How to “Dress Up” an Underprepared Speech

In this article, Will Ford divulges some tips on how to maximize your extemp ethos, even if you have a speech you don’t feel fully confident about.

“Prepare, prepare, and prepare some more.” When asked how to best compete in persuasive speaking, that was the advice I received from a teammate. For better or for worse, we extempers lack that luxury. In only 30 minutes, we’re required to have a speech ready to go. As a result, many extempers are often left with preparation that is not only rushed, but lacking in crucial areas, from sources to substance. Of course, this is far from ideal, but it’s bound to happen to even the best of us—maybe we drew an obscure foreign topic we have no knowledge of, maybe our files only have one or two relevant articles in them, any number of unforeseen circumstances could derail what could have been an otherwise excellent speech. In this article, we’ll go over just how to effectively dress up an unprepared speech to get past the judges and maybe even break.

  1. Cite People, not Sources

Every judge you encounter is probably more than familiar with sources like the New York Times, CNN, and Fox News. However, when a speech is underprepared, that’s often all you have to work with, and that’s OK. It’s perfectly possible to make boring or routine sources leagues more impressive by citing a name (and a credible one, at that). Speaking anecdotally, in one of the speeches I gave, I had written about why personality tests in the workplace are harmful. I found an article from Bloomberg (a commonly-cited news site) about the harm they have, but just as I was about to jot it down as a citation, I recognized the author’s name. Needless to say, “Professor Cathy O’Neil, an acclaimed American data scientist…” is much more memorable and interesting than simply stating “according to Bloomberg.” Seriously, watch any national final round and you’ll notice the best extempers commonly cite distinguished authors and books. Indeed, citing an author’s name and credentials is a great way to take hastily grabbed sources and instantly make them more impactful.

  1. Don’t Lose Your Moral

A few months ago, I talked to a therapist about how best to apply principles of psychology to public speaking. While doing so, I was surprised to hear just how much one’s mentality can help or hinder a performance. Most of the bad extemp speeches I’ve given throughout my career have been ones where I felt rushed or felt like I didn’t know what I was talking about. If you want to take an underprepared speech where you lack confidence and turn it around for the better, try doing whatever you can to keep yourself from succumbing to thoughts of panic or helplessness. You could try to take a minute to catch your breath, repeat a positive slogan, listen to a pump-up song, etc. Regardless, the point is that during difficult, underprepared speeches, your attitude can make or break your performance. I’ve seen hastily written speeches with subpar sources and analysis turn out well solely because the speaker was confident and didn’t let negative thoughts get in the way. After all, how can you expect judges to be confident in your speech if you’re not?

  1. Memorize efficiently

Every extemper has a different preferred writing to practicing ratio during prep time. Some like to spend 15 minutes writing and 15 minutes rehearsing before giving the speech. Others prefer a 10-20 or a 20-10 skew. While it’s always best to give yourself your preferred amount of time to practice, sometimes you just won’t have enough. When this happens, memorizing efficiently is essential. One way to do this is by memorizing points and sources rather than going through your speech. If you’re short on time, don’t go through your entire speech, from intro to conclusion. Instead, focus on the points that matter most, your attention getting device, and your sources. Meanwhile, if you have trouble memorizing sources, employ mnemonic devices to ensure you don’t forget any.

  1. Pause—don’t use filler words

During the delivery of your speeches, you may need to take a couple of seconds to gather your thoughts. During this time, you may use filler words like “umm” to fill the 3-second void between thoughts. These voids occur all-the-more frequently when a speech isn’t fully prepared. If you want a speech to seem professional and to the point, replace these filler words with pauses. You’ll sound more professional, more relaxed, and the judges will have an easier time following. If you do use a lot of filler words in your speeches, don’t fret—thankfully, this is an easy fix. Just record and watch a few of your extemp speeches, point out the error, and make a conscious effort to avoid filler words and replace them with pauses. Have a friend watch your speeches and interrupt you every time you use a filler word. Soon, you’ll notice them before even they do. Getting rid of those pesky filler words is an essential step to becoming great at extemp, and it’s even more essential in underprepared speeches.

Concluding Thoughts: 

Sometimes, we fall short of our full potential in this activity, and it’s OK for that to happen from time to time. We can still deliver stellar speeches and get good ranks, even if a speech doesn’t have elaborate sources or extensive rehearsal time. What makes extemp a great event is the fact that we can practice speaking and deal with the limited prep even during tough rounds. Confidence, quick-thinking, and the right attitude are all you ever need to make a speech great, no matter the circumstances. Best of luck for the rest of your season!

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