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“If one of my sandwiches doesn’t hit the spot, there’s something seriously wrong with your spot.”

Jimmy John’s Sandwiches

If you like Jimmy John’s as much as I do, you’ve seen a sign with these words in one of their stores many times. While it’s clearly a joke, there is truth that can be extracted from it: just because people don’t want what you’re selling, doesn’t mean that what you’re selling is bad. Specifically, I want you to consider this idea in the context of speech. When speeches don’t perform to your expectations at a particular tournament, it can be discouraging. The temptation is always to drop or to completely revamp the script– but is that the right reaction? This article is directed at those in the higher levels of speech competition, and the message is simple: you may need to give it another shot.
This may not be something that you struggle with, which is fine– feel free to skip this article. However, I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that I have high expectations for my speeches, and it’s frustrating when they aren’t met. Especially frustrating are speeches that are on the brink of where you want them to be, but can’t seem to make it over the edge. I’ve gone through my fair share of speeches, and I’ve treated them all differently over the season’s course. Some have stayed completely the same, some have undergone minor revisions, and some have been completely redone or dropped altogether. Based on my own experiences, I’d like to share my thoughts on the topic.

Why does it deserve another chance?

My reasoning is this: the subjectivity that is involved in speech adjudication means that your final ranking may not (and in fact probably won’t) be reflective of the actual quality of your speech. What does this mean? Your speech may not be the issue, but rather your judge’s “spots.” Different people like different things, and thus, you shouldn’t become discouraged because a particular group of people didn’t like what you had to offer. So, it may be best to receive feedback from a wider range of people before ditching what may be a perfectly excellent piece.
If you believe in your speech and truly want your audience to hear what you have to say, you may have to be patient. I’ve given speeches at tournaments and been underwhelmed by the response, but because I truly want to share what I’m saying, I keep going. More often than not, I’m surprised to realize that I simply had to wait for the right audience to get the reaction that I was expecting. When we’re too hasty to scrap a speech, we’re missing a potential opportunity to share our words with someone who could truly have been impacted.
If you’re a highly competitive speaker (I’m one myself, and I’m writing this for those who are like me), keep in mind that finals rankings at competitive tournaments are a game of inches. The slightest inclination of a judge towards one speech or another that has a personal significance for them could mean the difference between multiple rankings. If you aren’t placing as high as you’d like and don’t feel like you can improve, don’t let your first desire be to give up or settle for a full rewrite. Practice some perseverance and I guarantee that you’ll eventually perform for people that it really resonates with– the ultimate target audience for your speech. Those people will not be able to thank you enough for pushing on, so give it another chance. That panel may be right around the corner.

Some caveats…

Obviously, I’m not trying to say that you should never drop an event. For example, if your ballots indicate dissatisfaction across the board, that’s something to take seriously. What I’m cautioning against is not continuing to go on despite a majority of people telling you not to, but rather not to make a rash decision because of the reaction from a specific judge or panel. If you’re not meeting your goal of breaking consistently, that may mean it’s time for more serious revisions– but I’m referring more to situations where your expectations for yourself are pretty high.
Another time when dropping your speech could be wise is when it doesn’t resonate with you. If you don’t think that your words are worth sharing, switch to an idea that is. I’m not telling you to keep performing a speech that you hate, but instead that you shouldn’t give up on an idea you believe in. In most cases, you shouldn’t keep giving a speech that you don’t even care about, even if your judges seem to enjoy it. Better to replace it with something that is relevant, enjoyable, and important to you. One final thought: if it’s important enough to you, you should want to give the speech regardless of how well it performs. Don’t let discouraging rankings scare you away from giving it.
In conclusion: if it feels like you’ve hit a solid glass ceiling, remember that the missing piece of the puzzle may not be you– it may be your audience. Don’t blame everything on the judges, but don’t put it all on yourself either– speech is not an objective science. Consider making small adjustments based on common critiques as opposed to a complete overhaul or ditching the topic. Unless it truly seems necessary, keep persevering and I guarantee you’ll be happy you did.

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.

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