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Absolute minimum for a Toastmasters speech contest?

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How do you hold a contest in a small club or area?  What’s the absolute minimum number of officials to run it, whether by the book, or just to be fair?  Does having just one contestant make a difference?

Club contests

The 2014 speech contest rulebook says a club contest needs:

  • contest chair
  • chief judge
  • at least five voting judges
  • tiebreaker judge
  • three counters
  • two timers

This list is followed by “unless impractical”.  That clause means everything at the club contest suddenly became optional.  If you don’t have enough for these 13 roles, you can start reducing or collapsing roles as much as needed.  (Chief, voting, and tiebreaking judges must all be members in good standing.)

  • Any club member who is not competing or already a contest functionary can and should be a judge.  Some clubs prefer to have members from other clubs be judges, but I prefer to see clubs keep control over who will represent them at the next level.  If this is done, there should be a good judges’ briefing for the whole club before the contest begins (15 minutes will suffice to cover the basics of fairness and bias and the form).
  • The two timers can also be counters, and there can be just two counters (plus the chief judge).
  • The chief judge can also be the tiebreaker judge or a timer (the rulebook says “the chief judge does not judge contestants”, but I interpret that as saying that the chief judgeroledoes not judge contestants, not prohibiting one person from serving in two roles).
  • The number of judges can be reduced, though this is a last resort; bias will be significant when two judges (half of the four) can determine a result.  With one major exception: If there’s only one contestant (not unusual), then there could be as little as one judge, who is really only there to ensure that the speech is original.

With that, we’re down to only needing nine members:

  • chair (and contest master)
  • chief/tiebreaker judge
  • five voting judges (or maybe just one!), out of the entire club membership
  • two timers/counters

The speech contests FAQ also says contest functionaries (the above list, plus contest toastmaster and sergeants-arms) “cannot serve in more than one role at the same contest”, but that wily “unless impractical” clause is in the rulebook and wins out here.

Note that the contest rulebook allows a club to select who will represent it at the area speech contest by any means it chooses, though if it holds a contest, it must follow all the rules in the rulebook.  If there’s only one contestant (or two, if it’s an area that allows two contestants from each club), there may not be much point in holding a contest.  On the plus side, it gives the contestants a feel for how a contest feels, and members get to do some judging, but on the minus side, if the contestant goes under/over time, they’re out, no “do overs”, no invalidating the contest and sending them anyway.

Area contests

The rulebook has the same requirements for area contest officials, except for voting judges.  Instead of “five voting judges unless impractical”, we need “an equal number of voting judges from each club in the area, or a minimum of five voting judges”.  And, the chief, voting, and tiebreaking judges must all be members in good standing for at least six months (no mention of whether a break in membership is allowed) and have completed six projects in the CC manual.

In my opinion, most of the speech contest rules can viewed as “where practical”, as long as the reason for not following the rule is known, defensible, and fair, in keeping with our values.  We’re dealing with Toastmasters here, not rocket science, not life and death.  When the rules might prevent a contest from being held entirely (e.g., there simply aren’t enough of the “right” people to be judges), you don’t cancel or reschedule the contest, you proceed with what you have, while making sure it’s fair.

For example, if you have just three or four people available to be judges who have been a member for at least six months and completed six CC projects, but have a couple more members available who have been in the organization for a year or more and only done 4-5 CC projects, you use them as judges, and proceed.

Along the same lines, I would not be afraid to ask the timers to also be ballot counters, and to have the chief judge also be a tiebreaker judge.  This is not my first choice, of course — I’d rather have every role filled by a separate and fully-qualified person, but back in the real world, we make do with what we have.

The mix of judges is very

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important though.  While the rules might allow it, you would never want to run a contest where all five voting judges come from one contestant’s club.  This just doesn’t even smell fair.  My principle is that the number of judges from each club with a contestant must be within one of each other.  For example, you could have each club with 0 or 1 judges, each with 1 or 2 judges, or each with 2 or 3 judges.  You could not have one club with 0 judges and another with 2 (or more) judges, nor could you have one club with 1 judge, and another with 3 (or more) judges.  It’s just impractical to demand the exact same number of judges from each club.

To the judges from contestants’ clubs, you add as many qualified judges as possible from other clubs.  More qualified and unbiased judges makes for better results.

Small area contests

The rulebook does require an area contest to be held even if there’s only one contestant.  Like a club contest, if you have a single contestant (less common in area contests), this can all be collapsed down into the bare minimum pro forma contest (e.g., 1-2 judges, primarily for originality, and timers, who might yell at the speaker to shut up when they’re five seconds from being disqualified!).

Instead though, consider holding it jointly with another area contest so there’s a real event to attend and draw an audience (and officials).  It could also just be held at the sole contestant’s home club, as part of their regular club meeting.

Joint area contests can be held efficiently, looking like a single contest to the audience, with just a few added instructions from the contest master to the judges, to complete the form for one area contest, and to start the form for the second area contest.  This includes having a single test speech for the evaluation contest, and a single table topic for that contest.

For example, the contest Toastmaster announces that the area 1 speakers are next, introduce area 1 speaker 1, introduce area 1 speaker 2, etc.  When all the area 1 speakers are done, tell the judges to finalize their ballots for area 1 (with a pause).  Announce that area 2 speakers are next, introduce area 2 speaker 1, area 2 speaker 2, etc.  When all area 2 speakers are done, tell the judges to finalize the ballots to finalize the ballots for area 2, and the ballot collectors pick them all up.  Two area contests, operated as one, but with separate winners for each area.

Two contests at one event

In districts I’m familiar with in the U.S., there’s usually two contests held at one event, twice a year.  While they’re officially two separate contests, it’s easiest to run both with the same officials.

If there’s a member in both contests, either all the interviews should be held after both contests are complete, or the member(s) should not be interviewed until after both contests (the contest master can simply note that the contestant will be interviewed later, and move on to the next one).  This is to avoid bias (both real and perceived) from giving the contestant stage time in front of the judges just before the second contest, avoiding announcement of the contestant’s club, educational awards, etc.

Similarly, if someone is in both contests, results should be announced after both contests are complete.  Having someone win one contest, and then a few minutes later, compete in another, would be a very obvious source of bias.  In my experience, usually all the results are held until the end anyway.

If the two contests are separated by several hours or even on the next day (e.g., at a district conference), then announcing results immediately after each contest is the right choice, as the judging panel is likely to be different, and many contestants may not want to wait around for the results.  Announcing that someone won a contest, but they’re not there to receive their certificate and trophy, is a real downer.

Summary

The issue of fairness has to be the number one consideration in any contest, trumping even the rulebook when there’s a clear conflict. Fairness inherently includes the idea that things mustlookfair, not justbefair.

Next, respect for the members comes into play when everyone has shown up, ready for a contest, but there’s a technicality with the officials — you make do with what you have, you don’t reschedule (while keeping everything fair).

Follow these two basic principles when holding a contest, and you will end up with results that leave the audienceandthe contestants happy.  And remember, “announcement of contest winners is final”!

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