He’s asleep. He’s literally asleep.
When that thought pierced into my mind, my initial reaction was one of astonishment. I was roughly halfway through my Persuasive speech, and five feet in front of me was the head judge, his head peacefully at rest on his chair, completely unconscious of what I was saying. To be fair, it was late at night, I was speaking near the end of the final speech pattern of the day, and the tournament had long-since been behind schedule. No one wanted to be there and everyone wanted to be asleep. But despite all of these factors, it had never occurred to me that anyone would be so bold as to take the initiative.
As my speech was nearing its closure, my initial surprise morphed into what can only be described as intense trepidation as another, even more disturbing thought took precedence over the first: how am I going to shake his hand? This was a tournament in the joyous days before the pandemic, meaning that I was expected to personally thank each of the judges before I could escape. Including the one who was, by this point, most definitely sound asleep. My solution was to feign being under the weather, thank all of the judges simultaneously, and walk away as quickly as possible.
While I avoided disaster that evening, it got me thinking: what is the best way to prevent such an occurrence from happening again? Anyone who has competed in speech and debate for a meaningful amount of time has had that one judge: the one so confused, tired, or downright uninterested that it feels like nothing can win them over. Is it possible to keep them attentive?
This article will answer that question with a resounding yes, but more importantly, it will ask the question “how?” A critical aspect of a successful speech is that it retains the interest of its audience. Without spectator engagement, content is meaningless. It doesn’t matter how pertinent or profound your speech is if the audience is not focused enough to understand it; if the judge’s mind is elsewhere, your content doesn’t matter.
This principle applies universally in forensics. Thus, ensuring that as many of the judge’s brain cells as possible are flowing in your direction is the first step to having any kind of impact on them. Moreover, this is true for every single category; whether you are jauntily rebutting your opponent’s points in a debate round, nailing your tear-wrenching interpretive speech, or meticulously critiquing your limited prep topic, captivating and retaining the judge’s attention remains a prerequisite to success.
Further, preserving attention is particularly important because of the physical and mental constraints of a tournament. For one thing, there will always be those dreaded late-night rounds where nobody wants to be anywhere near the competition room. At those moments, your judges have been active for the entire day, and what little mental power they have managed to preserve is trying its hardest to direct itself away from your speech. Having a speech that keeps those judges entertained is imperative.
(It is both intriguing and frightening to note that the most important rounds occur when everyone is the most tired — that is, at the end of the tournament — so it is no accident that the most engaging speeches generally win over the most pertinent.)
Understanding the importance of judge engagement is one thing, but having an effective strategy to retain it is another. To this end, I have two suggestions.
The first suggestion is to infuse variance within your delivery and your content. One of the primary factors that make speeches seem hollow or unengaging is that they never change. There are two ways to avoid that.
Firstly, mix up your delivery throughout your speech. This involves varying your tone, your speed, and your facial expressions and hand gestures. For platforms, purposefully script out some areas of your speech where you will speak fast and other areas where you will slow down. Further, consider which facial expressions and gesticulations are most appropriate and implement them. You can also practice doing the same for limited prep, which in the long run will instill variance into your natural speaking style. That’s the ultimate goal.
Secondly, change up your material. I have seen a lot of speeches in my time, and almost every single one of them — even the incredibly engaging ones — had at least one or two sections that could have been cut out or revised. Your speech probably has those sections as well. As such, examine your script and switch things up in spots that judges either never react to or haven’t mentioned.
The second suggestion is to ask rhetorical questions. These kinds of questions are a great excuse to expound on something that you just said while making it seem as if it was the audience who requested such exposition. The trick here is to insert a clarifying question immediately after a confusing or complex statement, and then answer your own question. Why does this keep your audience engaged? It does so for two reasons.
Firstly, it is the perfect excuse to mix up your delivery. Questions are the easiest parts of a speech to deliver naturally because we are all experts at asking them — we do it every day with built-in inflection.
Secondly, questions prevent the judge from getting confused. Have you noticed that, while watching a movie or reading a book, when the plot becomes muddled, your attention starts to fade? That’s the same experience judges have when they stop understanding your speech. Asking rhetorical questions fixes that.
Retaining your audience’s attention is a prerequisite to success. These tips are the first step to doing so, even when it is the most difficult. Especially when it is the most difficult. There will always be that one judge who will be uninterested anyways — that’s out of your control. But, with these tips, at least you will keep them awake. Probably.