How to Write a Tall Tale (and Tell it Well) for Toastmasters Speech Contest
I joined a Toastmasters Tall Tale Speech Contest a couple of months ago and during my research, I realized there’s not a lot of resources on how to write a tall tale speech.
I scoured the internet looking at (very short) articles, Youtube videos and even sat down with a mentor to break down my script sentence by sentence to prepare for my contest.
In this post, I will share all I’ve learnt on what makes a good tall tale speech and break down my contest speech and share what could have been better.
What is a Tall Tale Speech?
A tall tale is a story that is greatly exaggerated with unbelievable elements. The ‘tall’ is used to describe an ‘obvious extension’ from the usual meaning.
A tall tale should have some believability and not be a complete fantasy i.e dragons and Wizards.
I like to use the cartoon Popeye the Sailorman as an example.
When he eats a can of spinach, he becomes super strong and beat up all his enemies. Spinach is known as a healthy food, common among bodybuilders (believability). Him becoming exaggeratedly strong is the ‘tall’ part of the story.
Tips for Writing a Good Tall Tale Speech
Character and Goal
Like all good stories, a tall tale should include a character with a specific goal. Like all great stories, there needs to be a conflict or a climax.
The tale would be about how the character overcome the conflict and achieve his goal.
Unlike in a traditional story, the character in a tall tale can have some extraordinary abilities that help him achieve his goal for eg, a can of spinach that makes him extraordinarily strong.
The goal does not need to be complicated. In my speech, the goal is literally me getting to the contest venue (and being met with some challenges along the way).
Overcoming the Conflict
In a typical Hero’s Journey, the main character gets into the lowest point, meets a saviour, then overcomes his darkness and emerge victorious. Typical drama, heroism, good-over-evil.
In a tall tale, you’d want the character to solve the problem in a humorous or unexpected way.
In my speech, I was going to be late for the contest, and instead of getting a cab or taking a bus, I “distracted” a delivery driver with a piece of chicken wing, and “borrowed” his e-scooter and rode to the contest venue.
Unexpected, funny (in my opinion), and problem-solved.
Lots of Exaggeration
This goes without saying:
In a tall tale speech, there should be an exaggerated amount of exaggeration.
What makes a tall tale speech, tall, is the exaggeration.
Use it in the narration.
Use it in the dialogues.
Heck, use it in the exaggeration!
It rained heavily while going to work (normally said).
It was raining cats and dogs as I was going to work (with rhetorical devices).
It rained so much that I had to swim to work! (exaggeration).
Take something normal that is already included in your speech, then exaggerate it.
Think: swam to Antarctica, sailed to the South Pole, walk up to the 96th floor of a building, living till 189 years old.
Although a tall tale speech contest is not a humorous speech contest, humour plays a huge part in the judging process.
In the contest I took part in, I was the first speaker. It was a combination of the audience not being warmed up and me not funny enough that lost me my first place trophy.
The first place winner had huge laughs throughout his speech.
A judge I talked to told me that they do consider the audience reaction and humour is the best way to get the audience to react.
In fact, the Tall Tale Speech Contest often replaces the Humourous Speech Contest in many Districts.
Twists and Turns
A good Tall Tale speech should have lots of unexpected twists that brings the audience members in one direction, then land the punchline in another direction.
Like a good humourous speech, the best way is to use the Rule of Three: build up a predictable sequence of events or logic in step one and two, then a twist in the third step.
Example: “Being a good speaker will get you admiration, respect… and lots of girls.”
In a tall tale, the twist can, and should, be exaggerated.
For example, “I boarded the bus, closed my eyes, and woke up in... another country.”
Add Surprise Elements
One thing the first place winner did well was adding surprises throughout his speech.
He took out a fly swatter and used it as a prop.
He used his mobile phone as a remote and played music on the stage.
Then, he danced. Cha-cha-cha-ing on stage for a good 30 seconds. This made the audience burst out laughing.
No surprises why he won.
Irony and Puns
Together with exaggeration, irony and puns are great rhetorical devices to use in a tall tales speech.
Examples of ironies:
The fire station burned down.
The police station got robbed.
The fish drowned.
Examples of puns:
This entire winning Tall Tales Speech by Linda Evans is crafted with clever puns.
On her speech about vegetables and raw food:
- Follow the Jello Slick Road.
- The path seems fruitless.
- Beware the one bad apple… who is as cool as a cucumber.
- Made friends with 2 peas in a pod.
- Carrot and stick punishing baby carrots for downloading corn.
You get the idea.
More Rhetorical Devices
A tall tale speech is the best time to include and practice alliterations, triads, homonyms.
In his Tall Tale speech, Dave Wheeler said: “As an evaluator of other speakers he is always PRECISE, CONCISE, and, simply put, oh so NICE.”
Clarence Featherson: “That day, Jesse CAPTIVATED, ELEVATED and ILLUMINATED everyone…”
Stefano Cossalter: “It was a CONSTANT CIRCLE of CRITICISM that I couldn’t escape.”
Even more so if the words sound kiddish, like Big Billy Bittermen - Robert Cravalho.
Not too Childish, not too Adult
Speaking of kiddish, you do not want your speech to be a children’s fantasy book with princesses, unicorns and Dragons.
The basic elements of crafting a speech still counts and that includes knowing your audience - who are probably working adults.
You do not want the speech to swing the other extreme and talk about sex and drugs as well. Tall tales work best if there is a wholesomeness to it.
Bragging and 3rd Person
The sure-fire way to lose your audience’s connection is to brag about how great and almighty you are.
Which is why in all great stories, there is almost always a savior or mentor figure who helps the protagonist.
Sure, being almighty is funny, but it would be even funnier if it is someone you met instead.
“Everyone I speak to tells me how much they love me.” Sounds arrogant.
“Everyone Sam speaks to worships the ground he walks on.” Sounds funnier and less arrogant.
A tall tale speech, in its most basic essence, is about embellishment.
One of the best ways to do that is to add different accents when using dialogues in your speech.
It demonstrates your vocal prowess, adds variety and provides distinctions between characters.
Be careful not to sound too racist though.
Repetition is a great way to induce callback humour in a speech and make it livelier.
In a tall tale speech, since exaggeration is expected, repeat the exaggeration that you know will get the biggest laughs, once or twice.
You’d want to cap it at 3 times, max, because… Rule of Three. Anything more will be overdone.
For instance, in my speech, I repeated the nonsensical timing ‘6min 83s’ three times at different parts of my speech.
Don’t forget to include lots of pauses!
Pauses to let people laugh.
Pauses to let that exaggeration sink in.
Pauses to get that pun in.
And all the other common uses of pauses: to get attention, to build suspense, to control the stage.
Breaking Down my Tall Tale Speech
This is my speech with highlights of tall tale elements.
Here’s a little context:
The contest is held among 4 clubs in the west of Singapore, so the audience members are mainly from the west. I live 5 minutes away from the contest venue.
Imagine the contest chair introducing me and my speech title, then read on.
Speech title: I Will be Late
I am a little confused. I sent Hakim - the contest chair - a text message earlier saying I will be late for the contest but I have no idea why he read it out as my speech title. (That is not true, obviously, but it immediately piques the audiences’ curiosity)
You see, I live just 5min away, literally across the street from GP Shopping Center (contest venue). There is no reason for me to be late. (Conflict in story)
In fact, I wanted to get here early to prepare myself for the contest. So at 11 o’clock, after spending 3 hours getting my hair to stay in place, I left the house. (First exaggeration)
I entered the lift, pressed 1, and the doors closed.
A few seconds later, the lift started shaking violently. It went up and down, left and right, front and back, turn one round. I was holding on to my dear life. (Exaggeration, impossible)
At exactly 6min 83s later (Nonsensical number), the doors finally opened. I walked out of the lift, dazed and dizzy, with my hair *cry* all messed up.
The place looked different *sniff* and it smelled different as well. It smelled... *sniff*
Fragrant, familiar, and… crispy?
I followed the smell and it brought me to the staircase landing of the 96th floor (Exaggeration) and to my surprise, there was a makeshift kitchen; complete with gas canisters, frying pans and... a row of chickens hanging upside down. (Almost impossible but it actually happened in Singapore)
A handwritten sign above says: KFC - Korner Fried Chicken. (Weak attempt at a colloquial joke)
“Eh Abang, you want some ayam goreng?”
And I thought these kinds of things only happen at Yishun (another colloquial joke).
But still, I bought a chicken wing from Colonel Sanders, or should I say Korner Sanders (Pun), in case the refreshments later... You know...
I walked down the stairs. That was when I noticed this white, giant, balloon airship-looking thing in the sky.
If you live in the west, you probably have seen it. If not, after the event, go outside and you will see it. (This would be unusual normally but there IS a blimp at the west of Singapore for the past 2 years and it is in sight of the contest venue. This would only be effective for a west-side audience.)
I still had some time, so I decided to check it out. I walked to the balloon and it turned out to be an actual working blimp that was put there by some researchers from NTU.
Guess what? They offered me a ride on the airship.
Now, I am an explorer at heart. Of course I had to say yes!
Inside, there were lots of buttons, LCD lights and control panels but what I was most interested in was the view from the window.
I could see my house on 1 side, GPV CC on the other and (Korner Sanders frying his chicken at one corner/refer to previous contestants). So off we went, on a joyride around Singapore. (Believable but almost impossible)
We’re going low and slow when all of a sudden, bam! Something crashed into us. I turned around and saw a red, a black and a yellow bird staring at us. They looked exactly like the angry birds from the mobile game. (Touching on pop culture - Angry Birds) And up above is a hole in the balloon.
Just like a balloon releasing air, our airship lost control. We went up and down, left and right, front and back, turn one round. (repetition and call back)
All I could do was to brace myself for a crash landing.
It was exactly 6min and 83s later (Repetition of nonsensical number), when I opened my eyes. We have landed safely.
But to my horror, there was a sign that says: ‘Selemat Datang ke Johor Bahru (Played on accents with some malay language).’ Welcome to Johor Bahru. Somehow I have landed in Malaysia! (Twist - huge laughs)
Today is a Saturday and there was a jam at the causeway, so I did what any rational person would do: (Used pauses to build suspense before revealing what I did) I ran across the causeway.
I ran and ran and ran.
I sneaked through the immigration (Exaggeration, bordering impossible) and once I arrived in Singapore, I texted Hakim: I will be late. (Links story back to speech title)
To make matters worse, I couldn’t get a Grab car. But exactly 6min83s later (third and final nonsensical repetition), my saviour appeared.
A panda. (pause) In pink. (pause) A food panda... (pause) delivery man. (Another unexpected twist)
I looked at him and I looked at the KFC chicken I bought. (moves head and pause twice) And I had a plan.
I offered the panda my chicken (callback) and while he is eating, I “borrowed” his e-scooter and rode all the way here, with chinese ah-beng (gangster) music blasting out loud. (Play on current affairs and also the ‘humorous’ way of solving the conflict)
I made it right before Hakim introduced my name. (Relate back to the present moment for some believability)
My hair is *cry* all messed up, but here I am, ready to start my contest speech.
Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. Contest Chair.
Even though this is the script, you have to understand that a lot of the delivery techniques can't be shown on paper - such as vocal variety, facial expressions, stage movement, pauses, accents etc.
This was my first attempt at a tall tale speech and admittedly, it could be better. But I hope it has helped you in your preparation for your own Tall Tale Speech Contest.
Some ways to prepare for a Tall Tale contest:
- Read memes about Chuck Norris, The Most Interesting Man in the World, Bad Luck Brian etc. The oldies are gold.
- Watch movies like Big Fish, The Secret of Roan Inish and Chuck Norris
- Have a Tall Tale-themed table topics session in the club where everyone is tasked to exaggerate his or her answer with an almost-impossible story
- To come up with a topic, just take any everyday ordinary problem, like being late for a meeting, getting stuck in traffic, horrible date that went wrong, and see how you can exaggerate it until it’s funny.
- Watch Youtube videos of past Tall Tales Contestant for inspiration. I have linked to a few of them above (under 'Rhetorical Device').