Triumph always finds her

She hails from India. Her native tongue is Hindi. When she arrived in the United States on Halloween 2008, everything was new to her: the culture, the language, the customs, and the surroundings. She is, by nature, talkative but soft-spoken. You may know her by her big smile.

Arti poses with her trophy and her area and division governors

Division F Gov. Angela Morgan, Arti Kumari, and Area 61 Gov, Joy Schmalzle. (Photo courtesy of Dist. 27.)

Arti Kumari joined Toastmasters International in January, just a little over four years after arriving in the United States. Ten months later, she stood on the stage at the Crowne Plaza National Airport Hotel in Arlington, Virginia, to compete against five other mostly native-English speakers. She and her competitors had bested challengers at the club, area, and division levels for the right to spar on a 16-foot by 8-foot raised platform before some of the best speakers in the region.

Arti was shivering and feverish and, during the previous 24 hours, at times had been unable to utter a word in any language.

On that Nov. 2 morning, Arti received an email from Jim Chamberlin, a longtime Toastmaster and her coach and mentor. It’s OK if you’re too sick to compete, Jim wrote.  The result didn’t matter. It was the journey.

“I’m not going to leave it,” Arti replied.

The title of her speech was “Trouble Always Finds Me.” An hour after she delivered it, the title “District 27 Humorous Speech Champion” found her.

Her journey from limited-English speaker to English-speaking champion was brief but intense. Three ingredients ensured her success: her own drive and determination, an equally driven and determined coach, and an extensive support group of Toastmasters.

Jim Chamberlin and Arti Kumari pose with her trophy, clutching each others' hand

Coach Jim Chamberlin and champion Arti Kumari celebrate after her win. (Photo courtesy of Dist. 27.)

Arti Kumari met Jim Chamberlin for the first time in July when Jim presented a tutorial on giving a humorous speech at Arti’s home club, NOVA Toastmasters. As the newly installed president of the club (yes, she became club president six months after joining the club), Arti sent Jim a note thanking him. He invited her to visit one of his five clubs. She did. He suggested she attend the Humorous Speech and Table Topics Workshop presented by the Burgay Advanced Toastmasters Club in late July. She did. He asked her to write something.

“I didn’t think anything funny ever happened to me.”

Jim suggested more Toastmasters events. After one of them, he asked if she had begun writing yet.

“I said, ‘yes,’” she told me with an impish grin. “That night I started writing.”

Arti and her husband, Prashant, came up with five stories and sent them to Jim. Standing alone, none of them were funny. Another Distinguished Toastmaster saw nothing useful. Jim saw potential.

Arti asked for Jim’s help to develop the speech. He agreed. From then on, they met for an hour once or twice, sometimes three times, a week at her office. Oftentimes a conference room or empty office was available. Sometimes, they were forced to practice and discuss wording and technique on the roof. Jim walked to her office. On one occasion, the clouds burst and Jim arrived soaked to the skin. Over Arti’s objections, he insisted on having a session.

“He’s a very generous guy,” she said.

Arti originally titled her speech “Arti an Adventurer.” Jim changed it to “Trouble Always Finds Me.” They narrowed the five stories to three. They worked on wording, vocalization, gestures, and eye contact.

“He heard my speech around 50 times. He’s a very patient man.”

Jim wasn’t the only one to hear Arti speak. Distinguished Toastmaster Paul White arranged for her to present her speech at clubs throughout the Greater Washington, D.C., area, as did Distinguished Toastmaster Shu Bartholomew and others. Dozens of Toastmasters provided her with feedback – often contradictory. Michael Shulman, an Advanced Communicator Bronze from G.U.T.S. Toastmasters, provided her the “turn trouble to triumph” line.

When not speaking at clubs, she would perform her five- to seven-minute speech in her living room as Prashant sat on the couch working on his laptop. It didn’t matter whether or not he was paying attention. Or she would call her friend Lisa Simmons and say, “I want to practice.”

Arti Kumari and her husband, Prashant Kakade.

Arti Kumari and her husband, Prashant. (Photo courtesy of Dist. 27.)

Arti is not naturally a demonstrative person. She and Jim worked on that. When Lisa saw one version of Arti’s speech, she was not impressed with her gestures.

“It’s not you. It’s hokey,” Arti recalled Lisa saying.

“But when I do it, I smile. So I like it,” Arti decided.

In the final version of the speech, Arti stretches out her arms in front of her and lets out an elongated “Trouble …” as she shakes her wrists like the Wicked Witch of the West casting a spell.

“I had trouble with ‘trouble,’” she said. “Jim had me practice it over and over – 15 times in a row. Initially it was not coming at all.”

At every club Arti spoke at, club members fed her written evaluations. On a spreadsheet, Arti charted the evaluations in two categories of positive and critical suggestions. Some suggestions she integrated into her speech. Others she ignored.

“I brought them to Jim, and he asked, ‘How to you feel about the evaluations?’”

Lisa, an Advanced Communicator Silver recipient, became Arti’s stage manager. When feasible, the duo inspected the speaking area. It wasn’t always possible, however.

“I said ‘yes’ to everybody. It didn’t matter if it was one or two hours in advance.”

Lisa and Arti did check out the Crowne Plaza in advance. The room wasn’t configured as it would be during the competition, so the duo interrogated the staff on stage dimensions and position and how the tables and chairs for the audience would be arranged “so I could visualize how it was going to be.”

Despite Jim and Arti working on her gestures, Jim believed in minimum movement, movement with a purpose. He wanted Arti to confine herself to the center of the stage.

“Lisa wanted me to use the stage end to end.”

From her evaluations, Arti knew her audiences wanted more movement. So she divided the imaginary stage into three parts, A, B, and C. Three stories provided the meat of her speech and Arti decided to tell one story from each part of the stage, putting purpose into her movement.  Jim approved.

And, when Arti was handed her first-place trophy, no one in the room smiled more broadly than Jim.

“You were magnificent, and it was such an honor and a pleasure to serve you,” Jim wrote her later. “To see you do so well was one of the best moments I’ve had in Toastmasters!”

Arti gives Jim credit for her success. She wanted him to sit in on the interview for this piece. Jim demurred, writing in an email: “Her extraordinary talents and strength of character will shine through.”

Although a champion speaker, in the eyes of Toastmasters International Arti Kumari has not even achieved Competent Communicator status yet. She has two more speeches to give at the club level to achieve that award. She will work on that, but she has decided to take a month off before taking on her next big challenge. There will be one, even if she doesn’t know right now what it will be.

“I was never scared of anything. If you told me it was dangerous to stand in that corner,” she said, pointing to the corner, “I would stand there.”

There are corners everywhere to be conquered. Arti Kumari has just begun.

###


Tom Pfeifer is the managing partner and chief strategist for Consistent Voice Communications. Reach him at Tom@YourConsistentVoice.com.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Wonderful article and a beautiful journey that will inspire all who would like to leave their comfort zones and triumph by doing so. Jim and Arti, congratulations. Tom, what a talent you have for writing. Paul

    Date: Tue, 12 Nov 2013 11:59:53 +0000 To: pewhite@msn.com

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  2. Posted by Arti on November 12, 2013 at 1:08 pm

    You are awesome Tom. Thanks!

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  3. Posted by Jim Chamberlin on November 21, 2013 at 9:20 pm

    Working with Arti was such a pleasure. When she asked me to be her mentor and wanted me to help her compete in the Humorous Contest, she had no idea for a speech and said “nothing funny ever happens to me.” My advice was to think of the 5 worst days of her life, and meditate on them until she could start to see the humor. She didn’t duck the assignment. She came back with a list, and that was the lump of coal that became the diamond. She worked very hard on her speech throughout the process, and kept winning and winning and winning and winning. We kept working on it throughout, and she gave it to quite a few clubs as well. The speech changed a lot, and every time we met, we’d play with it, trying out different wrinkles in the humor and timing. In the end, she had a simple elegant speech with a wonderful message, and she delivered it flawlessly even though she was fighting a cold.

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  4. […] between the division contest and the finals at the district level, 2013 Humorous Speech Champion Arti Kumari coached me on staging techniques. I presented my speech and received feedback on it at five […]

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