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.


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.

Saying Someone Else’s Words – It’s All in the Translation

Hats off to the interpretive speakers who are headed to Nationals this year!  You have selected, written, or adapted great works of literature to bring to life for your listeners. You are storytellers creating what is called “theatre of the mind.” There is much to say about the nuances and difficulty of these kinds of speeches, but we will consider a very specific practice technique here to help as you “spit and polish” your stories before the final tournament of the year.

Consider this insight from academy award winner, Jack Lemmon…

Acting doesn’t have anything to do with listening to the words. We never really listen, in general conversation, to what another person is saying. We LISTEN TO WHAT THEY MEAN. And what they mean is often quite apart from the words. When you see a scene between two actors that really comes off you can be [darn] sure they’re not listening to each other ‑‑ they’re feeling what the other person is trying to get at.”

So try this. Translate. During your next practice session, take “beats” or small scenes from your selection and run them one more time with words that the author has NOT written. Use the vernacular or everyday language. Consider the inner monologues of your characters and the subtext of your storyline. Explore the MEANING behind the words.  Now return to the actual words of the script with greater insight and sincerity.

Champion interpreters never just recite the lines for the author; they interpret them and lift the story off the page.

We all LOVE stories and can’t wait to hear and feel the meanings of the stories you are bringing to Nationals!



Caution – Don’t Overdo It

A few of these entries have addressed the issue of applying adequate practice prior to competing at the national level, but I must also address the danger of “overworking” a speech.  We must NEVER SOUND REHEARSED, affected, or like we are on “auto-pilot.” It is easy to fall into rhythmic, overly-rehearsed patterns at this place in the competitive season because competitors actually have said their speeches hundreds of times! Beware.

If you fear this is the case, and you are not delivering from an honest, heartfelt place – here are a couple of suggestions. Sit down.  Try giving your speech, or portions of it, to someone at the kitchen table. This should reinstate a conversational quality to your delivery. Another idea is to discuss your “message” or “moral” with someone you trust, and do not use any language from your speech or script. Refocus. Be sure to keep caring about the essence of your message. Imagine in your mind’s eye your audiences and why you want them to hear it, even though the audience may primarily be judges, fellow competitors, and handfuls of visitors in the room. You have worked hard to develop these speeches and earn your bid to Nationals.  Return to your “first love” [remember the reasons for composing these speeches months ago] and render your messages genuinely.

Here’s one of my favorite exhortations from Dale Carnegie in his book, Public Speaking for Success, [a great read for this summer, by the way]

“If you speak in public so that the people hearing you will suspect that you have had training in public speaking, you will not be a credit to your instructor. To be truly effective, you must speak with such intensified and exalted naturalness that your auditors will never dream that you have been trained. 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.” p. 153

Be those windows and let in the light!

The most overlooked item of any competitive dress code: your smile!

Practice smilingNow that we are in the season of regional and national speech competitions, students are assessing their wardrobes and tournament attire one more time.  No one should overlook one of the most important items we own. As the saying goes, “You’re not completely dressed without a SMILE.” Prior to attending Nationals (or any speaking event), practice smiling in front of a mirror and learn what smile suits you best.  Be sure to engage eye muscles in conjunction with upturned lips. Look natural and believable.  There is a growing body of research which explains the value of smiling. [Link] An appealing smile is one of the most important elements of a good first impression. It also is the first “message” of any speech.