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A Guide to Excelling at Speech and Debate

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No matter which path you wish to pursue in college or in your career, being able to communicate with others in a clear, confident, and concise way is a skill that you’ll use all your life. When you’re in high school, you’ll likely have access to a number of different extracurricular activities that involve developing your public speaking abilities or debate skills, from Mock Trial to Drama Club. One of these options may be to join your school’s Speech and Debate team.  

Whether you’re already comfortable performing publicly, or you want to get over your fear of public speaking, participating in Speech and Debate offers opportunities to hone your communications skills. Its different events allow you to tailor your participation to your interests and talents, and its competitive nature adds a motivating factor that many students enjoy along with the possibility of honors and awards.

Does Speech and Debate sound like an interesting extracurricular activity to add to your resume? In this post, we’ll go over what you can do in Speech and Debate—and what Speech and Debate can do for you.

What is Speech and Debate?

As a specific group or team, Speech and Debate usually refers to a particular, organized form of competitive public speaking and debate. This activity or field is also sometimes known as forensics, although it’s not related to forensic science.

In the United States, much of competitive high-school speech and debate takes place under the National Speech and Debate Association, formerly known as the National Forensics League, as well as state-level organizations. (Not every state participates in the NSDA.) Other national-level Speech and Debate organizations include the National Catholic Forensics League, the National Christian Forensics and Communication Association, and Stoa, an organization for Christian homeschool forensics.

In competitive debate,  two students (or two teams of students) argue the different sides of a given issue or question according to a certain set of procedures and rules. One or more judges observes and eventually decides which student or team has won the debate. Speech and Debate competitions usually offer several variations on the debate structure, each with its own particular regulations.

Competitive speech may be less familiar to you, but it’s an equally important part of Speech and Debate. The speech category encompasses a wide range of competitive events, but what all these events have in common is that they involve high-school students, alone or in pairs, competing against other students by speaking in public. Later in this post, we’ll go over details about what competitions actually involve.

In both categories, the available events vary by state. Debate events might include Lincoln-Douglas Debate, which is a one-on-one competition with a focus on philosophical topics and traditional logical argumentation. Another debate event is Public Forum Debate, a pairs event with a more modern structure that emphasizes independent research, current-events-based topics, and accessibility to a wider range of audiences.  

Speech events at a tournament might include Original Oratory, in which you write and perform your own speech on a topic, or Duo Interpretation, in which you and a partner perform a short dramatic piece from an existing play or other literature.

While Speech and Debate competitors perform alone or with a partner, they’re also part of a team, much as they would be in a sport like tennis. Your high school’s team will often be coached by one or more teachers, and you’ll practice and prepare as a group. Tournament awards are given not only to individual competitors, but to the teams with the highest total achievement at a tournament.

What does joining Speech and Debate involve?

As with many extracurricular activities, Speech and Debate can vary a great deal from school to school. Some high schools have notably rigorous preparation and high-achieving Speech and Debate teams; others are not yet so established, or participate more casually.

If you want to compete in Speech and Debate, you’ll need to choose an event that suits you. Certain events are generally considered easier for those just starting out, and your coach and older members of your team can help you decide on one that is best for you.

Once you have chosen an event, you’ll need to prepare for it. For Debate events, you’ll generally be given one topic in advance that will be your topic for an extended period of time. With your coach’s help, you’ll need to research, write, and practice presenting arguments for both sides of the issue or question to be used (with adjustments) for as long as that topic remains in effect.

The necessary preparations for Speech events differ based on the event. In some events, you’ll need to research and write your own material. In others, you’ll memorize and practice performing a given piece. In still others, you’ll practice coming up with a compelling speech on a topic given limited preparation time.

In all events, you’re likely to spend a lot of time practicing your vocal delivery, including speed, tone, volume, and diction. You’ll also work on editing your piece so that it can be performed within the allotted time. Since you’ll typically stick with one piece for the entire school year, there’s a great deal of room for refinement over the course of the year.

Once you’ve prepared thoroughly, it’s time to compete. Most often, you’ll be attending tournaments held at high schools in your local area, which are held on a Saturday and take up most of the day. You’ll go through several rounds of competition against other students, scores will be tallied, and awards will be presented to the top competitors at a concluding ceremony. At the end of the competition season, district tournaments determine who is eligible for state-level and possibly national-level tournaments.

At all Speech and Debate tournaments, professionalism is key. Most competitors wear suits, and some even carry briefcases. Your professional presentation and behavior are explicitly part of the rubrics that the judges use to determine scores and winners. However, it’s not all serious, and you’ll have plenty of opportunities to socialize and have fun with your team.

Depending on your high school, you may have access to additional Speech and Debate opportunities. For instance, a number of colleges host annual Speech and Debate tournaments for high-school students, and you may travel for some tournaments.

As with many high-school extracurriculars, you may also need to organize and participate in fundraising as part of your involvement with Speech and Debate, since schools vary in their ability to pay for the needs of their teams, such as transportation to local tournaments and the additional expenses of competing on the state or national level.

What do I need to do to excel in Speech and Debate?

First of all, you should think carefully about choosing the event in which you’ll compete. It’s a good idea to try several events, especially when you’re just getting started, but since participants often refine one debate topic or one dramatic piece over the entire year, your performance will benefit from a long-term commitment once you’ve tried a few.

Choose an event that’s a good match for your skills, whether you’re best at dramatic performances, arguing persuasively, or thinking on the fly. You may also want to think strategically. If your local area already has a large number of strong competitors in one event, it could be beneficial to your chances of advancement to choose a different event.

Keep in mind that your competitive prospects may be somewhat limited by what event you choose. As we’ve mentioned, the events offered in Speech and Debate vary from state to state. Only certain events, such as Policy Debate, have the potential to advance all the way to the prestigious national tournament; others are only available in particular areas at the state or regional level.

The most important factor in excelling at Speech and Debate is practice. While students often choose to participate in events that mesh well with their existing talents, preparing and performing on a high level in Speech and Debate events takes a great deal of work. The more effort you invest in Speech and Debate, the better you’re likely to do.

While you’re competing, you’ll have the opportunity to observe the performances of others in your event. It’s helpful to keep track of which of your opponents regularly rank highest and to recognize the ways in which their performances impress the judges. Judging styles may vary from region to region, and you’ll need to adjust your performance to meet your judges’ standards.

When you have the opportunity to receive direct feedback from your judges, you should take it seriously. After many tournaments, you’ll receive your judges’ scores and comments, and these can be a helpful source of advice for how to adjust your performance for the next tournament.

Since judges at local tournaments are often parents or other volunteers, not Speech and Debate experts, you may need to take some of their comments with a grain of salt. However, your coach should be able to help you figure out which advice is the most relevant.

Your coach and the more senior members of your Speech and Debate team are also valuable sources of information on topics from how to dress appropriately to how to succeed in your event. This is one of the major benefits of having a team on which to depend: other team members can give feedback and suggestions that you can’t get from practicing alone.

Once you’ve participated in Speech and Debate for several years, you may have the opportunity to take on leadership roles, such as president, debate captain, or a less formal role coaching younger students. Improving your leadership skills is always a good idea, both for college application purposes and for your own personal development.

You may also want to get involved with or spearhead efforts to fundraise for the Speech and Debate team. Effective fundraising is a must, especially at schools with limited funds, and a larger budget may allow your team to attend higher-profile competitions. (For more advice on fundraising for a high school extracurricular, check out CollegeVine’s blog post How to Plan and Execute an Effective Fundraiser for a High School Extracurricular.)

What are the benefits of participating in Speech and Debate?

There are a number of different ways in which Speech and Debate can benefit you. First of all, like most extracurriculars, your commitment to and success in Speech and Debate are markers of personal qualities like dedication, hard work, and leadership. When colleges consider your applications, they’ll see evidence of these qualities.

In addition, no matter what academic or career field you wish to enter, communication skills are incredibly important to your future. Participating in Speech and Debate can help you learn how to craft a persuasive argument and present it convincingly, which will be helpful to any college paper you’ll ever write and every academic or professional presentation you’ll ever give.

You’ll also learn important public speaking skills through Speech and Debate. Fear of public speaking is very common, but that skill is essential in college and the workplace. The exposure and coaching that Speech and Debate provides can help you get past your fear of public speaking and become a more confident participant in discussions and presentations.

Speech and Debate can be great for students who have an interest in performing or speaking publicly, but aren’t drawn to drama club, student government, or Mock Trial. It offers the motivating benefit of competitiveness, which is a significant plus for some students, especially those who wish to compete on a primarily individual basis. Of course, aspiring lawyers, actors, and politicians will make use of the skills taught in Speech and Debate, but improved communication skills are also important for any high school student.

Some students will want to extend their high school participation in Speech and Debate into their college years. Many schools have debate teams or clubs, and some schools also offer some form of competitive public speaking, as well as related extracurriculars like drama, spoken word poetry, or campus politics. Whether for your extracurricular activities, your academic goals, or your career plans, participation in Speech and Debate can help prepare you for what lies ahead.

Does Speech and Debate sound like a fit for you? Talk to your high school’s Speech and Debate coach about joining the team. If your school doesn’t have an established team, but you can find interested students and a willing coach, you may even be able to start a team from scratch.

You can get more information about Speech and Debate from the website of the National Speech and Debate Association or the website of your state’s own Speech and Debate league. Remember, events and policies vary from state to state, so be sure to determine what your options are in your state.

Do you have more questions about extracurriculars, both in high school and on your college applications? CollegeVine has you covered. Check out our blog for more posts on what defines an extracurricular activity, how to get involved in various extracurriculars, and a grade-by-grade breakdown of what you should know about extracurriculars in each year of high school.

Good luck!


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Monikah Schuschu
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.