Speaking from Home

Jay Johnson, Editor in Chief


“You don’t just wake up and just know. You don’t become a great speaker without working at it. Being completely honest, there is a huge learning curve. Once you get into the groove after the work you’ve put in, you’ll excel. It really is all about having a growth mindset.”

— Talha Rao

If you would’ve asked the MN State High School League (MSHSL) if there was going to be a 2020/2021 speech season in September, their response probably would’ve been something close to, “Well… kind of?” With last year’s season being cut off just before the section tournaments, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many speakers concluded their high school speech season without a chance to qualify for the state tournament. This year, the MSHSL transformed the typically in-person season into an online format.
For many speakers, waking up as early as five in the morning on a Saturday to get ready for a tournament isn’t unusual. Ask any speech kid about the anticipation of going to a tournament, and it’ll end in them giving their own hour-long impromptu speech on why tournaments are so exhilarating. But ask them about this year’s season, and it would most likely result in a dull conversation. This year’s online speech season left many speakers with the opportunity to roll right out of bed and straight into the competition.
For some speakers, however, waking up just as early was essential for a great tournament. Informative speaker Talha Rao took 1st place at the MSHSL 5AA Section Tournament, making him one of four qualifiers from Blaine High School for the state speech tournament. The other state qualifiers from Blaine being Pooja Shah (1st, Extemporaneous reading), Ramalah Mohamed (3rd, Poetry), and Jay Johnson (3rd, Dramatic Interpretation). Rao said that he actually enjoyed some aspects of this all online speech season. He said it made being in the informative speaking category just that much easier, considering he didn’t have to lug his presentation around all day. He also enjoyed the luxury of using camera angles to his advantage while speaking, and may or may not have gone to a few tournaments in sweatpants. He also enjoyed the feeling of tossing out his old speech and starting fresh for a new season.
With all of the fun that came with performing virtually, he admits that being online can actually be more of a pain. Rao expressed that he missed the energy of tournaments more than anything. “There was a lot less moral support from other speakers this year, which was something I typically enjoyed,” he said.
He went on to say that tournaments are balls of chaotic energy, but competitors get through the day being around other speakers who uplift each other. Being able to find calm in the storm during tournaments was a missing piece of this year’s season. While he found himself reflecting on the shift in this year’s dynamic, he added that having to send his speech to his coach via “snail-mail” wasn’t ideal for him either.
After being asked how the COVID-19 pandemic had affected him as a performer, he said that being home alone took away most of his motivation to work on his speech. He felt like there wasn’t a lot of room to have conversations with other speakers, which is typically something people would see at the end of a tournament. He misses the team bonding after tournaments that – despite its utter chaos – kept him sane throughout a typical season.
The biggest culture shock for him was when he realized that sitting in front of a computer screen for eight hours was going to be his speech season. He recalls walking into tournaments and being hit with the thrill of competition last year. He also said, “The morning you walk into a tournament, it looks like a cult. All of the speech kids are lined up in a row, shoulder by shoulder giving their speeches to a wall like their lives depended on it.”
After he revealed his thoughts on this year’s tournament, he was asked the question everyone’s been asking… “what are your feelings going into your first state tournament?” Rao didn’t have the words initially to explain what his thoughts were, but he then said that he doesn’t see himself getting into the final round. He was extremely shocked that he placed first, let alone “finaled” in the sections tournament, and he finds going to state as more of a learning experience than anything. He wants to be exposed to Minnesota’s best speakers, and gather some good tips indirectly that he can use next year. He still plans to give it his all, and be proud of the outcome no matter what his scores are.
Earlier, it was said that Rao wakes up freakishly early for these online tournaments. But he also has a few more “rituals” he likes to partake in before and even during his speech rounds. He likes to blast music as loud as he can to get loose, and get in the zone before his first round. Then, he joins the NSDA (National Speech and Debate Association) campus room every tournament, before the first round with his friend Jay Johnson to help calm each others’ nerves and get some confidence boosts. Behind the scenes, Rao likes to pace around his room right before he goes on, so he can let out any of his nervous energy. By doing this, he goes into his rounds feeling calm, and collected. But more importantly… like he won’t go over time, taking away his chances of taking first place in his round.
Rao is a junior, and as much as it pains him to admit, next year will be his last speech season of high school. He said that next year he wants to go big. He plans on continuing in Informative Speaking, but double entering into Great Speeches, where he’ll select a pre-existing speech, and explain why it deserves to be deemed as great. Though, his plan isn’t set in stone, and he hasn’t made a decision on what topics he wants his speeches to be about, he has some great ideas already lined up. When asked if he planned to go to state again next year, he simply said, “Well, it would be kind of embarrassing if I didn’t.”
Finally, if Rao could give any advice to someone who wants to get into speech, or become a better speaker, he said bluntly that it’s a time commitment. “You don’t just wake up and just know. You don’t become a great speaker without working at it. Being completely honest, there is a huge learning curve. Once you get into the groove after the work you’ve put in, you’ll excel. It really is all about having a growth mindset.”
Rao struggled setting his pessimism aside when he first started speech, but once he did, he realized that it takes that hard work and self-confidence to thrive as a speaker.
Congratulations to the Blaine High School Speech team on their 2020/2021 season, and their achievements despite the COVID-19 pandemic bringing their normal season to a halt. Good luck, to the four state qualifiers from BHS at the MSHSL state tournament on April 23rd, 2021.