In my senior year of high school, the head of my local forensics league was interviewed by the biggest local newspaper in the area. At first glance, everyone in the speech and debate community was excited; even though there were hundreds of people involved in the activity locally, there was always an element of mystique and exoticism associated with competing in speech and debate. I mean, why would you wake up so early… on a weekend… to dress in a suit all day? What do you mean… you broke? Is that a good thing?
Sure, forensics (the name itself already isn’t immediately intuitive) isn’t as eclectic as some other high school groups, but we have our niche. Needless to say, getting press coverage was a big deal for some people. For them, we, as speech and debaters were finally getting our opportunity to show why we were more important than sports! We were finally going to show the world that what we’re doing is the stuff of intellectuals, academics, and smart people!
I don’t remember what his main point was. In fact, I don’t think anyone remembers anymore. What everyone does remember, however, is one small phrase: “freaks and geeks.” During his interview he said that speech and debate was the realm of “freaks and geeks.”
You can obviously imagine the outcome. There was outrage from the forensics community, he rescinded his statement in a personal email to all the coaches in the area (there was no follow-up article or interview with the newspaper), and the issue faded into the annals of forensics history. However, this incident teaches us an important lesson about the way the average person views forensics. I know from experience that “freaks and geeks” is by no means indicative of who we are. But, it is undeniable that some aspects of our culture do look odd for an uninvolved lay person looking in. “Freaks and geeks” might not have been the best way to put it, but the point is clear: for better or for worse, “speech and debate” evoked a very clear image for many people.
I wanted to bring up this story because I felt it provided the necessary backdrop for a recurring problem that I have noticed throughout in many oratories that I have read and seen in the past few years. I want to use this specific example as a jumping off point for a very specific argument: you should not make forensics jokes in your oratory.
You know what I’m talking about. You’ve either heard a speech that used a forensics joke or used one yourself. “I’m doing oratory only because I can’t do duo myself!” “At least I don’t speak as fast as those policy debaters!” “What’s up with those wacky interpers, huh?” You get the deal. The reason why I mentioned the “freaks and geeks” ordeal in the beginning was to emphasize this point: your judges, even though they are most likely going to be the parents of fellow competitors, want to see that you’re a real person behind the oratorical visage: that you are actually a thinking, feeling being and not just a rehearsed speaking robot hoping to get 1st place in the round. Your goal as a speaker is to therefore connect with the audience and present the most natural speech possible. Forensics jokes, and to a broader extent, mention of anything related to forensics will only hurt that image.
Let’s first analyze this objectively. You never want to mention something in a speech that will confuse your judge. If you mention a speech or debate event that they’ve never heard of or don’t know anything about, you’ve lost them right there. And this only gets more probable due to the sheer amount of technical jargon associated with events that you’re likely to use.
However, what’s more important is the more subjective impact that this has on your image as a speaker. If you can only come up with forensics jokes or examples (and I don’t necessarily blame you. I admit, they are an easy target for jokes), I, as a coach and judge, come to the conclusion that there is nothing else going on in your life besides forensics. And while this may be true for some of you, you should not be trying to advertise it. After all, people are complex; deep down, everyone has their own story and narrative beyond what you do in speech and debate that makes them, well, interesting. Oratory should serve as a channel for that. Bringing your examples back to forensics boxes you in and instead makes you look one-dimensional and bland.
This therefore feeds into the largest subjective problem with forensics jokes or references, and it’s that they are immersion breaking. When judges are listening to you speak for oratory, they are already suspending the belief that you are, in fact, just a high school student. The event is meant to be a way for you to effectively role play as a professional speaker trying to persuade your audience on a certain point. Your credentials, which would be something vitally important in a real life persuasive speech, are assumed and ignored for the purposes of this exercise. Mentioning forensics in any way breaks the fourth wall in a time and place where you’re main focus should be on using this platform in a way that the judges take you seriously. A forensics reference, therefore, is jarring and abruptly yanks me back into the real world where I am forced to remember that I am not listening to a professional speaker, but am instead listening to a high school student at a speech tournament. It sounds harsh, but remember that a large portion of speech evaluation is rooted in subjective and subconscious analysis of speakers. In other words, many judges (and speakers) can tell when a certain speech is better than another, but they just can’t say why. Little things like this add up to the overall big picture, and this is one of those little things that will set you that much more behind.