Usually there's no talking in the library, but the Bethpage Public Library recently made an exception for a competition where audible speech was not only permitted but celebrated.
The biannual Humorous Speech Contest sponsored by the Long Island division of Toastmasters International — the 90-year-old organization devoted to the art of public speaking and leadership skills — featured six finalists from Nassau and Suffolk counties.
In two earlier rounds of the competition that started in August, there were 24 contestants. Each finalist composed and delivered a speech, no longer than seven minutes, designed to make audiences laugh. Being funny was part of the plan, but those expecting open mic night would have been disappointed.
"It's not a monologue or a series of one-liners," said Glen Ring, 56, of Bayport, who is governor of the Long Island division of Toastmasters. "The speeches must be thematic. They have to have a beginning, a body and a close."
And they must be delivered within the allotted time. In the front row of the library's auditorium, a judge with three color-coded cards sat ready to flash time warnings to the finalists: green at 5 minutes, yellow at 6 minutes, red at 7 minutes. If the speech continued on for 30 seconds past the red warning, the speaker would be disqualified with no notice.
All of the finalists artfully finished their talks in the allotted time and without visible sweat or tension. Their topics varied and included some surprisingly off-color material. The winner was chosen based on several factors, including the quality of the speech and how well it was delivered.
The laugh parade
Quentin Mezetin, 29, a business consultant from Queens Village and a member of the Elmont Toastmasters chapter, referenced the rapper Sir Mix-a-Lot in a talk that deliberately confused the big "buts" and "should haves" in life with big "butts" and his own interpretation of the superfast pronunciation of "shoulda." The audience of about 50 — which included the competition's judges — roared with laughter.
Joe Bonasia, 57, lives in Smithtown and teaches English and public speaking at West Hempstead High School. He admitted before his performance that he had tried out his speech on his students. "They gave me a few good suggestions," he said.
His talk ("I have lost my mind and I'm pretty sure my children have taken it") involved the kind of incomprehensible situations most parents find themselves in when dealing with adolescent children. It got an even bigger response from the audience (as well as knowing nods from those who were parents) than Mezetin's presentation.
Donna Delano, 46, a pharmaceutical sales rep from Babylon, talked about faux pas committed with wine, including the confusion of vintage tips from a "sommelier" with wine that comes from "Somalia" (there is none). Delano represented a local Toastmaster club whose name alone deserves some kind of award: The Babylon Babblers.
Margaret Bennett of Seaford joked about a suburban zombie apocalypse. She was casually clad in jeans, a short-sleeve shirt and a bold orange vest, while most of the other finalists wore business attire. She was followed by Gloria Nixon-Pone, an ordained minister from Old Westbury, who eschewed talk of the Lord for travails with her lawn. She even brought props on stage, such as goggles, a work suit and a leaf blower to illustrate her weed-whacking exploits.
And the winner is . . .
Entrepreneur and Port Jefferson resident Aaron Foss is the founder of Nomorobo, a company that makes software for blocking junk telephone calls. In July 2013, he was an expert witness at a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing on robocalls, and has also been interviewed by Fox News, CNN and ABC. Foss, 36, was confident, assured and funny as he talked about the explosion of really bad ideas that are a byproduct of the digital age.
"A case in point," he said. "Two guys out in Silicon Valley invent an app called 'Yo.' What's Yo? You download the app, you choose a friend, you click a button and it sends them a message that says, 'Yo.' Then you can 'Yo' them back. That's it! The worst part about this is that they convinced investors to value it at $10 million. That's $5 million a letter!"
Foss, who said he wrote his speech by "basically locking myself in a room" and practicing it aloud, rehearsed it in his car while driving to the competition. He said he was "very, very excited" to hear his name announced as the winner.
He will go on to the next round — the New York Metropolitan-area Toastmasters championship — on Nov. 15 at the New York LaGuardia Airport Marriott hotel. Foss — who received a certificate and a trophy — demurred when asked whether he considers himself the funniest person on Long Island.
"I don't know," he said. "How about the funniest public speaker?"
JOIN THE CLUB
An estimated 550 Long Islanders belong to Toastmasters International. The organization was founded in 1924 and boasts 313,000 members in 14,650 clubs in 126 countries. Local clubs — there are 23 on Long Island — hold monthly meetings, where public speaker and communication skills are taught and practiced.
For info on Long Island chapters, visit toastmasters46.org.