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This is a short story, recommendations for revision always appreciated. Glad to have something for you all to read and looking forward to polishing it :)

The Mom and Pop Vote: Unclear Lessons from Unprepared Speeches

In my junior year of high school, I switched from doing policy debate to impromptu speaking. It sounds silly now but this felt like a big change. Debates were hour-long team events full of rules and jargon, discussing the same topic in detail for a year. Impromptu was a five-minute solo endeavor with no reason for rules, since the topic was given to you minutes before your speech. Accordingly, debaters are ultra-competitive logic nerds while impromptu kids are friendly, supportive romantics. Switching events meant I had to completely reinvent my style. Although I had speaking experience, I had no idea what to say or how to say it. All I knew was that I needed to win votes.

This made impromptu speaking super easy.

The hardest part of all speech and debate is remembering that you are trying to win the judges’ votes. I knew all the “rules” and tactics in debate but often forgot about the judges. Occasionally former participants who were off to college would come judge, but our league relied on parent judges who didn’t know the “rules” and didn’t have time to learn them. This made it easy for debaters to excuse losses, complaining about how terrible judges were for voting on “unimportant details.” This was so commonplace amongst debaters I never thought anything of it, but now it makes me laugh. Adults with bills and mortgages would spend weekends listening to us kids fake arguments about politics, and we were still furious at them for not learning the intricacies of our goofy nerd games. At least the college kids understood us when they came home for spring break.

With no background in impromptu, I’d lost my arsenal of excuses and was free to face the facts. The only thing that mattered was votes, and you got votes by giving the judges what they want, rules and research be damned. You picked your topic out of a hat in front of the judges just to confirm you didn’t have any advantages regarding research, insight or time to think. Pleasing the audience for five minutes while loosely talking about the topic you’d picked was all you had to do, and all you could do.

Although this seemed obvious from the outside, impromptu speakers were determined to make impromptu…not impromptu. Veteran impromptu speakers had a formula handed down from their coach: Introduction, three key points, conclusion. Most of the time, they would tell you which part of the speech they were in, and clearly transition from one part of a speech to another. “My three main points will be…My first point…Secondly… Finally…In conclusion…” The only thing they had to do once they learned their topic was think of three key points, and they were nearly done thinking of their speech. Occasionally, kids would just memorize one speech, and just work their drawn topic into the intro.

Parent judges hated this formula. Following an outline in a five-minute speech is time-consuming, meaning you omit details and anecdotes that would get the audience emotionally invested. Outlining your speech deprives you of twists or punchlines that keep an audience interested, and implicitly tells them they don’t need to listen to the whole thing. Trying to outwit the changing topics made things worse. Giving the same outlined five-minute speech regardless of topic doesn’t sound well-prepared, it makes you sound like you’ve rehearsed a poorly-prepared speech. The ultimate indignity was that everyone was doing this. Everyone sounded identically uninterested in their own speech, and parents heard this speech dozens of times over.

My big breakthrough was to ignore the formula and give the parent judges what they wanted - entertainment. I can’t remember a single thing I talked about, but I remember thinking “Oh the parents will like that” a bunch of times before a speech, trying that material out, and being right sometimes.

It was a wild success, the likes of which I had never seen before. A few coaches told me I could be a little less spontaneous, but the parents were thrilled, and voted for me in droves just to prove a point. They gave me compliments they’d never written on my debate ballots. Moms introduced me to their daughters. A few girls asked me out. One time I thought I might lose when someone else abandoned the “three points” rubric, but then they said a scientific fact in the middle of a closing personal anecdote and I knew I was safe. I won tournament after tournament. I had cornered the mom-and-pop vote.

It felt amazing. I had realized that it didn’t really matter what I said or how hard I practiced, what mattered was that I gave my audience what they wanted. I couldn’t explain my success in anything other than common tropes like “give the people what they want” and “know your audience.” This was my secret formula, and it worked flawlessly until the state championship, where I lost nearly every ballot.

What happened at the state championship? My audience changed. A bunch of college kids came back over their spring break to judge. I was so confident, I didn’t realize my loyal constituents had been replaced by people I knew, eagerly awaiting the three points formula they loved. I remember one kid started his speech by saying “It’s hard being a genius” before proceeding into his introduction and three points. I scored lower than that kid, in fact I was last in the heat. That one stung a bit.

There are a lot of things that I’ve been meaning to write about, like the importance of being involved in your local debate league, the importance of really trying to understand your craft, etc. but the lessons I learned from those things are pretty unclear and hard to generalize. I do have one universal piece of public speaking advice: Just before you start speaking, take a second to make sure you’re talking to the people you think you’re talking to. That seems to do some good.

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