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Rise Above


Because of COVID19 this speech was given virtually which is why you don’t hear any audience reactions during the speech.

Links to Different Versions

Version Three was lost because I hadn’t learned how to record Zoom meetings myself yet and the Zoommaster’s video is lost in space.

Version Five has open mics so you can hear audience reactions which I missed from delivering the speech live in February and March, but Version Four is probably the best even without audience reactions.

District Contest Win

I delivered Version Four, the video above, to an audience of two-hundred people over Zoom in late May 2020. This was the Toastmasters International Speech Competition for District 38. That includes Eastern Pennsylvania and Southern and Central New Jersey. Because of COVID19, the contest was held virtually for the first time. Audience microphones were muted to ensure a fair contest, particularly given the seven-and-a-half-minute time limit on the speeches. The speech took first place in the competition out of eight speakers.

I got to celebrate the win with my daughter Amelia, my wife Bria, and silence. Winning virtually is bittersweet. Nothing tops a win, except winning with your friends to celebrate with. I was glad many of them joined me and watched the speech live.

This is the first time I won the District competition. You must win three earlier contest levels (Club, Area, and Division) to make it to the District contest which I’ve done before three times. The rough math is five clubs per area, five areas per division, eight divisions per district, and Toastmasters average roughly twenty-two members per club (358,000 members divided by 16,400 clubs as of June 6th, 2020 on Wikipedia). Multiply that all together and that’s 4,400 members in my district. So out of 4,400 people who might compete, I took first place. I need to check my ego before I wreck it over the next year.

While it’s bittersweet, it’s cool to be the first Philadelphia Virtual Public Speaking Champion. It’s good I can let my ego out of the doghouse once in a while. It’s good that this year was virtual because it seems like no one else adapted their speech.

World Championship of Speaking?

Two years ago if I’d won the District contest, I would head to the World Championship of Public Speaking for the Semifinal and if I won that, the Final. Now there’s a Regional Quarterfinal so I wait to see if I win. They’ll use a tape of the speech above and judge it against eight other speakers from this region. And if I win that I would have gone to Paris for the World Championship. Paris was canceled. Postponed really to next year. COVID.

Bittersweet. Most likely, this will be the first year ever the World Championship of Public Speaking is held virtually. Because the speakers are worldwide and I haven’t heard of a country on earth allowing people from every other country to travel there yet. Or maybe Dana White and the UFC can open up “Fight Island” for a speaking competition in the Octagon. I think I’d have an advantage there.

I worked on the Rise Above speech for six months. I have one-hundred and ten drafts. The first year I competed I had ten drafts. Last year, fifty. Now a hundred and ten. Not full rewrites. Almost every day I sit down to write I create a new draft. So it was four months of working on this speech every day.

What’s Next?

I can write a new speech. I love crafting and carving and shaping the same message. To a point. I love it more than you. You might get bored after writing something once. That happens to me after draft twenty. Then I hate it. Then I love it. And it cycles back and forth until it’s done. Mostly I hate listening to myself say the same thing over and over again when I listen to the audio recording of my speech to memorize it. But that’s part of why I keep changing it. So there’s something new. If you watch Version One, then Version Four they’re two completely different speeches. Almost.

Sometimes magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect.

Raymond Joseph Teller

Now I have to write a new speech in case I win the Regional Quarterfinal. In case I then win the Semifinal. You need a new speech for the World Championship. I have a half-dozen old ones to choose from: the McGettigan speech, the Andy Carr speech, the depression speech, the listening speech, and a few others. It’s nice to contemplate resurrecting them from the dead, but I feel like writing a new one. Or maybe I’ll do both.

This is a great problem to have. I don’t find out if I win the Regional until late June maybe later. The World Championship was scheduled for mid-August. If I wait until then to start writing, I have no shot. So I write. And I have help. I have Alex. I have my Cerner Toastmasters club. It feels like I have a dozen people helping me write my speech. And they’re great writers. Great storytellers. Great people.

I even had an offer to help from a former World Champion Pres Vasilev. If you want to watch the best speech you’ll ever see on changing a tire watch Pres’ championship speech. I was happy when I saw Pres’ friend request on my watch when I finished walking the baby one day. He offered to coach me. He wanted money. I understand. I would too. Unless you didn’t have money and were motivated. Then I’d do it for free. I declined. Pres told me to reach out to him when I “want to take my speeches, stories, and skills to the next level.” I told him I already do that. Every year. I still love his speech and speech coaching is a hard living.

It’s good to be motivated. It’s good to have dreams. It’s good to take seriously a (maybe silly) competition. It helps me improve. Life without growth is death. Or might as well be.

My Models – The Terminator and Mr. Salty

Watch the speech and you’ll learn who “Mr. Salty” Alex Lawes is. I’m lucky he taught me how to write, how to speak, how to wring the most out of every single idea (“never leave meat on the bone”), and how to never stop generating ideas — good ones, bad ones, funny ones, strange ones. He’s an idea machine. I used to say I write the first draft, then he generates the ideas to make it great. I’m just the project manager picking out the best ideas that fit into seven minutes and I can execute. Now I’ve progressed to generate more of the ideas myself. But a few of the best lines in that speech are straight from Alex. And a few are straight from me.

The other model in the speech is “The Terminator”. That’s Andy Carr who ran the Upper Darby gym for over twenty years, a former Olympic team boxer, championship kickboxer, and a business owner. Andy is a monster of a man in terms of size and impact. He touched the lives of many people. He was like a second father to me. He took me under his wing, taught me about courage, leadership, and discipline. He taught me how to fight when I was almost too scared to get in the ring and get beat up one more time. He taught me what his bad habits were and not to follow them. And so he taught me self-awareness, not just to have it but to use it for myself even if he sometimes couldn’t. Andy battles his own demons. I wrote a speech about Andy and judging people five years ago back when I wasn’t as good at this. I will always retain the good lessons he taught me. And not just the right hand.

Why Rise Above?

Because we don’t do it alone. We don’t overcome our big obstacles in life by ourselves. Maybe you do, but I don’t. Diabetes. Fighting. Introversion. These are hard problems. My models led me through it. I have no diabetic in life to follow except now I can use Dr. Bernstein’s book. He almost made his way into my speech. Modeling a ninety-year old doctor-engineer with a life-changing bible of a book for diabetic with millions of YouTube views who charges ten-thousand dollars for an appointment is a pretty good model for me. But that only happened in the last few years. I had to jam it into the story. It didn’t work. Mr. Salty helped me to recognize I needed to cut it.

My earliest model is my mom but she gets her own speech…someday. The Terminator, Andy Carr, Brendan King, and Master Mal are a few other karate mentors. All the health, training, discipline, courage, leadership, and creativity I learned from them pours over into every area of my life. I often think whether I’d trade the health issues from getting punched in the head ten-thousand times for the skills that sacrifice bought me. Life is much better with these skills. I think I can model a smarter way to develop them for others. Maybe you only need to get punched in the head a hundred times if you train the right way. Then there’s Scott Carney, the boss who taught me about relationships, coaching, optimism, and again courage and leadership. That’s a story for another day. Alex Lawes leads with volunteering, creativity, parenting, and high standards. And all my models are masters of their craft – fighting, coaching, managing, writing, and anything else they tackle. This isn’t a complete list. I model my brother for his storytelling and always trying to keep up with his intellect, my sister for her hard work and bond-building, my wife for her non-stop work ethic and standards, and too many more to mention. I’m selfish. I love to steal everyone’s best attributes.

And I wish more people would do the same. I wish we’d be more influenced by each other. I got that from my mom, I guess. When you listen well, you absorb more quickly. Adapt more easily.

When I write a speech I don’t always know at the beginning what it will be about in the end. And so it is with this one. I wrote several different short statements on potential themes.

  • Light the path
    • Obsessing over problems brings new opportunities
  • Reframe the problem
    • Look at problems from a perspective of what you can control.
    • Invert problems to find new opportunities
  • Pause, reflect, reframe
    • Pause when a problem appears for days, weeks, or months
    • Reflect on how the problem might make you stronger
    • Reframe the problem to focus on what you control
  • Launch from a new frame
    • Propel yourself forward by a new perspective
    • Bottom of the house = low potential energy
    • Top of the house = high potential energy
    • What got you to the top?  Reframing the problem.
  • Rise above
    • Overcome your circumstances

In the end, I picked the simplest one, maybe because it’s easiest to communicate and I only have seven minutes. They’re all good messages. All similar. But maybe it’s because to me the best part of life is taking the hard things and using them to make you stronger. There’s a boy inside of me who says to himself, “Give me diabetes will you, life? Okay, well I’ll show you. I will throw this disease right back in your face. I will be stronger from it.” And so it was when I cried at the gym from getting beat up too many times. And so it was every time I was (and still am) embarrassed to speak.

Maybe overcoming these hard constraints wastes a lot of effort that could more easily be spent directing energy towards your strengths, going with the flow, accepting your limitations. But to me, that’s boring. I prefer not to conform and for no one to predict my future based on what they see in the present. It might take me twenty years, but I’ll surprise you. Like the time my Myers-Briggs certified expert ScrumMaster told me she thought for sure I was an extrovert. Just a trained extroverted-introvert among the most introverted of the introverts (i.e. engineers).


So why did I write this speech? Reread the above. It’s therapy for me. I hope you take something from it too. Be a great model and change a life. I hope to see more of you out there. I’d like to steal your best attributes. And many other people would too.

You have these skills, even if you don’t see them. And if you’re still developing, you will one day but you have to look. You have to volunteer. You have to be vulnerable. When I see my mentors offer to help, I see them rejected often. But all the rejections seem worth it for the person who grabs onto the help with both hands and launches a new life.

Somewhere there’s someone who needs what you have. Someone to learn. Someone to teach. Someone to show. Someone to do.

Now what can you model?