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.