Limited Prep: Should You Prioritize Structure or Pathos? by: Annie Rogers

​Throughout my seven years competing in Speech and Debate, I heard the same phrase echoing throughout the competition halls: “I just want at least ONE judge to cry in my speech this time”. Pathos, the emotional appeal of your words, is admittedly an effective tool when it comes to evoking strong reactions amongst your audience, but is it the best way to approach your limited prep speeches?

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Having swung on both ends of the spectrum, I have found that pathos is an effective component of your speech, but you should never prioritize it over solid structure in Impromptu.

​On a strictly pragmatic level, prioritizing a developed structure is far more vital to the success of your limited prep speech, simply because it helps your judge understand what you’re actually saying. So many students think that judges are evaluating them on whether they wept throughout the whole speech or just the last two minutes, when, in reality, we’re just trying to write enough notes so we can remember your speech. When we go back to judges’ hospitality to fill out our ballots, we make our decisions based on the notes we take. The more structured your speech is, the easier it is for us to take notes that will make sense to us when we’re ranking the room. No doubt, speeches heavy on pathos and emotion can be memorable, but all too often, students sacrifice structure for a speech that might make the judges cry, but ultimately left wondering what his speech was actually about.

​Moreover, prioritizing developed structure in your limited prep speeches will better prepare you for real life. Trust me, you cannot win a scholarship, receive a job offer, or earn a prestigious internship by trying to make your potential employer cry in your interview. Most colleges, businesses, and fellowships are more concerned with your ability to think critically, speak coherently, and process information quickly than your ability to evoke certain emotions from the people you are speaking with.

One of the purposes of competing in high school speech and debate is to prepare students to communicate professionally in any environment they end up in, and focusing on developing the structure of your limited prep speeches is a small, albeit effective tool in pushing you closer to that goal.

​Finally, prioritizing clear structure in your limited prep speeches will illuminate your genuine goal to communicate clearly and winsomely to the judges, and engender their trust. Because of the growing trend of “trying to make judges cry in order to win”, a student who appears to be overly emotional can come across as disingenuous. If there is an ulterior motive to evoking an emotional response for the judges (like to win), your judges will most likely be able to tell. This is manipulating your audience’s emotions in order to win, and your judges will not appreciate it. For instance, I had lost a close friend of mine when I was in the eighth grade. Even though that experience might have made a powerful example in impromptu, I decided against using that tragedy as an example in Impromptu so that I could honor the memory of my friend, and also avoid coming across as trying to manipulate the judges into voting for me.

​Please do not think I’m proposing that everyone uses monotone voices and only uses statistics as examples. Particularly emotional and tragic stories can be immensely effective in Impromptu, but in small doses. Focus on developing a clear thesis and solid points now, and the pathos will come naturally. Just remember, less is always more when it comes to pathos.

Annie has been teaching Limited Prep for a number of years. She knows what it takes and how to get students to another level. Join her Monday evenings Spring Semester. Click HERE for more information.