COACHES & MENTORS, Part 2 – A Word to Students

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We have already looked at the need for coaches to find their own coaches during the competitive season. Yes. Coaches coach even better when they are coached too.

Now a word to students in training…

Don’t go it alone. None of us are ever too skilled or too experienced to have outgrown the need of a mentor. The mark of a superior competitor is his or her ability to remain teachable.  Some of the most highly decorated competitive speakers and debaters that I have ever coached tend to interrupt critique sessions and blurt, “Don’t tell me what you like, coach; tell me how to get better.” They do not just want validation; they want to be trained and coached. They are like sponges who long to drink up the counsel and insights of others. Good for them.

I personally look for mentors everywhere. Success Magazine happens to be a place where I have found several.  Each month it provides on-going training with interviews, articles and CDs from world renowned experts. I always learn something when I plug-in with an open mind and open heart. This month, an interview with Jack Daly was especially enlightening. Here’s what this 20-year veteran sales expert and trainer himself has to say about coaching…

“If at any stage in life you don’t have a coach or coaches then you are missing out… someone that can weigh-in with an objective eye and give you course direction; someone that you can lean in on and tap their previous experiences that quite frankly might have been going down the wrong path or into the pothole – that person that can fast forward you along in your career because of the experiences that they have had; someone that holds you honest; holds you accountable so that you do the things you say you will do. On the personal side of my life I have 5 coaches or ‘board of directors of my life’ who meet with me 4-6 times a year, one-on-one, and painstakingly go through my goals line-by-line to make sure that I am doing what I said I was going to do. There isn’t a month that goes by when one of these coaches/mentors is not holding my feet accountable. Then when I know that I have these individuals vested in my success then I see myself get up every morning and say, ’I’m going to be held accountable. I want to do this anyway, but now I’ve got an extra raising of the bar. As a result, I need to bring my game!’”

Now it’s your turn, competitors. Bring your game. Choose someone to learn from this year. Be accountable to a coach and work together to take your skills to the next level.  ‘Breathe in’ in the inspiration that your coach offers and soak up his or her guidance. Your relationship with a coach who cares about your success and improvement will make this season of competition a good one and this season of life… great!


COACHES – Everyone needs a mentor!

cheer_pom_pom_sticker__22023It’s about to begin. The onset of the 2014 – 2015 year of competitive speech and debate is now upon us.

So here’s a word to all parents and coaches – find a mentor.

Perhaps you will be responsible for coaching, instructing and mentoring others this year in forensics.  Be sure then to keep your own tanks full. Take time throughout the year to learn from someone who holds a similar role as you. Talk to that person; pray with that person. Learn while you are helping others learn. If you admire trainers from history who are no longer with us, read their books, memoires or diaries. Stay on the hunt for nuggets of inspiration that will keep you motivated. If not, your own tank will run dry and your resources, which could otherwise benefit others, will be depleted. Fill up and hold tight to your own mentors.

And then know this…

As coaches and instructors we will never have all the answers. There will be many times that we need to throw away our play books and metaphorically set down our “megaphones.”  Sometimes our students will not be able to hear us and we may even be uncertain about what to say. Relax. Refocus. Instead, pick up your pom-poms and be the cheerleader.  Great coaches have nothing to prove; they have everything to share.

Here’s how William Arthur Ward, an educator and motivator himself, once put it (this is a precious quotation that was written on the inside of a card I received this summer from one of my students):

“The mediocre teacher tells

The good teacher explains.

The superior teacher demonstrates.

The great teacher inspires.” 

“Inspire” comes from the Latin, inspirare, meaning ‘to breathe in.’  As we ‘breathe in’ and stay inspired ourselves, we will be able to do much more than tell, explain, and demonstrate. We will actually give ‘air’ to others while they tackle challenges in the coming year. Good coaches have chosen their own coaches so that maximum growth can occur while everyone learns together.

Let’s all choose well and breathe in!  I’m rooting for you (and shaking my pom-poms!)



MORE & MORE Questions – Approaching a Platform


Writing a platform, or self-written rehearsed speech, seems like a great option. Of course it does. Of course it should. It is!

Platform speeches give us the opportunity to talk about what is important to us. But lo! As we approach a platform, more questions must be asked and this is the perfect time to ask them before the competitive season launches. Where does a speech writer start? How does someone choose a topic?  How can young speakers truly connect with an older audience and deliver a meaningful message?

Here are some guidelines as you begin to ask these questions and many more. We will start by asking questions that lie at the very core of any speech. The following elements have to be considered from the onset.

Will your speech be…

CURRENT? – having direct bearing on relevant matters; pertinent

COMPELLING? – having a powerful and irresistible effect

CREDIBLE? – worthy of belief or confidence; believable

In addition, it is best that your topic be born from your own core interests, values, or aspirations. Then you are sure to have the passion and enthusiasm that every speaker needs in order to connect with others.

As you begin to narrow down a topic, and  your coaches  concur that your message will indeed be current, compelling, and credible, here are other questions worth asking regarding content:

Do I have a clear thesis and restricted focus for this speech? A good thesis takes a position that will be defended or explained throughout the speech.

How can I be trusted with my message?              

  • What is my personal connection to the topic? Remember a good speech is never just a report.  Again, the audience must believe that you the speaker are truly interested in your topic and invested in your message.
  • Have I included sufficient credible information from others? Evidence from experts and advocates will help support your thesis throughout the speech.

What has the audience heard too often if they are familiar with a particular platform event?  If you will face judges this season who have already heard countless speeches on “subject X,” remember that your responsibility will be to deliver something that is absolutely original and unique, if you want it to be competitive.

Is there a difference between what the audience would like to hear and what they need to know about my topic?

What will my audience already know or think they know about my topic? Once again, your information will have to address any preconceived notions or misconceptions about your topic.

What NEW information will the audience learn from my speech?

How will my speech be memorable?

Will the audience have any other expectations? This includes all of the criteria stated on the ballots from your particular speech league. Review them often while writing your actual speech.

Not only is it wise to ask questions during the speech writing process, it is essential. The good answers to these questions will lay the groundwork for a platform speech packed with purpose, power, and persuasion. Revisit your questions and answers often throughout the process. Then craft your message carefully – make it meaningful and memorable.



WHICH, HOW, WHAT, WHY? – Reasons that will keep you motivated all year


Questions. We all have them.

Answers and reasons. We all need them.

Here’s why…

[ree-zuhn] –

  1. basis or cause for some belief or action
  2. a justification or explanation of a belief or action
  3. mental powers concerned with forming judgments
  4. good sense
  5. sound powers of mind

Before entering competition this year, before making any specific decisions about each speech, take time to answer the following questions. The reasons behind each answer are critical. They will be the basis, justification, and explanation for all the work you are about to do.

We must ask…

WHICH event(s) do you want to compete in this year?

HOW will competing in that event(s) better help develop you as a communicator?

WHAT message do you want to send with each speech?

WHY is your particular speech topic or interpretive selection personally important to you?

Answer these questions based on sound reason. Count the cost now. Of course you will discover more questions and develop more answers along the way, but these particular questions are critical in helping provide rationale and purpose for the preparation and practice that await you.

Washington Irving said it like this:  “Great minds have purposes; others have wishes.” 

God has given you a sound mind, a great mind. So don’t just ‘wish’ for success in the year ahead; work for it. Now is the right time to answer a few hard questions because those answers will be the REASONS to stay on track in the thick of competition.

Think carefully and take the next step based on good  ree-zuhn.


SEEK AND YOU SHALL FIND – Beginning the Journey


Recently we’ve talked about “inching along” during the off-season and the importance of training our voices every season. Diligent efforts have a cumulative effect and garner great results. We all get better (at anything) one small step at a time.

Approaching new speeches requires those same sorts of baby steps. This is the time to hunt for platform topics and cut interpretive scripts. They won’t just fall into our laps or magically appear. Coaches are rarely stocked with lists and scripts for the taking. Competitive selections require careful consideration, adequate research, and lots and lots of R-E-A-D-I-N-G.

Over the years, parents and students have told me countless times, “Ziggy [a made-up name] really wanted to do a Humorous Interpretation [or some other interpretive event], but we just couldn’t find one.”

Here’s what I know…

“Ziggy” and his/her family probably just gave up too soon or neglected to give the process enough attention. Finding a good story that can withstand the rigor of competition takes work. Choosing a worthy cut that will captivate audiences and wow judging panels requires a diligent search. My theory has always been that for every 100 things I read, I will probably discover 1-2 ideas that will be great for competition, and even then there is no guarantee that there will be top ranks and trophies.

But here’s what is true…

Behind-the-scenes preparation, research, and rehearsal are the underpinnings of a speech that will deserve to “win.” We must do our homework. If you are on the hunt for an interpretive piece this year, then read literature of merit that has withstood the test of time. Review short story collections, classic anthologies, and lots of notable chapter books. Choose storylines that will resonate with any audience. Make sure the story includes characters that we all will care about and remember that the arc of the story must fall well within 10 minutes.

Here’s how John Steinbeck said it…

“If a story is not about the hearer, he will not listen.  And here I make a rule – a great and interesting story is about everyone or it will not last.”  ~John Steinbeck

Enjoy the journey as you choose not only a story that you love but that will be well-loved by others. So… keep seeking and you will find. Begin today.

TRAIN & TUNE – Your VOICE is your instrument!


Here’s what we know…

Weight loss and good health call for rigorous exercise regimens in order to train, tighten, and tone muscles. It’s necessary in order to develop our bodies – our temples.

In the same way, musicians and vocalists run scales relentlessly to sharpen the dexterity of their fingers, strengthen the formation of their lips and improve the overall sound of their instrument or tenor of their singing. Of course they do.

Sadly, however, every one of us possesses an “instrument” which seldom receives adequate practice. This instrument is often neglected and is rarely acknowledged for its ability to be improved or developed. I am talking about the human speaking voice.

Here’s what American classrooms were teaching in the late 1930’s and 40’s:

“The public speaker especially must consider an expressive voice as one of the essential tools of his trade; without it he labors under a severe handicap. A voice which carries conviction, a voice which suggests sincerity, a voice which can be heard, a voice which does not irritate or antagonize the hearers; these are prime requisites for the successful speaker.” ~ Your Speaking Voice by Harrison M. Karr, © 1938.

So true, but how do we start?

The good news is that one of the best exercises for voice development is quite simple. Just do this. Read good literature ALOUD for 5-10 minutes several days a week.

Recitation is a sure method to steadily improve the speaking voice. Learn to build expression, practice vocal variation, boost vocabulary and refine word recognition. Ancient Greek orators spent hours rehearsing their rhetoric aloud. Decades ago American public schools offered classes in elocution. In their stead, we must now create our own systems to improve vocal quality. We can do it by exercising and practicing with our “instrument” for a few minutes each day – out loud.

Here’s a great list of classical works of literature to begin oral reading regimens:


And… here’s a link to a great article describing the value of oral reading, written by Keith Polette, author of  Read & Write It Out Loud!  He highlights the benefits beautifully in the article as well as his book. I highly recommend both:


Now, make a reading chart and then practice, practice, practice for a few minutes each day – just as you would with any other instrument. The human voice is a valuable tool but frequently overlooked and often underplayed.  Your consistent training will steadily improve its tone and your ability to use it optimally in communication.

Train, tune, and track your progress this summer. Then you’ll “play” your instrument best.

KEEP ON KEEPING ON – What do we do now?


Accomplishments are the result of small, incremental steps. Remember that there is a race to run during every off-season; it is just run at a different pace.

And here’s what I know…

During the summer many of us don’t feel like we can take another step. Coaches and parents want to re-charge, and students tend to fall into two camps. Some are already prepping briefs and drafting speeches for the fall, but others insist on taking a break from speech, debate , and any sort of formal communication altogether. Understandable.

But on a good day, here’s what you know…

Small, incremental steps forward – even when no one is looking, when there is no visible opponent helping you to keep up your pace – this unseen part of the race can make a good runner become a great one. So use these next couple of months to inch along.

Reading is a great way to begin. Start with many of the books and articles referenced here on previous blog entries and on the resource links of this website. Share some of your favorite ideas in a comment below. Attend a camp, workshop, or league training session to learn something new and reinforce what you already know.

For years, this Earl Nightingale quotation has inspired me. In fact, it has motivated me to live and learn differently ever since I first read it. Mr. Nightingale was one of the 12 surviving Marines who had been on the USS Arizona during the attack at Pearl Harbor. He went on to become a renowned 20th century radio host, a motivational speaker, and eventually an inductee into the National Speakers Association Hall of Fame. He said,

“One hour per day of study will put you at the top of your field within three years. Within five years you’ll be a national authority. In seven years, you can be one of the best people in the world at what you do.”

A few strategic steps during the post-season can make all the difference. So keep quietly training, a little each day.

Refuel. Refill. Reload.

A YEAR in REVIEW – How to Look Back without Losing Your Way

Looking BackWhen a competitive season closes (or at the end of any long-running endeavor for that matter) it is important to look back over the experience carefully. Without proper assessment, we will miss lessons that could serve us well in the future. So how do we review and reflect without regret and remorse? Here’s how…

Students: Wait several days until after your national tournament has concluded. Then find a quiet place and turn up your favorite music through your most comfortable set of ear buds. Sip a refreshing beverage and use sunscreen if ultraviolet rays will be your lighting of choice. This process will take a good 30 minutes if done properly.

Now sit with your final ballots of the season and read them – every ballot; every word. Highlight all suggestions for improvement and honestly consider how to apply these suggestions to future speeches. Breathe deep and keep sipping. Try not to argue with the insights you see. Don’t deflect as you reflect. I call it “owning your ballot.” Talk about these observations with a coach, parent, or peer who has also watched your growth during the season and then discuss plans/goals for the future.

Good work. Now refill your drink and turn up the music – you need a break.

Parents/Coaches: It is worth surveying the students and families in your club at the close of every season. Create one survey for parents and another for students. Ask what worked and what ideas people have for making things even better in the future. Hold a simple potluck luncheon where the surveys can be distributed and discussed. Any variation of these ideas will do – make it as easy or fancy as you like, but do it soon. In a “sport” that focuses on communication, this exchange of information at the end of each season is imperative for good results going forward.  Use these surveys just as students do when they review their ballots. Incorporate and change what you can to make the experience even better next year.

Because here’s what I know…

We are often told “never look back” and “leave the past in the past.” Of course these sayings have merit as we cannot change the past, but we can ALWAYS learn from it if we reflect honestly with a resolve to improve. Here is additional perspective from other great thinkers…

“We are products of our past, but we don’t have to be prisoners of it.” ― Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life 

“Study the past if you would define the future.” – Confucius

All sorts of emotions are present now that we have finished the race – everything from elation to exhaustion. Take just a few more minutes before the summer begins and look back.

Then after you get plenty of rest, you’ll be able to readjust and look forward to continued success in the future.



A Word to WINNERS – How to Speak Like a Champion

Trophy Winners Celebrate Sports VictoryFor many speech and debate students and their coaches, the months of May and June mark the end of the competitive season. National tournaments conclude and final rankings are determined. Here’s what I have noticed over the years…

When someone “loses,” others speak for him/her – a lot. Fellow competitors, parents, friends, and even strangers begin to interject all sorts of sentiments. They erupt with voluminous reasons and tidbits like,

“It’s okay. You’ll do better next time.”

“This was your first year after all.”

“This is such a subjective sport, and you’ve had a great season. Don’t worry about it.”

“Did you see who you were up against? You did great considering the circumstances.”

These utterances are understandable. Of course we want people who we’ve been rooting for to come out on top. So, when we sense that someone we care about is met with disappointment, we may even forget momentarily that in competitive forensics there really are no losers – ever. No matter the rankings, anyone who attempts to improve their communication skills will be a winner in the long run, in the game of life.

But I digress. Here is the more delicate issue that is often overlooked. What should a champion sound like after a win? I have just illustrated how others often will speak for those who do not come home with a trophy, but part of our human nature is fascinated with winners. We all wait to hear (with subconscious scrutiny, I might add) from those who take top honors and earn the title of “champion.” Everyone has witnessed this to some degree in athletic arenas, where within seconds of a win, sportscasters race to secure interviews with the victors. The whole world wants to hear what they have to say.

So, a word to all 2014 speech and debate champions:

Speak with brevity, grace, and gratitude. Others will want to know how you feel, how you trained, and how they can become like you in the future. You will be questioned and complimented, sometimes when you feel ill-prepared to respond, and yet because you are now a recognized public speaker, expectations will be high. Therefore, you must speak from the heart with genuine appreciation. Be sure never to deflect, dismiss, or deny a compliment. They are gifts. True modesty allows for a simple “thank you” which will never be perceived as arrogance if it is spoken sincerely. After that, just be sure to live in such a way that we will keep rooting for you in the years to come.

With winning comes much responsibility. Congratulations!


Language is uniquely used by humankind. Some sea creatures are known to send/receive communications via sonar, bats use radar, lions roar, birds sing, bees buzz. Yes, they make sounds and send signals, but we use words and have a unique ability to craft very specific messages.

Here are some additional facts that I uncovered for a talk I delivered to a group of professionals at the end of 2013. They come from various sources – do your own research to verify and learn more statistics yourself:

  • There are between 6000 and 7000 languages in the world, spoken by 7 billion people (additionally these languages have as many as 7,000 different dialects)
  • On the continent of Africa there are more than 1000 different languages spoken
  • In New York City there are 800 different languages spoken
  • More than half of the world’s population is bilingual or multilingual
  • Of all the languages in the world, English has the largest vocabulary
  • There are approximately 500,000  words in the Oxford English Dictionary with nearly 1,000 new entries each year
  • Another ½ million scientific/technical terms have not yet been catalogued in the dictionary
  • We speak approximately 4800 words per day

Speech and debate competitors love language. They know that words are the vehicle by which they are able to inform, persuade, and inspire. Public speakers wield words and are diligent about crafting their messages.

But here’s what I know.

As much as we are designed to communicate, the entire process is quite delicate. We say things we shouldn’t and often neglect to say what we should or could. So, here’s a proposal, especially for those of you at national competitions where you are observing some of the best young speakers in the country.

If you think a good thought in your mind,… say it with your mouth.

Before the tournament wraps, verbally acknowledge the good thoughts you have been rolling around in your mind. Have you been impressed by another competitor’s outside-of-the-room performance, a coach’s unsolicited kindness, or a parent’s selfless sacrifice? It is easy to miss these opportunities, but a little bit of praise, the tiniest offering of gratitude, promotes the best use of language. Good words water the soul.

As a tournament comes to an end, there is inevitably a measure of disappointment for some. Let’s all reach down deep and change-up our game plans. Let your final moments at the competition be filled with uttering the good thoughts you’ve been thinking in your mind. Go say them with your mouth.