Interview with David Clarkson (Impromptu Speaking) Champion 2005
An interview after David won the NZ table Topics (Impromptu Speaking) Title for the second time in 2005
Dandelion Theory blows opposition away
By Jeff Elton
I met a remarkable man on 19 November 2005 at the Toastmasters Convention in Invercargill. He not only proved a fascinating subject to interview but he also passed on three interesting snippets of information I feel I must share with you.
First he told me about the Dandelion Theory (more on that later), second he extolled the virtue of training in any organisation and third he explained how to conclude a presentation.
David Clarkson is the fellow’s name and on first impressions there appears nothing special about him: there is a sparkle in his eyes, a great haircut and seemingly boundless energy – but no traits that would suggest a New Zealand champion.
David tells me he is an accountant and that suggests a degree of conservatism in a man – we have all heard those hilarious accountant jokes, haven’t we? Certainly there is a staid quality there, but just below the surface there is much, much more.
Invercargill is in many ways a return home for David and his earlier memories of the province leave him a little cold.
“Yes, Southland has many memories for me. In fact I was a freezer hand at Ocean Beach in the 1962, 1963 and 1964 seasons. Boy, did that place complete the education of a young catholic boy!”
Many years passed before David had what he said was a life-changing experience – he became a member of Toastmasters. “I joined as a person who had lost his self confidence, lost his ability to relate to people.”
That was twelve years ago and talk about ‘zero to hero’ – I have just seen David blow away the best impromptu speakers in New Zealand. He leapt around on stage, pulled stories from thin air and ultimately grabbed the audience by the throat and marched them off in the direction he wanted them to go.
The performance was full of energy, passion and enthusiasm. He believed in what he was saying, he knew the topic and boy, did he deliver – and all with only 15 seconds preparation time.
David’s specialty is the Table Topics contest. This is an impromptu event where speakers present for two minutes on an assigned topic. David jokes that this suits him because he is too lazy to give a prepared speech, but there is nothing easy about impromptu speaking at this level. Ellie Young, the Table Topics contest chair, explains.
“In a nutshell, we are looking for quick wit, logical flow of thought and a strong, memorable conclusion.”
With the topic being, “Is Guy Fawkes still relevant in our society?” it is a challenge that many of us could tackle, but could we add humour, create a solid structure to the presentation and them sum up expertly – I think not.
What David managed to achieve was the required objectives plus lots more. You saw him on stage; you knew he was straining every brain cell to deliver a message that the audience would buy into. He drew you in, and you found yourself thinking, ‘I’m with you David, where do you want to take me with this presentation’. The convention room, the 200 plus Toastmasters in attendance, the ribbons and banners fade from your consciousness and it was just David and each individual listener.
In the post-competition interview he admitted the performance pleased him – that he felt he had done all right. “I knew I had given all I could. It didn’t matter to me if I was first or last as long as I had done my best.”
At this time David’s phone rang, interrupting the interview briefly. It was his wife, Margaret, ringing to check how he had got on. From the one-sided conversation I heard, neither expected the win but both were delighted to embrace it.
“Yes I’m very pleased”, David says to Margaret. “I believe the competition was pretty stiff.”
David had not seen the opposition perform because, as the sixth of seven speakers, all with the same topic, he had sat outside the competition room waiting his turn.
Along with David’s work as an accountant he also spends his ‘spare time’ running a company that specialises in training ‘corporates’ in public speaking – not bad for someone who used to struggle with self-confidence.
David said he cannot stress highly enough how important it is for an organisation to train its staff in public speaking and management skills.
“I tell my clients that every person in their organisation, when they are out interacting with clients, colleagues, friends or family, becomes the organisation in the eyes of the people they interact with.
“If they are able to present themselves and communicate well they put themselves and the organisation in a good light.”
“It works like this, ‘Pete’s a good guy . . . therefore he must work for a good company.”
So what skills can a New Zealand champion speaker pass on to us? David said when he hears the topic (in the 15 seconds’ preparation time) a picture forms in his head. “I have an image that comes into my mind. Generally speaking, that becomes the base I build my speech on.”
David said the middle section of the presentation is an expansion of the images, ideas and logic of the introduction and that the close (conclusion) is, in fact, the topic you have been asked to speak to. This is because the very reason you are there is to talk to the topic.
“If you don’t have the topic in your close you haven’t stayed on the task you have been set.”
On humour, he said it is crucial; without it the speech will die.
“It’s important because if we are serious all the time we don’t allow the audience any relief. They need a subconscious breath – by giving them that break they can refocus on what you are saying.”
He agrees it is like the intermission during a movie, a brief pause that refreshes the mind and stretches the legs.
David added that speaking to any audience is about the audience, not the speaker. He tries to lock into the audience’s consciousness, so they know that what he is saying is relevant to them.
But are any of these points relevant to anyone outside the Toastmasters fraternity?
“Definitely,” David says. He then tells me his Dandelion Theory. It is a philosophy that he believes all of us can use to improve our lives and our communities.
“I believe that the great ideas we have as individuals can be likened to the head of the dandelion. If we can translate (communicate) those ideas, everyone can appreciate the beauty of the dandelion. If we cannot do that with the ideas, solutions or strategies, it is almost as if we take a deep breath and blow the head of the dandelion away.”
David said for him the Toastmasters programme has translated those ideas, solutions and strategies into words so that others can get whatever benefits those features may have for them.