It is a universal truth that if one wants to be looked at professionally there is a certain skill-set one must equip. A person who speaks with confidence, and with authority, is taken seriously. It does not matter how brilliant an idea may be, people tend to base their opinion of an idea on their judgment of the speaker. To thoroughly succeed, proper speaking capabilities are necessary.
Declamation is a fantastic speaking event for anyone who wants to improve their public speaking prowess. Because the competitor does not have to write their own speech, all focus is given to the delivery of the piece. There can be little to no judgment on the piece selection, unless it is utterly inappropriate for competition or for you. Therefore, though Declamation has been called a precursor for Original Oratory, Declamation can boast it is the ONLY speaking event where the judging is (typically) centered on the speaking abilities and nothing else.
This short tutorial will give a glimpse into what is required to be a successful Declamation speaker.
As with any event, the piece and cutting you choose to perform can either breed success or impair you. When you are choosing a piece for Declamation there are particular items to look for. Because you are doing a piece that has been performed in public before, it is a great idea to avoid speeches that everyone knows. True, in the Declamation world some unknown speeches to the common audience could very well be popular to a Dec. judge. Ask your coach about definite pieces to avoid, for each district is going to have their own overdone speeches. In addition, while selecting a piece look for one that is well written. You are borrowing words and trying to make them live through your voice. If you pick a speech that has poor structure, no strong message, limit word variation/weak word choices, etc no amount of good speaking skills will push you to victory. Further, if cutting occurs, be careful to keep the intent of the piece the same. You want your cut piece to feel as if nothing was left out and for the work to maintain a clear flow/direction. You should also remember to do a piece that speaks to you. If you dislike the message, the language, the tempo, anything about this speech, select another one you love.
Speech would not be complete without analysis! Regardless of these words originating from another individual, you need to own them. Know what you are saying! If there are words you do not know, grab a dictionary. Look for the message of the piece; why does this exist? Is there any subtext in the speech? How do the smaller components (the paragraphs) help make the whole? What are some tactics you can use to get your point across (example: does the speech require flattery at times to rope the audience in?)? Basically, fully understand your piece and know every nook and cranny of the words. The best way to do an analysis would be to print out a few copies of your piece so you have a clean copy for reference/memorization and a few copies to mark-up (underlining/ circling important bits and writing brief notes in the margins). Write down all thoughts and ideas you have. You are not a computer and will never remember your thoughts unless you write them down. Besides, marking-up helps the thought process of interpretation, and with memorization, because you are actively engaging with the text and using your brain.
Also, it is important to keep in mind that this is an interpretation of the text and not the original speaker. Impersonations will cripple you. You are to act as if this is your own, personal speech and not a piece someone else has uttered.
An introduction to the piece is mandatory. To give a professional air, it is usually best to have a teaser (a short selection of the piece performed prior to the introduction). The teaser should get the audience hooked and stop with a button-a profound statement, a question, something that leaves the audience thinking. An introduction is the place to be yourself, so write an intro that you are comfortable with. Also, an intro needs to list the piece’s title, the author’s name, necessary information, and the introduction should set the mood for the speech.
This is a fairly simple concept but eye contact is fundamental. Yes, you are supposed to make the words live, but eye contact adds the edge to the performance. It draws the audience in and makes the performance more personal; like you are really speaking to them and not just reciting from memory. Eye contact adds the dramatic. Pending on how long you look at a person, or not, tells a different story. Play around with eye contact. When you really want to stress a point holding eye contact with another individual adds intensity. Warning: do not make people uncomfortable with your gaze! You want to speak to your audience, not scare them. Furthermore, do not just look at the judge. It is awkward and creates unwanted tension. Scan the room and include all audience members.
A speech without facials is like food without flavor-bland and boring. Dec. is not an acting event so treating a Dec. piece like a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire is not quite the right method, but “reacting” and feeling what your words mean is a great way to separate you from your competition. Too often Dec. speakers are blank faced and this comes off, at least to me, as a gulf between them and the words. It is okay to smile if your piece has a joke. If your speech is teasing at points or coy, it is okay to give a sly smirk. And if something disturbing is being said, then go ahead and show it. Rarely will you give BIG facials like you would in a play because then you will appear as a performer and not a speaker (different speeches require different things). There is a fine line, and only practice and reviews from yourself, coaches, judges, and peers can help you find that balance. Just refrain from being a cadaver. For all involved, keep a lively face and make all facials purposeful and seen!
Number one rule to always have on your brain: do not use gestures as a means to fill space. If you do the same hand extension every fifteen seconds you are being overly repetitive and erasing all purpose and impact you might have had. It is best to pre-plan gestures while at practice and train your body when to do what. Attempt to have a variety of gestures and use them as an emphasis to what you are saying. It will feel weird to have your hands at your side for what seems an eternity, but I promise you will look confident and sure of yourself. Excessive gesture twitching will lose you points, so train yourself and get some muscle memory working in your favor.
Think of movement as punctuation. In Dec. you are allowed to walk in your performance area, so take advantage of this to accentuate what you are saying. Your movement on a new point acts as a transition and breaks-up/punctuates your speech. This transition keeps your speech fresh and draws in your audience because movement is exciting and full of energy. Plan these movements out so you do not end up pacing the floor or bouncing. Three-four strong movements are really all you need. Most Declamation pieces I have seen have the speaker start center, go left/right, move left/right, back center, and then down towards the audience for the conclusion. This does not have to be your path, but this is the standard circuit and does make sense logistically.
As important as your body is to help convey meaning, it is your voice that is the centerpiece. The words need to caressed and delivered in such a way that draws in your audience and tells the message of the speech. Variation is your greatest weapon. Changes in tempo, pitch, volume, tone, silence, any dynamics you can give, are going to help you rank higher. Note, pretending to be Al Pacino and yelling for the sake of yelling will not help (he’s a professional, knows what he is doing, and chooses proper times to “yell”). Everything you do with your voice needs to be a deliberate choice. Every vocal action needs to progress and reinforce what you are saying. Have all of this pre-gamed so blunders are rare in your performance. Also, this is a speaking event and not acting, so again, thinking you are Kevin Spacey giving a monologue might be too much. There is a fine line that you need to search out, but finding the proper mix will make you stand out. I have seen too many Declamations where the speaker never seemed connected to what they were saying because they did not feel the words.
These basic steps can serve as a beginner’s methodology to learning how to compete in Declamation. If you can master these elements of Declamation, you are on your way to victory and for relishing the phrase Dec. on deck!