With most tournaments through February already online, it’s clear this extemp season will be different than the past. Accordingly, your speaking strategy might have to change. Below are a list of different tips & tricks for navigating online tournaments to maximize your speaking appeal.
1) Plan ahead
Let’s start with the obvious: there are a lot more moving parts in your home than at a tournament location. To minimize these distractions, you should plan ahead. Notify your family members when you are speaking, and speak away from the door so judges can’t see people wandering into the room.
If your speech is disrupted, the best thing to do is smile, briefly apologize, and move on.
2) Know your tech
Different tournaments are using different software. Whether its classrooms.cloud or the dreaded NSDA Campus, you should familiar with the online service the tournament you’ll be attending will use. The last thing you should be worrying about is how to use that tournament’s online tools 2 minutes after your round started.
You should also know how your connection is. Where are the WiFi “sweet spots” in your home? If your brother is streaming Netflix while you are giving a speech, what happens to your audio & video feed?
If you want to play it safe, consider investing in an Ethernet Cable. You can purchase an extra-long one (about 30 feet) for roughly $10 on Amazon. This will stabilize your WiFi connection and minimize the risk of your video cutting out.
3) Know your setup
The last thing you’d want your speech to look like is a hostage video. Make sure you’re not speaking in front of a blank wall; if you can, choose a non-distracting background like a painting or a bookshelf.
Furthermore, keep it professional. Remove any clutter, and try not to speak in front of your bed.
Finally, make sure your computer (or whatever you’re recording your speech on) is level with the upper half of your body, so the judge can clearly see your hand gestures and facial expressions. If necessary, stack a few books on top of each other to level your camera. Don’t have a few books? Be creative. I remember one round I didn’t have time to grab several books, so I just used my hamper, situated my computer on it, and laid that contraption on a desk. Adapt, survive, overcome.
4) Communicate clearly with the judge
This should be something you’re doing every round (and yes, that means post-COVID), but it’s especially important now. With so many more moving parts that could trip you up, the last thing you need is additional distractions from the judge. Clarify how time signals will be given, how they can notify you if your WiFi has cut out, make sure they know the question, etc.
One other thing: clarify if you’ll time on your phone! Coming from someone who was suspected of referencing prep during a round, I can tell you that it looks awfully suspicious if your eyes occasionally dart to the side to check how much time you have left. Don’t be an idiot like me and tell the judge you’ll be using your phone to time.
Even better, ask the judge for time signals and clarify that you’ll use your phone as a backup timer if their feed cuts out.
5) Record yourself online!
Ugh, online speeches. Are they awkward? Yes. Do you still need to do them? Also yes. The best way for you to put yourself in the position of the judge is to record your speeches and rewatch them. Are there any distracting things you’re doing that you didn’t notice before? Is your analysis still clear? Is your vocal variation cutting through your mic? Recording online speeches will be the best way to tell.
6) Prioritize vocal variation and clarity
Many judges can’t follow an online speech while typing comments online as well. This may mean many judges will defer to paper notes, even if they can’t follow your speech as closely. As such, you need to prioritize clearer, slower delivery, even at the cost of additional content. Moreover, you may need to exaggerate your facial expressions and gestures. A camera isn’t as great at picking up the minutiae of speech as the human eye is. Thus, for your body language to fully register, it may have to be more extreme.
On the flip side of things, don’t read too much into your judge’s facial expressions. Again, it’s harder to register emotions online. This may mean your judge isn’t scowling (unlike what you might think), they’re just listening intently. Instead, worry about giving your speech to the best of your ability and hope for the best.
It’s a non-ideal scenario to have online tournaments. That said, it’s necessary given the state of the pandemic. We should be grateful that tournament officials have come together and stayed up long nights to give us some semblance of normal competition. Use this pandemic as an opportunity to attend more tournaments and remember the six short rules above. Best of luck!