Last year, Ben wrote a superb piece on impromptu with a takeaway you should immediately incorporate into your Nationals prep regimen: strategically accumulate potential speech material related to adversity and personal relationships. I hope to expand this analysis through exploring the mechanics of impromptu through the lens of three explicitly stated—and astonishingly neglected—NCFCA ballot criteria:
- Topic Adherence: “States the chosen topic and adheres to it.”
- Clear Thesis: “Relates a clear thesis…”
- Uniqueness: “…and presents a unique and meaningful speech.”
Topic Adherence + Clear Thesis
Many impromptu topics (specifically words and phrases) are challenging because of their (a) generality and (b) abstraction. It’s a lot easier to conceptualize the quote “you miss every shot you don’t take” than the word “harbor”—the former is more specific (you’re able to isolate the message communicated) and concrete (you can easily evaluate the message through the framework of personal experience, literature, history, etc.). In light of that, how do you approach a random abstract topic?
First, note your objective: the “clear thesis” criterion presupposes that your speech advances an argument. Impromptu isn’t designed to function as a potpourri of miscellaneous anecdotes—it’s an abbreviated persuasive speech where you defend a thesis.
Second, analyze three things:
- The topic’s definition: What does the topic likely mean to your judge? What are its perceived necessary conditions? (The answers to these questions probably strike you as painfully obvious but I’ve judged an absurd number of impromptus which contort topics beyond recognition. That’s not to say you can’t interpret topics innovatively; you just have to justify your exercise of creativity.)
- The topic’s context: When do we typically use the topic? Where did the topic originate?
- The topic’s connotations: What other associated ideas come to mind when you think about this topic? The essential ingredient—the bridge between your topic and its connotations—is often metaphoric reasoning: what qualities of your topic are metaphors for other qualities? (Throwback to the speech I gave on bungee cords where I lobbed a Hail Mary and metaphorically associated certain qualities of bungee cords—interconnectability, flexibility, etc.—with virtue formation.)
Third, connect the results of your topic analysis to messages. You can accomplish this handily with the matrix Ben proposes. I’d further encourage you to catalog themes—general ideas which recur in literature, movies, and the cultural/personal/religious narratives around which we structure our lives—alongside particular examples to prepare for impromptu competition: if you think a lot about, say, the hazards of revenge, you’ll begin noticing associations between that theme and your topic analyses (e.g., “harbor” → can be a verb → connotation “harboring bitterness” → extract a message about revenge and start yammering away about Moby Dick and The Count of Monte Cristo).
Fourth, to complete the transition from abstraction to argument, craft a thesis which engages one or more associated messages. For instance, if you drew the topic “juvenile,” you might arrive at messages about childlike mindsets (e.g. they foster creativity or, conversely, Paul’s classic self-roast of his childhood in 1 Cor 13:11)—your thesis affirms and/or denies one or more of these messages. (On the “and/or” clause… as you’ll see below, I adore impromptu speeches which interact with the complexity of topics—it’s the best way to differentiate yourself from monochromatic, absolutist theses.) After you’ve developed your thesis, generate justifications for it by repeatedly asking yourself why it’s true, then illustrate those justifications with your examples. Just ensure you continually reiterate your topic throughout the speech to prevent your judge from thinking you deviated too significantly.
During my senior year, I prequalified to Nationals with an impromptu speech in which I, among other things, interped Pharaoh while describing a scene from The Prince of Egypt, sang a snippet of a Tim Hawkins musical number, and employed thesis/antithesis/synthesis structure (where one navigates the aforementioned “and/or” territory with agreement/disagreement—state your thesis, propose an objection to your thesis, and harmoniously reconcile your thesis and its objection). Let’s just say my voice is… lackluster, so I didn’t win those judges because I awed them with some exceptional talent—I succeeded because I differentiated myself from everyone in the room by being truly weird (or, as the euphemism goes, “being myself”). You can cultivate uniqueness in a variety of ways: For instance, a speaker in the last impromptu room I judged squashed an imaginary bug—complete with the disgusting flourish of scraping his foot across the floor—in his introduction to the topic “dead as a doornail.” But naturally, it’s hard to catalog possible avenues for uniqueness (the very act decreases their scarcity and thereby their economic value in the impromptu market), so let’s talk about a few things which are decidedly hackneyed in impromptu:
- References to speech and debate: Please stop talking about NCFCA and Stoa in impromptu. I don’t want to hear repackaged arguments from this year’s debate resolutions; I don’t want to hear how you overcame pride because you didn’t break; I don’t want to hear about your open interp last year on Flowers for Algernon (although please do cite Flowers for Algernon; just DON’T TELL ME IT WAS YOUR OPEN). This is quite possibly the biggest impromptu cliche—50% of the competitors in every impromptu room I judge use speech and debate references.
- The vast majority of personal anecdotes: If you’re going to use a personal story, give it some pizzazz. The problem with stories is they all blur together—they all have the same flavor unless deliberate effort is invested in differentiation. Provide some vivid details, crack a self-deprecating comment, vary your volume and tempo, etc.
- Gospel presentations: Not only are they overused, but they’re also typically not germane to the topic. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t explore theological questions or biblical applications in impromptu—you absolutely should! (I suspect some of you believe that gospel presentations in impromptu speeches fulfill an important evangelistic purpose and I’m happy to undertake that conversation in the comments if necessary, but in terms of uniqueness, way too many NCFCAers are defaulting to basic gospel presentations, which undercuts one of the stated ballot criteria.)
If you avoid these three pitfalls and engage in the process outlined in the first section, you should adroitly execute a robust and unique impromptu speech. (And while you’re at it, check out Jala’s excellent piece on impromptu.)
Joel Erickson coaches Lincoln-Douglas for Ethos and British parliamentary debate at Wheaton College, where he studied philosophy. This fall, he will be attending Harvard Law School.