The Speech Performance: Take Risks

I can still remember my favorite limited prep speech I ever gave. It was an impromptu speech in semifinals at the largest tournament of the year. My topic was fairness. My thesis was that we should revel in the unfairness of life rather than let it discourage us. Life will never be fair. Great! Now that we don’t have to worry about fairness, we can focus on working so hard that it doesn’t matter.

In the speech, I gave a tongue-in-cheek anecdote about how at ballot parties, every speaker and debater complained about fairness, having unspoken contests to see who had the “dumbest judge”. As I was telling this story, one of the judges leaned back, guffawing, and pointed two thumbs to himself, mouthing, “That’s me!”

I grinned and said, “Absolutely sir. I’m sure of it. You are the dumbest judge!”

The panel died laughing. I picket-fenced the room.

Be the Unexpected.

If I could give every competitor in the nation one piece of advice, I’d tell them these two words: Take risks.

All speeches that I still remember today have one thing in common: They were different. The speakers found some way to set themselves apart from their competition. And that’s the key.

The judge will see 8 speakers in each room. Your job is to be the one they remember. Giving safe speeches that the judge is used to hearing is actually more dangerous than taking risks. Safe speeches aren’t memorable; they’re mediocre. If all you do is cater to your audience, using the same Thomas Jefferson quotes and Thomas Edison stories that they’re used to hearing, you’ll succeed intermittently, but you’ll never blow anyone away.

Staying safe means confining yourself to 3rd and 4th place. Your potential will remain constantly out of reach.

Separate Yourself from Competitors

Kurt Vonnegut once eloquently said, “We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and and developing our wings on the way down.”

You will crash and burn. A lot. Another impromptu speech I remember giving, I told a story about sneaking Chick-Fil-A nuggets into a movie theater in my pants. That was a risk that, for obvious reasons, did NOT pay off. I got all fifth and belows.

But I learned. Not every risk will win you the round, but every risk pays off. Because in the long run, taking risks means trying something new and seeing if it will work. If it does, great! If it doesn’t, even better. Because you underperformed in this speech, you’ll never make that same mistake again.

This doesn’t mean that you should just take any risk for the sake of taking risks. Calculate your risks. Think through what is likely to set you apart from everyone else. How can you be the competitor that the judge remembers after the tournament ended? If you do it well, you’ll separate yourself from the competition and climb to the top of the ranks in every room.

What risks have you taken in a speech performance? Did they pay off? Let us know in the comments!