A Guest Post by: James A. Owen
When I was in high school, I took part in a program called the Academic Decathalon. It was a competition that was a cross between semester finals and the Roman gladiatorial games, only with more pressure and relatively less bloodshed. Relatively. Most of the completion was in written tests on different subjects, but two of them were to be presented orally: the interview, and a speech.
I wasn’t particularly worried about the interview, but I was pretty concerned about the speech. We’d been given a general set of guidelines with some suggested topics, but it was also stated that NONE of the topics being suggested had to be chosen. And, being high school students, even academically-driven ones, everyone opted for one of the half-dozen or so suggested topics — but none of us consulted with any of the others about WHICH topic we’d selected, and the teacher advising us was not particularly inclined to encourage a stretching of our horizons or a testing of decathalon limits.
On the day of the competition, we all dutifully showed up early to the school and loaded ourselves onto the bus for the ninety-minute trip to the school where the regional decathalon was being held. We’d all been thoroughly versed in the exam subjects, but the two things we couldn’t really test for were the interview, and the speech. The interview we’d rehearsed a few times, but most of the preparation for that came down to making sure you kept eye contact as you answered the judges’ questions, and trying to remember to not pick your nose. The speech was a different matter: it was basically an essay, but one that had to be delivered out loud. And ten minutes into the bus ride, it became painfully obvious that very few of my peers understood the differences between prose that was meant to be read visually, and the flow and cadences of words that were meant to be spoken aloud.
Worse still was the fact that the two dozen of us going to the competition had chosen the same three topics to research and present as speeches. And ALL of them were maddeningly similar. Mine as I recall was “What The Constitution Means To Me.” The same topic NINE of my friends had chosen. Multiply that by the ten or so schools participating, and you end up with three hundred students giving speeches about the same topics to the same judges for an entire day — and with sudden clarity, I realized that there was only going to be one way to truly set myself apart from all the rest of those speeches, so I pushed down the window, and, to my teacher’s horrified dismay, threw my notes out of the bus.
Over the next half-hour, I improvised a speech about economic value systems based on an old Harlan Ellison essay about how Quality can be defeated by Quantity, using the example of how the classic high-quality Hydrox cookie had been pushed into obscurity by the inferior-quality Oreo cookie.
In a competition where the expectation was to hear and evaluate hundreds of nearly-identical speeches about American values, I took off at a right angle and delivered a speech about the economics of cookie quality. And I won by a pretty healthy margin.
Following the crowd may seem like a good idea, because it’s safe — but it also makes it that much harder for you to stand out. It’s a no-brainer to try to capture lightning in a bottle by writing about boy wizards, and vampire love, and stabby children dystopian futures, because even if you can’t catch the lightning, the thunder is still pretty profitable. But if you really want to beat the expectation game, your best bet is to do something completely unexpected — like my friend Gama, who is starting to build a career out of stories about a Unitato: a half-unicorn, half-potato. Didn’t expect THAT, did you?
No one did. But that’s how you WIN.
James A. Owen
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James A. Owen is the author of the bestselling Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica series, the creator of the critically acclaimed StarChild graphic novel series, and the author of the MythWorld series of novels, the author and illustrator of the forthcoming series Fool's Hollow, and the author of the nonfiction trilogy called The Meditations. Visit him at heretherebedragons.net and at jamesaowen.com.Tags: Sequence 00: Guest Posts