The 2014 Toastmasters Public Speaking World Champion vs. leading CEOs: Who is the better communicator?

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Toastmasters International is a nonprofit educational organization that helps its members improve their public speaking and leadership skills. Every year, the organization holds an international competition in which experienced public speakers present their speeches to a panel of Toastmasters judges. The final contestants must progress to the top by winning their local club, area, district and semifinal competitions based on their speech content, organization, voice quality and gestures.

This year, Dananjaya Hettiarachchi of Sri Lanka won the competition with his entry, I See Something. In this motivational speech, Mr. Hettiarachchi describes how the important people in his life saw something in him, inspiring him to go from a kid who had recently been arrested to an adult with a successful career.

What is it about his speech that won him the championship? And how does he compare to chief executives giving keynote presentations in the corporate world?

In order to answer these questions, we used our communication analytics to objectively analyze Mr. Hettiarachchi’s speech. We then compared his results to speeches from the hundreds of CEOs in our communications database.

What makes Mr. Hettiarachchi a champion speaker?

Based on our analytics, Mr. Hettiarachchi won the Toastmasters championship because of his strong delivery skills and compelling, well-structured story. Below are a few of the metrics where he excelled:

  • Vocal deliveryWe found Mr. Hettiarachchi’s vocal delivery to be 39% more effective than the average speaker in our database. He speaks clearly and passionately; he varies his rate of speech throughout; and he incorporates pauses into his speech very effectively.
  • Gestures and movement

We found Mr. Hettiarachchi’s proxemics, or use of space, to be 60% more effective than the average speaker in our database. He gestures slowly and deliberately and only in ways which contribute to his presentation. However, it’s important to keep in mind that in some speaking situations, overly choreographed gestures may detract from a speaker’s perceived authenticity.

How does Mr. Hettiarachchi compare to Chief Executive Officers?

  • Message clarityMr. Hettiarachchi’s content was 62% more clear than the average CEO in our database. The language from this presentation was delivered at a 5th grade comprehension level. The average CEO speaks at an 11th grade comprehension level. Different comprehension levels are appropriate for different audiences. It’s important to understand the purpose of your speech as well as the expectations of your audience, and then craft the complexity of your message accordingly.
  • Engaging contentMr. Hettiarachchi crafted a compelling speech that piqued the attention of the audience. Specifically, he uses twice as much emotional language as the average communicator in our database and 1.6 times more than the average CEO. Studies have shown that emotional language is more likely to grab the attention of the audience.
  • Confident languageThe average CEO in our database uses 22% more confident language than Mr. Hettiarachchi did in this presentation. His confidence score was low partly because of the theme of his speech. While the nature of his stories utilized more tentative language, which can detract from a speaker’s perceived confidence, his dynamic vocal delivery and strong body language did convey confidence. This allowed him to confidently communicate a story about vulnerability. When CEOs speak to the public, specifically about company performance, confident messaging and confident body language are both vitally important.Mr. Hettiarachchi won the Toastmasters championship because he masterfully combined storytelling with an impactful delivery. But when comparing him to a CEO, you need to consider the context of the speech being given. We recommend a speech match the expectations of the audience – a motivational speaker will be expected to deliver a message which can resonate with anyone. A CEO will be expected to confidently explain the direction and vision for their company to interested parties (such as investors and other stakeholders). Nevertheless, even though the purpose of Mr. Hettiarachchi’s speech and the purpose of CEO speeches are different, we can learn important lessons from both.