Stop me if you’ve heard this one: “There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what.”
That’s former Republican presidential nominee Willard Mitt Romney. He was speaking at a private fundraiser, discussing his chances of getting elected, and somebody caught this candid comment on camera.
I knew where he was coming from, since I’d heard a similar sentiment echoed across high school campuses throughout my speech and debate career. Whether it was policy kids complaining about the kind of judge they had (“He wasn’t even flowing!”) or interp competitors moaning they had a judge that didn’t look at them at all, a significant portion of speechies seemed to agree with Mr. Romney that there is a fundamental barrier between them and a percentage of their viewers.
I’ve had my fair share of unreceptive judges. One out of every seven ballots said I talked too fast, or should simplify my arguments, or use clearer structure. However, because my other ballots didn’t provide any critiques, I assumed that I didn’t need to improve in those areas. I assumed that seventh judge was overly critical, jealous, or biased.
I was rationalizing. I didn’t WANT to think about what I could do better as a presenter.
Ultimately, we all have egos—we wouldn’t be competing for the honor of having our names announced alongside pieces of plastic if we didn’t—and dealing with judges that just don’t seem to like what we do brings them out like nothing else.
This puts us at danger of stagnating.
Stagnating is one of the worst things one can do in this activity. Speech and debate is about education just as much as competition, and if we’re not learning how to deal with the kind of people who are critical of us now, we’ll be hard pressed to handle them later in life.
You can learn something from any ballot you receive, even if there’s barely anything there. NOBODY is perfect at speech—even Natalie Sintek didn’t picket-fence the entire national tournament. Somebody will always be able to find something wrong with your presentation or your content.
So, if you get a one-comment ballot (“fast”), and go 1-1-6 in a semifinal round, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t take that critique into account and refine your style further.
Judge didn’t look at you throughout your interp performance? Focus on effective voice modulation. Use pauses to demand their attention.
Judge didn’t flow anything you said in your debate round? Don’t make it about the line-by-line argumentation. Use memorable rhetoric to leave a lasting, positive impression in their mind.
Judge gave you last place without explaining why? Take that fire and perform for more people at practice to get as much feedback as you can.
The easiest way to go about doing this is continuously recording yourself. You’ll notice little things that those judges found irksome—strange inflection, verbal tics, weird eye contact, distracting hand gestures, or what have you—and you’ll be the wiser for it.
It took me a long, long time to realize this. I did well as a senior, but there were a few championships I could never clinch—Berkeley’s, for example. When I look back on my ballots from that final round, I see a number of on-point critiques. They say I spoke too fast, used arguments that were too complex, and didn’t employ a clear enough structure.
I wish I learned to respect the odd ballot out from other tournaments, because, if I worked to overcome my presentational deficiencies prior to Berkeley, I could have much happier memories.
Could Mr. Romney have taken the election if he had made a greater effort to appeal to that 47%? That’s a question for an Extemp round, but I suspect that a safe answer would be, “It couldn’t hurt.”
Don’t stop striving to appeal to 100% of your audience.