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The Art of AGDs

Introduction

The attention-getting device, better known by its moniker the AGD, is one of the most important parts of an extemp speech. Despite this, most extempers recycle the same 2-3 AGDs for an entire tournament, often resulting in strenuous ties between their opener and the topic. Fortunately, it requires little effort to produce stronger attention getting devices. Below are a list of tips and tricks on mastering the art of AGDs. 

What is an AGD and why does it matter?

If you’ve ever seen an extemp speech before, you’ll notice that most extempers spend their first few sentences trying to hook their audience with a joke, a sad story, or a historical anecdote. Any of those three tools is technically an AGD: something that aims at getting the audience’s attention (hence the name). If done successfully, an AGD can break the ice with the audience, set an appropriate tone for the rest of your speech, and leave the audience with something to think about. Accordingly, if possible, it’s important to showcase your personality and creativity during this portion of the speech. 

How can you improve upon your AGDs?

Beyond easing tension with the audience and grabbing their attention, a good AGD takes up 30 seconds or less of your speech. Anything longer is an indication that your joke (or sad story or historical anecdote or whatever it may be) takes too much time to explain and your speech’s content may suffer elsewhere. If you notice that keeping your AGDs under thirty seconds is a consistent challenge, consider concision drills to improve your word economy. 

You should also keep the circumstances of the question in mind. Ideally, your AGD replicates the tone of the rest of your speech. This means if you’re speaking about an ethnic genocide or another serious subject, don’t try to crack an unfunny joke for some cheap laughs! 

Beyond very serious subjects, though, centering your AGD around a joke is completely fine. If you need some inspiration, consider digging through the following sources: 

  • R/NotTheOnion (a Reddit page with news that seems so ridiculous, you’d think it belonged to the Onion) 
  • Late night TV (John Oliver, SNL, Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee, etc.) 
  • The Onion and the Borowitz Report (both are satire sites)

I especially recommend analyzing late night TV hosts and their syntax and delivery. Those two factors—the way you word jokes and the way you deliver them—can make the difference between a funny and unfunny joke. Make sure you smile and pause as needed when delivering jokes. 

For more serious subjects where cracking a joke is difficult, considering incorporating a sad story or historical anecdote. Below are a few good sources for that: 

  • The Economist (the introductory paragraphs to most of their articles read like a mini-AGD) 
  • Foreign Policy Magazine (another great source for historical context) 
  • Books (a great way to incorporate impressive-looking citations too) 
  • The Human Rights Watch (has a lot of stories about troubling world events; this can be used to humanize an issue) 

Drills

Naturally, you’ll want to practice your delivery of these AGDs. Here are a few practice drills to employ: 

  • Write down a list of random words (chairs, Harry Potter, koalas, Snapchat, beaches, etc), and a list of topics (the Federal Reserve, Chinese foreign policy, the Iran Nuclear Deal, etc). Randomly draw one of each and try to connect the two on the spot. This will expand your creativity and improve your speaking skills. 
  • Take 5-10 minutes to find an AGD and write it out word-for-word. Then, have a friend or coach watch as you deliver it and keep reworking the AGD until they are satisfied. As mentioned before, make sure to pause, smile, and watch for hand gestures.
  • This last one isn’t technically a drill, but if you’re bored of filing “normal” articles, spend some time finding some AGDs you can file. 

Recap

An AGD presents the perfect opportunity to connect with the audience and set the appropriate tone for the rest of your speech. As such, try to stay away from canned AGDs that don’t directly relate to the question. 

When practicing an AGD, make sure it reflects the seriousness of the question. Ask yourself, “would a joke be appropriate?” and, if not, use a historical parallel or sad story to grab your audience’s attention instead. Dig through the aforementioned online resources if you need inspiration. 

Above all else, remember that an AGD comes down to structure and delivery. Make sure you try out the three drills listed above to improve upon your syntax and delivery. Especially with online speech tournaments, it’ll take extra effort to nail your landing. Good luck! 

By Ananth Veluvali

Founder, the Extemper's Bible.

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