The Night Before National Finals: Advice for In-Person Showcase Rounds

debate speech Jun 20, 2022

The final rounds of online public speaking contests were intimidating. Students typically put in countless hours of practice to achieve this honor. They were exhausted after days of constant competition. They were worried about a computer or internet error getting in the way of their performance. And the underlying fact that many finals were recorded, preserving their presentations online, added another layer of pressure.

Now, we expect many tournaments in the 2022-2023 season to follow the National Speech and Debate Association’s lead and return to in-person opportunities. While the final rounds of these contests won’t have the same sort of WiFi-related pressures as their online counterparts, many speakers will go into this new season having no experience with the in-person settings.

Many students won’t struggle too much with adjusting to a typical preliminary round, which will likely be held in a normal-sized classroom without many more audience members than the competitors and judges. However, we expect the shift to final rounds with large audiences to pose more of a challenge. To help the community readjust, we have five pieces of advice based on our coaches’ experiences mentoring students before one of the highest-pressure final round settings imaginable: the National Speech and Debate Association’s national championship rounds, which are held on a stage in front of thousands of audience members.

TIP #1: Control the crowd.

There’s a plethora of evidence that points to the impacts of an audience on sports performance. While there’s limited research into how a crowd affects speech performance, there’s (anecdotally) a large benefit to getting the crowd on your side.

When Coach Kate (ModernBrain) won the NSDA Impromptu national championship, she brought along a big, supportive group to make sure she’d get at least some laughter for her jokes. As soon as a few audience members laugh, their peers feel more comfortable mirroring that reaction. However, her group was also comfortable laughing, applauding, and being friendly towards her opponents. This avoided any feeling of undue bias or gamesmanship, things that create an uncomfortable experience for judges. If you’re not part of a large team, that’s fine; by being friendly and supportive to your peers throughout both their final round performances and the tournament as a whole, you’ll make it substantially more likely they’ll show you the same sense of grace and support during your speech.

TIP #2: Scope out your space.

Not all final rounds are held on as large an arena as the NSDA stage—including supplemental events (such as Impromptu, Expository, Storytelling, Poetry, and Prose) at the NSDA championship. Making sure your performance takes the differences of each room into account—including the vocal dynamics, if microphones will be involved, where the judges will be seated, and how the lighting will look—is crucial towards succeeding in major final rounds. Read an analysis of theatrical space HERE.

When Coach Ari (ModernBrain) won the NSDA Expository national championship, he spent over half an hour experimenting with the stage’s acoustics. He asked his teammates to give him feedback on how loud he should be, how he should use the space, and how visible his more subtle, small-room decisions were to people in the judges’ positions. He won the final round by a comfortable margin based on his command of the room.

TIP #3: Read your judges.

Debaters know the importance of analyzing judge paradigms as soon as they receive their assignments (for the uninitiated; judge adaptation is a key part of success in the activity). However, while speech or mock trial judge paradigms are less immediately accessible than debate ones, it’s still possible to gain useful information. There are two techniques. First, your judges may have already judged your teammates or competitors earlier in the tournament. Talking to them to see if any of their performance techniques elicited strong reactions (for example, learning that an Extemp judge doesn’t like excessive humor) may help you better tailor your performances. Second, your judges may give in-the-moment reactions to your performances that you should pick up on. For instance, a judge who seems compelled by your competitors’ source citations in Student Congress (you notice they’re making a note every time a source is stated) may react favorably to you referencing additional legitimate sources.

When Coach Miles (ModernBrain) made the NSDA United States Extemporaneous final round, he prepared a series of transitional jokes that he could use based on the pre-announced topic area. As he listened to the audience respond favorably to other competitors’ jokes, he knew he’d get a chance to use his own. While Miles didn’t win that round, he received multiple first-place rankings; those judges commented on his use of topical, responsive, judge-friendly humor. 

TIP #4: Curate your coaching.

If you make an important final round, many people may try to get involved—giving advice, trying to provide information about your opponents, etc. In some cases, the advice may be well-meaning and selfless. In others, the advisors may want to feel like they can share in your success. In rare cases, you may get intentionally misleading advice from competitors who are trying to sabotage you (either out of loyalty to your opponents or jealousy towards your good fortune).

That’s why it’s important to take all advice with a grain of salt. When the West Los Angeles Worlds Schools Debate Team made the NSDA final round, their head coach (Brandon Batham) contacted ModernBrain for supplemental coaching. We provided them with a couple of hours of tailored activities, which helped the team develop rhetorical flourishes, big-picture strategies, and delivery techniques. Ultimately, not every piece of rhetoric we discussed was used in that final round. It didn’t have to be. The students looked at their judging panel, listened to feedback from their coaches (from Burbank, New West Charter, La Canada, Sierra Canyon, and Harvard-Westlake), filtered the suggestions through their experiences, and made their own decisions. Their hard work paid off when they won the final round on a 10-3 decision.

TIP #5: Remember your reasons.

It is impossible to guarantee a national championship. We’ll repeat that: it is impossible to guarantee a national championship. Anyone who tells you otherwise isn’t only misinformed—they’re missing the point. In 10 years, the trophies so many are trying to win so intensely won’t mean all that much. The stories you share and lessons you learn will matter a whole lot more. This is a subjective activity with often arbitrary rankings that say more about the judge’s background and biases than the student’s performance. That’s why, instead of trying to win first place at all costs, it’s better to focus on more reasonable metrics. Did you spark a difficult but productive conversation with one of your peers based on your performance? Did you receive a compliment—a genuine, specific one—from someone you respect? Did you watch a competitor give a bravura presentation you’ll remember for years to come? Did you make a friend from a different school you might have never met otherwise? If all of these questions matter as much or more to you than “did I win first place,” you’ll have a better experience, and you might even be more likely to win your championship.

When ModernBrain-coached student Leo won the 2020 NSDA China national championship in Oratory, he didn’t create his piece about confronting toxic masculinity just because he wanted a trophy. It was his passion. He had published articles, podcasts, and interviews to promote gender equality. He had worked with groups of young men in multiple rural Chinese provinces as a peer mentor. Sure, he wanted to win—but, more importantly, he wanted to speak from the heart and open minds to a new way of thinking. That sense of sincerity shone through his performance. By not focusing on winning, he became more of a winner.

Remember the reason you’re doing these activities. If your goal is just to win awards and get into a top college, you’re barely scratching the surface of what the competitive public speaking community has to offer--and what you can offer it. We’re excited to hear how you adapt to in-person final rounds and do your best on the big stage.

Credit for the image belongs to the National Speech and Debate Association.

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