Rebecca Blank currently serves as the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is a former Acting United States Secretary of Commerce. Blank was the national champion in Girls Extemporaneous Speaking in 1973, a fact that was included in her nomination to be Deputy Secretary of Commerce.
Samuel Anthony Alito Jr., Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, wrote in a February 22, 2007 letter to Tara L. Tale, President of the National Debate Coaches Association, that in college “I learned the art of extemporaneous analysis and persuasive public speaking, which also have served me well.”
In a National Speech and Debate Association video for National Speech and Debate Education Day on March 1, 2019, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Ann Warren lauds her time as a high school speech and debate competitor. In her words, at its core speech and debate is about “self-discipline and never giving up.”
Oprah Winfrey, media proprietor, talk show host, actress, producer, publisher and philanthropist says, “Forensics gives you a sense of confidence in speaking in front of people, a sense of presence and a sense of pride. It’s about the power of words to influence ideas, to uncover a higher truth, to change minds, and for a lot of people, even to change lives.”
These are only four of the vast number of people who have participated in extemporaneous speaking. Others include attorneys, teachers, business people, engineers, scientists and leaders in a variety of fields. Extemporaneous speaking requires students to develop sophisticated skills in research, analysis, organizational strategies, writing and oral presentation. It is in the daily struggle to hone these skills that the magic happens.
Freshmen arrive to high school with goals and fears. Will I fit in? Can I do the work? Will I make the team or be cast in the play or be elected class officer? More than anything they want to make sure that they have someone to sit with at lunch. Teachers who provide instruction in effective rhetoric provide ways for students to develop confidence in their intellectual abilities and in their communication effectiveness – both necessary criteria for success in any social situation or profession.
At its most simple level, extemporaneous speaking requires a student to read credible sources in order to learn about a complex issue, and then to speak knowledgeably for up to seven minutes in response to a specific question about the issue. In a contest situation, competitive speakers draw a topic question and are allotted 30 minutes to prepare a speech.
But long before tournament time, students read, write and speak on a broad spectrum of topics in order to develop a deep well of knowledge and skills so that they can handle contest situations. It is amazing to listen to a 15-year-old break down the situation between Israel and the Palestinians and to advocate for specific policy options in the ongoing struggle for peace, or to hear a high school senior explain complex economic theory in a manner in which the audience can understand and appreciate.
Extemporaneous speakers are often also debaters, though this is not always so. Students on a speech team usually divide research duties to create an organized information system that will benefit all team members. Coaches and students develop practice topic questions based on domestic and foreign news issues. From the beginning of the school year, students read, write, develop and present many practice speeches to their coaches, peers, parents and assorted other listeners.
It is not strange to see students pacing and speaking to themselves in the hall outside the speech classroom. Someone might assume they are chatting via Bluetooth and this may be true in some situations, but extempers are a different breed of adolescent. They pace and speak aloud in order to prepare presentations. At some point, they become old hands, and they do not want to spend the entire 30 minutes preparing the speech. Rather, they choose to spend the last 10 minutes walking and talking so that when they perform in front of their coach or the contest judge, they are organized, polished and smooth.
Developing knowledge about so many national and world events is not the only challenge extempers face. They must orally cite their sources, and this is a memory challenge. Just as teachers expect student writers to use in-text citations coordinated with works-cited pages to document their evidence, extemporaneous speakers must credit sources for all evidence they include in their speeches.
At first this is a clunky, awkward exercise. But much as early readers transition from sounding out individual words into authentic literacy, extempers move on from the deer-in-the headlights stare when struggling to remember authors’ credentials, article and periodical titles, and dates – to fluent articulation of source information.
Analysis and insight from these young speakers are amazing, but perhaps what the process does for their writing skills is even more impressive. Educators know that the speaking-writing connection is a powerful force, and certainly published authors appreciate this. Mark Twain opened up the world of dialect for modern writers to the delight of decades of readers. Extemporaneous speakers encounter language that is often at the PhD-level and syntax that is complex and professional. They read formidable thinkers on economic and global policy issues, and as a result to this exposure the students’ own writing improves in sophistication and fluency.
Perhaps the greatest responsibility of the education system is to prepare citizens to participate in democracy. In a 1964 White House Rose Garden ceremony, President Lyndon B. Johnson was presented with honorary membership in the National Forensic League (now the National Speech and Debate Association). Johnson had been a high school speech and debate competitor, and a coach of high school speakers and debaters. In his acceptance speech, President Johnson said that he knew of no occupation that gave him better training for his political career than had his participation in speech and debate.
Most of our high school extempers will not become president or a senator, but they are future American voters and taxpayers. They, along with their peers, are the future of the country. If speech and debate helped to prepare LBJ for the presidency, Associate Justice Alito for the Supreme Court, Oprah Winfrey for a powerful media career, and Dr. Blank for a career in public service, just think what such participation may do for our students. The sky is the limit.
Rhonda Sharp, a former speech, debate and English teacher in Texas, currently lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where she teaches English at Council Rock High School South. She graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a B.S. in speech communication, and she has a MA.ED from Gratz College in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. She has been a speech performer since she was 13 years old and attributes much of her love for words to that experience.