Only having been a Toastmaster ten days shy of 11 months, Keerthi Karnati represented The Original Articulators and won District 39’s International Speech Contest May 20, 2017. Keerthi shares her thoughts on her background, Toastmasters, mentorship and competing.
D39: Where did you grow up and go to school?
I grew up in India and did my Bachelors there. I went to Arizona State University for my Masters, worked in Arizona for some time and moved to the Bay Area. I got lost in the crowd and busy life of the Silicon Valley. That’s when I decided to rebuild myself and my personality in a calmer location. I moved to El Dorado Hills in May 2015.
What do you do for a living? How has Toastmasters helped you at work?
I work as an analyst for a Healthcare company. I am more confident in my meetings and presentations. I am also calmer because I can better articulate my emotions without having to show them physically.
What is your dream job?
I would love to do something where I am coaching and inspiring young girls who are struggling with confidence issues, who have been bullied or abused. I want to be able to tell them that they have hope. I could not save a friend from suicide years ago, a guilt I carry everywhere I go. So, I want to make sure I stop someone else in my radar this time.
How did you find out about Toastmasters?
I was googling “Ghostmasters” for a weekend activity and came across Toastmasters. I knew at that very instant, it was something I had to do.
Who are your mentors in Toastmasters?
I have had the incredible opportunity to be mentored by a lot of people, but Noralee Cole and Skip Smith have been the key. Noralee was more than happy to be my mentor when I walked up to her after the first meeting I attended. Skip has been a great evaluator of all my speeches and his feedback works the best for me.
Who convinced you to compete at the club level?
After my third speech, [Area Director] DawnMarie Times, introduced this idea of the International contest. I googled the information and brushed it away thinking I’d never be able to reach that level. But as I progressed in speeches, I gained some confidence. I decided to give it a try. I have never done anything solo on stage and felt this was a good opportunity to see where I stood. I was bent on conquering my fear at any cost this time.
How did you practice for the competition? Do you tape record or video your speeches?
I made a rule for myself that I would practice the speech once every day no matter how busy I am. I did record myself on my phone but never videoed it. I worked with Noralee Cole and Skip Smith over the weekends, I visited clubs for feedback. I wrote all the feedback down and evaluated the ones that resonated with me. Incorporated them and practiced again. My biggest challenge was timing. I was close to 7:30 min most practices. Fortunately, I was 6:56 min on the district stage. I honestly, do not know how the time works for me. I worked my enunciation because I am not a native English speaker.
What was the scariest part of competing?
That if I didn’t succeed, I’d never be able to convince myself to fight my fear again. It was not just a competition for me, it was a battle, a battle against my inner demons.
How did it feel to be the only woman on a stage with all men?
I was intimidated by the level of sophistication each of my very talented fellow contestants carried. And there was definitely that added pressure that if I don’t perform well, I would add to the stereotype that a woman cannot compete against men which is not true. Women are just as equally talented as men.
You are the only contestant in recent memory who wore something so culturally specific. What was your intent in wearing it at the contests?
What I wore is called a “Salwar”. I felt it would be authentic to present my story with as many details as I could visually. I was wearing mostly salwars back in India. It helps me portray the person I was in my speech, during my bullying, teenage years. It does not necessarily shape my speech but definitely reinforces my personality in my speech.
How did it feel while you were competing?
I was close to fainting. Stage fright has been my worst enemy for years. Even to this day, I struggle with it. I have learnt to face it with all my strength. Right before the competition, all the failures I have faced, all the times I embarrassed myself in front of the audience flashed in my head. Michael [Stephens], one of the other contestants, came to me and said “You are presenting your truth and you should not be afraid of it”. That’s when I felt a little relaxed. I felt like I am telling everyone my story because I know there are people in the audience with the exact same experience and they needed to know that they were not alone.
What were you thinking when Toastmaster Ed Johnson was announced the winners?
I was sure I didn’t win. My friends were jumping with joy and I didn’t quite understand why. I was just trying to console myself saying I did my best and that was winning in itself. When my name was announced, I was speechless and had a mini-heart attack. I did not expect that. But when I saw the audience give me a standing ovation, I felt extremely blessed. It was those claps and smiles that touched my heart much before I touched the trophy. I have never in my entire life expected such a response.
What did you and your family and friends do to celebrate?
My friends threw a party the next day and invited a bunch of people I knew, got me a delicious cake. I received wonderful gifts and tons of messages. My family back in India was ecstatic. My parents were extremely proud of my achievement. I am still coming to terms with it.
How has TM helped you personally?
It has given me more confidence than I could have ever imagined. Now, I fight the fear of public speaking no matter how hard it is. I have met so many incredible people through TM, my life is completely changed. A year ago, I was almost homeless, struggling with low self-esteem and I was directionless. Today, I am more focused, disciplined and I have gained great friendships and guidance through TM.
Do you have any routines you do right before you compete or give a speech?
I have not reached that stage yet, I’d say. My tension builds up until I say the first word in the microphone. So, I try to calm myself as much as possible before I go on stage.
How are you preparing for Vancouver? What are you looking forward to most?
I am working on my second speech. I am watching tons of videos of previous speakers. I am reaching out to clubs I can visit to practice my speech. I am also exercising regularly so I can be healthy and calm for my semifinal. I am looking forward mostly to the “International” experience. I am so excited to represent the District at that level. I am equally nervous but this time the excitement is way more than nervousness.
What advice do you have for others interested in competing?
Just do it. Be focused on what your expectation from the competition is and work towards it. For me, it’s been overcoming my fear more than anything. If your aim is to go to a certain level in the competition, then focus on doing what is necessary to get there. Work hard and have fun. Don’t let anyone tell you you are not worth it, not even yourself.
Kristi Beres, DTM
Public Relation Manager
District 39, Toastmasters International