An Interview with John Labbe
Below is a series of questions asked of John Labee, who emceed the humorous speech contest at the Dazzle Toastmasters Conference on 11/3-11/4/17:
Who asked you to be the Humorous Speech Toastmaster at the Dazzle Conference?
Tiffany Howard, Program Quality Director and the person in charge of organizing the conference, sent me an email in mid-October asking if I would consider taking the gig as contest toastmaster. She had me at “I have seen you serve several times as a contest Toastmaster and feel you would bring a good balance of charm, charisma, quality and fun to the contest.” I have known Tiffany for about 7 years and I know that she consulted with District Director Iqbal Atcha on her choice for this role. Traditionally in District 30 the contest toastmaster for district finals has been the previous year’s district winner. This year that wasn’t possible because last year’s winner came from a club that is now in the other Chicago district. Thus, Tiffany had a choice among many potential contest toastmasters and I’m grateful that she gave me the chance to do so.
How did you prepare to be emcee?
Most of my preparation came from having served as a contest toastmaster many, many times before. I can nearly recite the contest script from memory so my focus in preparing for this contest was on the details and on ways to keep the audience engaged throughout the contest. A couple of the jokes I told in the introduction had occurred to me very shortly after I accepted the gig and the rest was largely improvised. I have told that talking muffin joke many times, though, and have used it as the starting place for a blog post on how some people may be highly skilled in some way but have little insight into the nature and source of their skill.
How many hours did it take?
I probably spent more time converting the script PDF into Word and then manipulating the text to be easily legible with appropriate page breaks than on any other task in the preparation. Altogether, it may have taken up a couple of hours.
Who did you talk to beforehand?
I corresponded with Tiffany a bit via email and then about ten days before the contest I did a conference call with Tiffany, Iqbal, and the woman who had the toastmaster’s role for the evaluation contest. A few days after that, we did a conference call with the humorous speech contest chair and most of the contestants. My participation in that call was mostly to make sure I knew how to pronounce the speakers’ names. On the day of the contest, we held the usual contestant briefing. I transferred the speaking order to my copy of the script and also confirmed contestant’s name pronunciation as well as how they wanted me to read the titles of their speeches.
While watching the participants from your vantage point on stage what did you hear/see?
I had one of the better seats in the house, of course, but I also had a little bit of trouble with the audio because I was seated behind the AV speakers. For that reason, short segments of most of the speeches sounded muffled and scrambled to me. I could see the speakers’ facial expressions really well and I could probably see some of the more subtle hand and body movements more clearly than much of the audience. At one point in his speech, Randy Ehrler (the eventual winner) was crouched down with his back mostly to the audience. I could see his face clearly and there’s no question in my mind that he was re-living the moment he was describing, and that’s a technique that great speakers use to guarantee that their emotions will match the moment and be conveyed to the audience.
Were there any insights you got from being on stage and seeing the contestants up close that none of the audience got?
I don’t think I got anything from the speeches that wasn’t also available to the audience members, though perhaps the detail I just shared about Randy’s speech might be one such moment.
Did the Dr. Seuss-like socks help? Are these like a good luck charm or the like?
I wore the colorful striped socks to help keep me in a funny frame of mind during the contest. I take these competitions very seriously, in part because I have seen several contests go wrong due to mistakes made by the contest toastmaster, but I also wanted to be sure that we all had fun.
When you asked the contestants about their background did you pre-review their autobiographies before the contest or was that all improvised?
Every contestant completes a profile sheet that includes space to describe hobbies and interests, notable accomplishments, and a favorite quote. I always study these sheets to develop interview questions that I hope will be interesting to the audience and fun for the contestants. They have just come off a highly stressful experience so giving them a chance to enjoy the attention of the interview is a good form of relief I can offer.
When we first discussed the contests in the initial conference call, both Keisha (Evaluation Content Toastmaster) and I were told to limit our interviews to the usual fixed questions about the contestants’ Toastmasters experience and then one personal question to ensure that the contests didn’t drag on unnecessarily. Because the district trio (Iqbal Atcha, Tiffany Howard and Stella Lorens) had to tap dance for several minutes while the results of the evaluation contest were being tallied it allowed me to extend the interviews a bit. Thus I approached each contestant with one prepared question and the intent to riff off their answer for a minute or so. The Chinese tongue-twister question that I gave to Hongming was an add-on question that came to me during the contest.
After the contest, John received many compliments for his humor. If they post the video you should all check it out, it’s very funny.