Competitive extemporaneous speaking: unchecked rhetoric is a race to the bottom

Extemporaneous speaking (extemp for short) is a competitive event in high school speech and debate where competitors are given thirty minutes to come up with a seven-minute speech on a randomly selected topic. Competitors are judged on their analysis of the topic, their use of sources, and their oratorical presence. A video of the 2004 National Champion in Domestic Extemp can be found here. By putting a non-competitive activity (public speaking) into a competitive arena, students find a fun and engaging way to hone their skills.

In addition to their own knowledge, competitors are allowed to use and cite sources from a tub of evidence they prepare before selecting their topic. All other factors being equal, competitors who cite more sources in their speeches win more. In the past, the standard number of sources for a good speech was three. Three sources in a speech works because most speeches are structured to have three separate points, and while three was not a written rule, it was a known convention. However, competitors over time have defected from this collective agreement in order to improve their chances of winning. In a classic race to the bottom, other competitors deviate from the three-source standard to keep up with their opponents, and over time, the average number of sources per speech has risen to nine.

How is this different from any other race to the bottom? In thirty minutes of preparation, a competitor has to scour mounds of newspaper clippings to find relevant sources, incorporate those sources into a speech outline, memorize the speech, and practice it a few times. Simply, it is impossible to write and practice a speech with nine distinct sources in thirty minutes; so, competitors choose to cite fake sources. Judges rarely check if competitors are citing real sources—one could spend more than the entire speech’s seven minutes back-checking nine sources. In a competitive event that teaches students how to persuasively and eloquently convey information, students are also learning how easy and convenient it is to lie.

Lying in a public speech is not unique to high school forensics—politicians regularly lie in debates, because the short-term benefits of making a seemingly valid point outweigh the long-term effects of a lie. Rep. Michelle Bachman, in the recent Republican Primary Debates, was notorious for this—she regularly misrepresented the views of her opponents (check it out at 2:00 here). Many news organizations, notably the New York Times, try to ‘live fact-check’ these debates, but there is little damage to the liar if they come out of the debate unscathed.

Having nine sources in your extemp speech does not necessarily mean you are citing fake sources. Some competitors craft universal sources for every speech they could possibly give by memorizing a citation for a popular book or study. While these ‘canned sources’ are successful, they defeat the extemporaneous nature of the competition.

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2 responses to “Competitive extemporaneous speaking: unchecked rhetoric is a race to the bottom

  1. Hi Pao,
    In addition to your post I was wondering, Extempers are some of the most diligent people in Forensics. Not only are they competing in an event most speeches know little about, Extempers need to be masters of organization, research, improvised speech delivery, public speaking, and current events in politics/history. They basically have to deliver a research paper after being given a fraction of the time you would take to write one-and deliver it with only the aid of an index card. With so much to focus on, what are some basic things to remember to excel in Extemporaneous Speaking?
    Wishes

  2. I find the best extempers are those who walk into the competition well-versed in current events. You can’t have a high quality speech with information from your tubs alone–you have to have a coherent sense of the issues in order to speak on them. Great extempers are also strategic, and this plays into being knowledgeable about current events. If you know a particular stance on an issue has not been well-received by the media, then you probably shouldn’t give a speech promoting it. Judges are humans too; they all have their own political beliefs and inclinations. Finally, the best extempers compact A LOT of coherent analysis in their speech. You can’t just say state the headline of your sources–you have to delve deep into the topics and give a perspective that is memorable and influential. Yes, this takes a lot of work. But the competitive nature of the event forces students to practice so they can excel, and in the long run, they become extraordinarily skilled at all of the above.

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