Document Type

Public Speaking Events


As forensic educators, I know we are supposed to love all events equally, but one event escapes my comprehension. Rhetorical criticism is like rhythmic gymnastics to me; I can appreciate its verbal dexterity but I always feel like I am missing something. So when a successful coach of the event let me in on a secret, I was grateful. Explain the tenets so people feel like they understand something; don’t shy away from complicated terminology but relate it to concrete examples easily grasped. Explanation through comparison a la Aristotle, this made sense. Yet when I suggested this technique to a student in front of another coach, I was told that this is just a convention of the event and should be avoided. My confusion became compounded. Crafting a rhetorical criticism is still a mystery to me, but now I am unclear as to the relationship between the unwritten rules in public address, which should be avoided, and the techniques in rhetoric that comprise effective speech writing. Whatever they may be called—unwritten rules, conventions, norms, cookie cutters or formula—these patterns of behaviors have figured prominently in forensic discourse over the years. At their best, these norms are understandable, providing a uniform code for judging and standards for performance (Mills, 1983). At their worst, norms are nothing more than "unwritten formulas established by coaches, judges and students" used to ensure "winning" (Gaer, 2002, p. 54). Not surprisingly, forensic educators have differing views of these unwritten rules. Paine (2005) observes "new coaches" "tend to place more faith in the value of the unwritten rules" whereas more experienced coaches "seem to become less attached to the redundant patterns of standardization and grow more open to experimental choice" (p. 85). Many educators might find themselves faced with a "love them or leave them" choice, either accept the rules or fight against them.

Unfortunately, unwritten rules do not care if they are liked or not and do not seem to show any indication of leaving the activity in the near future. Therefore, an alternative framework to these pesky guests should be considered. Rather than villainizing conventions, we can look at them as an educational opportunity whereby students can explore elements of communication not strictly related to message construction. This is in no way a paper to defend their existence. But given the amount of time spent discussing the matter in journals, conferences, and even last Developmental Conference, the issue is becoming divisive enough that to take a side, either for or against them, is almost an unwritten rule itself. Perhaps, by examining our relationship with these unwritten rules, we can come to a more holistic understanding of message construction and, in effect, hold a mirror up to our own communication patterns. To explore the conventional wisdom in conventions, this paper will attempt to investigate the ways unwritten rules can hurt and help our overall educational goals as well as suggest some practical ways we can dialogue about them.

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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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