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Communication Tip: Lessons from the Academic Decathlon

I once judged at the Orange County Academic Decathlon, where I had the opportunity to listen to 21 high school students give four-minute prepared speeches and two-minute impromptu speeches. I heard some great talks, but there were some moments that I wished that I could have taken those young people aside and offered them some helpful advice. I’d like to pass this advice to you – especially if you are planning to speak at the Academic Decathlon or other speech contest.

1. Breathe

This was one piece of advice that we judges were able to give to the students. Breathing deeply and regularly not only calms you down, it gives you the volume of air you need to speak and the oxygen to think clearly.

2. Wear a suit

A suit shows that you’re serious. It gives you a polished, professional image. It can also give you a sense of confidence and authority, and that’s a great feeling to have when you’re young. Pick the right suit that looks good on you and shows your professionalism. More info

If you’re afraid that you’ll look dorky in a suit, be glad that you don’t have to wear the type of suits that I did when I was in high school in the 1970s.

3. Speak from an outline

When a speaker shows up with sheets of paper filled with text, I know that person is going to get into trouble. When you write your speech like an essay, it’s easy to lose your place and hard to find it again. When your points don’t flow together and follow a pattern, you have to memorize the whole speech in order to deliver it. And when a speech is hard for you to remember, it will be hard for your listeners to follow and retain.

Organize your speech into a clear beginning, middle, and end. Pick two or three main points and the points you want to build upon. More info Then, write your outline and any key details you need to remember on note cards. More info

4. Give specifics

When you give details to back up your information, you show that you’ve done your research. You can also find fascinating stories and rich detail to make your speech more compelling.

5. Be accurate

There were several times when speakers gave information that I knew was wrong, or they gave the incorrect word when they meant something else. Make sure you verify all the information and words you give in your speech.

6. Just keep going

And even if you do slip up, don’t apologize. Just keep going. More often than not, the audience won’t even notice. (I was glad to see one of the speakers give that advice in his presentation.)

7. Have fun!

When you appear to have fun giving the speech, your audience will have fun listening to it. The lectern is your place to shine. Give your best smile and go for it!