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by Patricia Fry

The Toastmaster – 2000

Former Miss America Speaks to Teens

Here are Her Seven Keys to Success

It may surprise you to know that, while most of us focus on the physical beauty of Miss America, the contestants are generally more concerned about honing their public speaking skills. But it hasn’t always been this way.

According to Tara Dawn (Holland) Christensen, Miss America, 1997, “When the Miss America Organization was formed in 1921, the role of women was quite different than the role of women today. Even twenty or thirty years ago, Miss America attended events to sign autographs, smile and cut ribbons. Today, she has a platform issue. The title of Miss America is a full-time speaking job.”

This Miss America wouldn’t have been interested in participating, had she been a young woman forty or fifty years ago. She says, “If it had not been for the speaking tour—if it had been simply a cutting ribbons and smiling job—I would not have been there. I would not have found a lot of value in spending my year like that.” Christensen had a platform. She had something to say and she wanted to make a difference.

When she was 15-years-old she learned that an adult close to her could not read. At 17, she made a personal commitment to speak out on the issue of literacy and she decided she would do that as Miss America.

Because excellent public speaking ability is critical to winning the crown, Christensen joined a local Toastmasters Club. She says, “I wanted to improve my skills and therefore be better able to handle the job as speaker on my issue.” She admits that she needed a little help eliminating conjunction words from her speech. She said, “It wasn’t so much uhm as it was and. I was joining together all of my thoughts and not having a definite ending or beginning. So that (training) was very important for me.” She found Table Topics valuable, as well. It gave her the practice she needed for the interview portion of the competition.

Representing Kansas in the Miss America Pageant, Christensen won the title and her dream of educating people on the issue of literacy became a reality.

But her reign is over. We’ve had three Miss America’s since Christensen. She doesn’t have to travel and make speeches anymore. So what is she doing? Traveling and making speeches. Still using her God-given talents and the skills she learned and honed in her Toastmaster club, she continues to spread the word about literacy, but she has added a new platform to her repertoire. Now she also speaks to teens on abstinence.

“I call it the ‘U CAN 2’ message,” says Christensen. An advocate and an example to youths in the area of abstinence from drugs, alcohol and premarital sex, she takes her message into public and private middle and high schools as well as colleges. She says, “I talk about pursuing their dreams, achieving goals and what it takes to achieve your goals. Part of the message is that you have to do what you say you will do. It involves making choices about drugs, alcohol and premarital sex.”

This topic is not one that you would consider popular among kids. How does she get them to listen? What is her secret to holding the attention of a gymnasium full of young people? This beauty queen/professional public speaker knows what she’s doing. Here’s Tara Dawn Christensen’s blueprint for speaking to teens:

1. Have a high level of energy. “Kids are not going to be energetic about something that you’re not energetic about,” says Christensen. “We often think of standing behind a podium when speaking to adults. With youth, I’m all over the place. They need movement. They need to feel like I’m right there with them. So I go to them.” Christensen, who is often surrounded by 3,000 teenagers on bleachers, says, “I’m in the middle of them so my job is to make both sides feel they are a part of it.”

She recommends getting lots of sleep when speaking to youths. “And,” she says, “it doesn’t matter what happened last night or that morning. You toss everything aside and really focus on them. Let them know that you care and that’s why you are there.”

2. Use real life illustrations. Young people don’t want philosophy. They want to hear real life stores. They need something they can relate to. Says Christensen, “The illustrations have to be there. The adults will let you get away with a little more philosophical thinking than the youth.”

And when you’re sharing a message such as the one Christensen gives, you have to reveal some of yourself. She certainly bares her soul with the kids, pointing out that she has abstained and that she is not alone.

3. Talk to young people, not over them and not at them. Christensen is adamant about this point. You have a better chance of success when speaking to young people if you like them, understand them and show them some consideration.

She says, “If young people think you’re coming in there to talk at them about whatever is important to you, then you’re not going to make a difference in their lives. They’re not going to walk away thinking about what you said.”

4. Command respect. “But do it with a smile,” says Christensen. She maintains

that every aspect of what you’re doing is important in commanding that respect. She says, “I look at everything from what I’m wearing to my posture to my command of the microphone. Having the microphone hot enough is important. If it’s too low they can’t hear you and guess what? They’re not going to try.”

She continues, “I think that a speaker can get run over by teenagers when he lets those first five minutes go without letting the young people know that he isn’t going to tolerate talking, hitting each other, passing notes and so forth.” She says, “What I have found is that, if you establish that at the beginning, they will respect that throughout the entire presentation.”

To stop a disturbance, for example, Christensen halts her presentation and looks at the youngster who is causing the problem. “I do not continue until I have their attention,” she says. “The rest of the people around them will kind of take care of getting them to pay attention. And if they know they’re holding up the whole assembly, they will usually stop. Without scolding them and really getting on their bad side, I’m telling them, I’m not going to tolerate that behavior.”

Of course, you also have to know how to hold their attention. Christensen says, “Have something captivating to say.” And she suggests starting with an illustration. “I start with a story to get their attention and then I tell them the philosophy behind it.”

5. Be honest open and vulnerable with young people. “They’re being lied to in every area of their lives whether it’s their peers, their parents, the media, the Internet or MTV,” says Christensen. “They’re getting all kinds of stories and they need somebody who is going to be open and honest with them. That means you have to bare a little bit of yourself and your soul with them. They will respect you for that.”

6. Challenge them. “This generation is looking for a challenge,” says Christensen. “They are a brilliant, community service-minded generation. Even though, as adolescents, they tend to be egocentric, in comparison to other generations at this age, they really do care about others and they want to do something to help other people.”

She’s concerned, however, that so little is expected of kids now that they don’t feel challenged. She says, “If you challenge them, they generally respond well.” But she cautions those who wish to speak to groups of young people, “Make sure, before you get in front of youth, that you really have something to say to them—that it is not just an idea that you want to pass on to them. Call them to action whether it’s to get involved in a program, stop doing something or start doing something. Make sure there’s an action involved rather than just your thoughts.”

She continues, “What I’ve realized is that if you put a big challenge out there and

it’s attainable and you show them that it’s attainable, then they’re more likely to listen to what you have to say. They want to meet a challenge and I think a lot of them don’t feel they’ve been successful because they’ve not been challenged to be successful.”

According to Christensen, “When I’m talking about pursuing goals, I talk about all kind of goals and I encourage them to start with a small goal like. Let’s say you’re goal is to graduate top of your class, in med school. Well maybe first you need to make an A or a B on your science test in 9th grade. Start with the small things that are accessible now and then work toward the bigger goals.”

She tells them, “When I decided I wanted to become Miss America, the Federal Express person didn’t just show up at my door with a crown. I had to create a plan of action. A plan that would help me get from where I was to where I wanted to be. So I walk them through that. I encourage them to tell me their goals and I’ve heard every goal from being a farmer to being president. All of those are attainable goals.”

7. Listen to what they’re not saying. Christensen suggests that if the kids are getting fidgety, you need to change to something more up beat. Put an illustration in there. Get the audience involved. She says, “They will let you know what they’re thinking and feeling by their reactions to you. You need to listen to your audience and go with them.”

Tara Dawn Christensen is not just another pretty face. She’s also an eloquent, effective speaker who is making a difference. She has a new music CD out with more in the planning stages. This is a Toastmaster who continues to meet her lofty goals. Visit Miss America 1997 at

Patricia Fry is the author of A Writer’s Guide to Magazine Articles for Book Promotion and Profit (Matilija Press, 2000).

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