The 2019 Conference: An Epic Experience

By Greg Kaufman

Just a few miles off the 680 freeway in San Ramon, the “Erector Set” of a conference facility – Roundhouse – was the site for the 2019 D57 Annual conference. With two intriguing artificial lakes book-ending the conference center, a capacity crowd encountered the resort-style venue for this EPIC event.

The two-day conference was sold-out a week in advance. District Director, Diane Pleuss, took the initiative after last year’s Toastmasters International Conference and sought out the newly crowned World Champion of Public Speaking, Ramona J. Smith, to be our keynote speaker. Ramona was thrilled at the opportunity. The D57 conference was set-up for a successful meeting almost a year in advance. Thanks, Diane.

Arriving almost two hours early, I was greeted by an army of D57 Toastmasters volunteers already setting up registration tables, classrooms, and signage at D57’s only conference for 2019. There was a distinct vibe of passion, purpose, and potential.

Opening Ceremonies

Diane Pleuss kicked-off the conference to a standing room only crowd of over 300. She highlighted that the audience was composed of over 40% first-time attendees. First-time participants’ badges had “First-time Attendee” ribbons which spawned many discussions between them and returning attendees. This made for engaging and encouraging interaction. First-timer Madesh Selvan from Toastmasters club GenoMasters commented, “It blew my mind to see all the diversity and involvement from so many people.”

There was strong representation from many clubs with a total of 17 attending from Citizens for Better Communicators, 14 from Heart2Heart, 11 from Chamber Chatters and 10 from the Diablo Valley College Toastmasters club, guided by Kevin Powell, a former Spring Conference Chair.

Evaluation Contest

Jessica Derkis, enacting an interview at a tech startup with a flip-phone

The evaluation contest started right after the opening ceremonies. Led by the habitually funny Contest Toastmaster Brendan James Murphy – sometimes complaining about the early-morning session (he is an avowed night owl) – the contest was underway. The evaluation contest test speaker, Jessica Derkis, gave a very relatable speech titled, “Adventures in Interviewing,” a tale about her numerous job interviews in the past. The speech was sprinkled with humor including the time her cell phone (a flip-phone) rang during an interview at a tech company! Jessica retrieved it under the big transparent desk of the interviewer while she continued to ask questions. (Jessica gave us a full re-enactment on stage, getting down on her hands and knees.) Evaluation contestants – nine in total – had a lot to work with.

The audience relished the evaluations offered by the contestants from each of the nine divisions in the district, and the judges weighed in later:

L to R: Diane Pleuss, Elleora Svoboda, Tanya Mburu, Gina Cefalu,
Justin Paras, Brendon James Murphy

1st Place: Gina Cefalu
2nd Place: Tanya Mburu
3rd Place: Elleora Svoboda

First place winner, Gina Cefalu, commented on participating in the contest, “I’m going to represent my club because it’s what I enjoy doing. It’s not about winning but being brave enough to suggest to speakers where they can improve.” Cefalu said about winning the completion, “Today’s win confirms that my style works; hopefully it’s a good example for everyone. Just get out there and have fun with it.”

Keynote Address

Ramona J. Smith delivering keynote address

One of the most anticipated parts of the conference agenda was the keynote address by Ramona J. Smith entitled, “Deconstructing the World Championship Speech.” Before a capacity crowd, Ramona shared her experiences in competing, how she “revamped” a previous speech, and was very prescriptive on many speech elements that helped her win.

Using almost no notes, no PowerPoint, and no props, Ramona took the audience on a journey about how she developed her winning speech. Ramona opened with the importance of authenticity in speaking, don’t be “afraid” of anything. Because her championship speech expertly used different parts of the stage, Ramona explained she created holograms in her mind for each stage position. It helped her to visualize her ideas/points/speech elements distinctly, without being confused. Ramona walked back and forth on the stage at Roundhouse’s auditorium to demonstrate this vital technique. Then, she covered the points which she felt were critical for speakers to consider:

1.    Silence: using silence between content transitions lets the audience absorb your points; also, if you are using parts of the stage, stay silent when moving between them (Ramona demonstrated). It demonstrated a confident and energized speaker.

2.   Storytelling: make sure you take your audience on a journey, tell a tale that has a beginning, middle and end. Audiences like to be entertained. Also, end the speech on an upbeat note.

3.    Make it personal: vulnerability, openness, and transparency give your addresses an edge and make them more memorable.

4.    Relatable: understand your audience and align with common interests. 

5.    Animated: Gestures, stage use, and even props. It adds a differentiating speech element, but only do what feels comfortable for you.

6.    Appearance: Not your stage presence, but what you are wearing. Your attire should match your speech, not distract from it.  Look good and dress the part.

More generally Ramona mentioned the importance of using humor if it feels natural. Also, ask the audience “you” questions to engage their attention and participation. She also highlighted the importance of invoking a “call to action” in the speech; developing a “phrase that pays” that you can use often; and finally, limiting your speech title to less than ten syllables. Afterward, there was a lively Q&A session and a standing ovation for Ramona’s keynote speech.

Commenting later, Ramona expressed, “The people at the conference were amazing, the energy was so high, I didn’t expect it. I was pleasantly surprised. The conference was very well organized and structured. I enjoyed my time here.”

Breakout Sessions

There were six breakout sessions, three parallel ones before lunch and three after. Before the second set of parallel breakout sessions started, the district business meeting was also held. For the first time, a separate session titled “Power Hour: Leadership Through Laughter” offered an alternative to the business meeting for those not involved in it. All the breakout sessions were well attended, and many participants commented these breakouts were the most informative in many years.

You can check the agenda and details of the breakouts to see the topics covered in these breakouts.

Business Meeting

The business meeting at the conference covered a full complement of district business, but the highlight of the day was clearly the election of district officers for the coming Toastmasters year, 2019-2020. Many of the positions were uncontested. Kevin Markl and Bett Bollhoefer sailed through with quick confirmations to the positions of District Director and Program Quality Director. Most of the Division Directors were confirmed likewise.

The election that was most closely fought was for the new Club Growth Director. Ashley Ching and George Marshall presented the group with their 2-minute campaign speeches, and then we voted. The first round of voting resulted in a tie! Then there was a second round of voting where Ashley prevailed with a narrow win.

Also interesting was the addition of floor nominations for Division D Director, making that a 3-way contested position as well. The same process of 2-minute campaign speeches followed, and Jerreau Taylor, the nominee presented by the District Leadership Committee (DLC), won in the first round of voting.

International Speech Contest

The much-anticipated contest lived up to the weeks of conversations and excitement of this annual event. Contest Toastmaster Tyree Johnson led the speech contest with a unique Navy theme. Tyree wore an undersized naval officer hat during the event. He was supported onstage by Sherry Hsu, a naval ensign who directed the contestants on and off stage. Audience members were enthralled by the nine speakers covering personal triumphs, superheroes, the importance of relaxation, and challenging personal relationships. Many of the points that Ramona J. Smith made during her keynote address were seen, heard, and felt from the contestants. Soon the judges weighed in with the results.

L to R: Debbie Wright, Gina Cefalu, Camille Miller

1st Place: Camille Miller – “Not What I Expected”
2nd Place: Gina Cefalu – “Tap, Tap, Tap”
3rd Place: Debbie Wright – “Scarred”

First place winner, Camille Miller, commented, “Winning the contest today, I am really happy about that; it’s the pinnacle of all the hard work I put in. Keynote speaker Ramona J. Smith said we are champions; it’s just a matter of timing. Today just happened to be my day.”

The D57 conference ended with a series of onstage acknowledgments: education achievements, Distinguished Toastmasters (DTMs), Outstanding Achievement Toastmasters Award (OATM), and new triple-crown awards. On stage, all the attending DTMs welcomed the new DTMs with hugs and handshakes. 

Justin Paras, Contest Chair

The event was a success due to the hard work of conference chair Justin Paras and his team:  

•    Education Co-Chairs: Kevin Thornton and Brian Goodman

•    Contest Chair: Merci Del Rosario

•    Chief Judge: Merideth White

•    Publicity Chair: Maureen Filler

•    Volunteer Chair: Nilva Fuller

•    Registration Co-Chairs Sudha Krishnamoorthy and Hema Thumu

•    Awards Chair: David Dai

•    Credentials Chair: Teri McDonald

•    Post Toasties Chair: James Forslind

•    Program Chair: Randy Klein

•    Audio/Visual Chair: Alan Zoraster

•    Finance Chair: William Wilson

•    Photographer: Ed Cullen

•    Logistics Chair: Sugan Manohar

•    Friday Night “Dinner with the Champ” Chair: Marilyn Dunckel

Conference volunteers recognized on stage