

Have you ever gotten yourself into something exciting, but risky?
Now let’s try a slightly different question:

Have you ever gotten yourself into something exciting, and later on realized that – oops, it is actually risky?

That was me taking part in the Toastmasters International speech contest 2015.
The day I casually emailed Wendy to say “oh yeah, by the way, sign me up for that contest, why not”, I felt adventurous. I had no idea what I was getting myself into!
Two days before the club contest, I did not even have a speech. I still felt adventurous, and resolved to talk about something that was dear to my heart: miracles. The title arrived in a moment of inspiration – “I will show you miracles”. The rest was sourced from within. Winning was a miracle indeed!

The day of the area contest, I had not even had lunch. I learned that an outstanding performance requires alignment of body, mind, and heart.

By division, I knew better – I had five friends in the audience to cheer me up, and a pizza. I meditated, did my breathing exercises, and – most importantly – took time to connect with my message in the deepest way I could imagine. I felt miracles. I dressed miracles. I WAS miracles. This time around, winning was an honor and a confirmation that my story was worth spreading.

The district experience was up next – new country, new context, new level. I realized it was more serious this time, therefore, got the best people onto my support team. The angels behind my next miracle were named: Khushi, Anna, Diana, and Dyane. Their thoughtful, straightforward, and empowering feedback opened my eyes to body language: I discovered the potential of impactful gestures, using the stage as a timeline, and the ultimate value of “less is more”. And, of course, picking exactly the right dress and the right shoes was meant to add the finishing touch to the performance.

The trip to the District 95 conference in Boras, Sweden, started with sunrise. The most joyful – and the only truly awake – people on that early flight were Toastmasters (and possibly the pilot). As fate would have it, out of all the numerous possible seat allocation combinations, the automatic check-in system placed me right next to one of my competitors, Jeremiah from Munich. The flight attendant was seriously concerned about our safety, and that turbulence had nothing to do with the currents in the clouds. However, instead of plotting to kill each other, we resolved to be friendly and support each other’s journey with sharing. I learned that my fellow contestant watched the winning videos first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Here came my first lesson: prepare like your life depends on it!

My second lesson was delivered in a taxi, and the teacher was a spectacular one. Enter Olivia Schofield! “Be like a horse in stable, – she said with her signature genuine passion, – calm before the race, but unstoppable once they open the gates! You gotta bring that house down!” The learning was clear: show up like there is no tomorrow!

Processing these lessons, I took a walk around the town of Boras. Nordic minimalism, extreme fresh green of the trees, and a feeling of calm before the storm – these were my first impressions. I made my way to the conference venue – a modern, spacious Textile Fashion Center. Fellow contestants were already crowding around the stage and testing microphones. Electricity in the atmosphere was undeniable, and the culmination followed with the official opening of the conference. For some minutes, I was completely astonished by the grandeur and the international spirit of Toastmasters, as the flags of the countries of District 95 were brought into the room.


Dananjaya and I

And then, my favorite lesson of all appeared on stage. Enter the 2014 World Champion of Public Speaking – Dananjaya Hettiarachchi! As a diligent student, I learned his name. First minute into his keynote address, I knew why this man was worth the title. Undeniable power. Intensity of presence. Burning desire to speak his truth.

However, the most amazing thing of all was the discovery that it took Dananjaya 8 years of hard work to win this championship. I had to ask myself: how many people I know would persevere for so long? How many of us, including myself, wouldn’t start questioning our worth? But not this man. He came back again and again, not because he was so stubborn, but because he wanted this more than anything else. I saw this: believing in your dream is the key factor in making it come true.

By then I had started to understand that the Toastmasters International speech contest was no joke. I started it as a daring adventure, as a personal challenge, as a “why not”. Looking back, I realize: I lacked focus. I lacked strategy. I lacked knowledge. It is easy to analyze all of this now, but back then in Boras I had no time to waste. The show was on, I had better be ready.

After hours of preparing and waiting, the moment of truth arrived. I was last in the speaking order, and I was called on stage. There and then, everything stopped mattering: the nerves, the comparisons, the expectations, the doubts, the hopes, the look, even the speech. The only thing was the undeniable here and now of the experience.
The sixty or so seconds of making my way through the large room filled with two hundred people who had their eyes fixed on me, was my last and biggest lesson. These sixty seconds, these glances, and applause, will stay in my heart forever.

These people taught me to appreciate the attention that the audience was giving me, and even beyond that, to appreciate myself. To honor my speech, my audience, my potential by going from good to great, by pursuing excellence above excitement.

I did not come to Boras to win – I came there to meet myself in the eyes of others and to realize: The only person I need victory over is myself. And to me, victory comes not from doing battle, but from forming an alliance with love.

I learned my lessons, I saw my weaknesses and my strengths. Can I do better? For sure! However, an even more important question is: How can I outperform myself and become not simply good, but outstanding?

With that question in my suitcase, I am up for another journey. It looks like something exciting but risky is knocking on my door as well.

I will take the chance. It is worth it!

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