I am asked questions about competing all the time. As a seasoned competitor I have spent the better part of 7 years of competing, which adds up to a lot of experience. This experience can be measured in a lot of ways. It equates to 31 officially scored presentations. It's thirteen top-3 trophies in sixteen events. That includes eight 1st place wins, not to mention almost 8 hours of time on stage with judges. When a request comes in for advice on competing it can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint the most vital information for a prospective or advancing competitor. After gathering my thoughts, here are a few of my viewpoints that I believe will help you prepare for such a big undertaking.
1 - Define your goals
This is one of the first steps you should take. I have heard goals from "Just to have fun", "To be a better presenter" or "To improve my barista skills". These are all perfectly good goals, but to focus on these is different that what my (and I assume many baristas') goal was, which was to "Try to be the best". That may sound like an arrogant goal, and at times it could have been. However, I think this is a good mentality for a competition as it helps push the limits of what we are doing and also creates ownership of techniques and skill. Of course in trying to "be the best" it is still important to stay approachable and avoid actual arrogance. Defining your goals in competing will help to focus you on what will be needed to give the best presentation you can.
Goals that do not seem to be received well are "To prove a point" or "To make a statement". Essentially beating a new or controversial idea into the judges' heads is not generally a good idea. I find nothing wrong with challenging established boundaries, but by nature you will be focused too much on the controversy and not enough on just making good coffee.
2 - Organize your world
Imagine you are going to give the most important speech of your life. This speech will be in 1 or 2 months and you have the majority of the data you need available from the sources you have.
Would you organize every piece of data you could?
This is not just about the speech itself though. This is about the competition space, backstage preparations, prep time, and even setting up the cart to move your gear. A basic rule to follow is that if it happens outside of the 15 minute prep and the presentation, then you have complete control over how organized you are. When you look at the competition this way there is really no reason not to be prepared.
Success at barista competitions has a lot to do with organization and attention to details. Create diagrams of table and cart setup, arrive back stage as early as you can, and have a timeline for when you want to have tasks finished. If you are able, bring your own cart so that you can set everything the way you want earlier. Have you thought through your prep time setup? Being efficient and organized will save you time, which means more time to double-check everything and calm your nerves before the actual presentation.
One thing of note, however, is that as a competitor you are attempting to be a pinnacle of professionalism. Despite all of your preparations and amazing perfection in competing it is important to remember that your fellow competitors are also your comrades. In owning the space and having everything organized the way you plan, you also have the RESPONSIBILITY to clean, be timely, and be considerate of the space as well as your fellow competitors' time. Don't be that guy that everyone silently resents for acting entitled!
3 - Have a thesis
Once upon a time when I was in school (don't worry about how long ago that was...) we were taught to start a paper with a thesis statement. This would help focus the writing and provide an anticipation of the subsequent report/story/term paper. A thesis can of course change as a concept is refined (and probably should), but the point is to create a cohesive story in your presentation. Your thesis is your promise to the judges that there is substance to your message and helps them process the information you will be giving them.
Of course the method of storytelling is up to you. There is no one way to give a creative and interesting presentation, so you should not feel constricted on how you tell your story. Is the thesis stated boldly at the very beginning? Is it revealed at the end as a surprise? Is it insinuated but never specifically stated? These are things that you as a competitor must decide. As you go more in depth in story building you may find that you have multiple themes that have to be focused individually, or there may be a primary message and secondary/tertiary themes that need to either refined or cut.
In the end you have a choice over the words coming out and, if you want to do the best you can, those words should be focused to give the most cohesive and accessible information possible during your 15 minutes.
4 - Practice, analyze, improve
The last recommendation I have is in regard to practicing. Most every serious competitor has practice sessions leading up to the competition. Aside from being a great way to waste coffee and milk, practice sessions do in fact have benefits when used properly.
When I first began competing I actually formulated my entire speech through 15 minute practice sessions. While this does get a lot of repetition on technical points, it doesn't always lend itself to the best speech creation. There are three things that are very beneficial to practicing for competition:
A teammate who can evaluate from the judges' point of view. Recent judging experience is a plus, and more than one set of eyes is even better!
A video camera. I didn't have one in 2005, but this should be easy to arrange these days. (Ahem, smartphone)
The correct competition setup, tables, and equipment. This one is not possible for everyone, but the more you have the better.
Generally I recommend taking practice sessions in phases. Start with thesis, speech writing, brainstorming of ideas, and more intangible aspects. After that, start recording individual segments of your service incorporating speech. Finally, begin full 15 minute presentations (don't forget to record them) 3-4 weeks prior to the competition if possible. This is also assuming you work 5 days a week and only have your off days to commit to full practice runs. This method is probably fairly common, but now comes the important part.
Your teammate(s) is your best friend and worst enemy. You don't need a person who raves about your every idea. You need someone who picks your ideas apart and finds their flaws. This can feel discouraging, but their intention should be to help you make the absolute best presentation possible (by the way, don't choose a teammate who actually hates you). Critical, objective and honest analysis is vital in competition. At points I had a full team of 7 people judging my runs and giving complete feedback.
Video feedback should make you a better presenter. Obviously watching video with a teammate who evaluated you is very helpful, but there are two other things to focus on.
Watch and listen to yourself. Are you dynamic? Are you compelling? The answer should probably be NO, especially on your first review. We don't hear our voices the same in recording versus live speaking (think of bone vibrations and the complexity of the inner ear). That usually leads to us feeling that we sound weird on a video. This is good however, because it can help you focus on your non-verbal communication-delivery, hand movements, and body language. The more conscious you are of how you are perceived, the better your impression on the judges.
Watch your movements. Are you forgetting items? Doubling back to get something? Or does something look awkward? This is your chance to perfect your movements and design new techniques/implementations that are more appealing to the judges. The idea is not to over simplify everything, but to take a complicated execution and make it seem effortless.
There you have some of my viewpoints to help you become a great competitor. The barista competitions (USBC/WBC) are incredibly complex themselves, but these tips should be valuable for most other forms of competition as well. Give it a try and you might just find yourself excelling higher than you thought possible!