Jimmy Gao competed for Ridge High School in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, and graduated in 2020. Alongside winning several national circuit tournaments like Yale & UPenn this past year, Jimmy is also the 2020 NSDA USX national champion & President’s Bowl winner. Gao is currently a rising freshman at Duke University, and graciously agreed to an interview with the Extemper’s Bible. The full version of the interview can be found on the Extemper’s Bible podcast, located on all major podcast streaming platforms.
PS: Do you like this content? Jimmy has been integral in the creation of extempers.org, and looks forward to helping with the website this upcoming year.
We’ll start with a classic: how did you get started in extemp?
I actually first learned what extemp was in the summer before freshman year. I was bored at home with nothing to do – so my mom signed me up for “public speaking lessons” from a college student named Arel Rende, who introduced me to extemp. Arel was a two-time NSDA USX champion, but I didn’t know that at the time. All I knew was that I was enjoying myself talking about things like elections and immigration and healthcare, and that Arel was a great coach. Two months later, I attended my school’s forensics interest meeting, and saw an opportunity to pursue an event I already knew I enjoyed.
What do you love about this activity?
I like that extemp prioritizes the aspects of speech and debate I think are important. I like that (unlike Interp and PA) varying round topics and questions make every round unique and memorable. At the same time, however, I appreciate the emphasis on delivery that’s unique to extemp – something that’s especially important for “the real world”. Lastly, I like that extemp isn’t debate or Congress, where a lot of your time can be spent trying to respond to other opponents’ arguments instead of advocating for your own. Obviously, source checks, cross-ex, and the like are meant to hold extempers accountable – but overall, I like that we have a lot more freedom to choose what we speak about in our seven minutes than a debater.
Whether it’s a tournament victory or a point where something finally “clicks,” most distinguished extempers have that ‘aha!’ moment where they realize they can be successful in this activity. When did that moment happen for you?
It came pretty late for me – the end of my junior year, at the 2019 University of Kentucky TOC. I had always perceived myself as someone who was “above average” – able to octofinal, quarterfinal, even semifinal – with some regularity, but never a serious threat to win a tournament. At TOC, however, I defied all the expectations I’d set even for myself – making it to finals, and placing 3rd. At that point, I knew I had a serious chance of winning tournaments as long as I believed in myself.
A lot of extempers have an extemp role model whose style they truly appreciate. Who has been your favorite extemper?
I don’t think I ever had a favorite extemper. If you’re talking about my favorite people I’ve gotten to know from this activity, that’s a list that probably includes Collin Montag, Rayhan Murad, and Rohan Jinturkar, three of my Ridge teammates, mentors, and friends. In terms of my competitors who had incredible speaking styles, I would probably shoutout Brian Zheng, Kay Rollins, and Jack Silvers.
On a similar note to the previous question, which extemper––if any––had the biggest impact on your style?
I didn’t look to any one extemper for my speaking style – I just kind of watched NSDA final rounds, so I think my speaking style (like most peoples’) was influenced by the “greats” of every era – Jacob Thompson, Nikhil Ramaswamy, Jacqueline Wei, Christopher Maximos. I spent a lot of time watching and working with Chris, especially, seeing as we were both from New Jersey – so if I had to give one answer, it would probably be adopting his dry humor and attempting to emulate his charisma.
Tournament officials have written some truly horrible & some truly amazing questions in this activity. Are there any particularly bad or good questions you’ve drawn that stand out?
My least favorite questions are literally any of the questions I get at my local CFLs. They’re always random – and they’re either super specific, like questions about small company mergers or obscure international developments, or super broad and unfocused. Attending CFLs was always super painful.
My favorite extemp question is probably also my favorite-ever speech – Yale semis my senior year. “Would implementing term limits on the Supreme Court strengthen American democracy?” I’m a big fan of SCOTUS questions generally, because they’re a really important branch of government most Americans don’t understand. With the Supreme Court, there’s huge amounts of room for jokes, for broad impacts, and for educating your judges and audience. (For reference, I answered “no” to the question.)
What’s been the most helpful piece of extemp advice you’ve ever received?
This may sound cliché – but “answer the question”. If you’re an aspiring, ambitious, upstart extemper, you love to read, and you love to talk, too. But too often, it’s easy to go on long tangents about whatever you’re talking about and obscure the focus away from the thesis of your speech – your answer. There is so much information out there about the world, but you have to get really good at sifting out what is and isn’t important for driving your argument home. In that sense, extemp is like a puzzle, where your time signals and the judge’s attention are your biggest constraints.
The old adage “practice makes perfect” is certainly applicable to the world of extemp. Do you have any practice advice for other extempers?
I would say the most important thing to do is to learn how to nail your intros – your AGDs, your transitions into the background, your SOS’s and your overall timing. “The intro is the most important part of your speech” isn’t new insight; if there was an extemper’s Bible, it’d probably be one of the first lines. (Hey! That’s the name of the website!) But just giving intros over and over again and practicing their structure will help you leaps and bounds. Consistent intros lead to consistent speeches!
Do you have a favorite source that you loved to read throughout your extemp career?
By far, Vox is my favorite source – they explain everything so simply, and they often have unique analysis that other places don’t. They also cover a wide variety of topics, domestic, international and (importantly) cultural. The way they write their articles, title them, and advertise them means I can easily get lost in the website for hours at a time.
The National Speech & Debate Tournament is grueling, with over a dozen prelim & outrounds. How did you stay so consistent during the tournament?
People have always told me that you win NSDAs by consistently getting 2s and 3s – and if you look at the results packet, you’ll see that that’s exactly what happened. NSDAs is about mindset: about knowing that the tournament is long, and that you only have to give good speeches to do well, not great speeches. It means letting yourself go for forgetting an on-top or mismanaging your time in one speech. If you can consistently go in with the knowledge that you will get 2s and 3s, mostly, and that that’s OK, then you will excel!
Recently, the NSDA made the monumental decision to allow for open-source preparation. Are there any other rule changes that you’d like to see?
Yes! I just published an article detailing the changes in judge paradigms and competitor mindsets I’d like to see in Extemp. Some things I advocate for are: (1) impacting away from Americans, White people, cisgenders/heterosexuals, and anything else that’s “the norm”; (2) taking more controversial questions and being rewarded for it, and (3) shifting away from unified analysis insofar as that it offers only limited opportunities for extempers to “think big” and push for more complicated proposals.
What’s been your proudest extemp achievement?
Certainly, winning NSDAs was a big one – the trophy is really nice. On a smaller level though, I’m proud of all the Ridge teammates and friends I’ve worked with, and the way they’ve grown and improved as extempers. I hope I served them well as a captain.
If you didn’t do extemp, what event would you do?
Everyone says Congress is the closest cousin to Extemp in speech and debate, and I agree. I liked Congress a lot. I even qualified for Nationals in Congress once! The intra-chamber dynamics are always interesting to be a part of. I also have a lot of respect for Interpers, and I’ve always been jealous of the way they have so much time and so many forms of expression to explore a singular issue. I would have definitely liked to explore Interp more throughout high school had I had the chance.
And finally, let’s wrap up with the classic extemp question: what are your future plans?
I’m attending Duke University this fall, and my time in Extemp has made me incredibly interested in electoral politics and quantitative models in political science. Things like FiveThirtyEight’s forecast trackers and elections analyst reports fascinate me, and I’d love to learn more about the methodologies and models that helped build them. I’m also interested in environmental policy and economics, though, so I can’t say for certain I know what I’ll major in.