The Pre-Awards Speech We Really Need

I have listened to a whole lot of pre-awards speeches in my life. Low-balling it? I’m going to say 30. Lemme tell you, that is an awful lot of well-intentioned talks about priorities that went in one ear and out the other because at that point in a tournament, most competitors are 97% nerves. (That stat is also a low-ball, by the way.)

Most awards speeches are about how “it’s not about the awards”. It’s about the skills! It’s about iron sharpening iron! It’s about bringing glory to God by doing your best!

None of those things are really wrong. The problem (apart from shortening hundreds of teenagers lives by stretching the most stressful part of the tournament by long minutes) is that all of those things have “improving speech skills” as the underlying goal.

Even for the most mature, thoughtful competitor, the one mystical kid who’s got all their priorities in line, the goal at the end of the day is to improve their skills. Speaking is highly subjective, but most speakers who start shaky and put effort into improving see their rankings improve. Competitions aren’t only a way to improve our skills, they’re a way to measure our improvement. Sure, it’s not about the awards, but they’re not just fluff – something nice and shiny to flaunt in front of college admissions personnel. They’re an integral part of the tournament process and, as many parents and students will tell you, tournaments are an essential part of skill-building.

Most competitors don’t have that saint-like composure. Oh, they know that their skills will last much longer than their trophies and name recognition, but they still try to iron man regionals, or set up playful competitions between their buddies to see who wins the most such-and-such awards, or hope for a national title to improve their chances of getting into the Ivy of their dreams. Sure, the awards aren’t eternal, and they’re not exactly the point. But they are important.

I think we should do away with pre-awards speeches. Maybe swap it out for a short prayer. That’s much more calming and productive than a speech about why you shouldn’t care so much about the thing you care about so much it’s making you physically sick. Move anything about how speech isn’t all about trophies to some context where there are not dozens of shining trophies sitting directly behind the speaker. Reminders about priorities are better served at the beginning of competitions, anyway.

If we absolutely must keep pre-awards speeches, let me make a suggestion: we need to talk more about failure and rejection. I don’t mean that whole “be a good sport if you don’t do well” thing. I want leaders to talk about failure as an integral part of success.

Jen Dziura writes fantastic, thoughtful life and career advice. I’ve been devouring her collum, Bullish, so her stuff’s been on my mind a lot lately. She’s very big on pushing her readers to do more – start an actual cat sitting business instead of just cat sitting on the side, negotiate for higher wages, that sort of thing. She’s also very big on pitching. Jen pushes hard on the idea that we need to get super comfortable with failure and rejection because they come before the things we really want. (Two more of her articles on similar topics are here and here.)

The art of pitching is essential everywhere, not just the corporate world. Getting your writing published, applying to selective colleges, asking humans you think are cute to go to Panera with you, and asking someone with an interesting job if they’ll talk to you for five minutes all require facing the posibility of failure.

Forensics tournaments are prime territory for failure. While there can be positive real-world consequences for winning a tournament, the repercussions for not breaking are pretty much nil.

Let’s take the time to remind our students that failure is inescapable. If you want to do big, grand, world-changing things, you’re going to face disappointment and rejection on a regular basis. Let’s move away from the idea that a failure is an evil or inconvenience to be overcome. Instead, cultivate the view that learning to fail through speech and debate is an essential job skill, just below speaking well and knowing how to find cheap suits in a size 2 petite.


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