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Thousands of public speakers, representing 111 countries descended into Chicago last week for the annual International Toastmasters Conference. The Toastmasters annual conference is celebrating its 87th year.

Speakers represented many countries, including Canada, India, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Ireland, Mexico, Nigeria, Kenya, France, Australia, China, U.S. and other countries. Often dressed in their country’s native attire, the competitors delivered inspirational and educational speeches. Ramona J. Smith, a Black woman, took home the most coveted trophy of the event: the world champion of public speaking.

Ramona represented District 56 in Houston. She faced tough competition, initially 30,000 competed to enter the semi-finals, of which 105 qualified, but only 10 would enter the finals. She advanced as one of the 10 into the finals.

For the first time in Toastmasters history, minority women swept the event winning first, second and third place. There were a total of six men and four women who competed in the fierce competition. Each speaker had a 5-7 minute time limit and spoke on their theme of choice. Smith’s theme was “Still Standing.” She used a boxing metaphor as the basis to promote resilience in a life storied by failures before she finally triumphed. She moved across the stage with the prowess of a boxer as she shared her personal failures having dropped

out of college four times and then being married for only eight months before divorcing.

“When was the last time life knocked you down?” She asked the crowd of thousands and before a select panel of judges. But, she said, “A mirror of defeat became a window of possibility.” Smith eventually found her way back to college and graduated with honors as a magna cum laude.

Formerly from Cleveland, Smith, now a Houston resident, also brought humor to her presentation as she joked about the romantic relationships in her life. “I haven’t yet found Mr. Right, but this is an international convention!” she joked, cupping her hand like a phone and holding it to her ear, mouthing the words “call me.”

The main point of her delivery was the fact that she persevered and didn’t give up.

“I’m still standing,” she proclaimed near the end of her speech. “My challenge to you is to stay in the ring… I’m still standing. Yeah, yeah,” she sang out. “Stay in that ring, and even if you take a few hits, you’ll still stay standing.”

Wendell Jones represented District 1 out of Los Angeles placed third in the fifth semi-final and did not advance to the finals.

Two of the top three winners in the final are Black women: World Champion Ramona J. Smith from Houston, Texas; and third place winner is Anita Fain Taylor from District 47 in Pembroke Pines, Florida, her theme was “It is What it is And it Ain’t What it Ain’t.” In second place is Zifang “Sheri” Su, from District 88 in China, whose theme was “Turn Around”.

Opening Ceremony

The conference got off to a rousing start with opening remarks from Steve Gilliland, a member of the Speaker Hall of Fame. He is one of the most in-demand and top-rated speakers in the world. Recognized as a master storyteller and comedian, Gilliland can be heard daily on SiriusXM Radio’s “Laugh USA” and “Blue Collar Radio.”

In addition to a successful speaking career, he is an accomplished author, with four of his books making the bestseller list and he was named “Author of the Year” at one point.

Before Gilliland was introduced, there was the parade of flags representing all the different countries present at the conference. The organization’s current officers were introduced, as well as the candidates running to become the next president. Included in the nominees was an array of people of color, such as Joan Lewis from Los Angeles) running for International Director; from Kingston, Jamaica was Shirley E. Daley; and Anthony Longley from Bahamas.

Gilliland was introduced, and for about an hour, he kept the audience enthralled throughout his speech, with bouts of humor and stories and examples that people seemed to relate to.

Some of Gilliland’s points were:

• The greatest leadership training in life is having children (which drew a lot of laughter and applause).

• The irony of life is irony.

• Leadership is by influence.

• Nobody ruins your day without your permission.

• One person in a single moment can change the direction of another person’s life.

• Take pride in who you are as a person, spouse, etc.

• You can’t be burned out unless you have actually been lit.

He said three words describe people who have success in life: purpose, passion and pride. “These are the things that drive you, fuel you and define you.”

Gilliland also stressed the importance of kindness and how the smallest gestures can mean so much. “What making a difference is… it’s what you do when no one’s watching… making a difference only takes that much,” he said, showing a small space between his fingers.

Gilliland wrapped up by challenging everyone to take pride… “Answer your why – why you do what you do,” adding that “every day we get up as leaders to impact other people’s lives.”

Accredited speaker designation

Another competition at the conference was for the Accredited Speaker designation. It is an elite program for those with expert knowledge in a specific subject area, and who are considered professional speakers.

The journey to become an accredited speaker takes years of planning and participation. At this year’s convention, there were nine candidates that qualified to compete for the designation. The nine included speakers from the U.S., Canada and Australia. The judges were looking for people to qualify and not to place. Once they earn the designation, they become “paid” speakers.

Entrants into this special accreditation process included Valda Ford, an African American woman from Omaha, Nebraska: and Tamara Smiley Hamilton, also Black, from Washington, D.C. Twenty-four submitted presentation and only nine earned the privilege to make presentations. Both Ford and Hamilton earned the designation.

Next year

The Toastmasters International Conference will be held in Denver, Colorado in 2019 and heads to Paris, France, in 2020. The organization has districts or clubs throughout the world. People join to learn and enhance their public speaking skills. Some use their acquired skills to pitch programs to corporations to enhance employees’ leadership skills and encourage them, while others join to increase their ability to speak and communicate effectively in front of a crowd, at work and in everyday life. The organization’s mission: “We empower individuals to become more effective communicators and leaders.”

There are several Toastmasters groups conveniently located throughout Southern California.

For more information on how to become a toastmaster, visit www.toastmasters.org