We’re in the home stretch of the season– making sure that we’re fully prepared for Nationals/NITOC. While exciting, this stage also comes with some unique challenges. Most of us are feeling pretty burnt out, and even our favorite speeches have lost some of their shine after hundreds of repetitions. To aid your practice, I’ve assembled three tips that you may find helpful: addressing gestures, choking, and emotion respectively.
Gestures: Guideline = Lifeline
First, let’s discuss physical delivery. There are two traps that people tend to fall into as it pertains to their hand motions and other movements during platform speeches.
Trap A: The first trap is the easiest to commit: planning nothing, and letting all movements be impromptu every time. This mistake may be made out of laziness, or intentionally with the thinking that impromptu gestures are more natural. The main problem with this strategy is that the gestures will almost certainly not be as good as they would be with more time devoted towards optimization.
Trap B: On the other extreme, we have a speech where every movement is scripted and rehearsed. On paper, this makes sense– you probably painstakingly crafted the most persuasive, elegant combination of gestures to guarantee a perfectly optimized physical delivery. In reality, this is likely to create a speech that feels stiff. A “perfect” performance is inhuman and unnatural, a fact which your audience will likely pick up on subconsciously.
To avoid these issues, I would recommend a preparation strategy that uses guidelines as a lifeline. In a way, it combines the best parts of the above strategies while simultaneously avoiding the pitfalls. Scripting and practicing a speech with some go-to movements during certain portions and a general understanding of what to do everywhere else solves the optimization problem of Trap A without falling into the rigidity issue of Trap B.
How do we put this into practice? Start with some gestures you know you want to include, as well as blocking any problem areas and also key points. Then, work from there. You can test if you’re successfully generating guidelines by closing your eyes and pointing to a random part of your script. If you know generally where on the stage you would be and what you would be doing with your hands/arms during those lines, but not exactly, then you’ve succeeded. Completely scripting or completely improvising isn’t the answer– which is why guidelines are your lifeline.
Not Choking: Up The Stakes
By the end of the season, I’m not the only one who’s memorized my speeches. I practice in front of my family so often that they could probably deliver my words as well as I can myself. As a result of all this practice, there’s generally very little pressure when I speak in front of them. But put me in front of a stranger who has never heard my speech before, and there are suddenly very different stakes.
Ever wonder why you can deliver a speech at home without a single stutter, but can’t even remember the most obvious things in front of a finals panel? It’s because you’re dealing with a totally different level of pressure. Upping the stakes during your practice will allow you to slowly acclimate yourself to high levels of pressure, just like the frog in the boiling pot. You don’t want to end up with mom’s spaghetti on your suit because you choked under the bright lights– so up the stakes during practice.
Practically speaking, this can be done in several ways. Change who’s in your audience– give your speech for your non-speech friends. Change the size of your audience– the more organized the performance, the better. Give yourself one take to deliver a speech to go on a public YouTube channel. I’ve even given speeches on FaceTime calls just to practice with a different environment. The techniques are varied and not difficult to find, you just have to find some way to up the stakes.
(FYI: By “choking,” I don’t necessarily mean completely freezing. I mean blanking on your next line, stuttering, anything that wouldn’t happen in practice and is instead a direct result of the added pressure.)
Pathos: Tone Down Your Practice
As usual, the best analogy is sports. With most kinds of sports, you have practices, scrimmages, and gameday. Three separate kinds of events; with three separate levels of energy. I think that the same applies to your speech practice. The words you speak and your physical movements will be consistent from your daily practice performance to your higher stakes practice performance to your tournament performance… but the energy level is not the same, which affects your pathos.
Practicing with the same level of pathos that you would have during the actual tournament performance is a recipe for disaster. Maybe in an ideal world where burnout didn’t happen and you could perform at 100% every day it would work, but it’s not the world we live in. If you try to give 100% every time you practice, that 100% is going to be a lower quality than if you saved that maximum effort for your tournament. Instead, tone down your practice to maybe 75% of the perfect energy level, and crank it up to maybe 85-90% for your higher stakes, less common practices (your “scrimmages”). Then, on gameday, you will be fresh and excited to give 100%, instead of being totally burnt out. To ensure that you still have gas left in the tank for your final performances, tone down your practice.
Hopefully this was helpful to you, and good luck in your preparation!
Jeremiah Mosbey is a current NCFCA-er who competes at the national level. Formerly a policy debater, he made the switch and is enjoying the new challenge of value debate. Debate aside, he competes in a variety of speech events with an emphasis on Platform and Limited Prep. He’s extremely involved in the speech and debate community, crediting much of his growth as a high school-er to the lessons learned and relationships made through NCFCA. Jeremiah loves helping younger competitors and watching them gain the same love for the activity that he has.