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Interview with Brian Zheng

In May of 2020, I interviewed Brian Zheng, the runner-up at the 2019 ETOC and the NCFL National Champion. The shortened version of that interview can be found below. The full version can be found on our podcast, the Extemper’s Bible!

IHSA 2020 Extemporaneous Speaking State Champion - Brian Zheng - YouTube
Brian Zheng speaking in the final round of the Illinois State Tournament. He won.

How did you get started with extemporaneous speaking?

I actually got started with impromptu, and I quickly realized that I enjoyed speaking off the cuff. Thanks to the 2016 election, I was also becoming more aware of and interested in current events. As a result, I decided to try out extemp speaking, so I could improve my knowledge of current affairs while also becoming a better speaker. 

Over your career in extemp, what’s been the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? 

Tried to embed humor and personality within your speech. When combined with strong analysis, it will take you far in this activity.

With that piece of advice in mind, do you have any advice for “unfunny” people? 

First, you should know where to place comedy within your speeches: the two prime spots are in your introduction and in your on-tops. You should also file some funnier sources, like the Onion  to get an idea of how to frame a joke. 

And on the other part of that—bringing personality into your speeches—what do you mean by that? Can you elaborate? 

It’s about being conversational. You shouldn’t be talking at the audience, you should be talking with them. Eventually, you want to have a clear extemp speaking persona that others can distill into 5 – 10 words; once you have that, you’ll know that you’ve successfully imbued personality into your speeches. As an example, someone could be known as the “analytical and rhetorically persuasive extemper” or the “extemper with complex substructure” or the “extemper who can appropriately add humor to serious topics.” 

I know that the Montgomery Bell Academy (MBA) Round Robin is known for its unique question style. What was your experience like at the Round Robin? 

MBA has been the most positive tournament experience I’ve had because it is made for extempers, as is the ETOC (my other favorite tournament). You’re rewarded for consistency and smart analysis, and the feedback you get from judges is truly helpful. 

The tournament has two experimental questions every year, and I remember all four of them. Last year, the first was you got to pick a charity and advocate for why the judge should donate to them; the tournament pooled together $1500, and they actually donated to the charity that won. The second was one in which you had to cosplay as Theresa May and discuss how you could utilize a cure to this plague ravaging Europe (how prescient!) that only the UK had to secure a better Brexit deal. 

This year, you got to write your own question with the caveat that you needed a visual aid to go alongside it. Mine was on inflation, and I did a lot of graphs. There was also a question where Donald Trump had just gotten removed from office, and you got to choose to be a Republican or a Democrat who wasn’t currently running in the primary and make the case for why you would be the best nominee. 

These questions definitely seem difficult. How do you come up with creative analysis when given such difficult questions?

You have to be reading a lot, and you need to understand how relationships between the actors in the question work. For example, if you have a question about the Middle East, creative analysis wouldn’t just examine the power dynamics between Middle Eastern countries, but also between countries like the US, Russia, and China that are involved in the region. 

What are your favorite sources for reading?

The RAND Corporation, Project Syndicate, foreign news like Der Spiegel and the Jerusalem Post, FiveThirtyEight, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 38 North, War on the Rocks, and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. But the GOATed extemp source? The Economist. If you’re willing to dish out money for any source, it should be the Economist. (Side note: here’s a huge list of sources we made on the Extemper’s Bible). 

Was there ever a moment where things just clicked, and you realized that you had the potential to do very well in this activity? 

Probably my first tournament in extemp. While I didn’t break, I was one rank off, and that was a confidence booster.

Between your Illinois state championship and your finals appearances at the UKTOC and ETOC, what did your practice routine look like? 

Primarily reading — I was already a fairly solid speaker, so my focus was on building the knowledge base to become a more analytical speaker.

Do you have any advice for extempers on how to approach a question they have no knowledge of? 

You should use more time than usual reading up on the topic (yes, just reading, not even generating points or analysis). This is also where my advice about generating creative analysis goes out the window; you’ll need surface level analysis that is passable, and you should package it with pretty delivery to distract from the generic content. Also, hope to dear god you have a lay judge. 

How do you stay consistent in extemp tournaments? 

As simple as it sounds, get enough sleep so you have the energy to compete. You should also not stress out too much between two rounds. 

If you could add any changes to extemp, what would they be?

I’d add cross-examination to earlier outrounds, like octafinals and quarterfinals. This forces the speaker to defend their position, while allowing them to address any doubts the judges may have, which could clearly help with ranks. 

In your opinion, what are the three big qualities that all great extempers possess?

Confidence—you need solid delivery; being analytical—you need great analysis; and a short-memory—you can’t focus on what’s in the past, you need to focus on what’s ahead, so just quickly learn from your mistakes before looking to your next round. 

By Ananth Veluvali

Founder, the Extemper's Bible.

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