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“Speaker 4, 5 minutes remaining.” I glance nervously down at my card. My card stares obstinately back up at me. Both of our expressions are blank. Distressed, I pick up my pen and scratch as many words as possible into the 3″ by 5″ piece of paper. Just as my time expires, I decide that the answer to my topic is “yes.” Mission accomplished.

“Or is it?” I think to myself as I stroll in the general direction of the competition room. Looking down at my topic card, I start to reconsider the wording of the question. Suddenly, I am not quite so sure of myself as I was moments ago. In my mind, the answer starts to oscillate between “yes” and “no.” Eventually, it settles down on a resounding “maybe.”

You know when you get asked a tough question in cross-examination, and to buy time, you timidly ask your opponent to rephrase it? My speech was basically just 7 minutes of that. Needless to say, the judges were not impressed by my loosely-connected meandering. On their ballots, they pointed out that my speech appeared to “circumvent the topic” and that the few conclusions I did make were “poorly supported.” 

The source of my woes was not exclusively my freshman self’s lack of political understanding, nor was it a dearth of speaking ability. My problem was with time management. More specifically, I was not using my prep time productively.

The Problem

I don’t recall the precise wording of my question that day — nor does the prospect of unearthing the ballots appeal to my ego — but I do remember that it had something to do with Julian Assange, the rogue founder of WikiLeaks. He was proving to be a rather unpleasant house-guest in the Ecuadorian embassy where he had sought refuge, and the governments involved were at a loss when it came to having to deal with him.

I spent the first 2-3 minutes of my prep time trying to cement my understanding of what “WikiLeaks” was, and the next several minutes trying to figure out how to pronounce “Assange.” After both of those attempts proved unsuccessful, I turned my sights at last to the important part: conjuring up a hilarious introduction. (An introduction, I might add, that ended up not applying after I had settled on an answer to the question.)

In short, I wasted the first several minutes of my priceless prep time on irrelevant and unimportant details. This left me completely unable to answer the question or, by extension, support my thesis.

This article is for those who are considering trying to tackle extemp or frequently find themselves in a similar position; it will help by offering three tips to apply from the moment your clock starts to the moment you hear “5 minutes used.” By themselves, these tips will not magically grant you a good speech; that’s why you have 15 more minutes of prep time. They will, however, increase the potential for how far those 15 minutes can go.

Tip #1. Analyze the Question

When you first draw your topic, it is tempting to sit down at your laptop and start punching away at the keyboard, searching as many keywords as possible in the first minute. I promise that this is a bad idea. 

That is because extemp topics are not like other speech topics: they are specific and often-times complex questions that need to be directly and explicitly answered. As such, you can’t just dance around a word or phrase with tangentially-related anecdotes. That might work in impromptu, but not in extemp.

That is why you should take a second look at every topic card you receive. That does not mean that you have to unleash your inner poetry teacher and hyper-analyze every comma, but you do have to achieve a solid understanding of what your answer will require.

Tip #2. Find the Operative Word and Stick to It

Consider the question, “Are tent courts an effective solution to the immigration crisis?” If, after drawing this topic, you were to sit down at the table and search “tent courts,” you would get a plethora of articles claiming them to be unjust. However, while a speech about how tent courts are unjust would be intriguing, it would simultaneously be a sub-par response to the question.

That is because the operative word in the topic is “effective,” a word that has a very different meaning from “ethical.” To adequately answer the question, therefore, you would have to zero in on what makes a justice system run smoothly and not what makes it moral.

Why should you do this? Wouldn’t a speech about the ethics of tent courts be more entertaining than one about their functionality? Perhaps it would, but you should follow this advice anyway.

That is because judges hate non-sequiturs. Scratch that — everyone hates non-sequiturs. In political debates, the primary critique of the candidates — articulated so often that it has become cliché — is that they “did not answer the question they got, but engaged instead with the question they wanted.”

The same rings true for extemp. Regardless of how entertaining or logical your speech is, your audience will feel that something is missing if you do not provide them an answer to the question you were given. Consequently, as soon as you receive your topic, mentally define exactly what it requires.

All of this does not mean that you can’t incorporate non-topical information into your speech — you certainly can — but your primary objective is always to answer the question. To the above topic, an answer of  “Yes, tent courts are effective, but we should reform them” is substantially better than “No, tent courts are not effective because they are unjust.”

Tip #3. Define Your Terms

“Is Israel’s Likud going to become the opposition party?” That was the question glaring back at me when I drew my topic in the semi-finals of a qualifier last year. Odds are, at least 2 out of every 3 judges have no idea what “Israel’s Likud” could possibly refer to, and the third might be a tad fuzzy when it comes to what “opposition party” means. With that in mind, imagine if I had jumped directly into the substance of my speech with no analysis or judge education.

It would have been a disaster! The judges would not have been able to follow along, they would have ranked me poorly, and my bid would have died in the semi-finals.

With a topic such as this one, the need to define the key terms is blatantly obvious, but it is crucial in every speech, even when you might think otherwise. Keep in mind the first rule of forensics: never assume that the judges know everything you do about a topic.

Whether your topic is something as mainstream as immigration control or something as obscure as the Israeli political process, always start your research (and your speech!) with definitions. Even if you might assume everyone knows what you are talking about, one or more of the judges usually needs at least a little help.

Concluding Remarks

Remember, these tips are not a panacea for all of your extemp difficulties, but they will help to maximize both your understanding of the topic and the applicability of your points. The primary hurdle of extemp is and always will be confusion, and following these guidelines is necessary to get over it.

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