There will come a time when you are no longer a competitor in the wonderful event of extempore speaking. Sometimes, you will reach this state only temporarily (such as if you're competing in another event. But when you have graduated from high school, you will be out of the field permanently.
But just because you don't compete in high school forensics anymore doesn't mean you can't make contributions to it. One of the greatest ways to do this is by writing topics for your local tournament or someone else's tournament. Most tournament directors are overburdened with the tasks of organizing and running an efficient competition, and your efforts can only help.
But before we begin, here are a few rules you absolutely MUST follow to preserve the integrity of the tournament:
- Do not discuss the topics with anyone other than the tournament director.
- Do not show the topic list to anyone.
- Exercise caution when e-mailing topics to a tournament director.
Now that we're through with those, let's move on to the actual topic research process.
If you're still competing, you probably have your extemp files handy nearby, so you will want to start there. Here are the "dos and don'ts" of finding good material for Extemp questions:
- use a diverse selection of sources, including the Internet
- pick issues that competitors are likely to have researched
- choose items that are not "flash-in-the-pan" events
- balance domestic and foreign areas
- make an extemp topic from a one-paragraph snippet from Time
- use "pop culture" topic material (the spawn of the devil)
- rely solely on the Big Three (Time, Newsweek, USNWR)
- pull obscure material that happened six months ago
Now that you know what to do and what not to do regarding the research of extemp topics, we'll get into the actual writing of the topics.
First, you should know the format of the tournament that you are writing the topics for. How many rounds are there? Is there a split between United States and Foreign Extemp? What should the division of the topics be?
My suggestion for a Massachusetts-style tournament is that you have use the following four "general topic areas": United States, Foreign, Economy, and Mixed Topics (for finals). That's the simplest and easiest breakdown for topics if there's no division.
But if there is a split, you may want to go with this plan, assuming four rounds for each event:
Those are merely suggestions. You may wish to devise your own plan.
|Social Issues||The Americas|
|Economic Issues||Europe and Africa|
|Foreign Policy||Russia, Middle East|
When you write the topics themselves, you should provide a myriad of topic styles for each round. According to an article by Randy Cox ["What Makes a 'Hot' Extemp Topic (And What to Do When the Topics Aren't So Hot)", Rostrum, April 1997], there are three types of questions: monadic, dyadic, and triadic. A monadic question deals with one issue, such as this:"How has President Clinton done so far?"
A dyadic question forces the extemper to deal with two separate issues that may be related, as illustrated in this question: "To the U.S., should Taiwan matter?" This question requires the speaker to analyze the relationship between the United States and Taiwan, and what each country means to each other.
A triadic question deals with three different sides which the extemper must break down, analyze, and come to a conclusion with. So you might see: "Who will win the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan?" The contestant must know what the Kashmir dispute is, why India wants the province, and why Pakistan wants it, and what's happened as a result.
When you write the questions themselves, try to make them short, sweet, and to the point. Here is an example of a verbose topic which could be simplified: "With the independence of East Timor and separatist movements in other regions, is Indonesia in danger of a fracture similar to Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union?" A simpler way to ask the same thing is: "Can Indonesia avoid a Soviet-style fracture?"
Such a question assumes that the speaker knows something about the situation, and makes them analyze the topic rather than make the judge analyze it.
You will want to come up with a diverse set of topics for each round. I suggest, if you have sections of six contestants, that you write anywhere between 15-20 questions per round. You may need more depending on just how many speakers there are.
You'll also want to divide up between degrees of difficulty for topics. In a set of twenty topics, you may want to have eight "easy" topics, eight "medium" topics, and four "difficult" topics. This will give each contestant an equal chance to pull each type of topic. Pity the poor soul who draws three of the four difficult questions!
Writing Extemp topics can be difficult, but it also can be a great deal of fun. You hold the fate of the contestants in your hands. Exercise your power judiciously, write some excellent topics, and have a good time!
Sacred Heart High School, class of 2001
NCFL Grand National competitor, Extemporaneous Speaking, Chicago 1999
NFL National Tournament competitor, DACOR Foreign Extempore, Portland 2000