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As I’ve spent more time in the speech and debate community, I’ve realized just how important experience is. Experience builds the background necessary to win rounds and persuade judges. I remember back in my novice year, everything in speech and debate seemed so disorienting – it felt as if everyone was speaking a different language with the names of events and debate terminology.

In a way, we all go back to that “novice state” when we compete in events we haven’t tried before. There are different expectations and guidelines to each event and learning that new event can be disorienting.

Having struggled through the process of learning new speech events this past season and switching from different debate forms, I’d like to share a four-step process to learning new events.

Step 1. Commit

While this step may sound common-sense, it’s crucial. When you’re trying to compete in a new event in speech & debate, you’ll feel discouraged at some point. Two years ago I decided to compete in Apologetics. Since I had no idea how to prepare or what a good Apologetics speech looked like, I felt incredibly confused every other week. There were countless days where I’d want to quit the event because it just seemed too difficult. When I tried to learn parliamentary for the first time, my first practice round was a disaster. My speeches were disorganized and unpersuasive. I considered giving up parliamentary entirely.

It’s natural to feel tempted to give up when something gets too difficult. Learning a new event in speech & debate forces you out of your comfort zone and there will be times when you want to quit. Before you decide your platform topic, start creating your Apologetics box, or practice a new form of debate, you must first commit to the event. Make an agreement with yourself that you will follow through with competing in the event even if you run into unforeseen difficulties.

Step 2. Consult History

The most daunting factor of learning a new event is that you don’t have reference points for what makes someone successful at the event. Writing a platform speech without knowing what constitutes a winning speech or preparing a team policy case without understanding what judges are looking for is like driving in a new city without directions. You’ll get lost. In order to be successful with any event in speech & debate, you have to find reference points for what you should be doing in your events. What type of topics win? What delivery method is the most effective?

One of the best ways to create those reference points is to watch online recordings of people competing in the event you’re trying to learn. There’s a plethora of past speeches from NCFCA, Stoa, NSDA, and other leagues on YouTube and the forensic leagues’ own websites. By seeing how competitors in the past have performed and how they placed, you can get an accurate picture of what succeeds. With that reference point, you’ll know what to practice and what to avoid.

Step 3. Read the Blank Ballot

This step is specific to speech. Another way to create reference points is by reading the ballot template of the event you’re planning to compete in. On both the NCFCA & Stoa websites, you can find the blank ballots for all speech events. Reading through the blank ballot is important because when the judge is filling out their ballot they’ll see the metrics the ballot gives them. If you’re not aware of the metrics on the ballot, you’ll be competing blind.

For instance, the Stoa Oratory Analysis ballot under the content section asks whether the competitor “Analyzes the impact of the rhetorical devices within the oration”. If you’re new to Oratory Analysis, simply reading the blank ballot will help you structure your speech and know what content you’ll need, since you’ll have information aboutsome of the metrics judges will be using.

Stoa’s Expository ballot under the category of “Content” asks if the speaker “Addresses topic in a unique way”. Reading through the blank ballot before deciding your Expository topic will give you information about how you frame your speech.

Reading through the ballot template of events you’re new to will give you information about what judges are looking for which will fast-track your improvement.

Step 4. Plan First

Speech & debate is time-consuming. If you dive headfirst into preparing an event you’re new to without first creating a schedule, you’ll end up wasting time. When I first tried to prepare Apologetics I immediately started putting together my Apologetics cards for every topic. Unfortunately, because I didn’t plan out a schedule for putting together my Apologetics box, the process was inefficient. There’d be days where I wrote eight (all at low quality) and other times where I’d go days on end without writing any.

Eventually, I noticed this problem and put together a schedule about when I’d prepare each topic. When I had this plan in place, the quality of my prep improved and I was able to see consistent progress. It’s tempting to just start working and think later when you’re learning a new event. However, creating a prep schedule and identifying what you have to do before working will make the learning process far easier.

With these steps, you have reference points to start prep and a framework for moving forward.

About the Author

Kyle Lee has competed in both NCFCA and Stoa. His accomplishments include over fifty top-three finishes, the record for the most first places won at a single NCFCA tournament (seven firsts in one go at the 2020 Bothell WA, NCFCA Qualifier), first place Lincoln Douglas debater & speaker at the 2020 NCFCA Online National Championship, and first place Team Policy debater & speaker at the 2020 Stoa Online National Championship.
Outside of speech and debate, Kyle is an avid rock climber, holds a second-degree black belt in Karate, and enjoys writing music in his free time.

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