In April of 2020, I was fortunate enough to interview René Otero, the 2019 IX NSDA National Champion. The paraphrased version of that interview can be found below. The full version can be found on our podcast, the Extemper’s Bible! This article was written by Ananth Veluvali.
How did you get started with extemporaneous speaking? What drove you to this activity over others?
Originally, I joined the debate team because a cute girl I liked had also joined the team. Lo and behold, she left the school three days later, but I decided to stick with the activity. At my school, everyone on the debate team is also forced to do extemp. Originally, I didn’t enjoy the event much, so I spent most of my time focusing on Public Forum (PF). However, by the time my sophomore year rolled around, my team had an uneven amount of PFers. I was the unlucky lone debater, and I ended up being taken out of PF and was forced into Congressional Debate. I didn’t want to focus on something I had just joined, so I decided to try focusing more on extemp and ended up really enjoying it.
Have you personally used extemp past high school in any way?
Absolutely. Extemp teaches you the skills you need to lead a class discussion, write an essay, etc. It gives you the skill of thinking quickly on your feet. If you didn’t write an assignment the day it was due, for example, you’ll at least have something prepared.
You also do college extemp at UT Austin. How’s that?
It’s so different. In college extemp, you’re asked to speak on two broad topics that are loosely connected to each other. For example, I once had to answer the question, “Following Tesla’s record breaking stock price, what is the future of the automobile industry?” That’s a very broad question. It’s also why, to practice in college, I like answering broad questions. Beyond being useful prep for college tournaments, it forces you to think critically because, since you can’t address all facets of the topic in 7 minutes, you have to strategically choose how to frame the question.
How’s the competitive scene at college? Do you travel a lot?
This year we didn’t travel much because of the coronavirus. That said, before COVID, we would travel around the state of Texas, visiting community colleges for local tournaments and universities like SMU for the state tournament.
Moving back to high school extemp, a lot of extempers almost have “extemp crushes” — extempers that inspire them. Did you have any of those?
Yes, Juliet Ume-Ezeoke. She went to Pflugerville High School which was in my town of Pflugerville, so we traveled together a lot, despite going to different high schools. She won the Texas UIL state tournament and went deep at nationals. I especially admired her because she was a black woman doing extemp, and I was also the only black person doing extemp in my circuit. She was just so talented. From her, I tried to mimic her ability to speak clearly and concisely. Concision is so important: when you’re concise, you speak slower, and when you speak slower, you speak plainer.
Do you have any advice for extempers to speak more concisely?
Extemp is a confidence thing. You speak more because you don’t think you’ve qualified your argument enough. So, to be more concise, the most important thing is to be confident in yourself: give speeches, record yourself, and watch yourself. Then, be very conscious in examining where could you cut out unnecessary verbiage. I also used to keep a pen cap in my shoe and every time I stepped on it, it would be a reminder to slow down. Obviously, you don’t need to step on a pen cap to speak slower, but if speed is a problem for you, find some way to remind yourself to slow down.
Were there any other helpful pieces of advice you got in your extemp career that changed the way you think about this activity?
I was once told by a consultant to remember “you’re never all that.” He didn’t mean it in an aggressive way. Instead, he meant that you must always have the desire to grow. Beyond that, instead of knowing the nitty-gritty details of each country, understand the basic history of these countries and know how general systems work. For example, I once got the question, “What steps can Thailand take to reform its voting system?” I have a general philosophy of what democratic voting should look like, so my three points reflect that. Then, once you have the general framework and three points, you should find sources with specific information to solidify your argument.
What were your favorite sources in extemp?
My favorite source for USX was the American Prospect and my favorite source for IX was the Lowy Institute for International Policy. The Lowy Institute has this blog called the Lowy Interpreter, which is a really useful resource for getting a refreshed understanding of the news.
What was your practice routine like as an extemper?
I would set aside a time during the week to file, but unlike many other extempers, I wouldn’t excessively file. A lot of extempers stuff information in their short term memory without internalizing that information, getting sleep, or respecting their mental health. That’s an unviable strategy because it usually means you purge out all of the information you just read after giving a speech. That’s why I’m also wary of giving 1 or 2 speeches a day, because it increases your chances of getting burnt out. Instead, aim for quality over quantity: find yourself a regiment of consistency.
How do you balance learning in extemp with not burning yourself out?
Understand your limits. Don’t focus on becoming something “cool-looking” you saw, focus on what you personally want for yourself. Balance also comes from understanding how much discipline you have. If you set a goal for two speeches a day and you consistently can’t meet that goal, you’ll be disappointed in yourself and you’ll get burnt out. Start out slow, maybe doing one speech a week, then two, then three. Again, consistency is paramount.
What’s been your favorite tournament experience?
I loved my experience at Harvard from my junior year. I spoke in front of a large audience (second only to the audience I saw at nationals) and realized that I could go deep at nationals. It was a huge confidence boost. I got second in a very close round with Nikhil Ramaswamy.
What advice would you give to any younger extempers who want to get better at extemp?
For one thing, utilize camp (**Ananth butting in here: if camp is expensive or inaccessible, the Extemper’s Bible runs a free camp each summer! More details will come out soon, but last year we had both national champions, and the champions at big tournaments like Glenbrooks and Harvard on our staff**). Additionally, a lot of extemp is about recording your speeches, so record yourself speaking to develop your self-awareness. Also, reach out to competitors. I wish I did that more, extempers are friendlier than people think.
What are the three qualities that any great extemper possesses?
Humility, self-awareness, and gratefulness.