How To Talk: 10 Steps To Spectacular Speech

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If you’re new to speech and debate and you’re unsure of where to begin, this is the place to start. But even if you’re in senior division, you should take a step back from your performances and remember that the basics are always worth revisiting. Whether you are competing in extemporaneous speaking, oral interpretation, dramatic interpretation, duo reading, Lincoln-Douglas debate or any other forensics event, the basics remain the same. Here are ten things to consider when preparing for a performance:

1. Practice reading your piece aloud. If you find yourself speaking quickly (and chances are, you will), pause for a moment and take a deep breath so that you can slow down and regain a normal speaking speed.
a. In events where speaking quickly can be to your advantage, such as CX or policy debate, you must remember that an increased speed does not justify a lack of enunciation. Your judge has to be able to understand what you are saying.
b. When you are giving a speech, you must also adjust your volume. If you find that you naturally speak at a loud volume, you should speak more softly during your speech. Conversely, if your normal speaking voice is closer to a whisper, you must raise your voice a bit to ensure that your audience can hear you.

2. Lion face, lemon face. This is a theatre exercise that helps to activate your facial muscles: first, open your eyes and mouth wide, frowning slightly (lion face), then pucker your lips and close your eyes tightly (lemon face). Do this three times in a row. This will help you to speak in a brighter, more relaxed tone that will be more pleasant for your audience.

3. Vocal articulation and pronunciation are crucial. When warming up before giving a speech, repeat tongue-twisters such as “She sells seashells down by the seashore,” “Big blue bugs bleed blue black blood” five times in a row. (Try to do it as fast as you can.) This will reinforce your focus on proper enunciation.

4. Facial expression is key. Smile from time to time, even if the subject of your speech is serious. This serves two purposes: It will help your judge/audience to feel at ease, and it will help you relax.

5. Make eye contact during your speech. You should not stare at one person in particular, but it is important to actually make eye contact instead of looking randomly around the room. When a speaker looks at the back wall instead of looking at his or her audience, it comes across as disconnected. Casually shift your gaze from one person’s face to another as you speak. Act as though you are just having a conversation with your friends. (This rule is standard in all events except for duo reading, in which performers pick a focal point and avoid making direct eye contact with people in the room unless the character is supposed to be addressing an audience.)

6. Stand up straight. Posture is essential when giving a speech; good posture shows that you are sure of yourself and ready to blow the audience away with your oratorical expertise. Stand with your shoulders back and your chest raised slightly. Relax and breathe. (And clean your room. Just kidding.)

7. Avoid repetitive gestures unless they are a characterization element. In speech events with multiple characters, repetition can be helpful because it establishes continuity of characters, but in traditional speech events such as extemporaneous speaking and declamation, your gestures should reflect your speech’s material. Be professional and try to vary your gestures so that you aren’t distracting your audience with a pendulum-like movement. Generally, when giving a traditional speech, your arms should rest casually at your sides most of the time.
a. If you are speaking at a podium in a debate event, do not grip both sides of the podium during your entire speech. This limits your movements drastically and also makes you appear nervous, as if you are desperately clutching the podium to remain steady. Instead, turn your body slightly toward your audience, rest one hand on the podium and use the other to gesture casually. This will show your confidence in your material and your flexibility as a speaker.
b. Don’t pace back and forth. If you are pacing to illustrate the personality of a character you are portraying, such as a mad scientist, a military captain giving orders to his soldiers, or a nervous person about to ask someone on a date, that’s fine. But otherwise, avoid it. It can make you seem anxious and unprepared.

8. For most speech events, you are required to give an introduction before presenting your piece. Read this post on introductions for more information: (In debate, many competitors offer their judges a vocal “road map,” which outlines the speaker’s intentions and is similar to an introduction for speech events.)

9. Ask your teammates what the traditions are for your district so that you can be aware of what is expected.
a. At a tournament, you should write your information on the board (there is usually one provided in the classroom, but if not, you should provide the information to your judge vocally) before your performance. In speech events, you should include your school code, your name, the name of your piece, and your piece’s author. In debate, this is usually your code, your name, and whether you are arguing for the affirmative or negative.
b. In most cases, you should tell your judge “Thank you for judging” before leaving the room after a round. In debate events, it is also customary to shake your opponents’ hands at the end of a round, as well as the hand of your judge.

10. Don’t forget to think outside your speech. Before you begin giving your speech, take a moment to collect your thoughts and take a deep breath. Smile at your audience and ask, “Is the judge ready?” before you begin. Likewise, when you are finished with your performance, let your hands drop to your sides and pause for a moment before leaving the stage area. This is like the conclusion of an essay: if it is missing, your work seems incomplete.

There are several things you can do to develop your speaking ability; these are just the basic elements you need to build on existing talent. In addition, you should always be respectful of other competitors and audience members. When another speaker is preparing to perform, give them your full attention and be polite. When standing in the hallways waiting for a round to begin, keep your volume down. Some schools have thin walls, and hearing incessant chatter during a round can be extremely distracting and break a performer’s concentration. Show respect for your competitors and teammates, and they will show the same respect for you during your rounds.

Anony's picture

Once again, fabulous article!

Quick question related to #10 - at the beginning of the speech, is it encouraged/acceptable to say "good afternoon" or something of that nature? And at the end, should one say "thank you," or simply just walk away?


The answer to both of your questions is to say nothing.  At the start, as Kelli stated, it is acceptable to ask if the judge is ready--but I would only ask if the judge has looked busy for an uncomfortable length of time.  Most often a judge will look at you and give you a nod or smile to let you know they are ready to begin (usually they have to write a few lines on your critique sheet before you perform, so wait for them to look up). 

At the end of your performance have a moment of silence to signal you are done and walk away.  Don't linger too long though!  And I would not say "thank you."  It's kind of understood that you are thankful for the judge being there.  And some judges might see your "thank you" as an attempt to suck-up.  If you want to show appreciation, a tiny smile is all you need.  The only exception to speaking is if you are double entered and you need to leave the room.  Politely ask permission to leave, once you receive it grab your things, and then perhaps say "good luck" to the rest in your round. 

Anony's picture

thanks so much, thedoctor, for your helpful answer! i really appreciate it!

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