Bradley Hall, the iconic building of my alma mater, Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois

Bradley Hall, the iconic building of my alma mater, Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois

It was a last minute decision.

My former head coach from the time I competed on the Bradley University Speech Team (happily now known as BUST), asked me a simple question on my Facebook wall, “Are you going to AWW?” (So many acronyms…) I soon learned AWW stands for Alumni Work Weekend, where the not-quite ghosts of speech teams and national championships past are invited to converge on Peoria and coach the current team members in their quest to continue the legacy and win two more national championship titles, from AFA – American Forensics Association and NFA- National Forensics Association.

Early Saturday morning I found myself driving south, following first the Fox River and then the Illinois River all the way to Peoria, where I don’t think I’ve been in about 20 years. It was a beautiful morning, sunny and very little traffic. As I arrived on campus, it looked a lot different than it did when I was last there.

I made my way to the speech office – wow- when I competed for the team we were spread all over Bradley hall with no one home base beyond a hallway where three of the coaches and college professors had their offices. Now there is an entire state-of-the-art BUILDING dedicated to communication, which both warms my heart and makes me just a wee bit jealous at the same time.

The buildings and campus aren’t all that’s changed.

A couple rules, which were hard and fast when I competed, are now long gone. And some events look different too (I’m talking about a program duo… like cutting one play into 10 minutes wasn’t enough…sheesh.). But what struck me most is what remains the same.

Of course there are common perennial themes that college students like to explore such as sexuality, connectedness, and gender equality. But even more so, beyond the common themes, was the recurring challenge of executing the basics well.

As I coached these students, most of whom had far more talent than I and would likely have crushed me in competition, I noticed an effort to get better without completing the firm foundation. Here are a few things I found myself repeating over and again that can help anyone speaking, not just those in the tiny world of collegiate forensics:

  1. Slow down and enunciate: I must have written and/or spoken this 15 times on Saturday. The students were excited about their messages and clearly wanted to hurry up and get to the “good parts.” But we all have to remember, every single part of a speech is necessary in order to fully communicate the message of the presentation.  Even if your introduction is perfectly memorized and you can spout it at 60 miles per hour, doesn’t mean you should. Take your time and make sure your audience can follow the meaning to your message.
  2. Move with purpose: This one slays me. Back in my day, walking during an interp piece was taboo. You *might* be able to get away with taking a step to one side or the other, but much like a basketball player has to pivot, there was no leaving your initial spot. So I had to quickly get used to seeing the students move all over the place, books in hand. (If you’re not familiar with the interpretation of literature in competition, competitors choose a piece of literature, poem, or a play, depending on the event; they make a script from a small section of it by cutting the story into an 8-10-minute presentation; they place the story into a small, black, 3-ring binder, and turn the pages as they present the story, bringing the story to life.) Once I got used to the idea of competitors walking around, I could appreciate how it could add to the communication of the message. But then, sometimes, a student would walk or move, just to move. It had no rhyme or reason. When you speak, pacing the stage like a cat on the prowl is distracting, no matter what you’re talking about. Walking is good; it just has to be done with a purpose: advancing the message and continuing to engage your audience.
  3. Gestures matter: These students, the best speakers in the country, know how to control their bodies and faces to communicate a specific emotion. Yet even the best of them needed an occasional reminder that they have to pay attention to the smallest things. One student told a story where the main character made a phone call, but then the pantomime phone suddenly disappeared into thin air, rather than completing the pantomime gesture of returning the phone to a back pocket or a table.  Another student was holding a pantomime gun, but instead of having fingers and hand wrapped around the pistol as if he was really holding it, he pointed his fingers as if they were the gun. These may seem like tiny, picky little things, because they are, but its this attention to detail that will make a difference in getting into a final round at nationals or not.  When you speak, be deliberate about your gestures and think about what the audience is seeing.
  4. One word can make all the difference: In every speech I listened to, there was often one word, one moment that represented a missed opportunity to allow the audience to experience another level of a story’s impact. Just like in real life, those tiny moments and single words can add up and make all the difference between a memorable speech that impacts the audience and one that leaves the audience a little flat. Don’t let the tiniest of moments pass by without giving thought to how you’ll present them and the power of a single word.

Going back to Bradley and working with these student was an honor and a privilege. Just as I feel when I work with my clients today, I can see those students continuing to do great things as they deliver their speeches.