How to Develop Extemporaneous and Public Speaking Skills
Introduction to public speaking as an extracurricular activity
Public speaking is an important skill in many stages of life, both in school and in your career. Honing your communication skills while you are in high school will help you tremendously in college and beyond and also serves as a great confidence-booster. There are a number of extracurricular activities available to help you develop your public speaking skills, such as Speech and Debate, Model UN, Mock Trial, Girls and Boys Nation/State, and others. It’s also a skill involved in many performance-related activities, including drama, singing, and slam poetry.
Despite how nerve-wracking public speaking can be, putting in the time and effort to develop your skills in high school will serve you well no matter what your future plans are.
What is extemporaneous speaking?
“Extemporaneous” means on the spot, with minimal preparation. Extemporaneous speaking is speaking about a topic on the fly. You receive or think of a topic, generally have a short amount of time to jot down ideas and formulate a structure, and then publicly perform your speech.
The National Speech and Debate Association (formerly National Forensics League) has two specific Extemporaneous Speech events, International and United States, at Speech and Debate competitions, with particular rules and standards. The National Speech and Debate Association website describes these events as follows:
Extemporaneous Speaking, typically called extemp, is a speech on current events with limited preparation time. A student’s understanding of important political, economic, and cultural issues is assessed along with critical thinking and analytical skills. Students report to a draw room (often referred to as extemp prep) where all of the extempers gather at tables, set out their files, and await their turn to draw topics. Students may access research brought with them to the tournament during the 30-minute preparation period. When prep time is up, the student reports to the competition room to deliver a 7 minute speech.
Students have a lot to do in 30 minutes—they must select a question, review research, outline arguments with supporting materials, and practice at least part of the speech before time expires. Many tournaments prohibit the consultation of notes during the speech in which case speech structure and evidence need to be memorized during prep time as well.
The International and United States events are similar in that they both offer a choice of three questions related to current events; the International event’s questions concern international issues, while the United State event deals with the U.S. only.
Other Speech and Debate organizations may have similar events. If you are interested in participating, start by talking to your English teacher or the Speech and Debate coach at your school. He or she may be able to give you resources and names of competitions that are most appropriate for you. If you are a homeschooled student, contact the school in your zoned school district to find out if you are eligible to participate in extracurricular activities through that school or ask our state’s activities association for more information.
The skills you will develop as an extemporaneous speaker will serve you well in a number of different arenas. For instance, you may use them to respond to a classmate’s point in a class discussion, or to give an impromptu toast at a wedding. If you decide to attend law school, you will be tasked with formulating impromptu arguments in class routinely, and must be well-prepared with extemporaneous speaking skills.
How to become a better extemporaneous speaker
If you would like to become a better extemporaneous speaker, start by practicing with a wide range of both familiar and unfamiliar topics. You could find ideas by watching the news or reading a newspaper or a book.
Use competition-type timing and materials restrictions while practicing (consult The National Speech and Debate Association website for the rules). It is also a good idea to practice in front of audiences, especially those who can give you critical feedback on booth your content and delivery, such as your parents, teachers, or friends. If you are in a Speech and Debate club or organization, ask fellow members if they can give you feedback, and offer to do the same for them.
You can also record yourself on video and watch it back critically to evaluate your own speaking. Pay attention to your body language—your gestures should be natural and accentuate your message. Try not to be overly dramatic.
Work on your memorization abilities. Repetition is one way to solidify facts in your mind, so try making flash cards with key points and facts and using them to practice. Repeating facts out loud is another way to help you remember them. You will need to practice before your events, because using notes while speaking during competitions is usually not allowed. Even if it is permitted, notes can sometimes confuse you and hold you up more than they help.
Be sure to slow down even more than feels natural. Many students in Speech and Debate events speak much too quickly, but if you practice speaking slowly, you are less likely to let your nerves get the better of you and speed up when the competition rolls around. Also, be sure to time yourself: you want to fill your allotted time slot without going over the limit, and regularly timing yourself will help you develop a feel for how much you can say in the given time.
Make sure you use your analytical skills to argue an interesting and nuanced point rather than simply listing facts. You might practice doing so by thinking about arguments from different angles and developing counterarguments, as well as paying attention to current events and other issues in the news so you are aware of what is happening and the different perspectives people have on them.
At events that do allow you to bring research materials and notes, make sure you organize your materials so you can access the information you need quickly and easily.
Visit the NSDA website for guidelines to help you with particular events.
For more information
There are many extracurricular activities that can help you hone your public speaking skills. Start with CollegeVine’s guides below to find the one that is right for you.
Want to hone your skills and develop your interests further? Check out the CollegeVine Mentorship Program. The program is designed to help students discover their interests, develop significant self-motivation, and become high performing individuals. We carefully pair each student 1-1 with a mentor from a top college, who works personally with the student for an entire year. Our mentors collectively represent over 20 different majors, substantial extracurricular experiences, and far-ranging success. They are handpicked to challenge and inspire our students, while playing the pivotal role of the first real mentor in the student’s life. Learn more here.