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.


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!


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!


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.



Be sure you know how to spell SUCCESS – Goal Setting

How-to-Spell-SuccessIn 1967 Aretha Franklin had the whole world spelling “r-e-s-p-e-c-t” in her hit R&B song. It was catchy, clever, and unforgettable.

On the forensics front, prior to the national tournament we must make sure we know how to spell ‘S-U-C-C-E-S-S.’ How about a memorable acrostic that would help students and coaches do just that?

Nope. It didn’t work…

S = Speak?

U = Utter?

C = Count the…

C = Cost? (oh brother)

E = Exercise?

S = Strive?

S = Suitcase? (huh?)

Not success. Fail. Acrostic FAILURE! Sigh…

Thankfully, there is no real need for a literal spelling of success. Let me say it like this.

We all realize that the tangible accolades at a national tournament have merit (i.e., ranks, titles, medals, or trophies). After all, this is a competitive venue where students have worked hard and want to perform well. Nevertheless, even though these awards are worth striving for, none of them should ultimately define true success.

Here’s a recommendation. Prior to the tournament, coaches and competitors should set very specific goals that fall under two simple categories.

Personal Goals – these will include specific objectives that you hope to achieve related to personal growth. Is there another competitor/coach that you have admired all year and would like to finally meet? Do you struggle with ‘small talk’ in the hallways outside of competition rooms? Is it time to hone conversational skills and learn to meet/greet others in a casual manner? How many new email addresses would you like to come home with and thereby expand your network? Will you interface with the tournament director and express your gratitude? There are countless other examples.

Performance Goals – these will include specific objectives related to events. They should help competitors target particular improvements that have been pinpointed on previous ballots or help them incorporate ideas that they have received from coaches/parents throughout the year. Things like better times, ranks, audience connection, and overall improved performance related to ballot criteria.

WRITE DOWN THESE GOALS in advance. Then, by the end of the tournament, you will know whether or not you have accomplished what you set out to do. When you meet your goals you have been successful.

This is a great way to define success, whether or not you know how to spell it!


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!