In front of EYEBALLS – how to practice!


How are you practicing? Let us count the ways…

Everyone is now in the throes of competition. Tournaments have been occurring one after the next for many weeks and months. So, here’s a note about your final at-home practice and polish sessions before the national tournaments ensue…

Be sure to rehearse before an “audience” even at home. Running lines alone in your bedroom or even aloud before the bathroom mirror all by yourself is not the same as delivering in front of faces. Do not tell yourself that you are truly rehearsing unless you are giving your speech before the eyes of another living, breathing soul.

Real communication takes place from one human being to another – it is a dynamic exchange. The exercise of delivering a speech in front of real people will prepare you for the way it will feel when all eyes are on you. This type of “in-your-face” practice will create a scenario like the ones that occur before the judging panel that will be watching during competition rounds.

Many times students have told me, “I don’t know what happened, I went blank” or “I forgot my new revised part” or felt “lost” during their presentation. When I ask what they think happened, I often hear, “I don’t know. I knew it and have been practicing a lot.” Then I ask the differentiating question: “Who did you practice for?” Often I receive blank incredulous looks that beg for further explanation. It is then that I resume my rant, encouraging students to present their speeches in front of others when rehearsing. In this way speakers will be more accustomed to receiving the gaze and attention of onlookers.

We’ll be watching you… if you let us. Please do.


A Note to Coaches – How to Give CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM Effectively – Part 2


Now for the other side of the coin…

Coaches and parents must consider the best ways to offer feedback.  What do we say, when do we say it, and how should it be said?

We have already determined that no one really enjoys being criticized. Young forensic speakers are facing fears that many of us adults have never overcome ourselves. Nevertheless, we have been communicating longer than any adolescent and have had considerably more time to develop our sensibilities about the communication process. What a privilege to help them do the same.

Here are a few tips to help guide any critique session. Before offering advice or criticism, we must ask…

Is it warranted? Do we really need to say anything? I recommend beginning with questions like, “What did you do well? What are the strengths of this speech? What still needs work?” Have the students begin with their own evaluations. This is the best way to guarantee that they are developing their personal instincts about communication. In addition, you will be able to discern what they are ready and able to hear during this particular evaluation. It may be that no additional comments are warranted from the coach at all, especially if the students are able to discover, assess, and correct themselves.

Is it timely? Consider the timeliness of your feedback. Are the students already too fatigued to hear you? Has a session run long? Have they been forced to listen exclusively and not been able to offer their own insights about their performance? Are too many corrections being offered? (I recommend only 1-3 suggestions during any given critique.)

Is it solicited? Does the student WANT your feedback? If not, then do not offer it. The trick will be to avoid acting hurt or wounded if your input is not welcome at the time. Caution – do not take this personally! There are so many thoughts and feelings occurring in the young speaker. Wait. Pray. Let the students “own” their decision to defer and receive criticism from someone else at another time. Move on.

Is it specific?  Aim to hit a definite target, not dispense insights like the wild spray of pellets from a shotgun. A single, clearly articulated perception is far better than lots of sweeping generalizations and dissatisfied observations.

Is it helpful? Have you actually proposed a solution? If you notice that the speaker needs to change course or make specific corrections, be sure to provide suggestions. Nothing is more frustrating than for a student to hear, “Something is wrong, but I just can’t put my finger on it.” As coaches, we must point the speaker to new resources or provide a fresh resolution.  With this is mind, we will keep our own observations in check and be less likely to casually express dissatisfaction. We hold ourselves accountable when we are sure to provide remedies as well as render criticisms.

Is it balanced? Finally, it is best to verbalize things that we like as well as what we think needs improvement. Without both kinds of insight, the evaluation will be lopsided and carries the potential of feeling painful to the student. Many personal development experts recommend inserting critical comments between opening and closing positive observations. Some call it the “Oreo cookie” approach. The critical “filling” will be more digestible when surrounded by the sweet, sincere praise of things the evaluator identifies that are already being done “tastefully.” (Yes, I risk overdoing this metaphor!)

There you have it. Critical feedback should be warranted, timely, solicited, specific, helpful, and balanced. When it is, students will communicate all the better, all the more quickly.

Thousands of years ago, Paul of Tarsus and two young comrades, Silvanus and Timothy, penned an epistle to a church in Thessalonica where they included helpful guidelines that can still easily be applied to those of us who coach budding orators today. They wrote,

“And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone.” (1 Thessalonians 5:14)

As the New Year launches and tournaments continue in full force, I hope that we will labor to be patient with the timid and meek among us – even those who outwardly seem to exhibit confidence and bravado. Seth Godin says, “Deciding to lead, not manage, is the critical choice.” (Tribes, 44) If we are able to forego managing students and instead lead and guide them by providing sincere, inspirational insights, there is no limit to the powerful influence that their “voices” will have in the coming generation.

Accepting Constructive Criticism – Be REMARKABLE! (a word to competitors)

Caution Constructive Criticism imagesHere’s what we know…

Very few of us enjoy being criticized. We are easily inflamed when blamed or shamed. Of course we are. Even the concept of “constructive criticism” sounds suspicious at best. We wonder how receiving a judgment, assessment, or critical remark can actually be ‘constructive.’ We are inclined to believe criticism will be painful; we doubt that it will be profitable.

But here’s an insight from Seth Godin, business guru and best-selling author who accurately describes the human condition in his book Tribes.

“Fear of failure is actually overrated as an excuse. Why? What people are afraid of isn’t failure. It’s blame. Criticism. We choose not to be remarkable because we’re worried about criticism. We hesitate to create innovative movies, launch new human resource initiatives, design a menu that makes diners take notice, or give an audacious sermon because we’re worried, deep down, that someone will hate it and call us on it.”  

For the past 15 years as a speech coach, I have watched hundreds of tweens and teens step into competition rooms where they know that their speeches will be compared to those of the last/next speakers. Remarkable. What a feat! I have the highest regard for these young people. Few adults could survive this rigor. So how should we encourage competitors to endure the countless critiques and evaluations that they will receive this year? How can we help them flourish, not flounder as they are subjected to ongoing criticism?

The most remarkable success that any of us can achieve will come once we realize the value of insightful feedback. It is rare that humans avail themselves of it because of the fears and sensitivity that we have already discussed. But here’s what we know…

The frail and fragile will run from criticism; the fierce will face and embrace it.

Of course, accepting criticism never means that we should feel obligated to please every critic, but it does mean that the more we are able to consider the insights of others, while seeking to build our own skills and sharpen our instincts, the more we will find criticism to be truly constructive.  Typically I have seen novice competitors lament, “Shucks. I blew it;” conversely, varsity champions implore, “How do I get better?” And without exception, those who are receptive to constructive criticism get better faster, much faster.

So, a word to speakers who want to gain more success in competition, to those who want to achieve greater success in life; and to those who truly desire to be heard, understood, and remembered in all communication endeavors – embrace the feedback you receive.

Here are specific steps I recommend:

  1. Write down the comments that coaches and parents offer during club meetings. This process will help you listen to and remember what has been said in a critique session. It will also show that you value the recommendations of those who are taking time to listen to you. This builds good will and respect between both parties.
  2. After a tournament, read your ballots carefully and make a list of what the judges liked most as well as the specific suggestions that they give for improvement. Then choose to make an honest effort to enhance those elements they liked and work hard to incorporate the ideas that they propose to make things better.
  3. Do your best to respond; not react. In the world of competitive speech and debate, your judges are actually rooting for you and are usually quite impressed by your dedication to this sport. Coaches and alumni similarly wish for your best success. Nevertheless, some criticism may feel hurtful along the way. Try to respond to the underlying good intentions rather than react defensively to the criticism.

Also know this. There will certainly be times when constructive comments will conflict, and one ballot may contradict another, but that is not a reason to dismiss the advice altogether. Figure it out. Experiment. Do what you can to use suggestions that sound reasonable. After all, communication is always a two-way street. It’s about connecting with those who hear us. Therefore, it is essential to consider what our listeners have to tell us.

Here’s what Seth Godin goes on to say as he describes times when his books are reviewed by critics:

One bad review doesn’t ruin my day because I realize what a badge of honor it is to get a bit of criticism at all.”  He encourages us to consider, “If the only side effect of the criticism is that you will feel bad about the criticism, then you have to compare that bad feeling with the benefits you’ll get from actually doing the thing worth doing. Being remarkable is exciting, fun, profitable, and great for your career. Feeling bad wears off.” [Tribes, 41.]

The first step in becoming remarkable may just be opening our hearts and souls to the suggestions of others. Try it.

Don’t freak. Just seek to peak as you’re critiqued.

And stay tuned for Part 2 of this post.  (How to Give Criticism Effectively – a word to parents and coaches!)

Much More than Author and Title – Proper INTRODUCTIONS


When we introduce people to one another, we announce their names, their particulars and then offer pleasantries with the purpose of making a connection for the first time.

In the same way, competitive speakers are permitted to write introductions when presenting interpretive selections from literature. This should be done as we would with any other kind of introduction. It is slightly nuanced in the sense that your judging panel is not permitted to respond, but the speaker must remember that this introduction should include enough information to show the merits of the selection and at the same time intrigue the audience about what is to come.

Here’s what we know…

Most forensics leagues require that the title and author be stated for all interpretive work. It may help to disclose the date of original publication or a copyright too, if that provides additional context for the judges. No more than 150 words may be added to the script in single-source interpretations like Dramatic and Humorous Interp. Use those words well! The introduction may open the presentation from the onset or be nestled after an opening scene (what is sometimes referred to as a “teaser”) Either way, the speaker is attempting to make a connection between the piece and the audience. They are being “introduced” to one another.

Here are additional helpful recommendations from Forensics The Winner’s Guide to Speech Contests by Brent C.Oberg, Meriwether Publishing, Ltd., Colorado Springs, © 1995. Oberg says,

“First, you must introduce your audience to the characters, setting, and mood of the literature.  If you are performing a short section of a larger work, you must give the audience a feel for the literature as a whole and tell them what happened before the scene you plan to perform.  Pretend your friends have entered a movie ten minutes late and you must tell them the basic conflict, who the story is about, and what important events and plot twists they have missed.  Finally, give a short preview of the scene you will perform so that your listeners will be able to follow your performance easily, focusing on your performance and interpretation rather than the plot of your selection.  Be careful not to reveal the resolution of your story or piece, though—you want there to be some element of suspense for the audience.” (101)

Finally, give your audience a reason to listen to your selection. What value does it hold for them? Why should they care about the storyline and the characters who take part? How will they be able to identify with them? Again, the introduction provides an opportunity for the universal appeal of the story to be highlighted so that a good connection can be made from the start. Oberg goes on to say,

“For your performance to have impact, there must be a larger reason you have selected your literature than simply thinking it will help you win.  What do you feel the audience can learn from your piece of literature?  What new insights to the literature will your interpretation provide?  Why does this piece have literary merit?  If you answer these questions in the introduction of your interpretation, you will be surprised to find that your piece will be regarded by judges as more substantive and how few judges will believe it to be lacking in literary merit.” (101)

Now you have it. Give careful thought to the way in which you will introduce your selection. Offer enough information for the audience to understand the backdrop of your story as well as its overall significance.

With a good introduction, we are all much more likely to say,

“Pleased to have met you, and we’ll not soon forget you!”