Interview with the MBA & NSDA Impromptu Champion Mo Marks

Mo Marks competed for Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, Iowa, and graduated in 2020. Throughout her extemper career, Mo has finaled at Glenbrooks, Blue Key, Yale, and Harvard. She’s also won Sunvite, her state tournament, the prestigious MBA Round Robin, and nationals in impromptu. Marks is currently a rising freshman at Simpson College, 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.

Mo after winning the NSDA National Tournament in Impromptu, a supplementary event that is similar to extemporaneous speaking.

The Extemper’s Bible (TEB): We’ll start with a classic: how did you get started in extemp? 

Mo: The middle school I attended had little structure for speech and debate, so when all of my PF partners quit, I got booted to the only solo event they offered: Oratory. I was fine with it, but didn’t really love it, so when I was meeting people on the high school team, they told me I’d probably enjoy extemp more. A couple tournaments later, I was hooked. It also really helped that I had a great mentor–Jacob Thompson, who was the 2017 NSDA USX champion and a senior at Roosevelt my freshman year–teaching me.

TEB: What do you love about this activity? 

Mo: I really enjoy the performance aspects, which is hilarious considering that I’m really weak at delivery compared to my strength in analysis. Something about informing people on issues that they either weren’t aware of, didn’t care about, or could use more information on is just really satisfying for me. It always makes me happy when people tell me after a speech that they learned something new or that my speech made them laugh, because I want extemp to be a much more approachable event for other people in the forensics community. 

TEB: 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?

Mo: My sophomore year I was invited to the Sunvitational Extemp Round Robin (may it rest in peace) and I got to watch Chris Maximos give a speech. Coming from a team where I was the only extemper at that point, it was the first time I had both the theory of how to give a good speech from camp and the opportunity to watch somebody put that theory into action. It was like a light switch turned on and I just got it. Obviously I had seen good speeches before, but something about that speech just helped me put everything together. 

TEB: A lot of extempers have an extemp role model whose style they truly appreciate. Who has been your favorite extemper?  

Mo: I love Olivia Shoemaker’s style of extemp. I got to watch her in the final round of IX at 2017 nats, and she was so clearly the smartest person in the room and did such a good job of delivery that I always wanted to be able to speak like her. 

TEB: On a similar note to the previous question, which extemper––if any––had the biggest impact on your style?

Mo: This is going to sound ridiculous considering that I have never met or worked with her, but Lily Nellans. She taught her style of speaking to Jacob Thompson, who taught me my freshman year. She also taught her style of speaking to my coach Sophomore and Junior year. I still get a lot of comments on ballots telling me that I speak almost exactly like her, which is hilarious to me because I think we’ve Facebook messaged maybe once. 

TEB: 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?

Mo: Obviously there have been some doozies. On the good end of things is that Chris Maximos speech I told you about earlier. He was answering the question, “Donald Trump publicly admits to having an extramarital affair with Vladimir Putin, how does this impact US-Russia relations?” On the bad end of things, well, both of these questions came from the same tournament in Minnesota, which has a habit of reusing questions, so I have seen both of these questions 3 years in a row. The first is “What does the future hold for Syria?” This one is bad, but subtly so when compared to the other question, which is, “What should Kim Il-Sung’s next move be?” They always use blue pen to cross out Il-Sung and replace it with Jong-Un but it’s still stupid and frustrating, and if the people who run that tournament are seeing this, consider it my official request that you stop reusing questions year after year. 

TEB: What’s been the most helpful piece of extemp advice you’ve ever received? 

Mo: Have fun. It sounds stupid because that’s an intangible, but I can always use the same substructure, sources, and jokes. The only thing that changes is your emotions; there is a clear difference in quality between speeches where I’m stressed, angry, or frustrated versus speeches where I am having a good time. It’s also worth noting that speech & debate is an extracurricular, so if you’re not having fun I’m not sure why you’re still doing it. 

TEB: The old adage “practice makes perfect” is certainly applicable to the world of extemp. Do you have any words of wisdom for other extempers when it comes to practicing?

Mo: Record yourself. It sucks because watching your own recordings is very awkward, but you are your own worst critic and you won’t understand why other people want you to make certain changes until you’ve seen the problem yourself, so recording is a really efficient way to get better fast. 

TEB: Do you have a favorite source that you loved to read throughout your extemp career?

Mo: I love the British magazine The Economist. I like to joke that if you read the print edition front to back that’s all the filing you’ll need to do for the week because you’ll be ready to go. Obviously you want diversity in your sources, so that’s a bad plan but it’s a great source with both breadth and depth of analysis that I truly believe is unmatched by any other weekly or daily publication. It’s also an added bonus that sometimes they throw quippy little one liners into their articles which you can use for speeches. 

TEB: The MBA Round Robin is a grueling tournament, with lots of hard work involved. How did you stay so consistent during the tournament?

Mo: First of all, I didn’t look at the graph. For those readers unfamiliar with MBA, they publish an unlabeled graph after every round which is unlabeled, that tells you who’s leading and shows the line graph of people’s progress through the tournament. It is 100% a mind game and people go insane trying to crack who is who. Second of all, I was well prepared. It’s really easy to be underprepared for MBA because it is right after Christmas so everyone wants to chill out and not prep. That’s a bad strategy and one I fell into my junior year at MBA. You don’t have to do anything extra, just keep up with your normal routine. Finally, I was really well coached. Yatesh Singh came with me to Nashville because my own coach didn’t have the required experience to be considered as a judge for MBA and he really helped me out with fine tuning in the run up to the tournament. I think I gave him somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 speeches in the two days before the tournament and we wrote more than a hundred possible questions the night before so I felt really well prepared and confidence always helps. 

TEB: 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 in extemp? 

Mo: Unpopular opinion but I’d like to see auto filing systems like Extemp Genie get banned. It’s a serious equity issue for students like myself who can’t pay for it and go to schools that won’t pay for it either. It gives a major boost to students with the money to afford it and it harms the people who do use it because it disincentivizes reading and filing which are the foundation of a good extemper. More critically it harms the journalists whose work it accesses because rather than paying for subscriptions to the sources it pulls from, it just breaks the fire walls meaning that you’re accessing the product of writer’s labor without paying for it and I just don’t see the positive aspects of doing that.

TEB: You also come from a smaller school than most. Do you have any advice for extempers that don’t have the grand infrastructure that bigger teams might?

Mo: Yeah, first off you can get money to travel from sources other than your school. There are a bunch of nonprofits set up to offer travel grants for speech and debate students. You can also reach out to tournament directors if you’re having a hard time attending their tournament. Aly Fiebrantz currently coach of University School, formerly at Cypress Bay is a great example of a coach who has always supported me even though we’re literally across the country from each other. Finally, some of the stuff that sucked most about being the only serious extemper at my school is what made me a better extemper. I had to file alone which at times felt awful and stressful but made me much more knowledgeable than I’d have been with a team. I had to rely a lot on self coaching by watching my own recordings but that only made me more self aware in my speeches and allowed me to be better prepared to coach when I was called upon to do so at ISD this summer. 

TEB: What’s been your proudest extemp achievement? 

Mo: This is probably going to sound stupid because it’s not even my achievement but this March Kyle Westin won IX at our state tournament. He’s definitely not “my novice” the way that I’ve seen a lot of people claim team mates as their novices but I spent a lot of time pushing him to do more extemp because even though he preferred congress he’s really good at extemp and I saw him put a lot of effort into that tournament so I was super happy for him. It also helps that he beat a bunch of speakers from our rival school to win. In terms of myself, probably MBA but my third DX state championship when I picketed the whole tournament felt pretty epic too. 

TEB: If you didn’t do extemp, what event would you do?

Mo: I want to say impromptu because it’s what I’m best at but it’s not a main event so I’m going to go with informative. I started doing info on accident (there was a SNAFU while signing me up for a tournament one time and we realized two days before the tournament that I needed to write a speech) despite my less than illustrious start, at all but two of the tournaments I’ve competed both info and extemp at I’ve placed higher in info than extemp. I also really like getting to use visual aids and make as many off color jokes as I want without getting frowned at. 

TEB: And finally, let’s wrap up with the classic extemp question: what are your future plans? 

Mo: I’m currently studying international relations and global management at Simpson where I’m competing on the speech and debate team which has won a national championship in two of the last three years. I’d like to use those degrees to become a foreign service officer with the State Department but I’d also be interested in putting my skills to use as a market analyst in the private sector or a CIA analyst. Strangely enough the reason I’m interested in these jobs is because the CIA regularly purchases full page ads for jobs in the Economist and I decided I liked what they had to offer.  

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