How to Start a Speech, Debate, or Mock Trial Team

admissions counseling awards debate mock trial speech Jun 02, 2022

Do you want to start a competitive public speaking team at your school, but you’re not sure where to begin? Here’s a simple step-by-step guide that uses the example of the 2021-2022 Valley International Preparatory High School mock trial team.

STEP ONE: Research your competition.

It’s important to know the rules, regulations, and norms of any competition you attend. In VIPHS’s case, that meant researching multiple mock trial competitions (including the Mock On Tournament of Champions contest and the Constitutional Rights Foundation’s county championship), watching footage of final rounds from previous years, and looking at important deadlines. Families expect a yearly calendar as soon as possible, so we provided them with that information upfront.

STEP TWO: Get administrative support.

If a school doesn’t give permission for their students to attend, all the preparation in the world won’t make a difference. Proactively greeting the decision-makers (typically, school administrators) and explaining the benefits of your competitive public speaking activity is key towards developing clear channels of communication. VIPHS was supportive from the start; they hired ModernBrain to provide targeted coaching for their mock trial team. The National Speech and Debate Association has many resources for new teams to get school approval.

STEP THREE: Bring the team together.

Now that you know the rules and norms of the competition and your school’s administration is supportive, it’s time to start recruiting team members. VIPHS used a Google Form and distributed it in their weekly newsletter to drive interest in the new team. The Google Form asked prospective members for their contact information, their guardians’ contact information, if they were available for the dates of the competition, their preferences for weekly meeting times, their performance experience, and if they had any questions. It also asked them to affirm several statements, including an acknowledgement of how much time it would take, how joining meant putting the dates of competitions before other commitments, and that participation was contingent on good behavior.

Not every person who filled out the Google Form stayed with the team, but enough people were filtered out so the majority of respondents remained throughout the entire school year. It’s better to have a team of eight highly committed students than 50 unreliable ones.

STEP FOUR: Set reasonable goals.

It’s unrealistic to expect a novice team to immediately win a national championship. However, it may be realistic, depending on a team’s level of dedication and access to growth-oriented opportunities, for a team to set local, regional, or state-level targets. Many students join extracurricular teams because they think it’s good for college. However, competitive colleges don’t care about mere involvement in an activity; they want to see action and results. Setting these goals helps orient competitors and develop ambition. In VIPHS’s case, the goal was to take a team of seven novices (and one student who had mock trial experience from two years ago) to qualify for the May Tournament of Champions. While we planned to compete in other contests (at the very least, the Los Angeles CRF county tournament and the University of Pennsylvania’s Ben Franklin championship), we didn’t lose sight of that end-of-season goal.

STEP FIVE: Stay on top of funding.

Most public speaking competitions are expensive. Explaining the reason why they cost so much (tournaments need to cover the cost of hiring judges and buying awards, but also use the tournaments as fundraisers for their own organizations) and how much money competitors should budget helps keep families from becoming upset or pulling out halfway through the year. In VIPHS’s case, our proactive communication with our parent fundraising group covered the cost of two of our major tournaments, families were able to pay for a third, and we were invited to a fourth free-of-charge.

STEP SIX: Keep everyone in the loop.

Teams fall apart when people don’t know what’s going on. In an era of 24/7 notifications, it’s important for team captains and coaches to have multiple ways of reaching students that maintain a professional standard. VIPHS, like all ModernBrain-coached teams, used Google Classroom as a learning management system to keep track of all instructional materials and mock trial cases, REMIND to quickly and transmit messages to all team members (and any parents who wanted to be in the loop), and MailChimp to reach out to the administration, families, and rest of the school.

STEP SEVEN: Celebrate the victories.

Competitive successes generally improve morale. However, every public speaking competition is fundamentally subjective, which means centering everyone on competitions is potentially harmful. As management guru Peter Drucker said, “What gets measured, gets managed.” Developing small rituals to make people happy (such as having everyone spam compliments to each other in the chat after major competitions) helped keep VIPHS motivated and connected. And while anybody making celebration plans should be cognizant of pandemic conditions in the area and take comfort levels into account, it’s good to make time for the team to bond with each other irrespective of awards.

VIPHS sent a team of seven novices and one experienced member to the 2022 Tournament of Champions. This year's field included competitors with two National Championship Titles, 18 Top 15 National Titles, and 27 State Championship Titles. Our novices nearly beat them all, only losing to the champion and directly beating both last year's undefeated division winner. They took 3rd Place in their division, exceeding the goal we set at the start of the year. We’re thankful VIPHS trusted ModernBrain with their students’ extracurricular education and we’re proud of the mock trial team for their accomplishment.

If you’re interested in joining ModernBrain as a private student, you should consider signing up for a free informational session. If you want to join as a group of students from the same school, you can look at our new For Schools page.

To join ModernBrain’s Mock Trial national competition team (which will be launched this fall), you need to have at least one full semester of mock trial experience either from your school or from taking one of our mock trial classes.

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