Conquering the Crowd

In this article, Peter Alisky gives viewers some tips for how to perform in high-stakes rounds. He divulges some of his own secrets when it comes to settling nerves and gives easy-to-read advice on how to conquer the crowd.

I remember the first time I made a final round. It was a small local tournament and I was a nervous freshman. What seemed like a solid speech in prep fell to pieces when I was confronted not only with three judges but a few mildly engaged parents and irritated students. I forgot my entire second point and sweated through the rest of the four-minute speech.

First, remember how you got there. No matter how great of an extemper you are, if you can’t stand up to a crowd, your analysis means nothing. Before you even step foot into the prep room, understand what got you there in the first place. You’ve already proven that you’re one of the best extempers at the tournament. Whatever process carried you this far is working, so trust it and stick with it. Whether you’re performing a speech for one judge or fifteen, it’s all your doing.

Second, find a routine. Have a set of motions you go through before you start talking. For me, it goes like this: Take a deep breath and enter the room. Smile, walk in, and read my question. I always ground my heels, take another deep breath, let my arms relax and fall to my sides, give a smile and a nod, and begin speaking. Having a pre-speech routine can ground you and take away a lot of nerves. Start every speech the same way. It forces you to treat every performance the same, regardless of who’s watching it. It allows you to control exactly what you can: yourself. Take everything external and let it be.

Third, make your eye contact intentional. This is one I’ve always found the hardest. With a lot of people in the room, it’s easy to let your eyes dart around, making you seem nervous and fluttery. Make your eye contact consistent with the separation of ideas in your speech. This isn’t to say that you need to death-stare one judge for your entire point. Rather, finish each sentence on one judge. Span across the room as your speech moves logically from idea to idea. If there’s a large crowd, acknowledge them but don’t direct your speech toward them. They’re not the ones you need to persuade.

Finally, let the crowd work for you instead of against you. An extemp speech with excellent analysis but no character won’t be a winner. Use the crowd to your advantage when displaying elements of your personality and the rhetoric that you’re weaving into your speech. With a good joke or on-top, pause, smile, span the room to let people laugh. The same goes for a dramatic pathos effect; give the audience time to process and use the time that you’re not speaking to make them feel a certain way. Let them gasp, laugh, and nod along with you.

The best way to get around crowds is to keep putting yourself in those situations. Speaking in front of large crowds will come to any extemper naturally with practice. Extemp is just as much analysis as it is a performance. Once you get into the zone, no crowd can take it away from you. Have fun with it and keep speaking!

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