Another Case of Technique Overwhelming Substance


2020 was the first year that Toastmasters International had their contest held online. Delivering a speech online is significantly different from offline. The audience interaction is virtually nonexistent. The space that you can use is constrained. Also, there are so many technological obstacles. So, how did it go?

My first impression was that Mike Carr did a good job of using the technological constraints in a creative way. He was entertaining and tried to be inspiring. But, from my perspective, there were some huge problems with the writing and messaging.

Mike Carr used a classic formula that worked well for Aaron Beverly in 2019 and has worked well for other past speaking champions. The formula is hook the audience, tell a story, and give the lesson.

A classic formula for a speech is:

  • Hook the audience
  • Tell a story
  • Give the lesson

On a surface level, all the boxes were ticked. The hook grabbed the audience, the story was entertaining and well-acted, and the lesson was inspiring and connected to the story.

However, on deeper inspection it falls apart. But how so?

Basic criteria any speech needs to address

Before I can even answer that I need to be clear on how I even judge a speech.

The way I approach it is first I assume that a speech exists for some reason. Someone is not just sending words out into the air for their own enjoyment. They want to persuade, entertain, inform, inspire, etc someone.

When you consider that then you need to look at if the speech tried to accomplish its mission. In some cases, the speaker is very clear about their message and purpose. In other cases, you just have to guess.

In the particular case of Mike Carr’s speech, I need to also consider that this a speech for a speech contest. In addition to some objective to create some change in the audience, there is the wish to win. This puts additional constraints on the speech. Those constraints are the judge criteria. If you ignore that you are less likely to win.

The Toastmaster International judge criteria are broken down into content, technique, and language. 50% of the score goes to content. This seems to indicate that substance and writing would be more important than speaking techniques. But, what do they consider criteria for good “content?”

When you look at the content category, it is broken down into: “Value, ” “Effectiveness,” and “Development.” “Value” is essentially content that is meaningful, original, and contributes to thinking deeper or differently from before. “Effectiveness” is talking in a way that speaks to the audience, maintains their interest, and accomplishes the speech’s purpose. And finally, “Development” is judged based on how well the speech is constructed to deliver its message and accomplish its purpose.

There can be confusion between judging for effectiveness vs good development. A badly developed speech can be ineffective. A well constructed speech can also be effective. But, the way I look at it, one can use the wrong formula for the job. So one could execute the formula well have a clear and understandable structure, but miss the mark because it was the wrong tool for the job.

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For example, a three-point framework is mainly used to convey information. It can put information in easily consumable and understandable bites. But, it is not a good structure to use to convince someone of something. You can start off with a story-selling framework or a normal Problem/Solution framework.

After “Effectiveness” and “Development” there is “Value.” Value can be subjective, but if you have a good understanding of the target audience you can judge if value is provided to them. It is something new to them? Is it something that they can use to make their lives better? etc.

So, how did Mike Carr do?

Starting with the end in mind

When the speech starts there are three things I try to keep in mind. They are: What is the speech purpose? What is the target audience? What is the message used to accomplish the purpose with this target audience and is it a good fit?

When listening, it not always obvious what those are until you get to the end. Especially if the formula is Hook, Story, Lesson. In that case, you have to hear the lesson before you make any determination if the rest holds together.

The lesson may not be logically connected to the story. The lesson may have too many things. It may not even be the right one for that particular audience. There are a whole host of things you need to think of.

However, if you are creating the speech then you need to consider these questions before you even write your first draft. If you do not think about these things clearly, things can quickly go off the rails.

Sometimes the audience will notice this. Sometimes the audience will not. There are cases where the speech was well performed, it felt inspiring, and you come away thinking, “That was a great speech!”

However, in reality, it was just motivational entertainment. It causes no real change. It just makes you feel good at the moment. I felt that in 2018, Ramona Smith`s speech, due to the unfortunate constraints of time, fell into that category.

But let`s see how things go.

Beginning with a bang!

A rather detailed breakdown of Mike Carr`s wonderful 2020 speech that won him the championship
Mike Carr`s wonderful speech without the commentary

In any speech, you need a good hook. You need a good attention grabber. In that way, Mike Carr`s speech starts every well. In fact, it starts in a way that is unique to the media that it is in. To see how this works you will need to seed the video, but I will try to give it justice as much as I can with the text here.

Mike stars in the far lower-left corner of the screen. This is different from what most people do. Most people would start their speech while standing in the middle of the stage. This is the traditional start of almost every Toastmasters International speech contest.

You would be able to see them from the chest up and they start talking. But, starting in the corner automatically draws our attention since it is different from what we normally expect. That is a good start.

He then explains and acts out that a shot sheriff staggering from the left and closing the door on the left edge of the screen. He then gets really close to the stage and says something strange.

This is using the medium in a way that could not be done on stage. On stage, you cannot use one side as a pretend door. There is often no curtain placed conveniently to take advantage of. Also, getting into the face of the audience the way Mike does at the beginning is also impossible on a normal stage. The audience and the stage cameras are just too far away.

The excellent use of camera distance

Mike uses the distance from the camera to create psychological tension in a very skilled way. Even in the world of cameras, people have a certain amount of social distance that they feel comfortable with. If a stranger is too close you feel uncomfortable. You will naturally pay more attention to that person. That trick works well in getting most people`s attention at the very beginning.

Of course, Mike is not in people’s faces all the time. He steps back when he is doing the narration. He uses the far back for one transition, and also to express an emotion that requires the whole body to be seen on camera.

It seems Mike is very aware of what can been seen by the camera, while at the same time it feels like he is naturally telling a story to one person, you the listener.

Excellent use of the fourth wall

The so-called fourth wall is the screen between us and the speaker. Instead of using it as simply a portal to talk to the audience, Mike gets it to do a lot of work.

The next time Mike gets close to the screen he is acting out that he is peering into a projector. That is a very interesting perspective play. As the projector breaks down, he shows this by having his face stick out the side instead of standing there normally. He moves his arm rapidly across the screen to imitate a blinking picture. He also covers the camera with his thumb to visualize a screen going blank.

These are all great examples of using the medium in ways that are unique and cannot be effectively replicated on the stage. I give kudos to Mike for his creativity and thoughtfulness in this area.

How the writing stumbles

From a strictly technical point of view, I would give Mike high marks. Not only did he do well in body language, gestures, manner, vocal variety, etc. He also innovated in a media that most others did not and have not yet done before.

Unfortunately, the actual writing needed some work. If you want to see good storytelling from a Toastmaster champion where the motivation and conflict are clear, the tension builds in a logical (if absurd) manner, and the message is tied well together, then look no farther than the 2019 winner Aaron Beverly.

This a much better example of storytelling tied to a lesson than the 2020 winner

So, what are the problems with Mike Carr`s story?

  1. Stakes are low
  2. Character motivation is unclear
  3. Characters do things for no reason

Then you add that the lesson pulled from the story was not even realized by the character in the story and then one more additional take could not possibly be gotten from the story.

These are all critical flaws. Which made me wonder that the more adept speakers had been sidelined due to technology. This was the first online speech contest after all. So, let’s look at this point by point.

Low Stakes

A basic of storytelling is you have a likable character going after a worthwhile goal and overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds. In the case of Mike Carr’s speech, we have a projector that breaks down. Mike volunteers. Ms. Montgomery, his teacher lets him try to fix it.

So, the initial conflict is a middle school kid struggling to fix a projector. Then the librarian comes in and says that if he can’t put that back together that his parents would have to pay for the projector. Mike then also adds that his parents don’t have a lot of money, so the implication is that there could be a steep repair bill and young Mike could get in big trouble.

Expect that is rather unlikely unless the librarian is a powerful and insane person. First of all, Mike already established that the projector was already broken. Also, that Ms. Montgomery, his teacher, also told the librarian to her face that she let him try to fix it. There is just no way the librarian could logically put the responsibility on Mike and then get the school to charge his parents.

If that is the case, it doesn’t matter if Mike succeeds or not. He nor his parents will get in trouble. So, it hard to care about this conflict as nothing is really is at stake at all.

Unfortunately this causes all kinds of mayhem with the lesson you are supposed to pull away from the story, but I will get at that in a little bit.

Motivation is unclear

The next issue is motivation. After the projector breaks young Mike volunteers to fix the projector. But, we do not know why. Why does he think he can fix it? Was he particular interested in mechanical things? Has he successfully fixed anything before? Was he trying to impress he teacher or another student?

You just don’t know. In fact you are not really sure what kind of person the young Mike is as the speaker Mike doesn’t provide details. All we do know is Ms. Montgomery is a nice teacher and the librarian is angry and insane.

Of course, I am not expecting detailed characterization. There is no time when all you have at max is 7 minutes and 30 seconds. In that case, no scene or line should be wasted.

In contrast, in Aaron Beverly’s speech, we already know that he takes his mission very seriously. He is a very contentious person. It’s something we are reminded of over and over again. We know what motivates Aaron and all the other characters in the story. It all very clear.

Characters do things for no reason

Next you have characters behaving for no particular reason except to move the plot along.

The most perplexing is Mike’s parents. Mike comes home (at an unspecified time). He gets called to the neighboring room. Mike is afraid to admit to his parents that they might get a repair bill from the school so he says something odd and flees to his room.

If you were young Mike’s parents what would you do? I would think the normal reaction would be to go up to Mike’s room and ask just what is going on. But, that doesn’t happen. Unless his parents are uncaring trolls, I’d expect some kind of reaction, but maybe Mike, in the same vein as GoT’s Daenery, kind of forgot.

The next thing is that the librarian changes her mind for no reason. If we believed young Mike she should have chewed him out, but she says “Never mind.” We are never told why.

You could assume at that point that the reason is Ms. Montgomery later pointed out to the librarian the projector was broken in the first place. That would make sense with the series of events we are presented, but we are never told this. It would only take one sentence to fix this!

In fact, if the young Mike talked with his parents, I am sure they would convince him that his preconception was wrong. After all, Mike did not break it and Ms. Montgomery vouched for him. Given that the lesson from the story makes no sense. Why is that?

You cannot get here from there

In the story young Mike was not successful in fixing the projector and did not get chewed out by the librarian. The speaker Mike informs the audience that the lesson here is he didn’t get killed for his failure. But, he was nevery in any danger to begin with.

Still, Mike says “The victory is not in the result. The victory is in the try.” But, then the question becomes how was young Mike victorious? Because he did not get yelled at by an insane librarian for a crime he didn’t even commit?

What did he gain? We just don’t know. We are never told of anything that happens after the conversation with the librarian. It would seem logical to at the very least say what he gained from that.

What is even worse, is that he later goes on to say in this episode Ms. Montgomery taught him that failures could be a springboard for future success. But we never hear of those future successes? How could he learn this lesson?

Did he go back to learn all he could learn about projectors and later fix it? Did he use his frustration with not being able to fix it to later gain technical knowledge that would spur him on to a successful career? We just don’t know.

This just is either bad story selection or bad selection of events. It is quite possible that all the events surrounding the story could support his point. However, given what he has told us, you just can’t get there from here.

Widening the appeal on shaky ground

While the story is very tenuously connected to encouraging individuals to take risks and try new things, Mike takes the time to widen his appeal and message even further.

Actually, this is not bad technique. From a logical standpoint, he is on shaky ground. But from a more emotional standpoint, he has better standing.

His basic point in the latter half of the message section of his speech is that leaders need to encourage their supporters to take risks so they can create innovation. They could be Ms. Montgomery leaders he exhorts.

In this appeal, he talked about how Toastmasters was leading the way in holding an online event while other organizations were not taking the risk to do so. It was a clear emotional play to the audience that seemed to have worked. People like to hear that their team did the right thing.

The problem I had is that given Mike`s experience if he wanted to appeal to the problem that leaders have in encouraging their staff to take risks, he could have told a story that directly worked with that.

I figured he would have had some experience leading a group at work or at Toastmasters, or even a club at school. I wondered why he didn`t talk about one of those stories. That would have fit much better with his ultimate message. But sometimes it is hard to let go of a good story idea even if it not well connected to the main point.


The effectiveness of any speech is based on how well the message is accepted by the audience and if that message causes the intended change. Again, one doesn’t give a speech just to be giving a speech.

Unless it is pure entertainment, the intention can be to get people to think deeper about the subject or to provide new insights. But more often the ultimate goal is to create some kind of behavioral change.

If you take Mike Carr`s message at face value, he was either trying to convince people take more risks or convince leaders to support of their follower to take more risks. If you want to do that then you need to consider why people don’t take risks or why leaders have a hard time encouraging their follower to take risks.

Once you know that then you can start crafting your message to move those obstacles out of the way and create more effective change in people’s hearts.

So, in conclusion, a good speech is not in the performance, a good speech is in the execution. We can be entertained by good storytelling, great use of the camera, and powerful delivery. But, that is not enough to create lasting change that is implied by the message.

Every one of us needs to think harder about how to construct a more effective presentation. That can take a lot more work than using the latest speech technique.

If you are interested in learning more about presentations or other topics, please continue browser at other articles on this site. If you have questions, comments, etc. please leave those feel free to leave them. Also if you have a need for more specific help on presentations, debates, etc., please feel free to contact me here.

Matthew Ownby

Previously worked at NASA, Cisco Japan, and other large IT Corporation. Spent more than 15 years training businessmen and women to be better presenters. Good enough at Japanese help native Japanese speakers win speaking contests. Was fortunate enough to give a TEDx Talk in Kyoto also in Japanese ;). Also aims to build the toughest communication contest ever. That will not only include being good at business presentation skills, but debate, meeting facilitation, negotiation, coaching, and more. Also runs an online communication dojo where the focus is on practical skill application not listening to a sage on a stage.

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