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  • Talon Stradley

S1E10 - Judges Can Be Anybody

Jimmy: If I— For example, one of the strictest rules is don’t go over ten minutes, but if one of the best performances I’ve ever seen went ten minutes and ten seconds

Talon: Hi, my name is Talon Stradley and this is Soapboxers, a fly-on-the-wall podcast about speech and debate. I used to compete on the Orange Coast College team and now I’m back after 2 years to document the speech and debate experience and bring it to you. We have visited a few tournaments by this point and today, we’re learning what it take to run a tournament and how exactly judges, well, judge.

Talon (Recording): I’m doing well, how are you doing?

Talon: It’s October 22nd and we just arrived at Point Loma University.

Talon (Recording): How was the drive?

Brandon: It was good.

Talon (Recording): Good?

Brandon: Yeah, how was your drive?

Talon (Recording): Uh, it was good. Faster than expected, I’ll be honest.

Brandon: Yeah, honestly. We got here in good time.

Talon: We are here for the Sunset Cliffs Classic tournament, the OCC team’s last in-person tournament of the year.


Talon: Already, it feels good to be back in person. Especially with a view like this. The campus is right on the ocean.

Brandon: Right out of the van we got gorgeous water views, beautiful tracks and fields, and just amazing architecture all around.

Talon: The group gathers and sets off in search of a room where they can warm up.

Jimmy: We go in— Take them in and find a warmup room. Christian, I’m gonna go check us in. I think we can find a room in here to start warmups.

Christian: Sure, yeah. Let’s check it out.

Jimmy: When you guys find something, shoot me a text.

Christian: Will do.

Talon: And the warm up starts.

Christian: To sit in solemn silence…

Students: To sit in solemn silence…

Christian: On a dull dark dock…

Students: On a dull dark dock…

Christian: In a pestilential prison…

Students: In a pestilential prison…

Christian: With a life long lock.

Students: With a life long lock.

Talon: As they finish their warmups, everyone starts to scatter, preparing for the day in their own way. But this time, I’m not following the students. I’m following the coaches. I want to see what it’s like to judge a tournament and how things run behind the scenes. So, while all the students go off one way, I go another following Jimmy Gomez, one of the OCC coaches.

Jimmy: Umm, right now I kind of just make sure the students all feel comfortable and no what they’r doing and where they’re going and then we kind of break off. The students have their own thing. There’s definitely crucial meetups throughout the day but like, I kind of go… Like right now I feel like a cigarette. That sounds good.

Talon: We’ll give Jimmy a chance to go smoke. While he does that, I want to introduce you to someone who can give us a bit of insight into the preparation it takes to run a tournament.

Blake: My name is Blake Longfellow. I use He/Him pronouns. I’m the co-director of forensics for Diablo Valley College and I’m also the founder of Hired Judge and the Professional Speech And Debate Association.

Talon: You may recognize some of those companies from our advertising slots. Well, Blake is the man behind them both. I wanted to talk to Blake about how exactly one runs a tournament. Not only is he a director of forensics in the process of planning a tournament, but he also helps supply judges to tournaments of all levels through Hired Judge and runs an online tournament every month through the Professional Speech and Debate Association. He has made it his business to understand every aspect of how to run a tournament. So, he seemed like a great place to start. As you might expect, it take a lot of work to organize a tournament.

Blake: Yeah, a lot goes into it. It takes months of preparation. Coordinating the school with the schools that might be attending your tournament, with the judges, with the students competing at it, with the campus security, with the custodial services at your campus.

Talon: Like I said, it’s a lot. And this process is kind of a collection of catch 22’s. You have to get approval from your school to host the event but in order to do that you have to know roughly how many people are attending but people won’t want to attend unless there is a lot of people competing and you can’t invite anyone to compete until you get approval from your school.

Blake: It’s a little bit of a chicken and egg issue. No one wants to be the first and only team at your tournament because then their students or competitors aren’t really getting a great competition experience and yet if no one is committed to your tournament then it’s hard to get others to come to your tournament.

Talon: Luckily, Blake’s got an approach for this.

Blake: My theory for how to promote the tournament has always focused on getting a couple of big teams to commit early and then being able to use those commitments to attract a bunch of other small and medium sized teams to join on because they know it’ll be a really high level tournament experience. That means that when I decided that we were going to host a tournament one of the first calls I made was to [Shauhin] Davari at Orange Coast College to try and get a team like Orange Coast College to come to our tournament.

Talon: Blake did this with a couple other larger teams as well. In addition to solving this conundrum there is a myriad of other decisions that need to be made.

Blake: So anyways getting back to your question of what goes into preparation you gotta pick dates, then you gotta pick what events your gonna offer, then you gotta set up your schedule, then you gotta put that into the invitation, then you gotta decide whose rules your gonna abide by or if you’re going to have your own rules, and is there something unique you want to do with your tournament that makes it stand out and special and gives people a special reason to come to it.

Talon: For the DVC Thing, which is the name of the tournament Blake’s school is hosting, they decided to go with a structure called a speech swing. What this means is that they offer all the categories of individual events, that’s everything that’s not debate, on both Saturday and Sunday. They still have debate on Friday and Saturday but where most tournaments only have one day of IE’s, The DVC Thing has two. This is really beneficial for a lot of reasons. Maybe you’re a debater who also wants to try an IE. Maybe a student has work on one day but can make it to another. Or maybe you just love speech and debate so much that you want to compete both days and get that practice. Not many tournaments take this approach, so that can be a bit of an extra draw. But this swing, that’s only one of seemingly infinite structures a tournament organizer can choose.

Blake: There’s a million different tournament designs, a million different events you can offer, different schedules.

Talon: And that’s just the surface of the planning. When the day of the tournament comes around you have a whole other beast on your hand. Managing, coordinating, and communicating with hundreds of students and your team of judges. After the break, we’re gonna visit the last in-person tournament of the year to see what it means to be a judge. That’s coming up next on Soapboxers.

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Talon: Welcome back. The OCC team is at their last in person tournament of the year, the Sunset Cliffs Classic tournament hosted by Point Loma Nazarene University. This is where we where at the start of the episode. After the warmups and the energy and the pep talks, the coaches take on a different role. Judges.

The way that it works at most tournaments is that every school that is entered has to provide a certain amount of judges to help the tournament run. Most of the time these judges are the coaches themselves, judging rounds that don’t have their own students. Other times, these judges may be hired through programs like Hired Judge.

Shauhin: They could also be volunteers, they could be alumni from other schools. They could be even like sometimes there are laymen or like college professors in the discipline but aren’t speech and debate coaches. And it also could just be family members of the coaches. The judges can kind of be anybody which creates an interesting paradigm for the speech and debate coaches. Right? As I’m coaching a student I have to make sure that that speech applies both to a speech and debate person and to a layman so depending on what judge they get, they can appease both those kinds of judges.

Talon: That was always an exciting part of competing. Each judge is like their own unique puzzle you get to try and crack. What do they like? What do they hate? I asked a couple judges to see what they value in a round.

Micah: So I do have a few hard cut offs that just make judging easier if it’s a hard round so making sure you’re following the rules, staying in time, things like that. A thing that’ll get a quick pick up from me is I’ve judged, I don’t know, how many rounds in my life at this point? So if you can do something new and interesting, that of course has a purpose, can’t just be new for the sake of new.

Grant: The thing that I find the most important is sincerity. There is something when a student is delivering a speech and you can see whether the student is doing it because it’s extra credit for a class versus it’s something that they truly, truly care about. I believe that intent carries through in the delivery. Even if they might be a little hesitant or rough around the edges or not as fully memorized, it does not have as significant of an impact if there is emotion attached to the piece. So, that’s probably one of the things that I look for.

Talon: So judges are kind of everyone and what they think is a winning performance can vary from person to person. They also have responsibilities outside of judging a performance like managing the round, giving time signals, or delivering results back to the tab room. And that brings us back to Jimmy, our judging tour guide.

Jimmy: Do you want to come with me?

Talon (Recording): Yes, I am. So what did — What did you just do?

Jimmy: So right now I went and picked up my ballot and so in the Judge’s room, or usually next tot the judges room, there is a ballots in and out room where they take your ballots and give out ballots and so I went and picked up my ballot.

Talon: Ok, so we briefly mentioned this last episode but didn’t really go into too much detail. What is a ballot?

Christian: A ballot is essentially what we use to write down our feedback as well as notate how we feel a person did in a round. So maybe they were first, second, or third. We put speaker points on those ballots as well.

Talon: There are three main things you’ll see on a ballot. The rankings, the speaker points, and the feedback.

Jimmy: So when it comes to IE’s is the way it works is we rank them from first place to last place. If we think they are the best, they get the one. Right? So you’re fighting for the one. If you didn’t do the best, we usually tie at fifth so you don’t get anything worse than a 6. So if you were last in the round or even second to last you’ll be getting a six as well. So it’s a ranking.

Talon: In addition to rankings you have speaker points, with 25 points being the highest amount given. These points are tied more to how well a student did overall. If it was a really good, really close round, first, second, and third place might have 25, 24, and 23 speaker points respectively. If the round overall isn’t too incredible, you might see first place only earning 24 or 23 points. Normally, speaker points don’t matter too much but they are used in tiebreakers and there are often special awards for the competitors with the most speaker points of the tournament.

The last and most important thing we see on a ballot is feedback.

Christian: But most important is the feedback. Being able to write on the ballot and say “Here are a few things that based on my experience or based on what I was able to see that I think can really take your speech to the next level. The speaker points and all that stuff is nice but it’s the feedback that as coaches — I mean even there are tournaments we’ve gone to just for feedback. Just to say hey, we’re not looking for this to be a competitive tournament we just really want to get your speech in front of a judge, in front of people who know what they’re talking about so we can know where to go forward. So, that feedback is invaluable on the ballot.

Talon: Ok, back to Jimmy who just found out what event he’ll be judging and picked up his packet of paper ballots. And yeah, this tournament is using paper ballots.

Jimmy: And I’m gonna be judging Senior Extemp. Second round of the pattern B. Extemp is different is different it starts fifteen minutes after the rest of the rounds because they prep for thirty minutes before their speech.

Talon: You may remember Extemp or Extemporaneous speaking from our episode on Limited Prep. In extemp, students have thirty minutes to prepare a seven minute speech about a prompt they are given, usually about current national or global politics. Because of this extended prep time, competitors go to Extemp draw about 15 minutes before the round starts. Then, every seven minutes, they give a student a prompt and send them off to prepare. After thirty minutes the competitor makes their way to the room with the judge to perform their speech, with new students arriving about every seven minutes after that. Since Jimmy is a judge he doesn’t see the prep and goes straight to the room to start hearing speeches.

Every seven minutes, the students come in, perform their speech, and then find a seat to watch the rest of the competitors and be good audience members. As they are performing, Jimmy is making notes on the ballot. Marking things the students did well, things the students can improve on. Maybe he jots down a basic outline of their speech so he can better remember each one. After all the students have performed, he excuses them, and then sits for a few minutes more to award speaker points and settle on rankings. After he’s done, he makes the trek back to the tab room.

Christian: So the tab room is where the results are tabulated. So it’s kind of where we see ballots come in, see who got first, second, or third, put that in the computer and then are able to use the computer to tabulate out rounds. Who were the top six people in the event.

Talon: As Jimmy and I walk to the tab room, I ask him about his own approach to judging a round.

Jimmy: But yeah, like it’s essentially up to the judge completely. Like, they give me full discretion as to how I want to rank the round. And so there are different guidelines that we follow, like the rules of each event, those are things we obviously need to consider, but we can disregard certain rules. Right? Like, If I— For example, one of the strictest rules is don’t go over ten minutes, but if one of the best performances I’ve ever seen went ten minutes and ten seconds, that’s a rule I can personally overlook and be like “Oh, well, yeah everyone else is nowhere near as good as this person who went over ten seconds.” It’s a slippery slope. Right? It’s very, very controversial because of that.

Talon: It’s all a lot more fluid than you might initially think. As a competitor, this can get quite frustrating. Sometimes, you get a ballot back and found out you lost the round because you moved hair out of your face or your judge is from a different region where they tend to value things a bit differently. Just about every speech and debate competitor has that one round they know they lost because of some completely random reason. But, that’s all part of the game. It keeps it exciting, keeps you on your toes, and leaves plenty of room for people to try new things and succeed.

Jimmy and I get back to the tab room and he drops off his ballots for the round. The tab room is like a beehive with coaches flying in with ballots to deliver and in about thirty minutes, the hive will reignite as judges leave with their ballots for the next round. All day people come in and out. When the judges aren’t judging and are just waiting for ballots, they get to catch up with each other. A lot of them know each other after years coaching teams, competing, or judging. Just like how the competitors get to hang out with their friends, so do the judges.

Matt: So today is that chance to really meet new people, make new friends, but also just to strengthen the bonds you have over the years. Because even teams that are coming from out of state, you see them twice, three times a year total. Once at this tournament, once at the national tournament. You know, that kind of thing. So, it’s really a good chance to see the people that you haven’t seen for six months and with Covid and everything going on, maybe you haven’t see them in two years. So, just a chance to celebrate and reconnect.

Talon: That has always been one of my favorite parts of speech and debate: It’s a community. From the tournament organizers to the coaches to the competitors, it’s just a bunch of friends getting together to have fun doing something they love. Sure, there’s competition and rivalries and intense discussions about some of the world’s most pressing issues, but there’s also a bunch of college students in suits playing a game of spoons in between rounds.


Talon: Next time on Soapboxers. It is our final episode of the season. First, we’ll visit Blake’s online tournament, The DVC Thing, which just so happens to be the first tournament OCC is competing in Parliamentary debate.

Will: Parliamentary, it can go in any other style and you need that partner, that ride and die.

Talon: And then, we’ll wrap the whole season up with the PSCFA Fall Championships.

Christian: Pressure might be the wrong word. For me it definitely feels like extra excitement. You know? It definitely feels like the stakes are a little higher.

That’s next week on Soapboxers.

Talon: Soapboxers is produced by myself, Talon Stradley, and mixed by Chris Moore. Our Executive Producer is Shauhin Davari. Our theme music was created by the Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder and our podcast art was designed by the delightful, Rhiannon White. Other music in the episode was provided by Special thanks to our sponsors, Hired Judge and the Professional Speech and Debate Association. An extra special thanks to Clark Moore, John Farkas, Fuzzy, Ben Steidl, Aaron McGuire, Ali Beheshti, John Lewellen, and of course, my mom, for their support on Kickstarter. If you want to join these saints in the fiscal support of the show, you can visit us at where we have recurring and one time donation options. Check it out to get ad-free episodes, buttons, and shout-outs.

If you want to stay up to date on the show you can follow us on Instagram at SoapboxersPod. We’re also on Twitter and TikTok.

Soapboxers is a production of Newtons Dark Room, a podcast studio set to explore imagination through antiquated audio dramas and non-fiction expeditions. For more information visit

Grant: Um, yes, um… Speeches are measured in time and I think this comes more of a habit. I always like to think that whenever this time starts, usually people count down which means it tells them how much time they have remaining which means they’re always running out of words. Where as when you time the other way, which means that you always feels that there is more you have to say. I feel like it’s better for yourself because you’re never going to think that even if I have ten seconds then that means that’s the only ten seconds I have. This, I guess I feel freer than when I feel locked in when my time is measured. So that’s why I use the stop watch rather than a timer.

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