Forensics, not the Science: Participating in High School Speech and Debate

By Narrelle Gilchrist

This month, instead of my usual political or literary article, I decided to give the Homeschooling Teen community a personal overview of one of my favorite high school activities: speech and debate.

Last year, I decided that I wanted to join speech and debate. As a homeschooler, the opportunities seemed limited, but after a few Google searches, I quickly discovered an entire world. Within days, I had signed up through my local school’s club and over the past year, I have fallen in love. Two weeks ago, I competed at NSDA Nationals in Dallas, and in one week, I will be at debate camp. Through this experience, I can say that speech and debate, also known as forensics, is perhaps the best high school activity there is, and I would recommend it to any high school student.

What I love about speech and debate is that at 7 am on a Saturday morning, there are 500 teenagers wearing suits in the cafeteria, ready to compete. The sheer amount of effort and intellectual depth that goes into each tournament, no matter what event you are in, is remarkable. For in one round, someone will be giving an original speech that compares every individual to a hero like David, who can conquer his or her own Giants. In the next, in oral interpretation, some pieces will be about battling depression, or embracing your unconventionality, or breaking out of gender stereotypes. Meanwhile, in student congress, competitors will be arguing over such nuances as correlation vs. causation in failed government investment, while extempers are predicting the political effects of a veto of the Keystone XL pipeline.

When I entered the speech and debate world, what first struck me was this diversity. When an outsider imagines debate, they typically imagine speeches behind podiums, about serious topics. Yet, this represents a miniscule portion of the many events in forensics. These events are so diverse that I strongly believe anyone, no matter what his or her interests are, can find something to love, and that everyone should at least try, for they won’t regret it.

Forensic events are separated into speech and debate. First, in speech, there are four main interpretation events. These involve acting, an “interpretation” of a published piece. They are duo interpretation, dramatic interpretation, humorous interpretation, and oral interpretation. Depending on your region, oral interpretation may be separated into prose and poetry. Each of these events typically incorporates a single person taking on the part of several characters, changing their voices and even postures accordingly, in a ten-minute piece. What makes these events unique from other acting, such as theatre, is that these diverse stories must be told without props or costumes. Thus, individuals rely on “blocking,” in which they mime complex activities, such as playing the piano, playing hockey, or even being hit by a truck. Duo interpretation, consisting of two individuals, adds the challenge of not being able to touch or look at your partner, even while interacting. Dramatic interpretation is a single-person event, with a focus on drama and tragedy, while humorous interpretation has a more comedic angle. Finally, oral interpretation, which can be either prose or poetry, is an individual event in which you cannot move from the waste down and must hold a binder, even if the piece is memorized. This challenging event yields incredible results, as competitors effectively communicate a wide variety of characters and events, using just their vocal inflections and facial expressions.

What strikes me the most about each of the interpretation events are the deep messages that the best pieces convey. Each selection has a powerful theme that is brought to life. One of my favorite duo interpretations is a piece about a boy with Tourette’s syndrome, with his partner personifying his disease, the “dog” inside of him. Over the course of the ten-minute piece, the character gradually comes to terms with this disease, recognizing it not as a force to fight, but as one to embrace. Another fantastic piece I saw at Nationals this year was a humorous interpretation, which satirized the NSA, effectively and hilariously informing us of how our liberty is often compromised for “security.” It is incredible how a single individual can move you to tears, hysterical laughter, and shock, sometimes all at once, with just his or her own voice and body.

Next, there is original oratory, an event that can be truly extraordinary, in my opinion. Competitors compose ten-minute speeches on a topic of their choice, often with a moral or societal message. These performances incorporate both personal experience and research, often utilizing humor. For example, my favorite piece at Nationals focused on the importance of accepting anger, not as something criminal and shameful, but as a natural force to be embraced and balanced. The speaker told a hilarious story about her ironic anger management class, used research to support her beliefs, and ended by describing how the suppression and criminalization of anger left her, like so many others, to attempt suicide. The first time I heard her speech, I got chills and was later brought to my feet cheering. So many of these pieces are this inspirational, and even more incredible is the knowledge that the speakers have written their entire pieces themselves.

Opposite from original oratory is extemporaneous speaking, often divided into international and domestic categories. In this event, known colloquially as extemp, competitors draw three topics before each round, pick one, and then have thirty minutes to prepare, without using the Internet or prepared notes. At the conclusion of their prep time, they must give a seven-minute speech, with no notes. Since there isn’t enough time to write and memorize an entire speech, much of the speech is composed on the spot. Topics focus on political issues, ranging from campaign finance to the Iraq war. A few of my topics when I tried the event were, “Will the construction of the Keystone pipeline positively affect the economy?” and “How will the President’s recent trip to China affect relations?” This event is certainly stressful, but for some, it is also incredibly enjoyable.

Next, there are the three traditional debate events: public forum, Lincoln-Douglas, and policy debate. The first three are just what you would expect when imagining debate – two teams, one on either side, alternating between speeches and cross-examination. Public forum (PF) and policy debate are partner-events, with each team consisting of a first speaker and a second speaker, while Lincoln-Douglas (LD) consists of only one individual on either side. One of the most interesting aspects of these events is that teams must prepare both sides, and at the beginning of each round, a coin toss determines who will debate each side. Since there are typically at least four rounds each day of competition, each team will have to debate both sides.

The distinctions between these three events lie primarily in the topics. PF topics focus on policy and politics, while LD topics tend to lean towards philosophy and morality. For example, a PF topic being considered for next year is “Resolved: The United States Federal Government ought to pay reparations to African Americans.” On the other hand, the LD topic for Nationals was “Resolved: Inaction in the face of injustice makes individuals morally culpable.” This topic not only yielded a fantastic final round, but also led to a deep discussion of the topic both in and out of competition rounds. While LD and PF topics rotate each month, policy debate has only one topic each year. This encourages great depth of research and analysis, and allows for the unique format of policy debate to shine. In each debate, the affirmative side proposes a solution, or policy, that would achieve the goal cited by the resolution. The negative side must then describe reasons to reject the proposal. An example topic is “Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially reduce its military and/or police presence in one or more of the following: South Korea, Japan, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq, Turkey.”

The final event is the one I compete in: student congress, also known as congressional debate. Each tournament, competitors research and prepare anywhere from 10 to 20 pieces of legislation, which are debated and voted on within the mock legislative chamber. These chambers consist of 15 to 25 competitors and are run using parliamentary procedure. Competitors refer to each other as senators, make motions, ask permission to address the chamber, and even elect a presiding officer, who keeps order using a gavel. During typically three-hour sessions, the chamber alternates between affirmative and negative speeches, with questioning periods in between, during which other senators question the speaker. This format allows for a wider depth of debate, for a variety of arguments can be made on either side and far more topics are debated than in other events. In addition, the parliamentary format makes the event exciting, competitive, and fun.

Now, keep in mind that the events I have listed are just the events that are considered main events by the National Speech and Debate Association and the National Catholic Forensic League. There are countless others that you may compete in, depending on your district’s league. Most of the time, you will compete within your district, and from your district, you can qualify to your state championship, the NCFL National Tournament, and the NSDA National Tournament. At the same time, however, there are countless other national and regional tournaments at which you can compete. A few of the best tournaments take place at universities across the country, including Yale, Harvard, George Mason, University of Florida, and Berkeley. These national tournaments are truly extraordinary, and I strongly recommend that every debater attends at least one.

Speech and debate has been one of the most incredible experiences of my high school career, introducing me to a world I never knew existed. Firstly, there is the name “forensics,” not the science, but the art. Then, there is the “real” NFL – the National Forensic League, aka the National Speech and Debate Association. I never knew that speech and debate meant five hundred high school students, standing in a cafeteria, wearing suits, practicing speeches, already geared up for the day. I never knew that such joy could come not from winning, not from holding a trophy, but from doing something you love with people who are just like you. I never knew that the top 6 debaters in the state could walk on stage, holding hands, or that the runner-up would hug the champion, screaming with excitement. I never knew how much I could learn, how much I could enjoy it, and how much I could crave more. By joining speech and debate, you will experience all of this, and more. You won’t regret it.

For more information, check out the NSDA website at You can also watch videos of the national champions in each event by searching for NFL Nationals on YouTube.


Narrelle is a homeschooled teen from West Palm Beach, Florida. In addition to writing, she enjoys singing in a choir and playing piano, and loves literature, politics, history, astronomy, and physics. 

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