Although I’ve had success in debate, I’ve never been a fluent nor eloquent speaker. Unfortunately, I never committed to improving my extemporaneous delivery until my senior year. This post is lengthy, but if you read through and put into practice what I’m illustrating, you will improve.
I broke and placed at several tournaments my first two years in policy debate, but my rhetoric was never polished; on the contrary, I was below average when it came to clarity in extemporaneous speaking. I hid my low-quality speaking behind my partner, reading evidence cards, and out-preparing my opponents. As the season went on, I did improve, through increased familiarity with the topic, improved cases, and loads of preparation. (But I was still terrible. Sometimes I watch the 1AR that I gave in the finals of the state tournament and cringe…)
In my junior year, I switched over to Lincoln-Douglas Debate. No longer was I able to hide my speaking behind my partner, reading copious amounts of evidence, or out-preparing my opponents. With new topics every other month, (Editors note: for those unfamiliar, NSDA switches LD topics every two months) although I had success at some tournaments, I was inconsistent, due largely in part to my speaking lagging behind my opponents.
I lost a great educational opportunity because it was not “fun” to do impromptu speeches where I messed up and blanked out. Improving delivery is ultimately a long, arduous, but worthwhile goal. Don’t make the same mistake I did—push through the work, though it may be difficult, and in the end, you will gain a skill useful throughout your whole life.
In preparing for my final tournament in high school—NSDA Nationals 2017, I’m deciding to put time and effort into improving my speaking and fluency. I’m still not a great speaker, but I’m working at it, and I know how and what it takes to improve.
Tips to Improve
In reading countless articles about improving extemporaneous speech, asking many how to improve clarity and fluency, and watching great communicators, I’ve developed a list of 5 ways you can improve your speaking. This post will focus on both impromptu skills and general ways to improve your eloquence and rhetoric. For those of you who are still debating, your National Tournament is either finishing up or just around the corner. It’s a great time to work on your speaking, something that you will take with you far beyond the time you will spend debating in high school or college.
Tip #1: Practice (and Record) Speeches
Like improving your jump-shot or playing the piano, you don’t get better at extemporaneous delivery by just reading articles. It takes time, work, and effort. Practicing comes in many forms—debating at tournaments, rebuttal redoes (more on this later), impromptu speaking, and parliamentary debate rounds. Record yourself giving speeches and critique them afterward. Could I have made this point more concisely? Could I have used more eloquent language? Could I have allocated my time better to focus on the crux of the debate? Recording speeches also allows your teammates, coaches, or others to aid you in this process. Set a goal for yourself to practice consistently—perhaps one rebuttal redo and one impromptu speech per day.
Tip #2: Improve Your Flowing Skills
In my opinion, flowing is an underrated skill among many debaters. Yet, it is one of the most foundational elements of debating well and improving after a tournament. Work on flowing so you can take down the source, the claim, the warrants, of each of your opponents’ responses and arguments. You’ll come up with some shorthand, ways of determining what is the source, what are the warrants, and so on. Flowing well allows you to structure your speech in a way that benefits your case, and allows you to adequately respond to arguments. A good flow does not mean you’ll give a good speech, but it is a prerequisite for one and what I believe is a necessary tool for improving afterward.
There are many different methods of flowing, but what I recommend for LDers is one sheet for the AC (and corresponding rebuttals and responses), and one sheet for the NC (and corresponding rebuttals and responses), with potentially another sheet with voting issues. For TPers, though this might seem like a lot of paper, I suggest one sheet per argument type (Inherency, Harms, Topicality, Solvency, each Advantage), as well as one sheet per off-case position (Topicality, Counterplan, each Disadvantage). You aren’t cramming your flow this way, and you’re able to organize your speech easily by putting all the flows in order of issue. Find what works for you and practice flowing debates, news reports, and speeches. Then use your flows for…
Tip #3: Rebuttal Redoes
Perhaps you’ve done rebuttal redoes, perhaps you haven’t. In my opinion, these are some of the most helpful and versatile drills you can do to improve speaking, word economy, and time management. Take good flows so you have a wealth of topics to speak upon. Give yourself some prep time, then give a 1NC, 1AR or 2NR, whatever speech you struggle most with. Record it, listen to it back. Work on your conciseness in refutation by cutting down the time of your rebuttal from 5 minutes to 4.5 to 4 to 3.5, etc. To help yourself cut out filler words, have a friend watch you and end your speech when you’ve used filler words X amount of times. Then begin again and try to make it farther through the speech. There are many more adaptations of rebuttal redoes to help you improve various skills. Do not pass up on this great opportunity, especially the week after a tournament when the arguments are fresh in your mind.
Tip #4: Know the Topic
The past couple of tips have been focused on extemporaneous speaking, clarity, and fluency. The next two tips are focused on general ways to improve your speaking. The more you know the topic, the better your speaking will be. Don’t just know your case authors, know your case critics. Read them, know their arguments, their critics. Plan out refutation sheets with responses to arguments, and the responses to those points, and the responses to those points. The more familiar you are with a subject, the easier it is to speak, prep during a speech, and use prep time to polish and organize rather than to think of responses.
Tip #5: Powerful Introductions and Conclusions
Often, it is useful to script introductions and conclusions. This doesn’t mean you have to present them verbatim, but this allows you to close the speech with your best words and rhetoric. There are two main benefits to such an approach. First, you are able to connect powerfully with the judge and the audience. Second, although you don’t always have to use your conclusions based on how the round goes, knowing how you’d like to end forces you to ensure that the argument it is based on is standing strong. Ideally, your conclusion is focused on your most important argument, the crux of the debate. An example of one of the most powerful conclusions I have seen was in the LD Finals of the 2015 NSDA National Tournament. Eventual champion, Nicky Halterman, debated the negative of the resolution, “Inaction in the face of injustice makes individuals morally culpable.” He summed up his winning argument eloquently and memorably:
“My third voting issue is victim-blaming. What the affirmative says is that if you are a kid who lives in a high crime area and hears your neighbor being shot, you have two choices: Act or be held a murderer. But if you are privileged, if you have the fortune not to see the evils of this world, you are as innocent as can be. Because I cannot stand for that statement, I negate.”
Learning to improve one’s speaking ability and persuasive characteristics is not an easy process, but the work is worth it. But first, you must understand WHY it is an important goal for you. I assure you, if your goal is winning, you’ll be far less motivated and far more disappointed with your efforts. Instead, focus on the growth aspect of speaking, whether that be learning in success, or learning through failure.
Joshua Hu is an intern at Ethos. In the fall he will enter the University of Hawaii at Mānoa as a freshman, studying Accounting and Political Science, with the intent of pursuing a law degree and working in law, business, and/or policy. He debated for four years in a traditional district of the National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA), in both Policy and Lincoln-Douglas formats, qualifying to NSDA Nationals his sophomore and senior years. Some of his hobbies include hiking, fishing, cooking, and playing basketball.