Today’s Speech Love episode features two talented Cheyenne East Speech and Debate folks: Head Coach Marcus Viney and sophomore competitor - Ella Goodman. Marcus uses Ella’s excellent informative speech - “Six Feet Under” to examine what makes an effective informative speech. Marcus does a detailed breakdown of how Ella constructs the elements of her speech and puts all those elements together to make a living, breathing, engaging speech about death.
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Greetings, friends! Lyle Wiley here - a high school English Teacher and Speech and Debate Coach in Thermopolis, Wyoming - and your host of the One Clap Speech and Debate Podcast!
Season three is here with a focus on platform events to kick things off. We’ll be sharing student speeches and interviews about platform speaking for the next several weeks. I’ve got some amazing speakers to share coming soon.
Today’s Speech Love episode is a little different. It features two talented Cheyenne East Speech and Debate folks: Head Coach Marcus Viney and sophomore competitor - Ella Goodman. Marcus uses Ella’s excellent informative speech - “Six Feet Under” to examine what makes an effective informative speech. Marcus does a detailed breakdown of how Ella constructs the elements of her speech and puts all those elements together to make a living, breathing, engaging speech about death.
That’s enough jibber-jabber from me! It’s time to learn from Marcus Viney and Ella Goodman on today’s episode of Speech Love.
Hey everyone, this is Marcus Viney, head coach of Cheyenne East high school, and I’m here today to give you some tips on composing an informative speech. I’m definitely not an expert, and I don’t have the final answer for what makes a good informative, but as a team, we’ve learned a few things over the years that you might find helpful as you begin the season. Today, I’m going to use a speech from our team as an example to help show some of the things you might want to consider when working on your speech. The speech I’ll be breaking apart is Ella Goodman’s “Six Feet Under,” an informative about how humans have dealt with the dead over the years. For a quick overview, I’m going to talk about big picture tips for informative first and then I’ll talk about what Ella’s speech is doing from paragraph to paragraph. Let’s jump in.
We all know the basic idea behind informative, which is to write a speech that will educate or inform people about a topic, but the most important thing you need to understand is that the topic you choose needs to be something that the average person or judge will find interesting enough to watch for ten minutes, not just something you think is cool. I really don’t mean any offense by this, but we all have quirky or nerdy interests in topics that we could indulge in all day everyday, like aliens or K-pop, but this doesn’t mean that other people are as curious as we are. For this reason, you should pick a topic that will pique the interest of almost anyone. The quickest way I know for figuring out whether a topic might have general interest is what we call the Pino test, which is really just the simple question, “why should I care?” Whenever someone on our team comes up with an idea for a speech, like clouds, we send them to Pino to answer the big question. Why should I care about clouds? If you have an answer that explains to Pino why he, or really anyone, should care generally about the topic, then it’s on the right track. However, if you can’t answer that question, or the answer is just, I really like clouds, you may want to reconsider your starting point. Just for the example’s sake, a good answer for the cloud speech might be the new technology people are using to control clouds with drones and more specifically rain in areas suffering from drought. As long as the speech has some moment where you can explain why it all matters, you’re moving in the right direction.
This leads into my general advice for writing an informative speech. In addition to passing the Pino test, you should consider the three Hs: head, heart, and humor. A good informative will have a strong balance of these elements. But what do these mean? Well, a speech should appeal to the head, in that it should engage and enlighten us about something we’ve never heard about before, or about a new and unusual angle on something we do already know about. Something that good info speakers do is pick topics that are a little off the mainstream. If you pick a topic that everyone talks about or already knows about, like cars, it’s probably not going to perform as well as something that really pushes someone’s curiosity, like brain implants. This is why I talk about “wow-factors” on our team. A wow-factor is a fact or piece of information that will make the average person say “wow, I’ve never heard that before.” For example, did you know that the average weight of a cloud is over 1 million pounds! Yeah, pretty cool. A good thing to do is assume your audience is actually pretty smart and educated, so you need to find those facts that they haven’t heard before. The next step is heart. In addition to the intellectual dimension of a topic, you also need to find the human dimension, or the reason why this topic connects to us personally or on a human level. A speech on clouds will likely want to touch on the history of clouds and what they’ve meant to us, and still mean to us today. They can be beautiful, but also deadly, so maybe we want to know more about how we predict storms and save lives with our modern understanding of clouds. But notice that between the head and the heart, it can get pretty serious, and while it’s important to inform people about impactful matters of the world, it’s also important to find levity and let people know it’s not all doom and gloom. So the third H is humor, and it’s more important than you might think. To keep people interested, it can help to keep them happy and entertained at least a little.
Now I picked Ella’s speech to break apart for our example in this episode, because I think she does a really good job of passing the Pino test and finding a strong balance between the three Hs, head, heart, and humor. I will discuss why and how throughout my breakdown of her speech.
The first clip we are going to listen to is her introduction paragraph. There are really just three basic things an introduction needs to accomplish to be successful. First, it needs to grab our attention and make us curious about what’s coming. Second, it needs to introduce the topic and hint at why it’s important, and third, it needs to preview what the speech is going to be about to help the judge organize and put together everything they’re about to hear. As we listen, see if you can pick out how and when Ella accomplishes these three tasks.
[Ella’s introduction]: One time in sixth grade, we mummified chickens. Yes, you heard me right. We actually mummified chickens. Our teacher went to the store, bought some chickens, and brought them back to class. We ripped out their insides, put powder in them, and then wrapped them up in bandages. Then, a kid in our class named Kolbe took all the chickens back to his house and buried them in his backyard. He literally turned his backyard into a cemetery. A mummy-chicken cemetery. And ever since then, I’ve been thinking, what exactly happens to something after it dies? And I’m not talking about the afterlife. I mean the body, six feet under. Ever since people have been dying, which has been happening since, like, forever, people have had to deal with the dead. And with the pandemic, many cities have been overwhelmed to the point where they tragically need to build mass grave sites. Although it sounds dark, it’s never been more important to think about how we deal with the dead. Today we are going to dig up the history of the dead, uncover how we are currently dealing with the rising body count, and finally pay our respects to the future solutions of this age-old problem.
When Ella was first composing her speech, she didn’t have any ideas for how to hook the audience, so we decided to brainstorm experiences she may have had with death or anything dead, gruesome, I know, but she told me the story from elementary school, and we quickly realized it was a neat way to open and ultimately glue the speech together as we will see. Fortunately for Ella, her elementary teacher actually got to hear this speech and was delighted that Ella had remembered and appreciated those experiences. Sometimes personal stories can do wonders for the attention-grabber, because it not only captures our interest, but also begins to reveal a little bit about the speaker, making us want to hear more from her. Notice that she also does a wonderful job creating a bridge between her narrow experience and the wider topic of death itself, thus introducing us to the idea space that we will be immersed in for the next 10 minutes. In there, she also finds the time to connect it all to recent events to justify why the topic is important. Finally, she previews for us that she will cover the history, present, and future of her topic, a classic organizational structure for an informative speech. Now, let’s listen to her first body paragraph, which is going to do two basic things: transition and balance the three Hs under this subcategory of history.
[Ella’s body paragraph 1]:Those chickens stayed buried in Kolbe’s backyard for a whole year, until we dug them up and unwrapped them. And they looked the exact same as the day our teacher brought them back to class. What I didn’t realize at the time is we used the same process the Egyptians used over 5,000 years ago. According to the Smithsonian, the Egyptians process took around 70 days to complete. I can’t even stick with a Netflix show for that long. During the mummification process, all the person’s guts and internal organs were scooped out leaving only the heart, kind of like the Tin Man at the end of the Wizard of Oz but way creepier. To remove the brain, a long hook-like stick was stuck up the nose to slowly pull chunks of the brain out. But mummification was very time consuming... and gross. So, the Romans adapted an easier option: inhumation or burying a body intact. Most Romans buried their dead on the outskirts of town to prevent the spread of disease. But as time went on, room outside the city filled up quickly and people started burying their dead on the side of the road or even in their backyards (yeah like our mummy chickens). So, catacombs were created. Catacombs were essentially underground graveyards connected by small damp passageways with barely any light. This solution lasted until humanity faced a much bigger problem: The Black Death. This deadly pandemic spanning the medieval era killed over two-thirds of the European population. Now, they weren’t exactly medical experts at this time, so sometimes they would confuse dead people with people who were just unconscious and accidentally bury them alive. We know this because coffins would be dug up and there would be scratch marks on the inside of them, almost as if someone was trying to claw their way out. Kind of like me after my fourth zoom call of the day. To save people who were buried alive, ropes would be tied around a persons’ wrist and connected to a bell above ground before they were buried, so if they pulled the rope the bell would ring. Someone would patrol the cemetery all night, and if they heard a bell ringing, they would locate the persons’ coffin and dig them up, thus the saying “saved by the bell”. But according to the BBC, as the black death worsened, hundreds of bodies would be carelessly thrown into pits and buried without a ceremony or even preparation. These were real people with families that didn’t even get to say goodbye.
The first thing to notice about this history paragraph is what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t try to talk comprehensively about every way humans have ever dealt with the dead throughout all history. That would be crazy, because even in a ten minute long speech, you just don’t have time to be that detailed or to go into that kind of depth. Ella ran into this problem when she was researching, because she found way more information about the history of death than she could possibly fit into one roughly two minute section. This will likely happen to you too, so what are we supposed to do? Well, I gave Ella permission to condense it all down, just as you should give yourself permission to do the same. She decided to pick out the three most interesting parts of this history and ignore the rest for the time being. Notice that she went with the Egyptians, the Romans, and the Europeans. This gives us some sense of how people treated death throughout history without boring us with endless details. The next thing to notice is how it began, with a transition that subtly referred back to the original hook about mummy chickens. This gives the speech and underlying narrative quality that helps us connect everything she’s saying with a common thread, but again, it’s also slowly revealing something about the speaker, so we’re not just learning about her topic, we’re learning a little about her. This makes her more likable, which makes us want to listen to her more. Finally, she sneaks in a couple of jokes to make us laugh or at least smile a bit during an otherwise grim discussion. This creates a balance between the serious and the lighthearted that leaves us wanting to hear more. And let’s do that now. You’ll notice that the second paragraph begins to follow a pattern: it transitions and then creates a new balance of the three Hs:
[Ella’s body paragraph 2]: I’m in high school now and I often wonder, what happened to those chickens? I mean, we dug them up, unwrapped them, and just gave them back to our teacher. She could have done anything with them. Like today, we can turn cremation ashes into an actual diamond if we put enough heat and pressure on them. Imagine how much pressure it would take to turn a dead body into a diamond. It’s about half of the pressure I’m under in my AP Human Geography class. Or, you can have a space burial. This is when your ashes are shot into space after you die. This might be the option for me. I mean, my mom always told me to shoot for the stars. You can also take the tattoos of your dead family members and hang their skin on your wall like a painting. Hey, modern art at its finest. Although there are many new ways to deal with the dead, inhumation is still the most popular option. But we are running out of room to bury people. Cemeteries are literally overflowing with dead bodies. Japan may have a solution to this problem though: skyscraper cemeteries. I know I sound crazy, but just hear me out. These buildings are not only a huge step up in the world's cemetery game, but also the perfect place for a zombie apocalypse movie. But seriously, these skyscrapers can hold thousands of bodies. According to Kikuo Kimura, these high-rise cemeteries are “the wave of the future”. Or, should I say “grave” of the future. But will these inventions be enough to store all the bodies there are today? Covid-19 has tragically killed nearly three million people, and the world is struggling to keep up with the rising body count. In Italy, caskets pile up in churches since funerals are now illegal. Families don’t even get the chance to say goodbye to their loved ones. In England, death rates rise by 160% in just a week. As a result, warehouses and even airports are being made into temporary morgues. And in New York, hospitals overflow with dead people as one New Yorker dies every two minutes. According to the New York Times, a whole island has even been dedicated to storing thousands of unclaimed bodies. Patrick Kearns, a funeral director in New York, says “The death rate is just so high, there’s no way we can bury or cremate them fast enough”.
Notice that Ella is able to use the hook from her introduction once again as the way to transition into this new paragraph and hint at what she’s going to talk about. She’s moved from the history of dealing with the dead to the modern day. What I think this paragraph does very well is throw a few genuine wow-factors our way, or pieces of information the average person likely hasn’t heard about before, from being turned into a diamond, getting shot into space, or being laid to rest in a skyscraper cemetery. This section definitely captures and keeps my attention throughout, and Ella once again skillfully finds a way to inject a little humor here and there even though it’s a heavy topic. Although this section follows a similar structure as the first body paragraph (it transitions, and presents a few carefully selected facts), it tends to move more heavily in the direction of heart, while the history paragraph tended to appeal more to our head. Of course, the information here is somewhat dated now, given recent developments with covid, but it still reveals the human dimension of why we need to know how people are dealing with the dead today. It’s not merely an abstract or academic topic; it’s real, and it matters to people now. For nationals, Ella actually ended up altering this section a bit to update the discussion for what we know now. Don’t be afraid to let your informative be a living breathing creature. One of the worst things you can do is think that once you’ve written your speech, it’s done forever and always. Adapt, update, change based on what happens in the world or what your judges say. Good speakers don’t just find the right message, they find the right message for the time. Let’s now hear what Ella does with her third and final body paragraph:
[Ella’s body paragraph 3]: It’s been so sad recently, and trust me I never thought I’d say this, but I long for the innocent elementary school days of mummy chickens. But it’s still better to be a human than a chicken because as time goes on, modern solutions for dealing with the dead are being created such as cryogenics. During the cryogenic process, people are put in a freezer full of liquid nitrogen to prevent their body from decaying so that if death ever becomes reversible, they could be revived. However, this process is insanely expensive and is really just a way for rich people to turn themselves into a popsicle. So, why turn yourself into a frozen dessert when you can become compost? That’s right, you can literally become garden soil. Washington is officially the first of the fifty U.S. states to make it legal to turn dead bodies into compost. This will not only help us deal with the many bodies the world is struggling to get rid of, but also improve the environment. Although this option is good for the Earth, you must be willing to pay over 5,000 dollars if you wish to be turned to compost. But not to worry, because scientists have possibly come up with the best way to deal with the dead yet: bio urns. These urns are made of 100% biodegradable materials that turn you into a tree after you die. Your ashes are simply placed in the urn along with a seed, and then buried. And after a few years, you can grow into almost any kind of tree you can imagine. These bio urns would not only help us deal with the rising body count caused by the pandemic, but also assist us in solving the deforestation problem the world is currently facing. Bio urns can cost as little as 50 dollars, which is totally worth it considering the massive boost you are giving the environment. Although it sounds strange, dealing with the dead in environmentally friendly ways could potentially save our planet.
By now, you’re probably realizing the formula. Each body paragraph transitions to a new topic using or referencing the original hook, and moves through about three facts or fact-clusters, with maybe 2-3 moments of humor, if not an outright joke. When writing an informative speech, it can be super helpful to understand and appreciate the power of three. For some reason, the human mind loves sets of threes and can remember things more easily when they come in threes. Game, set, match. Stop, drop, and roll. The good, the bad, and the ugly. There are hundreds of these, and we remember them because they make memorable trios. In fact, one common example of these--blood, sweat, and tears--was actually shortened and rearranged from the more clunky original. Winston Churchill said “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat” which is great, but not as catchy as the way we know it today. We cut out one of the four, toil, and reordered the list to be more pleasing to the ear. Blood, sweat, and tears. It just works better because of the power of three, and you can use this principle when writing your speech. There are three big paragraphs that make up the body, and each body paragraph has three main points to it. It’s not an absolute formula, and you will find wonderful exceptions to it, but it’s a great place to start. One last thing about this paragraph in particular. In addition to the new wow-factors it presents, it does something else that a good informative should do: it leaves the audience uplifted with a sense of optimism. This is particularly important in Ella’s speech, because it’s so dark and gruesome, we need something that will make us feel good. You don’t want to introduce the audience to a huge and important problem in the world and just leave them hanging like, dang, that stinks, I guess there’s nothing that can be done. Notice Ella is not advocating for a solution per se, but she is directing our attention to new things that will be positive and beneficial to us as human beings in this topic space. In short, leave your audience feeling good, not bad or bored. There’s only one step left, the conclusion. There’s a little formula for this paragraph as well--return to the hook, review the speech, and close it out. See if you can hear how Ella does this.
[Ella’s conclusion]: Mummifying chickens may seem crazy, but it is nothing compared to how we are currently dealing with the dead. Today we dug deep into the history of dealing with the dead, uncovered how we are currently handling the rising body count, before finally talking about some solutions to this problem that could possibly save our planet. Dealing with the dead may appear to be dark, but it has never been more essential to discuss, especially when it could be the solution to so many of our problems. And as we begin to contemplate when we will be six feet under, we need to remember what Haruki Murakami said, “Death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it”.
The thread is now complete. Ella opened the speech with a personal story from her youth, she uses bits and pieces of that story to connect the three body paragraphs, and then found a way to close the speech with the same idea. This gives the speech an overall coherence that makes it feel more logical and complete than if she had done something totally different or random for each part. They all work together to pull the topic together from the point of view of the speaker, which we now feel like we know a little bit more about. Another thing to note about the conclusion is how short it is. It doesn’t need to be a long drawn out paragraph like the introduction. It just needs to end the thread, briefly review the speech, and close everything out. Ella chose an optimistic quote about death for the end to leave the speech on a positive and uplifting note. This makes us feel good, and feel like we listened to something worthwhile and important.
Let’s take a step back and quickly look at the entire speech based on the ideas I presented at the beginning. Does this speech pass the Pino test? Does it explain why people should care about how we deal with the dead? My opinion is yes, it does, and it does it well. She talks about the pandemic and how it presented humanity with the pressing problem of the rising body count. It’s grim, but it's a real problem, and it may be again someday in the future. She also talked about how new technologies might kill two birds with one stone, so to speak, by explaining how bio urns can help us deal with the dead but also the environment. It’s not just a speech with interesting factoids. It’s got information that’s pertinent to real life. What about the three Hs? Head, heart, and humor? Well, you won’t be surprised to hear that I also think she checks these three boxes with flying colors as well. In each paragraph she has at least one or two wow-factors, if not more, she has something in each paragraph that dips into the human dimension of the topic, and she sprinkles the entire speech with little jokes that keep the energy of the speech positive. I’m not going to say that Ella’s speech is the end all and be all of informative speaking, because there’s always room to grow for anyone--even national champions. But it does represent several things that a good informative speech can do to keep an audience interested and stand out against the backdrop of other informatives.
I hope you found this breakdown informative, and I wish you all the best of luck this season. Now get out there and discover a new and amazing topic that really matters to people and find the craziest facts you can about it. Get people excited, and take a hint from William Butler Yeats: “Education [or in your case informative] is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire.” Thank you and see you next time!
Ella Goodman, “Six Feet Under” Informative Video link: https://youtu.be/uidEIlCPSVg
Thanks so much to Ella for letting us highlight her killer speech, and thank you to Marcus for his insightful and thorough analysis of Ella’s process and product. If you’d like to hear Ella’s speech uninterrupted, I will link to the speech spotlight episode. I also highly recommend checking out the link to Ella’s performance on youtube to see her visual aids and delivery. Be on the lookout for one more upcoming episode featuring an interview with Ella.
If you have an idea or a request for One Clap Speech and Debate, shoot me an email at [email protected] or reach out on the One Clap Speech and Debate Podcast website or social media - linked in the show notes.
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