Clay Owens competed for Perry High School in Massillon, Ohio. He is a former Ohio state champion and won the national final round of the 2017 NSDA national tournament in International Extemp. Clay agreed to sit down with Extemp Central to discuss his career and his thoughts on extemporaneous speaking.
Logan Scisco: First, thank you for agreeing to an interview with Extemp Central, Clay. When did you start doing extemporaneous speaking? What drew you to the event?
Clay Owens: I started doing extemporaneous speaking my freshman year, but it wasn’t actually my first choice of event. I had wanted to be involved in humor or duo or some sort of interpretation event, but my school only allowed freshman on the team if they were involved in extemp, and so I was left with no option. I will say, however, that as soon as I finished competing in my first novice extemp tournament, I knew that I was in love with the event. Extemp allows you to be creative and intuitive in a way that no other event does and I think that was what fostered my obsession with the category.
Scisco: What did you find was the biggest “learning curve” of the event for you? How did you aim to fix it?
Owens: I feel like a lot of extempers would say that the biggest “learning curve” for the event is speaking fluently, but I really wasn’t the same way. My largest challenge in extemp was building confidence. I actually had a severe problem with slouching my shoulders and looking down whenever I was insecure about what to say next. The fix for this problem came in several ways. The first of these ways was what I did with my coaches in workshops. My coach Kathy Patron would make me practice walking into the room to give my speech for like half an hour to practice walking into a room confidently and my coaches wouldn’t let me start a speech until I was standing with perfect posture. The second was something my extemp coach Kevin McDougal had me do. I would give speeches and pretend I was somebody else. I actually watched final rounds and imitated former extempers so that I could pretend to be someone more confident. Eventually, I grew to see where I was lacking in terms of performing confidently, and applied the confidence of those past extempers to my own style.
Scisco: Are there any “go to” resources that you recommend for extempers? If so, what are they?
Owens: Not to plug your brand or anything, but now that Extemp Central is back… USE IT! I used Extemp Central for questions and read analysis from past final rounds every week in order to practice, so I would suggest all extempers use it. On top of that, I also think that resources like Extemp Genie can be incredibly helpful. As much I want to say that I filed every article I ever used myself, it isn’t true. That’s why I always recommend that extempers use this file collecting software to supplement the evidence they collect on their own.
Scisco: What were your favorite sources to use? Why?
Owens: I am a huge fan of Stratfor Global Intelligence. Although I could never afford the around $300 fee to have unlimited access, I signed up for their free articles sent to my email and I always found their analysis so helpful in digesting international affairs. I also really enjoy the Council on Foreign Relations and Washington Post for their detailed articles. Yet what I always found to be the most powerful sources were books. I find that reading a book about international affairs gives you the best understanding of any source possible. Personally, I would recommend reading through Democracy by Condoleezza Rice and just about anything by Thomas L. Friedman. I’m sorry to make this answer longer but there is one source I would ask the extemp community to boycott if they haven’t already because of its inaccuracy. The Daily Mail recently published an article online and on Snapchat which called my alma mater, Perry High School, the suicide school because of the problems the community has been facing with suicide. Not only was the article horrendous for naming my school the “Suicide School” but the article also contained falsified information about the students who lost their lives in my community. The Perry community is strong, and the last thing that my hometown needs is more negativity surrounding the situation we are trying to fix. So I would ask all extempers to help stand against the injustice that the Daily Mail has committed against my home by boycotting the source and would ask any extempers that are kind hearted enough to even consider supporting my home town with suicide awareness ribbons at tournaments and perhaps taking to Twitter with the hashtag #PerryStrong. Thank you for the support.
Scisco: What do you think makes a “great” extemporaneous speaker?
Owens: Plain and simple, a great extemper cares. There are hundreds of extemp speakers who are fluent, hundreds who make jokes, and hundreds who have a solid level of analysis, but what is going to make an extemper stand out amongst the crowd is passion. Your extemp speech should never sound like a lecture. A great extemper has a conversation with the judge and makes the judge feel like what you have to say matters. I personally think that is the difference between what makes a good and what makes a great extemper. In fact, I’ll always remember a ballot I got my Junior year on a speech about the youthful demographic boom in Africa where my judge wrote on the ballot “I’ve never heard of this before, but you made me want to research it.” What good extempers miss and great extempers get is that extemp, just as any other speech and debate event, is about spreading a message, and making it known how important the world’s or our domestic issues are. If you are truly a great extemper, the judge should leave feeling different about your subject than before you walked in.
Scisco: What advice do you give for extempers, such as yourself, that do not travel the national circuit a lot, whether due to local restrictions, the choices of their programs, and/or financial limitations?
Owens: This question really hits home with me. I come from a blue collar community in Canton/Massillon, Ohio and my family makes well below the average middle class American salary. My high school was a public school with a great sense of pride, but not a lot of money. As such, I never really traveled the national circuit and the only times I ever left my state to compete were the national tournaments I attended and the two times I traveled to the Glenbrooks tournament in Illinois. However, the biggest piece of advice that I can give to those extempers who can’t travel the circuit is to never give up. It is tough to come into the national tournament without the experience that some of the other extempers do and knowing that nobody in that prep room knows your name or expects you to be in the top 6, but that is all the more reason to push harder. The best way to overcome the advantage that extempers on the circuit have is to work harder than them. I know some of this might sound silly, but if you really want to be on that stage, you’ve gotta start giving speeches in the shower, putting on your suit at home and practicing in front of a mirror, watching final round videos every night and finding what you like and don’t like about the styles of the other extempers. It is tough I understand, but like I said earlier, great extemp is about the passion. Don’t let your socioeconomic status stop you from standing on that stage.
Scisco: What do you think helped you navigate the NSDA National Tournament last year?
Owens: To be honest, it was being relaxed that got me through the national tournament. My practice speeches prior to the tournament weren’t very good and I was not feeling great about the tournament. That was when my coaches John Weaver and the aforementioned Kevin McDougal gave me some words of wisdom. They reminded me that this was not my first time being at nationals and that I had already succeeded at the national level making the top 30 the year prior, but that this was my last tournament and I should try to enjoy what would be my last weekend of extemp ever. So when I put on the suit the next morning and walked into that crowded prep room I just relaxed and had fun doing what I knew had to do. If anything helped me navigate that tournament it was my mindset. I don’t think there was ever another tournament in my career when I was as relaxed and confident as I was at NSDA nationals.
Scisco: What advice would you have for any extemper that managed to get to the NSDA final round? What do you think ensured your success there?
Owens: Every national finalist has to attend a mic check, and while I was there, I talked to former Perry alumni and NSDA hall of fame coach Mark Ferguson. After telling me he was proud to see another Perry student in a national final round (There have only been 3 of us), he told me to remember that I was done competing. That you compete to get into the final round, and that the last speech isn’t about trying to beat your competition, it is about trying to spread your last message to the speech and debate community. So that is exactly what I did. My final round performance wasn’t about winning the round, but showing everything I learned in my four years to the thousands who saw that performance. That’s actually why I chose the question I did. My question was about the future of the international order, and I chose it not because I thought it would be easier than the others I drew, but because I wanted to give a speech that meant something. So the advice I can give to students who make the national final round is to stop competing, take risks, make jokes, tell stories, and ultimately, spread a message when you’re on that stage. That’s how you win a national final round.
Scisco: If you could make one change to extemporaneous speaking, what would it be? Why?
Owens: There isn’t much that I would change about extemp, although I might be biased, I do think it is the best speech and debate event. I suppose if I had to change one thing, I would say that there should either be double entry at nationals in extemp or that there should be combined extemp at nationals to add more challenge.
Scisco: What will be your favorite memory of doing extemp on the high school level?
Owens: My favorite memory from high school extemp will always be the moment I saw my number listed as a national finalist. In fact, the NSDA actually posted a picture of me with my coach when I saw my number and you can see how overwhelmed I am and the tears in my eyes. That was most definitely the most powerful moment I’ve experienced in high school extemp, and it isn’t a memory I see myself forgetting anytime soon.
Scisco: What are your future plans?
Owens: I am currently attending THE Ohio State University, and I am a pre-law student. I have found a new love in college mock trial and love being a closing attorney because I am able to apply the skills I learned in extemp to this new extracurricular activity. As for now, I am offering my services as a volunteer speech and debate coach and would actually encourage any extempers reading this interview that want some help to reach out to me through email or social media if they want any advice because I always appreciated having someone to turn to. As for the future, I plan to attend law school (Hopefully somewhere in the top 10) and start practicing law before eventually transitioning my career into politics.