The District 101 Fall Contest opened on November 11th with a sumptuous breakfast (Reason #1 to attend the conference) and a historical theme – Go for Gold – at the Biltmore Hotel in Santa Clara. Anna Garcia, the Conference Chair, evoked the Gold Rush of yesteryear, telling her story of how she came to California twenty years ago to pan for her own gold. She reminded us that Toastmasters is a safe place to try and fail as many times as needed. “We have hit the mother lode. Stake a claim and Go for Gold,” she encouraged the attendees. Graphics by Ines Ben Cheikh reflected both the theme of the conference and the autumn season with gold colored Maple leaves decorating the programs and attendee badges. Bright red and yellow explosions of color erupted from the dynamite centerpieces placed at each table by Decorations Chair, Lydia Lee.

Kristian Crump, the energetic Toastmaster for the Evaluation Contest, explained the value of Evaluation and highlighted the philosophy of Toastmasters – Each One Teach One. “In evaluating, we learn to lean in and listen,” said this veteran of Evaluation Contests – a three-time winner who now gives seminars on Evaluation.

Ashley Harkeness Jr., the Evaluation Contest test speaker and an Electrical Testing Engineer, started his speech “Home Fire Safety” with a graphic scene from his childhood – his mother exclaiming “Junior – don’t touch the fire extinguisher!” In a talk peppered with jokes about his dislike of the nickname and dramatic demonstrations, Ashley conveyed an important message that we all need to plan for a fire emergency, giving us tips on what to do and what to avoid in case of fire. Given the recent fires in Sonoma County, this was a timely topic for the contest.

Evaluation Contestants Brad Jacobs, Daniel Van Doorn, Rich Gierman, Shloka Kini, Matthew Stevenson, and Craig Wood each had their own strategy for analyzing and presenting an evaluation. Brad Jacobs, with his thorough analysis and sense of humor, was crowned champion. Shloka Kini won 2nd place, while Mathew Stevenson placed 3rd. Given that contestants gave flawless speeches with only 5 minutes to prepare, it was obvious that the caliber of this contest was very high.

Next was a keynote address by Anne Barab, Personal Excellence Expert, who gave a deeply philosophical talk entitled “I Had A Life Plan, But The Magnet Fell Off The Fridge. She drew the audience in right away with a tune from a children’s song, “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands,” to highlight the theme of her talk – happiness and how to find it. Through her own personal journey of hope and disappointment, marriage, children and work which eventually spiraled downward into contemplating suicide, she illustrated an important truth discovered along the way – there are two kinds of happiness. The first is conditional – based on external factors. “This gives you whiplash,” she said, because life is always filled with contrast. She compared it to the bubbles of champagne. The second form of happiness is true happiness which she called joy – similar to the champagne glass that stays still regardless of its contents.

She engaged the audience by inviting us to try an exercise. Tables of attendees pretended to plan for the next District Conference using two phrases – “Yes, But” (full of excuses) or “Yes, And” (with creativity). The ideas that flowed and hopeful feelings people experienced from the latter clearly demonstrated the power of positive thinking. If you are ever on the fence about attending a conference, here’s a good example of why it is totally worth it (Reason #2.)

Parallel Educational Sessions followed and attendees were hard-pressed to choose from three excellent ones, including “How to Deliver a Dynamite Business Presentation” by Anne Barab and “Developing Confidence” with Michael Chojnacki. Rita Barber gave practical advice on how to “Transition Your Career” either into a job in another field or into entrepreneurship. She recommended taking Personality Assessment tests to determine your next path and utilizing informational interviews, job shadowing and volunteering to sample potential careers.  Something as simple as sending a thank-you note makes you stand out from the pack. Her talk really brought clarity to those looking for a change in career. (Reason #3!)

The Humorous Speech Contest was the highlight of the afternoon. Contest Toastmaster Bob Gulino channeled his toilet paper-reeling mad scientist from his 2016 Humorous Contest-winning speech to get everyone in the mood.  Then, contestants Pradeep Gandhi, Gordon Mattingly, Henry Miller, Sudeep Modi, Amber Nelson and Daniel van Doorn took the stage and had us rolling on the floor. Henry Miller captured the crown with his speech, “Love and Marriage”, while Gordon Mattingly took 2nd and Pradeep Gandhi took 3rd.

The evening Reception had more treats besides great appetizers and company – Anne Barab’s talk “The Sooner You Laugh, the Faster You Heal,” detailed how to craft humor into our presentations. “Humor often comes from negative experiences”, she said, giving us tips on what not to do and reminding us that self-deprecating humor is fine, but laughing at others is not. A Q&A brought more clarity to budding humorists.

Sunday morning brought some astute Toastmasters back to the Biltmore for a much-welcomed breakfast and more wisdom from Anne Barab. This was a more leisurely, laid-back affair where people kicked off their formal attire for a more casual networking session with fellow Toastmasters.

Club Growth Director, Pavan Datla, announced new clubs that were waiting to be chartered – Waymo and Summit. If you have an idea and a lead to start a new club, contact Pavan and participate in the Bona fide Best incentive program. You can get special recognition at Conferences, get District Credit and fulfill ALS requirements. Pavan also recognized Gergana Angelova for leading the Club Ambassador Program, as well as Hla Min who won free entry to the Sunday breakfast event for having the most number of recorded CAP visits to other clubs.

During Sunday’s workshop, Toastmasters got to deliver short sections from their speeches and receive instant feedback from Anne Barab and other attendees. (Reason #4.) Anne gave critiques as needed, demonstrating how to do a complete humor make-over. “Be authentic,” is her advice and discover what your process is – everyone has their own method to design a talk.

The best part of Toastmasters is that there are no losers – everyone is a work in progress. Your speech and performance may not win you an award, or maybe leadership is more your thing, but you have grown in more ways than you know. What you learn can be translated to many other environments – your home, community or place of work. Most of all, you meet like-minded people and make meaningful connections. There’s only one rule to follow – just Go For Gold!

By Lakshmi Jagannathan