If you have been around forensics for any substantial length of time, you have likely, at some point, watched a truly fascinating speech, only to be left asking a single question. “Why?”
Whenever this happens, the speech’s entertainment value is typically off the charts, perhaps even instilling within you a longing to watch it again in the next round. You might even feel an acute sense of disappointment if it doesn’t advance.
However, you are left uncertain as to why you should care or what you should do differently. During the speech, you are enthralled, but afterward, you are unmotivated. You don’t change any of your habits in the long term, simply because the speaker didn’t tell you to.
If this has ever happened to you, odds are the speaker did not properly impact his or her thesis. The impact to any point is the reason why the speaker believes the audience should care about the veracity of their claim. In speeches, an impact is very similar to a challenge: you can find it by answering the question, “what should the audience do differently having seen the speech?”
All debaters are readily familiar with impacting arguments. From our novice years onward, we are constantly informed that an impact should accompany every point we make, and we use the term so often that it even has its own shorthand: “MPX.”
However, we rarely utilize impacting as frequently or as skillfully in platform speeches. Generally, that is not because we find it difficult; any impromptu speaker worth their salt would be able to give the audience a half-decent challenge on just about any topic.
Instead, we fail to impact in platform speeches because we think of it as unimportant. Rather than writing out well-formed arguments to support our position, we focus on rhetoric and speaking style. Those are by no means insignificant, but all too often, they cause us to leave impacts by the wayside.
That is a pity because, from experience, judges will tend to favor those speeches that challenge them to alter how they act and think in the future over those that made them feel good in the present. Without a clear impact, the judge has no reason to change any of their habits or see the world in a new light. Without an explicit challenge to consider, you leave your audience with naught but the question “why?”
If your goal is not to win, but to “spread the message,” impacting is equally vital to your prospects. Even if your speech is engaging, entertaining, and uplifting, you still have to offer your audience a clear way in which they can alter their life if you expect them to do so.
The purpose of this article is not to increase the entertainment value of your speech, but instead to help you transcend mere entertainment and allow your speech to cause a definite change in the minds and actions of your audience. To this end, I present two suggestions.
First, brainstorm a challenge for your audience to accomplish immediately after watching your speech. Specifically, challenge them to change either how they think about something or how they act in a given situation. In short, give them something to do so that they can participate in your presentation long after you’ve stopped speaking.
That first kind of impact — challenging your audience to change the way they think about something — is very similar to the type of impact you will see in a debate round. In essence, it involves persuading your audience that what you have to say is critical, or that one thing is more important than another.
While this is useful, the second kind of challenge is uniquely important: tell your audience how your speech should change the way they act. The best application of this principle is in persuasive speeches. A good persuasive speech will tell the audience not just what to think but what to do. Ideally, the call to action will be specific and targeted to make it as easy and straightforward as possible for the audience to effectuate your challenge.
The goal here is to leave your audience with as little room for interpretation or error as you can. If they are left persuaded that they should probably consider doing something but have no immediate idea of what that thing is in the first place, your job is only half complete.
To this end, try to avoid suggesting overly broad concepts such as “bravery” or “boldness.” The primary problem with challenging your audience to be “bold” is that such a suggestion is so impossibly broad that it almost means nothing at all. Instead, opt for specific challenges you want your audience to undertake. Give them the “first step” and challenge them to see where that leads them.
My second suggestion is to make the challenge as explicit as possible. Typically, we assume that the judge can put two and two together and make four, and, in some cases, that may very well be true, but explicitly doing the work for them accomplishes two critical things.
First, it relieves you from relying on your audience’s intuition to understand your point. In debate rounds, you would never trust the judge to comprehend the impact of your claim, however commonsensical or implicitly apparent you think it may be. Likewise, in your platform speeches, you shouldn’t trust the judges to know what you want them to do.
Second, even if your audience understood the implications of your point, explicitly telling them what you want them to think or do brings that understanding to the forefront of their consciousness. It makes them genuinely and actively consider the specific challenge that you set before them.
While individual speeches can undoubtedly be both entertaining and impactful, the best kinds of speeches change the way people think or act and not just the way they feel. By explicitly and adequately impacting your thesis through clear challenges directed at your audience, your speech will be on its way to doing exactly that.