An absolute claim though it may be, I maintain that no speech or debate event is so commonly executed to such a poor degree as is impromptu speaking. This year, with so many tournaments being moved online, I’ve had the opportunity to watch several rounds in tournaments I wasn’t competing in. In my experience, it seems that the majority of speeches don’t even reach the four-minute mark, and any sort of content or illustrative mechanism is either completely absent or, worse, completely dependent on random personal stories that have little to no bearing on the topic being discussed. To be clear, I too have had my fair share of flops in limited prep speaking. We don’t need to talk about, for example, the time I compared the Trinity to a cookie recipe in apologetics (come on guys, it was only my second year).
But why is it that competitors uniquely perform worse in impromptu? I hypothesize that this phenomenon owes its existence to the common misconception that preparation of any kind for impromptu is unnecessary, or even wasteful. That is, all prepared speeches are, well, prepared, and despite being billed as “limited preparation” speeches, both apologetics and extemporaneous quite obviously require some amount of prior knowledge, namely of one’s faith or of current events, respectively, in order to be done well. However, given the broad and widely applicable nature of impromptu topics, I believe that many competitors are convinced that preparation simply isn’t necessary. That is, everybody already knows a thing or two about “joy,” “experience,” “suffering,” and so on, thereby seemingly rendering research into these issues obsolete. My first year competing in impromptu, I fell prey to this trap, and, after thoroughly humiliating myself over the course of several tournaments, decided to change things up. While I’m generally not a fan of doing what everyone else does simply because everyone else does it, I found the NCFCA’s Comprehensive Guide to Speech’s advice on this matter to be quite helpful. They recommend keeping a running list of interesting anecdotes or factoids you stumble across in your day-to-day life and looking over them every so often, the object of this pursuit being to give the competitor a broad knowledge of widely applicable examples and stories to pull from when preparing a speech. The vast majority of the top competitors I’ve discussed this subject with also make use of this tactic, and as such, if you haven’t already, I’d recommend employing this strategy right away. However, that’s not what I’m getting at today.
Over the course of the summer before the 2019-2020 competition season, I amassed a list of 33 various examples I planned to use in my speeches that year. Over the course of five tournaments, however, I only ever found occasion to use two of those examples. Needless to say, I was surprised. When the season ended, I first thought that I might simply have a bias towards those specific examples. However, when I sat down with some of my topic cards (yes, I keep some of them, call me a nerd), I realized that, yes, while there were some examples on that list which I could have used but simply didn’t think of in the moment, for the most part, many of my examples weren’t even applicable to begin with. At first, it seemed that there was no rhyme or reason to the pattern of what applied. However, as I looked more at my list of which examples were and weren’t working, I came to the realization that I’d like to share with y’all today.
I’ve come to the conclusion that at least 95 percent of all impromptu topics boil down to one of two things: they either trace back to the idea of overcoming adversity, or they relate to the importance of our relationships with others. You probably think that seems exceedingly random and bold of me to say, but hear me out.
In life, everything can be broken down into two categories: things we have, and things we don’t have. To clarify, I use the term “things” very loosely in this context: “thing” could refer to a physical possession, a goal we’re striving to achieve, or a state of mind we desire to experience. In the instance of those things which we don’t have that but desire to possess, there’s always some kind of barrier we must overcome if we are to obtain it. If we want Maruchan Ramen, we have to go to Walmart. If we want to advance our career, we have to work hard. If we want to be a likable person, we must examine ourselves. All of these instances have in common that one must conquer some sort of barrier to achieve a desired end, hence the first category: overcoming adversity.
The second sort of thing, as described earlier, is the thing that one does have. I begin by assuming that the most valuable thing one can possess is a healthy relationship with others in their life. All other things we have either aid us in maintaining these relationships or harm our efforts in attempting to do so. Thus, the topics you draw that relate to this category will take one of three forms. The first is simply that “relationships are valuable,” and you’d be surprised how many topics lend themselves to such a clear-cut speech. The second is that “X is good because it allows us to maintain our relationships with others.” The third is that “X is bad because it harms our ability to keep up relationships.”
Alright, so how does all of this tie together? As we established earlier, the best impromptu competitors are the ones who prepare in advance, and the best preparation is to collect interesting stories and examples. However, in order to not make the same mistake I did in making a list of examples that was almost completely obsolete, when considering committing a specific example to memory, ask yourself whether it easily ties to one of those two basic ideas we discussed, overcoming adversity and personal relationships. This filter will allow your prep to be as efficient as possible, thereby giving you a broad and widely applicable knowledge base for competition. Hope you guys found this helpful!