Extemp speaking: Surprisingly rewarding


Zane Emerson

During my three years of debating, I have competed in numerous forms of speech and debate. However, none have been as stressful or as fascinating as extemporaneous speaking, or extemp for short. 

The concept of extemp is incredibly simple: you are given three random prompts, and you have 30 minutes to research, write, and memorize a five to seven minute speech based on one of them. Almost every part of that process — the prompts, the research burden, and the memorization — ratchets up the challenge and stress. 

For one, the prompts given are not simple topics. Here are a few example extemp prompts from the National Speech and Debate Association, the governing body of this event:

“Is the U.S. getting a good return on its healthcare spending?”

“With the demise of newspapers, is the future of good journalism bleak?”

“How is Russia trying to exert its influence in Latin America?”

Remember, you don’t get any time to mull over these topics once you receive them; your 30 minutes start as soon as they are presented to you. How many of us could even develop coherent thoughts and points about US healthcare spending or Russian influence in 30 minutes, let alone give a researched speech about them?

If the topics are complex, the full breadth of research must be allowed, right? Not even close. At competitive extemp, you are not allowed to access the internet. This means you must have, before the tournament, copied and pasted hundreds of articles into a document in the hope that some might be useful in the topics you have drawn. “Research” at extemp looks a lot more like surfing through pre-prepared articles, desperately trying to find some that can fit your topic and throwing it into your speech. 

Finally, you aren’t allowed any notes during your speech. This means everything, your research, your facts, your anecdotes, your structure, everything, must be locked in your head sometime during the half-hour of preparation. Giving a researched five to seven minute speech on a complex topic is hard enough without it needing to fully reside in your brain.

I experienced all of this when I went to the state tournament’s extemp event. For my second speech of the day, I drew my topics, and my heart began beating a little faster. My options were discussing Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Hungarian prime minister, or funding for NASA. I used the trusty Control-F keys to search my pre-prepared documents for articles about Greene, and two came up. Good enough. I quickly read the articles to get the basics, and began planning my speech on my legal pad. Half an hour later, I delivered a decent speech about Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Difficult as it is, extemp makes other activities in schools seem easy by comparison. Fellow AP students know the dread of starting down a timed essay, but extemp makes those easier to conquer. Even for untimed essays, the ability to research and organize quickly is incredibly useful. 

Even if extemp provided no practical benefits, merely participating in this challenge feels rewarding, and I can’t help but enjoy it. The raw intellectual challenge of it and the extreme nature of it, are exhilarating to me. I recently competed (and qualified for semi-finals) in the state tournament’s extemp event. During the tournament I was reminded of something the Greek philosopher Epictetus said: “the greater the difficulty, the more glory in surmounting it.” Extemp may be difficult, but there is significant glory in surmounting it, both in terms of practical and personal benefit.