An Open Letter to the NCFCA Impromptu Community

Dear Aforementioned Individuals,

I’ve witnessed a bothersome trend that’s grown when I thought it would be shrinking, flourished when I thought it should wilt. It weakens analysis, smacks of staleness, and lures many speakers hopelessly astray from the topic they chose to speak on.

Please, as an alumna, coach, and judge, at least consider my advice:

       Stop using “three examples” outlines.

You know the ones:

  • “Today, my topic is justice. We’ll be looking at three stories that capture the idea of justice, one from the Bible, one from history, and one from my own life.”
  • “The phrase “grow where you’re planted” is my topic this morning, and I’ll be exploring the phrase through three examples of individuals who grew where they were planted.”
  • “John Dewey once said, ‘Arriving at one goal is the starting point to another.’ I believe this quote is talking about the importance of goals, so today, we’ll be looking at three people from history who can illustrate for us the importance of setting goals.”
  • etc.

Look.

It’s not that “three examples” speeches are uncommon: They’re not. I’ve seen plenty of speakers at the national level give them.

It’s not that “three examples” speeches are devoid of content: They can contain interesting, engaging examples that apply to the topic and engage judges.

It’s not that they can’t get you to the top: National champions have used the format.

But none of that absolves the “three examples” format of its inherent problems.

First, “three examples” bends speeches towards pre-prepared material. I’m not against going into an impromptu round with a metaphorical knife up your sleeve. Preparation is healthy, necessary, even, and I certainly understand the relief of flipping over a slip of paper and knowing I have the perfect example for the topic because I’d thought it through before the tournament. But “three examples” speeches tend to fit the examples to the topic instead of the other way around. Part of this, I think, is that “three examples” leaves little room for analysis, little room for improvising content that’s not part of the core three examples. Competitors have five minutes of speaking time to fill, though, so they fall back on topics they’re familiar with and trust to fill up a minute or a minute thirty.

This leads me to my second point, and what I think is the strongest blow against the “three examples” format: there is little room for analysis (ie, ‘what is it’,’why is it important’,’how do we get to it’, etc.). Granted, analysis is not the point of NCFCA impromptu. The official mini-description states, “Impromptu is a limited preparation speech in which the speaker is given two minutes to prepare a five-minute speech on a randomly drawn topic.”  A five minute speech. Not an analytically five minute speech, or a five minute speech exploring the meaning and definition of a given topic. But if competitors aren’t analyzing the topic, then what are they doing? Using examples at the expense of analysis is like playing a game of Pictionary to preach a sermon instead of just preaching it.

Beyond this, impromptu requires speakers to communicate with judges, and communication requires more than disconnected stories. It requires a thesis, a message or concept to draw the whole speech together. The thesis isn’t given – the words “death” or “joy” or “inexplicable” aren’t theses, and they’re certainly not speeches. It’s the speaker’s job to develop the message they wish to communicate and convey it to the audience. “Three examples of joyful people” isn’t a message, it’s trivia show-and-tell.

I have another bone to pick here, a third, insidious little tendency of “three examples” speeches. In theory, “three examples” speeches stick to the topic just as much as  “three-point analysis” speeches. But in practice they lead speakers off-topic, the lure of a one familiar story after another drawing the speech further from the topic at hand. Wandering down rabbit trails, no matter how interesting they seemed at the time, shows poor planning skills and will get you marked down on the ballot.

My fourth issue with the format may seem petty, until you judge your third or fourth round of impromptu. “Three examples” speeches tend to rest on a handful of stock examples, with a few personal ones tossed in.  I don’t wish to demean the life stories of Vanya (Ivan Moiseyev), Malala Yousafzai, or Corrie Ten Boom, but given the amount of times I’ve heard their stories repeated in limited prep events, their stories have become soporific instead of gripping.  This is not, of course, an issue unique to three examples speeches, but I do think the format lends itself to repetition more than the three-point analysis format. I can only hear so many impromptus with “Winston Churchill” as the second point before these ‘unplanned’ speeches begin feeling a little canned.

What do I suggest, then? Two, preferably three points of analysis, with interesting, relevant examples that bolster your analysis instead of compensating for the lack of it. Speeches based around analysis, pushing the bounds of your intellectual comfort zones. More unique, memorized quotes. Stories of lesser-known martyrs and less-famous presidents and Victorian lady adventurers and nerds who dropped out of college to found billion dollar companies in Costa Rica. More personal stories. More examples of people we shouldn’t imitate. More well executed pop culture references – I’ve seen Star Wars, darn it!

More thought. More variety. More fun. You have five whole minutes to impress your passions, your worldview, your unique way of communicating onto the judges.  Talk about what you know, what you care about. Fill the room with whatever it is that makes your eyes spark, instead of dry tidbits from last year’s history text.

Mean it.

The rest will come.

Best,

Renée

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