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!”


Message not Manner – Be the WINDOW

light_through_a_window Here’s a favorite insight from Dale Carnegie:

“A good window does not call attention to itself. It merely lets in the light. Good speakers are like that. They are so natural that their hearers never notice their manner of speaking; they are conscious only of the message.” ~ from Public Speaking for Success, p.153.

So be a “window” this year and stay intentional about not “blocking the view.”  Let’s not get in the way of our own message.

Here’s what we know…

The speaker’s delivery should never draw attention to itself. Nothing the speaker does vocally or physically should interrupt the communication process. The following specifics will help us minimize our manner and instead magnify our message:

  1. Never refer to parts of a speech in the speech. For example, referencing parts of an outline (i.e., “my thesis,” “for my first point,” “in conclusion.”) interrupts good communication. Instead, use creative language and rhetoric to help your audience track your thinking rather than cloud your message by identifying components of the speech itself. Then you will be more window-like.
  2. Do not merely think of your speech in terms of its needed components as a forensics event (i.e., “I don’t have enough blocking,” “I need more accents,” “I have to have three points”). Of course, I ultimately always encourage students to address and include these elements, but we must not put the cart before the horse. Your story or message must define these fundamentals, not the other way around. For example, find a story worth telling and discover the characters and blocking imbedded in the tale. Simply adding superfluous machinations will be a distraction and get in the way of your message or moral.
  3. Ask people you trust to evaluate your speech either as a “blind judge” or a “deaf judge.” This will help you refine your actual delivery so that nothing about your voice or body will deter your listeners.

So, get out of the way and be a window this year. Your message and audience can then connect more easily and we will see what you want to tell us.

Here’s to looking right through you…

Utter Don’t Mutter – What’s Your MOTTO?


The word “motto” is derived from the Latin muttire, meaning “mutter” and Italian motto, meaning “word” or “utterance.”

The dictionary actually defines it as “a maxim adopted as an expression of the guiding principle of a person, organization, city, etc.”

I highly recommend that you and your club choose a motto to live by this year. When everyone else is muttering and murmuring, have an inspirational maxim ready to roll off your lips. Let it represent the guiding principles and philosophy of your club as you train and compete.

For more than a decade, as a club director I would launch each season with a new motto. I spent time every summer listening for themes and mantras that I heard in the media, read in books, or noticed on ad campaigns. I was on high alert, searching for a catchy slogan that my competitors would be able to adopt as their own.  Our motto would serve as a source of  inspiration during the highs and lows of rigorous competition.

Here were some of our favorites…

 “Enjoy the journey (not just the destination)”

“It’s not the triumph, but the struggle”

“Be hardy”  (Louis Zamperini’s Unbroken story)

“Just one more degree” (212 makes it boil)

“Rethink Possible”

Interestingly, many clubs, teams and corporations rally around mottos and use them as part of their identity. Even Jessie Pavelka, a fitness expert and one of the new trainers on this year’s Biggest Loser gave this insight in a recent People Magazine interview,

Every successful team has a strong motto.Finding motivation is a huge issue in itself, so Pavelka and [the other trainer] Widerstrom have taken it under their belt to create a slogan with their teams to stay dedicated. “I tell my team to ‘Take the body and the mind will follow,’ says Pavelka. “I tell them to commit to five minutes – that’s it – and then the mind will catch up with that.” 

So what’s your slogan?

When competition feels daunting and the demands of speech and debate seem too taxing, it will be easy for all of us to grumble and complain under our breaths. Instead, why not have words on the tip of our tongues that will unify, encourage, and motivate?

Choose a motto with a message. Then don’t just mutter, but UTTER your mantra and embrace its meaning all year long. Echo it with your coaches, repeat it to your club-mates, and then tell it to yourself as often as you need.

This year… say your motto; pray your motto; display your motto!


Choose a Message, Not a Topic – the Need for Human CONNECTION!

Human Connection - Depositphotos_48247015_s-620x330

Don’t just write a speech on a topic that interests you this year.

Don’t just construct a 1AC.

That’s the wrong approach. It’s a slippery slope and you will be sliding in the wrong direction. Beware!

Here’s what I mean…

Human beings desire genuine community –  with God, with one another, and even with themselves. Language is the vehicle by which human connection takes place. Therefore, a speech has the potential to be so much more than a mere composition of words. A good speech will promote better connection and extend the great conversation of mankind. A purely technical attempt at speech writing will backfire. A meaningful speech has heart and soul.

Furthermore, because we are born to communicate, our instincts serve us well as listeners too. Good speech writers understand that their audiences will quickly discern when they are being conned or manipulated. Audiences, and judging panels, can sense when a speech is simply a contrived composition that merely meets event rules or fills the skeletal structure of an outline.

Just putting words together and delivering those words aloud does not a connection make!  In fact, we must take care that we do not create a dis-connection.

Here’s what Dananjaya Hettiarachchi, this year’s newly crowned World Champion of Public Speaking by Toastmaster’s International knows after years of competitive speech writing,

“Hettiarachchi says that a common mistake beginners make when crafting their speeches is by starting with a topic. Instead, he says you should begin with a message, and it should be as concise as possible. This message is whatever you want your audience to be thinking about when your presentation concludes.”

This champion speaker gives other helpful tips this month in a Business Insider Australia article by Richard Feloni. You can read it here:


So speech coaches, rather than ask our young speech writers, “What’s your speech topic this year?” we must help them discover what message they want or need to share. Debate coaches, we will be careful to do much more than help our debaters add definitions, clarify criteria, or re-tag “harms” in their constructives and merely argue point-for-point in their rebuttals.

All year long, we will remind one another to…

  • make a connection
  • put a face on the facts
  • tell a moving story
  • extend a conversation

Of course, each speech will contain structure and organization, and comply with all of your forensic league’s rules. But take time to reach down deep. Don’t forget the importance of your message just because you’ve chosen a topic.

We can’t wait to connect with you this year!