With the State of the Union Address a day away, it’s time for a bit of reflection. No… not a reflection on the health of our democracy or the strength of our economy. It’s time to reflect on our goals for the rest of this year. Within the next few months, local circuits will wrap up their seasons, NSDA districts across the country will host their national-qualifying tournaments, and the best competitors in each state will gather for their state competitions.
At Extemp Hub, I will be dedicating my time to creating new content and recruiting for our first Extemp Hub Summer Camp. For current students, now is the perfect time to decide how much you want to achieve before the end of the year and how hard you’re willing to work to make your aspirations a reality. What follows are my four suggestions for Extempers who want to make the most of their remaining opportunities this year.
1. Keep reading!
Reading is absolutely essential to strengthen your Extemp skills. If your team has adopted Extemp Genie or Prepd, don’t fall into the trap of relying too heavily on auto-filing features. In fact, I would advise you discourage your team from using them altogether. What you lose in quantity of articles, you will hopefully gain in quality. The act of manually filing curates your collection so that queries during prep time will only return relevant, quality articles.
Furthermore, reading the articles before filing builds a foundation of knowledge that will free up more time during your 30-minute prep window at competitions. You don’t have to read every article you file or about every possible topic every day. Instead, keep track of new issues that pop up on the front pages of newspapers/journals and read at least one article to give yourself a ‘primer.’ You can usually determine if there’s a notable update about a topic by reading the headlines over subsequent days. In those cases, read the new article to update your knowledge.
The Economist is an excellent source of news both for the breadth of its coverage and the quality of its reporting. If you can read through each issue, prioritizing topic areas you haven’t read about recently, you’ll be in a much better place when sitting down to prep your speech during draw.
Also, too many Extempers have forgotten or ignored the value of books - yes, actual books - for Extemp analysis. While books require more time to get through, they also offer more depth and long-lasting analysis for your speeches. Further, books are rarely only useful for a single topic; their scope tends to offer applicable analysis and background information for a number of topic areas.
Some of my recommendations:
2. Practice, practice, practice.
This tip should go without saying. While practice is another investment of time for students who may find themselves with little time to spare, it is vital for achieving success in the latter half of the competitive season. If you find yourself struggling to make room in your schedule for 30 minutes of prep and a practice speech, try some different practice techniques that aren’t as time consuming.
Instead of giving full speeches, give ‘mini-speeches.’ Allot 10 minutes of prep and prepare a 3 minute speech with a single body point. Pick 3 topics and try to prepare just the introduction for each. Take an old speech and re-do your transitions with new on-tops. Any bit of practice is better than no practice.
3. Watch yourself.
If you’ve never recorded and watched yourself speaking, then you’ve managed to avoid one of the most simultaneously difficult and beneficial experiences associated with public speaking. My coach used to say, “We are our own toughest critics.” We can’t always know the mistakes we’re making until we’ve witnessed them with our own eyes.
When you have the time, have a friend record you giving a speech. Pull up a final round video from the NSDA resource package and then compare/contrast your speech with one of the finalists’ speeches. You don’t have to speak on the same topic. The main objective is to compare style, delivery, and the structure of analysis. You don’t have to become a carbon copy of the Extempers who have made NSDA finals; however, it’s useful to acknowledge that they have done something - or many things - correctly to reach their level of achievement.
Ask yourself: How do my gestures compare to theirs? My vocal delivery? The clarity of my analysis? The organization of my thoughts?
If one aspect of your speaking requires more improvement than others, deliver and record that portion of the speech one more time and compare your videos. What seems to work best for you?
I would also advise that you save your videos so that you can track your progress over time. If you’re like me, you’ll cringe the first time (or first 20 times) you watch yourself speak. Trust me - it will pay off.
4. Have some fun!
It’s easy and perfectly understandable to experience some burnout at this point of the year. Seniors have been completing college applications and everybody has been dealing with the stress of school, competitions, and the rest of the adolescent experience. While it’s important to set goals and work hard to achieve them, the rewards will feel hollow if you make yourself miserable in the process.
Remember, you shouldn’t need to feel alone. Find a like-minded member of your team to practice and prepare with. Take plenty of breaks and set aside time to have some fun without thinking about speech and debate. There’s a lot of great movies coming out, so plan a few outings with friends. Let your coach know if you’re feeling overwhelmed. In an activity that teaches communication, we often don’t do a good enough job communicating about our experiences with others. Coaches, remember that your students have lives outside of debate. Students, remember that your coaches have lives outside of debate also. As the year draws to an end, we’re all capable of showing the signs of stress.
Finally, no matter what goals you set, remember that this activity should be more about growth than achievement. The trophies we give at the end of each tournament don’t always make this clear. The purpose of the advice in this post is not to guarantee success; it’s just to make sure that you’ll be satisfied with your effort at the end of the year.
I hope that everybody enjoys the second half of the season. Extemp Hub wishes all of you the best of luck at your remaining tournaments. Have fun and enjoy the ride!
The West Wing should be required viewing for every Extemper.
Occasionally, Extempers find it difficult to contextualize the issues inherent to their topics in real-world terms. While reading articles and books provides foundational knowledge about a topic, it cannot easily ground the information in narratives that are accessible to the reader. Story-telling, on the other hand, has reproduced knowledge since the early stages of human history by making information easy to consume and remember.
Television shows and movies, as modern mediums of storytelling, can contribute to the development of a deeper understanding of the issues connected to current events. This is not to say that television and movies should substitute for a commitment to reading the news regularly; rather, these stories are a valuable supplement to the fact-based knowledge obtained from traditional research.
While there is no shortage of television shows and movies built on political intrigue or national security, none come close to matching The West Wing in terms of comprehensiveness and scope. Over the course of seven seasons, The West Wing's viewers witnessed a fictional White House grapple with issues of cabinet turnover, midterm elections, government shut downs, gun control, right-wing extremism, terrorism, nuclear brinksmanship, congressional investigations, Supreme Court nominations, leaks of classified information, and many other topics that Extempers read and speak about daily. In Sam Seaborne's impassioned advocacies, Josh Lyman's political calculations, Jed Bartlet's moral dilemmas, and CJ Craig's careful messaging, Extempers can find a wealth of information about how our government functions (or doesn't) and how power dynamics shape the outcomes of our democracy.
If you don't believe me, give the show a try. Here is a list of a small handful of my favorite episodes:
The West Wing is available on Netflix and iTunes.
Have your own favorite episodes? Feel free to comment below!
Extempers commonly debate about what constitutes the most difficult aspect of Extemporaneous Speaking. The usual suspects are:
•improving delivery and mechanics
The emergence of auto-filers (..ick) and online file management systems has made keeping up with filing less of a chore. The availability of the internet, podcasts, and a multitude of quality periodicals have made refining analysis a bit easier. Camps and recent graduates willing to coach students are proliferating, offering unparalleled access to feedback about delivery and mechanics. That leaves us with the bane of most Extempers - introductions.
Since my first days as a competitor, I have witnessed Extempers with superb analysis and flawless delivery skills stumble right out of the gate by offering introductions that are bland, shaky, or generic. With just seven minutes (plus 30 seconds grace in most instances) to impress the judge/s and audience, first impressions carry significant weight. Even within the introduction itself, Extempers struggle with one or more of the components - attention getters, linking statements, significance statements, effective theses, efficient road maps... It can be overwhelming.
Entire coaching sessions could be devoted to teaching techniques to execute each of these introduction components in a satisfactory manner (and we do offer those). Today, however, I'd like to focus on just one: attention getters.
A successful attention getter, or hook as I prefer to call it, is a pre-requisite to an effective introduction and is necessary to build confidence and momentum at the start of an Extemp speech. As its name implies, the function of the hook is to snatch your audience's attention (and in rare cases their wigs). Whether speaking first, somewhere in the middle, or last in a round, it's imperative for a speaker's opening to make the judges forget about everything they saw before this speech and to stop worrying about everything they will see after.
Hooks take many forms. In my view, the best hooks are:
•topic-relevant political/historical anecdotes
•topic-relevant allegorical references
•topic-relevant pop culture references
•strange news stories
(If you didn't notice, topic-relevance is pretty important. The degree of topic-relevance inherent in the hook depends on the speaker's ability to develop and execute a strong linking statements which is, unfortunately, not covered in this blog entry.)
The hooks I would avoid using are:
•anything that requires singing
Do hooks have to be funny? No, but it helps if they are (with sound judgment). In today's political climate, every topic could be considered a matter of life and death --- I'm looking at you policy debaters. Some topics understandably require a gentle or less irreverent approach. I would avoid opening a speech about the AIDS epidemic, a mass shooting, or increasing suicide rates with a humorous hook. The one and only exception, if you accept the risk, would be using humor to reveal the absurdity of the situation.
For example, in high school, I encountered an editorial in which the author expressed his belief that the main problem facing the children of Africa was the possibility of growing up without ever seeing a gorilla in its natural habitat. The author clearly held nature conservation as a significant priority, but to say that the dwindling ape population was the top problem facing children on a continent grappling with genocide, hunger, disease, and poverty was a bit of a stretch. I delivered the reference to the article as glib as I could muster, added a pun about "going bananas," and immediately jumped to the significance of the issues present in my topic that the author of the editorial had overlooked. It was risky. As a coach, I'd certainly advise my students to not even try to use humor in that circumstance.
The other trouble with humor is delivery. Even the funniest jokes can make an audience scratch their heads or cringe if not delivered with the proper tone and timing. Nothing I can write in a single blog post can teach comedic timing. If you want examples to model, watch the opening monologues of late night hosts. The one piece of advice I will offer right now is to not rush. Audiences need time to for humor to click.
Back to the subject of today’s blog entry…
If you want to develop a collection of ideas for hooks, you have to become a sponge (square pants are optional). If you think about all of the information we intentionally ingest each day and then consider all the information we absorb unintentionally, it should come as no surprise that finding hook ideas requires little extra effort - particularly if you’re reading and filing as often as you should be. It’s not the acquisition of the information that yields hooks that Extempers have trouble with - it’s framing the lens through which they view information and then refining/developing the ideas afterwards.
Let me explain ---
On April Fool’s Day, a number of reputable and common Extemp sources published ‘joke’ articles. Many of them were heavy in satire. Some Extempers might not have been reading the news on April 1st. Others may have skipped over these articles after identifying them as ‘pranks.” An astute hunter of Extemp hooks, however, would have recognized several of them as hidden (infinity) gems. Har har… that’s a Marvel reference. … You’ll get it in a moment.
I am referring to three articles - two published on Foreign Policy’s website and one in The Economist. The articles are:
•“Wakanda Shakes the World”
•“The Avengers at a Crossroads: Assessing Prospects for New Strategic Challenges and Opportunities”
The three articles offer satirical examples of how authors for Foreign Policy and The Economist would analyze the world if we lived in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Extemp hooks are everywhere. I could go on and on about the places I look to find them, but the reality is that I encounter at least 75% of the ideas I turn into Extemp hooks during my normal activities: reading, watching tv, browsing the internet. If you didn't read these articles or intentionally dismissed them, you'd be missing out. If you're struggling with hooks, you likely don't need to do more work -- just change the lens through which you're absorbing information.