Curan Mehra graduated from Scarsdale High School in Scardale, NY last spring and currently attends UC Berkeley. As an extemper he won the Yale Invitational, placed 6th at the MBA Round Robin, won the Columbia Invitational placed 2nd at the Harvard Invitational, and placed 4th in the International Extemp at NFLs. He’s incredibly grateful to his team, to his coach, and to the people who smiled at him in prep.
I sat down to type what I thought would be a succinct preview of the Yale Invitational. It turned into more of a morph between a preview and a general meditation on Extemp. I hope some of the tips are helpful, I think they apply to any level of extemper. Feel free to ignore much of the advice I’ve provided. Many of you are probably much smarter than I am or have tools that are wildly different and equally, if not, more effective. These are just some tricks of the trade I’ve picked up over four years of extemping. Apologies for any horrific grammatical mistakes.
What to read: Coaches often spew the ambiguous platitude that “Extempers should have a wide variety of sources in their box.” However, actually finding sources can be an extremely overwhelming process. Here’s some advice on filing.
Daily Papers – Try and have location specific publications. For example if I’m giving a speech on Germany, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to use Der Spiegel, an excellent German source. The same logic applies domestically. For a speech on the Ames Straw Poll, the Des Moines Register would be a nice source to have filed. Remember this doesn’t mean have a folder full of the Des Moines Register, but one or two lengthy pieces of location-specific news analysis always ups the quality of the speech and often ups your understanding of the content. Location specific sources are easily found by searching “Country X News,” then just clicking through and then using your best judgment to determine what’s a reputable source. Yale judges coming from a variety of backgrounds will surely appreciate a geographic variety of sources.
Journals and Research – Below are a list of journals and think tanks, I’ve found particularly valuable. I won’t go into them for the sake of attempted succinctness.
Foreign Affairs (Also look through the online Archives)
Council on Foreign Relations
Harvard Belfer Center
U.S. State Department Reports
Economist Intelligence Unit
Finding these sources is much easier than incorporating them into your speeches. Make sure to read the entirety of these dense reports, rather than just skimming. After reading one of these reports to test whether I understand them I would try and rephrase the thesis in just one or two sentences. I would also commit to memory one or two pieces of evidence that I found fascinating. This way in prep I wouldn’t have to waste time sifting through the report to find the evidence I wanted. With the advent of online filing, one could just remember a few key words and then use the document search function to find important evidence quickly.
I touched on this a bit above, but here’s a little more detail. In terms of reading, for the week before a tournament I would go through the first section of the New York Times every day with a highlighter to give myself a good knowledge of the issues. Then I’d look to the above-mentioned think tanks for any reports relevant to current issues and I would read and file those.
One of the biggest mistakes Extempers make is either not giving enough practice speeches or giving too many. To work on fluency I would try and give two speeches the week before a tournament. I found giving more than that was wearing and wasn’t particularly time efficient. There’s no point in trying to prep out the entire tournament. Instead of giving full speeches I would prep just the tags of about 3 questions from each topic area and discuss them with my coach (Shout out to Mr. Vaughan for being nice enough to do that). I found this strategy much more efficient and effective.
Relax – Focus on your speeches while in prep 110%, but after your done relax. Meet people, often they’re smart, nice, and, if you’ve got your extemp goggles on, attractive. Thinking too much about extemp will wear you out, and make you unnecessarily nervous. Enjoy New Haven. There are a bunch of great places to eat, and the occasional crazy person on the sidewalk to keep you entertained.
Don’t Be Intimidated – Whether you’ve won every tournament ever or this is your first tournament ever just keep focused on your own speeches. Anybody can do well and anybody can do poorly. Before Yale my senior year I hadn’t had much success. In this activity, honestly, anybody can win at any tournament. By that same token, treat everyone with a lot of respect. Discuss politics with strangers. Most people who do this activity are incredibly intelligent, and it’s worth your time to get to know them and try to soak in some of their knowledge while sharing your own knowledge with them.
Think Critically/Don’t Can Speeches– Remember extemp is more than just a performance. It’s an exercise in critical thinking about political issues. The activity demands you do more than just recite reports, or canned speeches that you’ve prepared. Think about the sources your using. Consider editorializing on them during the speech. Think about the answers you are giving. Is it actually correct or did you just give an answer because it seemed the easiest? If you push yourself, you’ll get the more out of the activity, and judges of any caliber can easily discern between a speech that’s been well thought out and one that barely touches the surface of an issue.
DO NOT MAKE UP SOURCES: The fabrication of sources happens far too often at far too competitive levels of extemp. If you make up sources, I detest you. For that matter, the entire extemp community detests you. This activity has very few rules. Please follow them. If you are too lazy to read the news, or to file it you’re pretty much just telling a bedtime story. Regardless of whether or not you know your citation to be true, the rules demand you have a proper source. No exceptions. If whatever you’re sourcing is really that obvious, why are you sourcing it? I love the Yale tournament for source checking, and I wish it happened at every other tournament.
Cross Examination: Few people every do CX, let alone practice it so I’ll try and give some pointers to help you make up for a possible lack of experience.
-Be direct with your questions, but keep them open-ended. You’re not giving a response speech, but this also isn’t A Few Good Men
-Be kind. I learned the hard way that judges (especially Midwestern ones) do not appreciate East Coast sarcasm. Take heed and put on your Sunday-Best demeanor.
-Don’t try and poke holes in your opponents’ internal logic, it’s much easier and more impactful just to demonstrate how their response doesn’t completely answer the question.
Finally, shout out to the Scarsdale Extemp team. I’m sure you’ll do brilliantly at Yale and during the rest of the season.
If anyone has any questions feel free to shoot me an email at email@example.com.