Interview with our Humorous Speech Champion
Humorous Speech Champion and leadership example, Ivan Ottaviani is responsible for putting Italy on the Toastmasters Europe map when he became President of the first Italian club, Milaneasy, in 2010, during which time he started the process for bringing Italy into District 59. And now, two years after the incorporation of Italy in the District, he has just won the South European Humorous Speech Contest in Amsterdam. I have many questions to ask him and I have one goal: to learn and get inspired.
After winning the Division contest and before flying to Amsterdam you wanted to deliver your speech one more time in another club.
Weren’t you satisfied yet?
I wasn’t. The creative process to craft a speech opens many possibilities from the initial idea and each delivery is not final but a new step of exploration. A speech, just like Paul Gardner said about a painting, is never finished, it simply stops in an interesting place.
In order to test new ways and discard old ones it was critical for me to deliver it once again at the Milliners (the first fully English-speaking Italian club).
In fact the audience is fundamental, and especially for a humorous speech you need two types of feedback. The first type you get immediately during your performance if people are laughing. The second is when your evaluators explain to you why people were not laughing.
At the Milliners Club I performed as if in a laboratory, observing myself and the audience and taking note of any feedback that was generously shared. And then I repeated it again a few times on Skype to Francesco Vecchiè. He knew my main weakness could be the time limit and he wanted me to make sure I remembered about the “time distortion field” before flying to Amsterdam. And then the semifinal was also an opportunity for a few changes and adjustments. I must really thank all those who gave their feedback. Generally speaking I can say we are alone in our failures but in good company for our successes.
The creative process to craft a speech opens many possibilities from the initial idea and each delivery is not final but a new step of exploration
How do you work on this fine-tuning?
When you have stacked enough creative ideas and you realize that you are not allowed to speak for 30 minutes, you put down the pen and take a sharp axe.
Is it useful? Cut it! Is it funny? Cut it! Is it necessary? Cut it! A good idea is never very good at the beginning and you need to wait until it develops and be ready to test it again it when it is developed, i.e. cutting that line you like so much that only you understand!
The principle is always valid, but a contest forces you to apply it from one level to the next.
Your suggestion is to work on the same speech on different occasions?
It is a good idea to explore different subjects and different goals but in the end you define those topics that you care about and speech by speech you define a sort of core message which you care about the most. When you have clarified the messages you want to put across then it is a question of verbal packaging and there are many ways in which you can try to deliver your subject.
For instance, you managed to talk about death humorously pretending to deliver a special occasion speech as a Toastmaster session at a funeral.
I know that the risk was deadly until the end. The subject was dark and the events in the news very sad. I stuck to it because the absent character of my story had a message about how to live. His attitude and his humour were a light laughter prevailing over darkness.
Moreover not every culture considers a funeral a totally grim event.
What matters most in a humorous speech?
To make people laugh with a message. You laugh in the moment and put the message in your pocket to review it at home. When two speeches break even with humour the message might be the untying factor but if your message is not dressed with enough humour, you are out of context and the contest because people are expecting to be entertained and laughter makes everyone feel good. So the message can make you feel good mentally but the humour makes you feel good also physically. This is the medical power of words and laughter. Can they even make death easier to bear?
Your formula worked but where does the creative process come from? Sometimes we fumble for ideas…
I think everyone carries out his own personal research in life on subjects of interest and then we populate our speeches with experiences and practical examples. The writer Richard Bach, for instance, developed his spiritual research in connection with his flight experience and his passion. The reverse process is also useful: when you pay attention to the events around you and pick an idea from particular daily occurrences to build a larger speech from them.
Ideas are just in the air, sometimes you decide to breathe in fully a specific idea and breathe it out later in a speech. It happens easily in moments of relaxation and to me sometimes just before falling asleep and if I don’t write it down immediately the idea dissolves like a forgotten dream.
Ideas are just in the air, sometimes you decide to breathe in fully a specific idea and breathe it out later in a speech.
You mentioned the importance of the audience. How do you use the feedback?
The most useful feedback is about things which are the hardest for you to see for yourself. It enriches your point of view and it is also challenging because it can be all the more difficult to accept, understand and integrate with the rest of your speech. Some other types of feedback are useful because they just confirm the road you have taken. You can’t please everyone, especially at your own expense.
You look at ease on stage without losing spontaneity. How has your training and acting experience helped?
Acting is useful to get out of yourself, but when I started Toastmasters it struck me as unnatural or artificial, as we know that it is much better for a speaker to play the part of himself. Everyone has his own style based on competences and skills that reflect personal history. Cicero and Quintilianus included in the ideal speaker the poet, the philosopher, the lawyer, the actor. It is hard to match this ideal superspeaker, but for sure everything helps, sports included.
If you love poetry you will use words in a certain way, if you like dancing you will move with grace, if you sing your voice will be better trained and so on.
I think that good speakers put together different forms of art with a purpose and benefit from extensive reading.
How do you deal with stage fright?
Where is your attention? On yourself or on the audience? If it is on yourself you are self-conscious, you will notice what is normal nervousness and it will increase by your noticing. If you concentrate on the audience and on delivering your message to them you will forget about yourself. How can you be nervous when you are not there? Just your message and the audience. The only way to achieve it is continuous practice.
What was your leadership track in Toastmasters?
When I started there was only one club in Italy which wasn’t part of any District. The leadership track was not yet organized with the manual we have today. When I discovered the Toastmasters offer on leadership, I had no idea how much was under the tip of the iceberg. This is something you can realize only later in this track. I took the role of President with the attitude of preparing a year-long speech. The beginning was the vision, the body a few practical goals agreed with the team and the conclusion the results we would achieve. We wanted to grow, get visibility and plant the seeds to reach the District. In the end we grew so much to split into a new club, we were covered by the press and got momentum for further development. With the split we discovered that we were not bound to our unicellular life. We could reproduce! Not only as a club but a leader could generate other leaders to generate more clubs. And suddenly we all thought it was sexy to do it!
What about difficulties?
Well, the first time in this process of reproduction was not easy. We lacked experience, not everyone was satisfied. If you want to reproduce you have to leave your family, your routine, your toys and nobody wanted to leave the Toastmasters family we created in the first club. Later on we realized that nothing was lost in the process we were just kind of recreating a larger family, first in Italy and now in Europe.
It was the end of 2010. After a pioneering phase of 20 years today Italy has 15 clubs and won at the District Contest in November. In the meantime you also founded a club in Monza and introduced the format to companies like Google Italy.
Do speeches and leadership go together?
I think so. Toastmasters is an awesome gym and there is no limit to the speed of your growth as a leader and speaker if you understand how it works.
It is a wonderful game. The rules are simple: take action, make mistakes, get the feedback and repeat (not the mistakes!) at a higher level.
If you can accept a little discomfort everytime then you are on the right track.
When we speak we want to influence and have an impact on our audience, we speak to create change at some level. So leadership it is a natural evolution of the speaking track. You speak to move and lead people to a better place and to move and lead people you need to speak. This is how the two tracks become one for the sake of change and how you make things better in your own little environment. When you practise this in Toastmasters, sooner or later you will adopt this attitude also in your professional and private life.
Then you will want to change the world but if you are lucky your Toastmasters friends will stop you from complete insanity. With the right feedback you will remain a normal person and fall back again into the temptation of staying in your comfort zone.
I was in it. I did not want to participate in the contest this time. This is what I was telling a friend on the phone, but at the same time I was trying to persuade her to participate because: «If you don’t, you see, you will miss the experience and this is what makes us grow». I ended up persuading myself!
This is the danger of delivering speeches. If you listen to what you say you feel bound to comply with your recommendations and take action. You start as a speaker and you end up as a leader just believing in what you say to others!
What is the number one rule of a good leader?
I will say one that we easily forget: prepare new leaders and don’t leave your role until they are ready. You can leave the role in the executive committee but you have not finished being a leader. I am sorry it is not a question of role designation.
How do you see the future of Toastmasters?
Based on the latest news, there seems to be an interesting opportunity to include Greece in our area.
Symbolically it would be like tracing back the roots of rhetoric. We might label it with cool English terminology, public speaking, eye contact, body language, but we are using the same rules of the great orators of 2000 years ago. We are going back baby! Rome, Athens. Forward to the past!
Ivan Ottaviani’s interview by Gaia Fiertler (Gai.Fie)
Translation by Ivan Ottaviani (jivan23)
English version reviewed by Elena Foulkes (Ele.Fou)