Extemp Content and Strategy Miscellaneous

Narrating the Numbers

As we enter an intense competitive period of the national circuit season, Siri Ural discusses the importance of utilizing context to create pathos arguments. 

“Can we talk about the political and economic state of the world right now??”
Trust me, Jaden Smith. We are.

As speech competitors, we dress up in suits. We talk to walls. We sacrifice our weekends to dress up in suits and talk to walls. And of course – we exploit!

Sounds suspiciously like a PF move.

Jokes aside, the unfortunate truth is that in speech and debate, far too many speakers convert raw, genuine narratives into rank-boosts. Nearly every speaker has been guilty of this at some point in their careers – including me. As a former Impromptu kid, a good portion of my early speaking journey included digging up tragic stories that (somewhat) supported my prompts. Eighth grade Siri got away with it because it’s… Impromptu.

However, in the world of Extemp, our form of exploitation runs entirely opposite to the trends seen in Impromptu and Oratory. Unlike our speechier counterparts, our issue is that we simply don’t talk about stories. Like, ever. Instead, extempers’ tendency to churn out statistics and data becomes slightly problematic when looking at the intensity of the questions we end up answering. The 2021 NCFL Finalist podcast (also known as B.D.E, don’t question it) breaks this situation down into two connected segments. 

First, failing to appropriately address the context of a number leads to a shallow portrayal of the situation. This surface level briefing then leads to the second aspect, which entails taking detached stances that harm the idea of advocacy. 

As an Extemper myself, it’s easy to see the temptation to cite broad statistics rather than fully contextualize a number when a clock is ticking away. However, providing that further explanation not only elevates your pathos argument, but it also ensures that the situation isn’t being boiled down to a singular percentage. 

Take the United States poverty line for example; the US Census Bureau quantified our poverty percentage to stand at 11.6 percent in 2021. Now as a member of one of the country’s most expensive high school extracurriculars, simply stating this number doesn’t do enough to emphasize the significance to an audience. Instead, we have to ask ourselves a few questions:

  1. How many people does it affect?
  2. What are the potential implications for this population?
  3. How can we help the judge understand the magnitude of this number?

In reality, that 11.6 percent accounts for around 37.9 million American citizens who struggle in their day-to-day lives because they find that their paycheck isn’t going nearly as far as they need it to. From paying rent to groceries to raising their children, this poverty line isn’t just an abstract linear figure for those affected; it’s a reality. Taking it one step further, using comparisons that bring the numbers down to ground level can make all the difference for an audience to understand the magnitude of the issue. 37.9 million people is almost the entire  population of the state of California — imagine the entire state of California living from paycheck to paycheck. 

With these types of comparisons, we can effectively turn detached statistics into something that is so real and understandable for any audience. Not only are audiences able to define large numbers in terms of the actual impact, but they end up leaving the round with newfound knowledge on how drastic a situation might be.

For anyone who needs competitive motivation to invest time in these types of arguments, take a look at Daniel Kind. During the 2022 NCFL Finals speech that ended up bringing home the gold, he went beyond simply answering his question on homelessness. From the very beginning, by clarifying the amount of deaths that result from lack of shelter, he set a precedent for looking at the topic on a human level. However, what really had the extemp circuit reeling was a statement in his conclusion: “In the time it has taken to make this speech, yet another homeless person has died.” 

If you’re wondering how he came about this devastating statistic, you won’t find the answer on the internet. During his thirty minute prep time, Kind converted between years, days, and minutes to narrow the broader annual statistic down to a 37 minute speech period. Would it have been ‘easier’ to simply state that 15,000 homeless people die every year? Absolutely! But between the two, bringing the statistic down to a time period that people can easily identify with is far more effective in emphasizing the gravity of the situation.

Kind demonstrated a perfect example of a pathos argument. Breaking abstract numbers into real human lives didn’t just contribute to his first-place trophy, but it also ensured that he was fulfilling his role as an advocate. That is what this activity, and Extemp specifically, is supposed to be about.

At the end of the day, hardware is great. You love trophies, I love trophies, the entire speech world loves trophies! But the fact is, you can obtain just as many achievements as the most iconic speakers while also ensuring that Speech and Debate remains a platform for advocacy.

As we enter the competitive national circuit season, keep one thing in mind – there is a drastic difference between using numbers and narrating numbers. We, as extempers, should all be striving to ensure that we’re falling on the side of the latter. 


3 replies on “Narrating the Numbers”

Fantastic post! Nifty title too. Completely changed my perspective on extemp and I’ll make sure to read this on the morning of every tournament. 7/7 stars

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