The skills required to win a speech contest are multifaceted. You’ll need to be a strong thinker, writer, and speaker. You’ll need calm confidence and sound reasoning skills. And these skills are not unique to speech writing; they will be useful almost any time, especially when you orally deliver information, be it during the science fair, an interview, or a class presentation. 

As such, developing the skills necessary to write and deliver a winning speech is a beneficial process for any high school student, regardless of whether or not you intend to actually participate in a formal speech contest or Speech and Debate Club.

If you’re interested in participating in the Expository Speech event at National Speech & Debate Association contests, and in developing your speaking skills along the way, read on.

What is Speech and Debate?

Speech and Debate Clubs generally participate in formal oratorical contests consisting of the delivery of arguments, performances, and other speeches. Most of these contests are governed by the National Speech & Debate Association, in coordination with the National Forensic League.

These organizations seek to provide competitive speech and debate activities, support for participants in the form of high quality resources and training, and scholarships and recognition for participants. They estimate that more than 150,000 students and coaches participate each year.

Usually, speech and debate teams are formal school clubs that function as an extracurricular group, meeting during elective periods or after school. These clubs generally participate in informal inter-team debates and in formal local, regional, and even national competitions.

What Is the Format of a Formal Speech and Debate Competition?

The format of speech and debate competitions varies. Each competition can choose the specific elements it wishes to include. Common components are policy debates, congressional debates, original oratory, and expository speeches. The components of a competition are released when the competition is announced, and competitions that are held annually usually are comprised of the same elements each year. Check out the National Speech & Debate Association’s list of Competition Events to learn more.   

What Is An Expository Speech?

Expository speeches fall under the supplemental category of formal speech and debate competitions, so they are usually offered in addition to other forms of competition. Unlike some of the other elements in a speech and debate competition, expository speeches are an individual event, meaning that you are solely responsible for the writing and delivery of your speech, and you compete directly against other individual students who have done the same.

Expository speeches are informational in nature, and the exact topic of the speech is chosen by you, the student. According to the National Forensic League guidelines, expository speeches “describe, clarify, illustrate, or define an object, idea, concept, or process,” leaving the specific content very open for you to decide.

Expository speeches necessitate background research, and their informational nature excludes personal opinions. Their goal, simply put, is to educate others rather than convince anyone of your viewpoint.

In a formal competition, expository speeches are limited to five minutes in length, with a 30-second grace period. No visual aids are permitted during expository speeches at formal speech and debate competitions governed by the rules of the National Forensics League. This means that you must memorize your speech in its entirety, since you will not be allowed to use notes or other prompts.

Some local or smaller scale competitions may use different rules to govern their contests, so be sure to check the rules specific to any contest you enter. Specifically, time and visual aid restrictions may vary.

How to Prepare for an Expository Speech at a Speech and Debate Competition

If you’re interested in participating in a National Forensic League expository speech competition, there are some ways that you can prepare in advance, even before writing your speech.

Background Research

First, once you’ve chosen a general content area, do some background research to fine-tune your thinking. Rather than going into your research with a thesis in mind, try to keep an open mind and allow the facts to guide you to a logical and well-founded thesis.   

As you research, keep in mind that the National Forensic League rules have strict guidelines surrounding the use of evidence in expository speeches. Specifically:

Debaters are responsible for the validity of all evidence they introduce in the debate. Evidence includes, but is not limited to: facts, statistics, or examples attributable to a specific, identifiable, authoritative source used to support a claim. Unattributed ideas are the opinion of the student competitor and are not evidence.

In other words, you are responsible for fact-checking any evidence you include in your speech and for attributing it appropriately. This means including an orally delivered citation with the primary author’s name and the date of publication in your speech. If you do not include an attribution, judges will assume that the evidence you’ve presented is actually just your opinion and not a demonstrable fact.

Perfect Your Word Choice

Another way to set yourself up for success is to get comfortable using a thesaurus. It will become your best friend as you refine your writing and practice your speeches.

You’ll want to find the strongest synonyms possible for key words in your speech, so get used to identifying words that you tend to overuse and finding strong alternatives to replace them. Sometimes you might even need to source synonyms that seem to flow off the tongue better, whether by alliteration or simply syllabic pace.

At the same time, be sure to strike a balance between relying too heavily on a dictionary and maintaining your own voice. In order to win a speech contest, you must sound natural and confident. This is difficult if you’re using words that you normally wouldn’t use in conversation or presentation, so tread carefully. Don’t overuse the thesaurus at the expense of your own voice.

That said, we all have words that we commonly overuse or rely on in casual conversations, so using a thesaurus to fine-tune the tone, meaning, and flow of your speech is a smart choice.

Consider National Forensic League Time Limits

In a formal competition, time limits are no joke. In fact, if you exceed the 30-second grace period, you will be excluded from winning the competition.

The time limit for expository speeches at speech and debate competitions is five minutes. You can set yourself up for success by practicing speeches in this time range. Become familiar with the pace of your introduction and know when it’s time to move on to your conclusion.

Get to know what five minutes of speaking feels like so that you can be comfortable and natural on stage, without the additional anxiety of time keeping.

Understand How Your Speech Is Judged

There is no prescribed rubric for scoring expository speeches at the National Forensic League’s speech and debate competitions. Instead, judges award points at their own discretion by casting votes for their own perceived winner.

Just because a rubric is not available for your review, though, that does not mean that judging your speech is a mysterious process. Become familiar with the general categories that judges often consider when casting their votes.

One valuable resource is the Informative Speech Rubric from the University of Pittsburgh. Although there are some nuances that differentiate informative speeches from expository ones (including different time limits and rules regarding visual aids), the judging criteria are often very similar, and this gives you some insight into that thought process.      

In general, the following categories will be considered in the scoring of your expository speech:

Topic Choice

You will need to be able to succinctly and clearly communicate to the audience why you are taking the time to deliver a speech on this topic. The topic should be something of personal importance and you should make it relevant to the audience by imparting new or unique information. Current events or other timely topics are especially good choices.

One of your very first tasks as a speaker is to convince the audience that what you are about to say is worth listening to, and this will be much easier to do if you choose your topic carefully.

Introduction

Your introduction goes hand in hand with your topic choice. You’ll have only a brief window of time to present your topic in a way that captures the audience’s attention while making your purpose clear. The introduction should also lead smoothly into the rest of the speech.

Organization

The organization of your speech includes its overall structure, the transitions that you use, and the way that your ideas and evidence build on one another. The organization should feel natural to the listener, as though they can anticipate what is coming next. If this isn’t the case, your use of surprise should be incorporated purposefully and used to your advantage.

Content

You can write an amazing introduction and seamlessly organized speech, but if your content is horrible, you’re not going to do well. Instead, you need to do your research carefully and choose evidence for inclusion that is both strong and interesting. Your speech should also include strong use of rhetoric and word choice.

Content is a huge consideration for most judges. When you review your speech, make sure that you have considered the precision and strength of every word choice along the way.

Delivery

This is another major consideration. In order to win a speech contest, you need to appear confident and comfortable on the stage. Make eye contact with the judges, keep a steady pace while speaking, and employ the effective use of pauses. Monitor your own volume and the nonverbal cues you display. You should appear at ease and command attention without seeming forced or overbearing.

Because no visual aids are allowed, you will need to memorize your speech in its entirety. Practice this again and again. To win an expository speech contest, there can be no stumbling when it comes to remembering your lines.

Valuable Resources to Prepare an Expository Speech for Speech and Debate Competitions

Before you begin writing your speech, be sure to check out these valuable resources to further guide your work:

If you’re interested in pursuing Speech and Debate Club seriously but want some more guidance and insight into the process, consider CollegeVine’s Mentoring Program, which provides practical advice on topics from high school activities and college applications to career aspirations, all from successful college students who have been in your shoes.

Also, be sure to check out these CollegeVine posts to learn more about extracurriculars and academics for students interested in Speech and Debate:

Kate Sundquist

Kate Sundquist

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.
Kate Sundquist