Victor in 'Olympics of Oratory' Falls Flat, but His Speech Doesn't

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Darren LaCroix was talking about the fear of failure, about reaching for a goal and falling on your face, when suddenly he lurched forward and, well, literally fell on his face.

He kept right on talking.

"Have you ever stayed down too long?" LaCroix asked his listeners. "Anyone who has accomplished anything has fallen on their face."

LaCroix certainly did. On Saturday, the 34-year-old Massachusetts salesman's speech about failure being an essential ingredient of success--and his pratfall--was good enough to win the title of World Champion of Public Speaking.

Dubbed "the Olympics of oratory," the contest was the highlight of the Toastmasters' annual international convention at the Hilton hotel in Anaheim.

The two-hour duel was the home run derby of public speaking, pitting nine members of the 77-year-old fraternal organization against one another in a battle of wit, thoughtfulness, articulation and body language.

To anyone who cannot utter three words without an "ah" or "um" connecting them, to anyone who finds talking before a crowd as inviting as getting a root canal, the clash of verbal titans was nothing less than speechmaking raised to the level of performance art.

"Public speaking is the biggest fear most people have," said Suzanne Frey, a spokeswoman for Toastmasters. "People fear it more than death."

Ralph Smedley understood that. In 1924, the Santa Ana YMCA director founded Toastmasters to teach young boys communication skills. Embraced by business leaders, the organization now claims nearly 180,000 members in 70 countries.

More than 2,000 of them packed a hotel ballroom to listen, laugh and be moved to tears by the nine contestants who wove five- to seven-minute inspirational stories about life, love and conquering self-doubt.

Jim Key, a computer systems analyst from Texas, even got the crowd to sing the Barney theme song as part of his speech about the power of sharing your feelings with people.

Later, Key said his wife had "mixed feelings" when he joined Toastmasters several years ago.

"She thought, 'Maybe this will give him an outlet to speak and he'll be a little more quiet,' " Key said. "Now, she must wonder if I'll ever shut up."

The champion, LaCroix, wasn't born a talker. In fact, public speaking was one of the fears he had to overcome. As he took the stage Saturday, he was forced to overcome it once more.

"My heart was pounding so hard I thought the curtains backstage were shaking," he said afterward.

For seven minutes and 10 seconds, he gave an overview of his life. How he graduated from business school, opened a Subway sandwich shop and failed miserably. How he then decided to become a stand-up comedian even though he never considered himself funny. How he struggled, learned from his failures and eventually succeeded.

LaCroix had to win five regional contests to get to the finals, where 18 judges scored his performance. He honed his winning speech over a month and a half. At times, he practiced it three hours a day.

After he won, LaCroix accepted his trophy while an adoring crowd roared its approval.

LaCroix cried. And for a moment, the world champion speaker found himself speechless.

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