Toastmasters - Collected Wisdom

These are summaries of the collected wisdom of contributors to alt.toastmasters.org a Toastamsters newsgroup which operated between 1995 and 2008 and ToastmastersPrime, a Google group which commenced in 2008. This is not an official Toastmasters site, but is an edited collection of posts from the newsgroup and the Google group. These groups provide an unofficial means of communicating for an enthusiastic group of Toastmasters from throughout the world.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Substantially original - a case study for a judging workshop

In September 2002, I posted a speech and sought an opinion on whether it would pass the "substantially original" test for speech contests. The thread was entitled "An original bit of plagiarism and like all posts in this blog is based on responses through the newsgroup alt.org.toastmasters.


First the speech
An Internet Connection - the true story behind an urban myth

When I was a child, there was no internet.
But, I spent just as many hours on my precious bike.
There was no part of the district surrounding the village that I had not explored.
Except the cemetery near the church-yard.
There was something about that place with its giant chestnut tree that was spooky. Until that memorable day....
I don't know what drew me to the graveyard, I will never forget what happened there.
From behind the ivy covered fence, I distinctly heard:
. One for you, One for me, One for you, One for me ...
Now I didn't need anyone to explain to me what was happening.
St Peter and the devil were dividing the souls of the dear departed.
But who would believe me?
I needed a witness.
There was no one to turn to.
The only person I could see was grumpy old Mr Bright, trudging wearily towards the town.
And we children were all terrified of him and his walking stick.
But I was desperate.
"Mr Bright, Mr Bright, Come with me this is urgent," I pleaded
"Go away, urchin, or you shall feel the end of this stick," he replied
"Please Mr Bright, this is very important."
Eventually my persistence outlasted his resistance.
As a fearful child and a grumbling old man approached the graveyard, we could both hear:
One for me, One for you, One for me, One for you .
"We'll soon get to the bottom of this," the elderly gentleman assured me with a scowl.
I very tentatively followed behind him, as he approached the entrance to the graveyard.
It seemed to hold no dread for him.
As we came close to the gate, the counting seemed to stop, and then we heard:
Well that seems to be the lot now, except for those last couple of nuts over by the gate.
I'm not sure exactly what happened next, but Mr Bright's walking stick went flying through the air, and he kept pace with me no matter how fast I pedalled. But as fast as we were going, we were overtaken by the two European tourists who had been in town for the last few days.
They ran past us as though we were standing still, and I was amazed by their Olympic leap onto the second last wagon of a wheat train which was passing through town.

Now I know you are going to say that you have seen this story before; it is on the internet... it's an urban myth.
And you are partly right.

Last year, a respected German lawyer bought one million e-mail addresses and sent out spam seeking more details on an event which occurred in my home town about twenty years ago.
He and a friend had been back-packing around rural Australia.
They found their way to our town and were quite enjoying the stay.

One day they were collecting chestnuts from beneath a tree in the village graveyard.
They had shared the bounty evenly, and were about to pick up the last few which had rolled over towards the graveyard gate,

Suddenly one was struck on the head by a flying walking stick, which ricocheted and hit his companion in the chest.
The friend joined a contemplative convent and has not spoken since, but the lawyer was less convinced that it was an act of God.

However, until the spread of the internet, he did not know how to find out what really happened.
... without venturing back to our town... and he certainly was not ready to do that.

Because of the marvels of e-mail I was able to add my side to his story, and together we worked out what really happened.
We haven't yet told Mr. Bright yet, though.

Every evening he entertains the village children with stories from a full and exciting life before the internet.
He is 92 now, and since that day has walked upright-no cane in sight.
In fact, he jogs five kilometres every morning, but he has never told anyone why he speeds up to a very respectable sprint whenever he passes the village churchyard.


The responses
Joy pasted it into Word Perfect to get a word count. The speech is 692 words, and the joke is 353 of those words. That's about half, which would mean the speech is not substantially original.
However, you have given it a very clever treatment, which does seem original to me.

You might very well get away with it, but it is possible that if one contestant or judge protested that it wasn't original, you'd be disqualified. It's a good thing you said you weren't asking for advice, because I don't have any.

Rod saw the core story as an old chestnut dating back at least 50 years, while the rest of the speech may well be original. I certainly wouldn't lodge a protest on the basis of originality in this case. If a substantial portion of the script were alleged to come from the internet or any other source, it changes the perspective. One can only protest originality based on one's own knowledge.

To Phillip "As long as you identify the source of the story and give the appropriate credit then it would not plagiarism, which leaves the question of originality. We can give an 'original' pin to an old story making it 'original' but whether or not it would pass the test of substantially original would be uncertain. Does substantially original mean over 50%? 66%? or is it in the purview of the judges to decide what percentage counts for substantially original?

For Rick: If the story came off the Internet or was a 50 year old story (or both), the question is how much was copied and how much of a new spin was put on it.

Rod returned with: As for the interpretation of 'substantially', I think it's a good thing that it's undefined because it's almost impossible to quantify. I'm happy that it's left to the judges to decide, understanding that different groups of judges may come to different conclusions. Yet another good reason for having a large number of judges at any contest.

Tom contributed: "There are no new jokes, just old rehashed jokes." Similarly, I have heard many speeches that have put a "new spin" on an old story. My interpretation of the Rules is for the contestant to produce an original speech which may include a brief anecdote or quote to reinforce a point being made. The source of the anecdote or quote would need to be acknowledged to avoid plagiarism. Percentage wise, I believe "substantially original" would mean at least 85%. When speakers pad their speeches with unoriginal anecdotes to use up their allocated time, if I am judging I mark them down on originality. While plagiarism may disqualify a contestant, the use of unoriginal material will, at the most, cost the contestant 15 points in a contest.

This reminded Susan of a question she was asked a few years ago while conducting a communication (speaking) skills workshop - talking about the fact that ordinary words are often interpreted differently by different people. I asked the group, when you use the word "usually" what do you mean? What percentage of the time is "usually" to you? As in ... "I usually go to bed by 11 o'clock." or "I usually watch (name a TV show)." The participants wrote down their response and passed them to the front, and .... surprise, surprise ... their responses varied from 50% to 95%.
Having been involved in a few contest judges' meetings around the "substantially original" issue, my experience has shown a similar range of opinion. I suggest to the judges that the "intent" of the rule is to ensure that contestants are coming up with their own speech ideas and themes; but that we are probably best advised to be a bit reasonable about it ... i.e., as has been said in this thread before ... are there really ANY totally new ideas?!!!)
About 85% or 90% seems about right to me too.


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