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I have watched more than my fair share of speeches. Whether it be online, in-person, or in competitive speech and debate, I have dedicated minutes — nay! hours — to this endeavor. Some have been incredibly instructive, with facts or points of view that I still remember to this day. But even when the speeches aren’t particularly engaging, there is always something new or different hidden within their confines.

This is to say that I think everyone should spend less time at tournaments talking and more time watching speeches, but I severely doubt that I would be able to persuade many of you with that thesis.

More hopefully, this is also to say that I consider myself a fairly adequate judge of how interesting or entertaining a speech is. Perhaps this is why I often find myself puzzled when examining the results of speech and debate tournaments: the speeches that tend to do well in forensics are structurally different from those that tend to do well in the real world. This is because, as my esteemed colleague has noted, the performance rubric for speeches in the real world is not the same as it is in speech and debate.

One of the ways in which this manifests itself is in the fact that speech judges are not making their decisions arbitrarily. They are given specific instructions on who to vote for, and those guidelines are based on the category they are judging. Judges aren’t judging your persuasive as a speech; they are judging it as a persuasive. And you need to tailor your presentation to reflect that reality.

Know What You’re Aiming For

People get speech categories wrong a shocking percentage of the time. How many times have you seen or heard of a speech in a traditionally funny category (e.g. After Dinner or Humorous Interpretation) that just wasn’t that amusing?

This happens because the presenter decided on all of the fine details of the speech itself before picking a category and thus ended up smack dab in the middle of two categories. You should try to avoid that. Decide early and remind yourself often which category you are competing in. Otherwise, you may end up halfway between two categories as well.

If your goal is simply to write a speech that you enjoy performing, this is not a problem! Do not draw nigh and pay no heed, for this advice is not for you! But if you also happen to want to do well with your speech, the no-man’s land between two categories is not the place to be. To be successful in competitive speech and debate, it’s not enough for the judge to enjoy what you’re talking about; you need to check all of the boxes.

Which Boxes?

The ones on the ballots, of course. Your speech, like everyone else’s, is judged according to the ballots for your category. That’s the scoring rubric, and whoever follows that rubric the closest will win. Your job is to follow the rubric as close as you can.

For instance, one of the sections in most platform and limited prep ballots says something along the lines of: “Presents a clear thesis and develops it throughout the speech.” Does your speech do that? Does it check that box? If your thesis isn’t quite clear or developed enough, then you might have some revising to do!

From experience, one of the most common complaints about speech and debate is that judges make their decisions arbitrarily. For some judges, this might very well be the case; we’ve all experienced a judge who simply wasn’t personally interested in our topic and therefore gave us a low rank.

But for most judges, they are simply following the rules — rules, I may add, that are neither arbitrary nor hidden. If you want your rankings to become more consistent, you should adjust your speeches so that they jive with the only common factor that all of your judges share: the ballot.

Know Your Category

That’s enough about judges. Let’s talk about categories again.

Before you figure out which category to aim for, it’s critical to understand what that means in the first place. Every category comes with its own set of expectations, each of which is enumerated on the ballots for said category. You should start there to decide which category is the best fit for your speech idea.

But even after you have made up your mind on which category you will compete in, the ballot is still important. As you are writing (or perhaps rewriting) your speech, ask yourself: am I checking the boxes? If you’re not, it will be that much easier for judges to give you a low rank.

Concluding Remarks

If you want to do well in speech and debate, you don’t need your speech to be a jack of all categories — you need it to be a master of one. And that means internalizing and adhering to the checklists on the ballot. It does not mean completely revamping your speech! But you should keep conscious of the rules for the game that you are playing.

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