Friday, April 23, 2010

Students Preparing for Competitive Speaking

(This post is specifically written for students preparing for competitive speaking events.  However, professionals and non-competing students WILL get some utility from it.)


I work with student leadership organizations at over 150 events every year and have for almost 20 years.  These organizations include BPA, DECA, FBLA, FCCLA, FFA, HOSA, NHS, SkillsUSA, Student Council, TSA, and 4-H.  One of the most beneficial elements of these organizations is all the public speaking they require their students to do.  These can range from competitive events to community presentations to serving as an elected student leader and presenting in a myriad of ways. 

Today’s post is a top ten list for students involved in competitive speaking.  It is bent towards students involved in the FFA Prepared Public Speaking CDE for two reasons:  1)  Since FFA is my background and I was a state winner in it, that is what I know most.  2)  Of all the coaching I currently do for students and their speeches, 99% of it is in the FFA world.  However, if you are not an FFA member, still peruse the list to see if you can pick up any eggs you can crack the next time you are putting together your omelet of speaking excellence.


(Disclaimer – these coaching points do not guarantee success.  Winning a speech contest has many variables out of your control.  However, ignoring these points can guarantee you a large uphill battle.  Also, remember that how you place in a competition is mostly about how the judges thought you did that day in comparison to the other speakers in your division.  If you place first, don’t let it relax your work ethic for future competitions.  If you don’t win, let it fuel you to work harder.)

1.  Start preparing early.  As a student, giving this speech is not the only thing on your to do list and is probably not the most important.  However, if you want to set yourself up for success, start preparing early.  You should have your speech totally written no later than 3 weeks before your first competition.

2.  Pick a topic that are willing to study, study, study, and study.  When you walk into the competition room, you should represent an iceberg.  The speech you are delivering is just the ice showing on top of the water.  All the knowledge you have gained about your topic either through study or experience is the glacier underneath.  

3.  Have a Statement of Purpose in your speech between your one to two paragraph opening and your first point.  This is similar to a thesis statement.  It is the action-oriented sentence that describes what your speech is about.  The question you are answering.  The stance you are taking.  It is the billboard of your speech.

4.  Figure out all the key points you could possibly include to support your Statement of Purpose and then narrow that list down to three.  These are the three main points of your speech.  Your task as you do your research is to find the most interesting, freshest and story-based information you can to support each point

5.  As you do your research, the best information you can get is going to be from personal interviews.  Call or personally visit local, state, national and even global experts in your topic area and interview them.  You won’t be able to use all the data in your speech, but they might be useful during the Q&A.  I have judged many speech contests and one of the most impressive things you can do to earn points with the judges is to not only do a great job during the Q&A, but use stories in your answers that demonstrates how much you know about your topic.

6.  There is no great writing.  There is only great re-writing.  Another reason why you want to start early in your preparation is so you have time and space to write and re-write your speech.  Use stories, active voice, strong language (instead of saying “it rained extremely hard”, say “it was a monsoon”), have your English teacher check for grammar, use simple words (avoid using jargon or industry terms just to look smarter) and double and triple check for spelling, layout and grammar errors.

7.  Once the three-week mark happens, stop tweaking your speech and consider it CR – Contest Ready.  This is a critical step because you need three weeks to memorize it totally and prepare for your questions.  Visit this post for a no-fail memorization formula.  Regarding the questions, everything in your speech is fair game.  If you say the word corn, the judges could ask you the current market price of corn.  If you mention a person’s name, I can ask you more about them.  Read through your speech and make a list of questions.  Then have your Ag teacher do the same.  Then have someone in the industry do the same.  Then have someone who knows nothing about your topic do the same.  Combine these four lists and that is the list of questions you should study and develop great answers to.

8.  Practice to be natural.  I know it sounds counterintuitive, but the more you practice (if you do it right), the more natural you can be at the competition.  Robotic delivery isn’t a by-product of too much practice.  Robotic delivery is a by-product of delivering practiced material in a robotic way.  Don’t fall in the trap of thinking, “I don’t want to practice too much because I want to be myself.”  You do want to be yourself, but you want to be the best of yourself.  Therefore, you need to get in as much live practice as possible.  Present your speech in front of your class, in front of a different class, at home, at local service clubs (Lions, Kiwanis, Rotary, etc.), at jackpot speech competitions, etc.  After each practice, make notes on what questions the “judges” asked you and on improvements areas.

9.  Body language is 75% of the game.  The actual scoring sheet reflects this.  I can score you more on how you are speaking and how you look than on what you say.  However, most students spend all their time worrying about what’s in their speech instead of working on how they are delivering it.  Here are a few body language basics you should learn and practice.  The more you practice them before the contest, the more they will become second nature and you won’t have to think about them in the contest room.  You can spend your time thinking about how well you are connecting with the judges.

1. Eye Contact – Look the judges directly in the eye, hold it for a few seconds and then move on to another judge.  You want them to feel like you are speaking directly to them.  Your eyes, facial expressions and body movement should reflect passion and interest in your topic and in delivering it.  If I video taped you presenting your speech and then played it back without the audio, would you look like someone who was excited and passionate about your topic?

2. Voice Variety – You want it!  You need variety in the pace of your voice (fast/slow), tone of your voice (serious/humorous) and volume (loud/soft).  The most important times to adjust your voice is when you really want the judges’ attention.  Etc. - slow down to emphasize a key point. 

3. Hand Gestures – You want to have your hands in motion most of the time.  They should be in a front of you and moving naturally with the flow of your sentences.  You can periodically put them at your side or just one at your side, but don’t leave them there for very long.  Never put them behind your back, hold them in front of you or put them in your pocket.  The emotion and passion of your speech comes through your eyes first and your hand gestures second.

4. Walking – You should walk in between paragraphs.  A few steps are all you need.  When you do stop, imagine your shoes are filled with concrete and keep them planted.  Don’t be stiff, but also don’t go dancing with the stars.

10.  Being nervous is good.  Read this post to find out why and how to control your nerves.


Best of luck!  Let me know if I can help! or look me up on Facebook.

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