4 Ways to Quickly Improve Speaking Style
Updated: Apr 14, 2021
By Eli Lu
As much as debate is a game of strategy and intellectual discussion… it’s also largely a performance. A good speaking style that amazes the judges can always give you an edge. Even if you have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.
Take it from someone who’s talked about Medicare for All creating a global economic depression while having no idea how deficit spending exactly hurts the economy.
Today we’re going to cover 4 things I personally think are absolutely crucial to having a good— or even decent— speaking style.
Varying types of persuasion
I’m not saying you should lie… but I’m saying that you can get away with quite a few things if you do it with confidence. Have you heard of that story with the guy who did an experiment to see how many places he could get into with nothing but a ladder? Almost no one questioned him and simply assumed he was some sort of technician.
Can you blame them? If you saw someone dressed and acting like a janitor… would you stop them in their tracks and demand an id? I hope not in all circumstances. Maybe if they kept looking around suspiciously, right? But if they seemed confident and sure enough, you’d have no reason to suspect otherwise.
Likewise, despite being an activity where the fundamental way it functions is having everyone in the room question every word coming out of your mouth, confidence can easily make your opponents and judges leave much of what you say and do unquestioned.
I’m not saying to rely on the chance that your opponents don’t give refutation against your contention because you seem so sure of it it must be true, but I am saying that it can often lead them to not question certain premises or impacts.
We’re currently very close to disaster because of climate change? Alright. Solving this one problem solves poverty? Sure. This is the only chance we have to face this issue? Makes sense.
Another very important thing to note when it comes to confidence is the difference between arrogance and confidence.
“Look. Everyone knows that deficit spending hurts the economy, obviously.”
“Deficit spending hurts the economy.”
“I think that deficit spending kind of hurts the economy.”
Can you pick out which one sounds more arrogant? Or the one that sounds unsure of itself? Yeah. The first and third, respectively.
There’s not much I can do here to explain the exact difference, but I have an activity that can help you identify it yourself.
Pick a topic you’re passionate about, be it something you hate or love. Take 2 min to prepare. Give a really arrogant speech for 1 minute. Then give a really confident speech for 1 min.
Record both of them and listen back over it. Are they too similar? And if they’re different, how are they different?
Once you have confidence in the bag, you’re already on your way to sounding more persuasive.
Types of Persuasion
Ethos and logos. Ah yes, the fancy Greek words coaches like to say to sound smart. Essentially, they boil down to mean: emotional appeal and logical appeal.
The reason I bring these up, is because typically, debaters don’t notice it, but use a mix of both. Although that’s typically the best thing to do, knowing the difference between them can be an extremely strategic opportunity.
If your opponent sounds so passionate about the topic they’re almost on the verge of tears… you’re probably not going to be able to top them if you engage in a theatre competition.
However, if you switch to a very logical and calm approach to the topic, and emphasize the importance of approaching the problem at hand carefully and clearly while your opponents are shouting: The judge is going to like that.
If your opponents are super monotone and sticking heavily to facts and logic: Switch to being more emotional! Sound passionate about the topic!
They’re talking about the finances of a universal healthcare system? Alright, start emphasizing the importance of saving people’s lives by giving them at least a basic level of healthcare! Tell stories! Give analogies! Bring the debate to life and catch your judge’s attention!
Take the same topic you talked about earlier. Take 5 more min to prep. 2 min speeches this time. Start off with an emotional approach. Switch to logical when the timer hits the 1 minute mark.
You don’t want to look like a popsicle stick or Bernie Sanders when you debate. Bernie’s cool, but have you seen his gestures? Why… why are they all beside his head???
He kind of makes it work but please, if you try to mimic his gestures, be ready for weird looks from people.
Draw a square from your nose, then out to around your shoulders, then down to around your gut. That should be where your gestures are. You can go outside of this box at times when making a point, but generally try to stay inside it.
An easy way to remember this is to keep your elbows bent when moving around and making gestures.
This is hard to do, and takes some getting used to, but it’ll help you to give more natural gestures.
Of course, you don’t have to take this advice! What I did when learning how to use different gestures was largely trial and error and watching my coaches and fellow debaters.
But here’s something I highly suggest you do: If you have paper to read off of, never have it on the table or grip it with both hands. Hold it with one hand where it feels comfortable, and gesture with the other hand. Not with the paper. It’s not the paper’s turn to speak.
This makes sure that the paper isn’t blocking your voice or your face, and it generally looks much more natural than if you’re holding the page in front of your face and talking about nuclear war.
If you look at my notebook of debate feedback: 90% of it is me writing in all caps feedback from coaches to “WEIGH!” and “EMPHASIZE.”
This was such an easy thing I could’ve done that would’ve improved my delivery a lot. Why didn’t I do it? Believe it or not… I literally just kept forgetting to do it.
How does it help me? For example, in Public Forum, where in some cases, you have only 2 minutes to summarize the entire debate and weigh, even if I speak really fast, all I have to do is emphasize and say things like “This would ultimately lead to the deaths of 125k people annually.” parent judges can understand me and have told me they loved my clarity. I’m not doing anything different from anyone else… I’m just saying some important words slightly slower and louder.
That’s the easiest thing you can do to emphasize. Slow slightly down for the important words and things to cover, project a little more, and give gestures you think would fit those words. That’s literally all there is to it.
So what I want you to do is to find the most boring thing you’ve ever read. I want you to read it like a speech and emphasize parts of it that you think are important. Try to make it interesting and go for as long as you want!
Yes, you can even choose the Fitnessgram Pacer Test if you like.
And that concludes this speaking style article! Good luck, have fun, and go persuade some judges!