I can’t really think of a great introduction to this, so let’s get to it:

The first and foremost responsibility of a speller is to communicate with the judges as clearly as possible.

Surprising? Maybe, maybe not. You might think it has something to do with the pronouncer. After all, the pronouncer gives you the word by which you survive to spell another round, or fall by the wayside. So you have to hear the word clearly, and that is tremendously important. But think about it. When you are up on stage, who decides your fate? Who holds the bell? Who can correct any misunderstanding before you begin to spell? Who, if you feel you are unjustly eliminated, has the power to reinstate you? The judges. So make sure they can understand you perfectly.

To use a personal example from years ago, at our state bee in 1988, I received the word “contrecoup” shortly before winning. But I was unsure of the ending…did it contain an “s” or not? I asked if the word was singular or plural, and was told that it was singular. It made me more certain of the ending…but not entirely. I knew that if I gave any indication that I was done with the word before adding an “s,” if I chose to, that could raise all sorts of drama. And bees are nerve-wracking enough. I didn’t want to wrangle with the judges probably any more than they wanted to entertain a potential protest from me.

So here’s what I did. I decided that I would spell the word, but slow down toward the end, start raising my voice (as if I were asking a question), look up at the ceiling quizzically, and even close my eyes in exaggerated thought. This communicated to the judges – and everyone present – that I was still deliberating. I also did NOT say the word until I was absolutely certain that I was done. My deliberation took about ten seconds…seconds that were blissfully uninterrupted by the bell. And nor did the bell sound once I said “contrecoup”‘ – because I chose not to add an errant “s.”

Here’s another example…this time, of a failure to communicate clearly. In 1987, Stephanie Petit reigned as the NSB’s winner. But not without a major fright about a half hour beforehand. Stephanie received the word “guilloche,” and spent her time deliberating over it. She gave it a shot, but with a wavering voice that failed to mask her uncertainty. And with that voice, the fifth letter that came out of her mouth was a distressing and unclear mixture of “l” and “o.” No bell rang – yet –  but neither could the judges decide exactly what she had said. And for close to ten agonizing minutes, Stephanie – and the rest of the crowd – sat on tenterhooks while the judges deliberated. They played the tapes over again…twice, possibly three times, all over the speakers so everyone could hear that nearly-swallowed “l/o” sound. Finally, after prolonged deliberation, the head judge finally nodded her head, much to Stephanie’s profound relief. And a few short words later, the trophy was hers.

Simple things you should do to communicate clearly with the judges:

  • Say the word clearly before spelling. This signals to the judges to start paying attention in earnest. It keeps them from surprises. It also allows the judges to hear (if they haven’t heard yet) whether or not you are pronouncing the word correctly; if not, this gives them a chance to correct you. If you mishear “tenet” as “tenant,” and don’t say the word ahead of time, the judges may rule that you had enough information to spell the word correctly, and may throw a potential protest out.
  • Say the word again after spelling. Again, this signals to the judges that you have officially and unquestionably finished. If you get the word “squall” and somehow indicate with your body language that you are finished after “squal”, even if you haven’t said the word, the judges may misinterpret this as indicating that you are done spelling, and may ring the bell on you. You might be able to successfully lodge a protest, but this is in no one’s best interest, and if a judge is in a foul mood for whatever reason (remember, they’re human too), they may choose to just throw out your protest. Remember: Their decisions are final.
  • Look directly at the judges while you are spelling. The pronouncer is not in charge of your fate. The judges are. The more clearly they can see your lips move, and even take note of your body language, the more able they will be to evaluate your spelling. Don’t make them guess what you are saying.
  • Say all your letters clearly and slowly. You don’t have to spell words with a five second pause between each letter…in fact, that may be a good way to lose track of where you are in the word yourself! But spell at a reasonable, deliberate pace. And beware of letter combinations like “sc.” It’s a good idea to pronounce each of those letters completely separately, so they don’t get confused with “se.”
  • If you want to start over, say so. I’m a fan of taking control while on stage, and encourage spellers to just say, “I’m starting over,” rather than asking, “Can I start over?” But either way is fine. As some pronouncers have noted, it is easy to misspell a Buddhist monk (“lama”) if you hesitate after the first letter then refuse to communicate that you’re going to start over. You may unwittingly spell a South American mammal (“llama”).

So…since the judges are the ones who control your fate onstage, communicate with them clearly, and make their jobs as easy as possible.