Don't argue with Matt Williams.
He'll probably win.
If you doubt that, well, just take a gander at the monster-sized trophy this recently graduated Payson High School student brought home from the Schwan's Foreign Extemporaneous Speaking competition, held June 15 as part of the Forensic League's 2001 Oklahoma Nationals.
In scoring his fourth-place victory, Williams out-debated all but three of 2,500 participating students from across the country, and then beat out the 189 students who were competing in his category.
"That's the best any Payson High School student has ever done in this competition," says Williams' debate coach Wayne Gorry. "They've made it to elimination rounds in four different events prior to this, but they haven't made it to the top 25," he says. "It's extremely rare for anyone to make finals in the nationals."
Williams himself, who is about 50 times shyer and more modest than you'd expect any national-level speaker to be, casts his eyes to the floor as he quietly says he had no idea he'd do so well.
"People on the national circuit had been telling me that I would (do well) for a few months," Williams says, "but I was just thinking I'd go and do my best."
In the process of doing his best, Williams had to talk his way through six preliminary rounds of debate, in which he landed in the top 60 ... followed by a series of double rounds which first put him in the top 30 ... then the top 14 ... then the top six ... paving the way to the final championship round.
In each of those rounds, the competing word warriors drew three topics from which they each chose one subject. They were then given 30 minutes to prepare for their verbal battle ... from memory, using logic and citations from current publications.
The topic Williams selected "Has U.S. lost drug war in Latin America?" was hardly a no-brainer.
"My primary evaluation is that in Matt's final round, he gave the best speech of his career," says Gorry, who also attended the competition. "He was probably most effective during his cross-examination by a fellow finalist. He exposed a major weakness (in his opponent by asking the question, "Is
there a possibility of there ever being peace in the Balkans?"), but ended up benefiting from (his response to) the question he was asked."
The word "benefit" is something of an understatement especially when you see the two-and-a-half-foot trophy Williams carried home. Not that Williams was all that excited to receive it.
"I guess the entire idea (of the national competition) is that, if you get there, the reward is just being able to compete in the rounds," he says. "So the trophy is sort of beside the point. I'm just very happy with how I did, about just making it to the stage."
The National Forensic League (NFL) encourages and motivates high-school students to participate in the forensic arts: debate, public speaking and interpretation. The program involves more than 90,000 high school students around the world. Williams wasn't the only representative of PHS; fellow student Christina Riepel competed in the category of United States Extemporaneous Speaking.
Williams the son of William and Jean Ann Schwark is not planning on taking the political road most traveled by great speakers and current-events sharpsters. Instead, he's going to attend the University of Advanced Computer Technology in the Valley to pursue his long-time dream of designing video games.
"I hate politics," Williams says with a sincere sneer. "I can't stand it. I have some political beliefs, but I don't enjoy the nature of the games that are played ... but I've loved computers since the seventh grade."
With that career move, the world will be losing one heck of an extemporaneous speaker as Williams proved during this interview, when his extemporaneous-speaking skills were put to the test by this tough question:
"What are the dangers of two people using the same toothbrush?"
"I was shocked the other day when I realized that my toothbrush was not in my toiletry bag," answers Williams, suddenly and magically transforming his shyness into total self-confidence. "I eventually noticed that it was over at the other sink, which meant that my sister had been using the same toothbrush concurrently. Most people would find this a little bit gross, but it's more than that; it's outright dangerous. It poses not only a health hazard you could pick up various germs, diseases and, of course, cooties from your sister but also potential psychological disasters. Your biological purity could be ruined ..."
Amazing. Is there anyone this guy has ever met that he couldn't out-talk?
"It's impossible to win arguments with parents," Williams answers with a grin. "They're always right no matter how right you think you are."