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From the moment you walk into a debate round you are communicating with everyone in the room. Everything you do matters, your dress, your posture, your expression, and especially your body language. Because even before the first line of your first speech the judge has formulated an opinion about you. This can be so terrifying that many people panic and forget what it even looks like to stand like a normal human being (What do I do with my hands? What do I normally do with my hands?!?) Remember that judging your body language and appearance is just a typical human response to new surroundings. Your audience simply wants to know what kind of person you are, even if it’s irrelevant to your message.

I’m not saying that this initial opinion can’t be changed or that you absolutely can’t win if you have terrible body language and presentation. But you make your own job as a persuader far more difficult when you forget that one of the biggest parts of your message is you. You have the opportunity to harness those nonverbal signals and use them to enhance every aspect of your speech. So what are some simple ways to make that important first impression and improve your body language throughout the round?

You Are What You Wear:

“Don’t judge a book by it’s cover” might be a feel-good cliché, but the reality is that you are judged by what you wear. Don’t worry though, I’m not going to lecture you about what colors are in this fall—fashionista I am not—but here are my two favorite tips:

  1. Keep it Simple and Clean

The point of fashion is to enhance your presentation, not to be your presentation. You may have the best arguments ever, but if your judge’s eyes are on your ultra-flashy tie or base-ball sized earrings it might not matter. Over-decoration can also undermine your credibility. Debate is a formal sport and judges expect you to dress and act accordingly. I’m not critiquing accessories or colors, which can certainly enhance presentation, just remember that the point of debate is to make an argument not a fashion statement.

  1. Contrast Personality with Color

Are you an intense and passionate debator who is tired of being labeled “aggressive”? Or a naturally bubbly and excited speaker who feels like you’re not being taken seriously? Then this tip may be for you. For the naturally darker speakers, wear lighter colors. And you Leslie Knope types, try taking it down a few color shades. This helps balance out your fashion and debate styles to make a surprisingly pleasant contrast.

Your Body Language:

There’s a lot to be said on this subject I highly encourage anyone who’s serious about improving their nonverbal to do some more research into this, it can make a world of difference. For now though I’ll stick to a few of the basics.

  1. Be Friendly

You’re never fully dressed without a smile. Always smile when introducing yourself to the judge, it helps form a more personal and human connection. Using open gestures during your speech also helps. Hunching over your notes, crossing your arms, putting your hands in your pocket, clenching your fists, putting your hands on your hips, stepping or angling away from the judge all send the message that you are closed off. Next round, try instead keeping your hands open and in sight, your body always facing the judge, feet at shoulder length apart, and smile.

But a note of caution on smiling. It is not always appropriate to smile during a speech. When delivering a hefty disadvantage or discussing a weighty and emotional topic do not smile. This seems obvious, but I can’t count the times I’ve seen debaters discussing issues like world poverty, terrorism, or injustice with smiles plastered on their faces. When you smile during times like these it doesn’t just make you look like a psychopath, it tells your judge that you have no connection with the issue. Which leads me to my next point…

  1. Be Aware

There is no single expression or pose which can carry you through an entire debate round. Your arguments and topics will be diverse and your body language should match. This means smiling during more trivial points and being appropriately serious during serious ones.

One cool strategy is to move around when telling a story or an interesting example, let your body language and gestures be more animated and wide. When you get to the central point of the story/example stop in the center of the stage and make your statement. It’s an incredibly effective way to get judges involved in the story and paying attention to the crux. There are tons of little tips like this, but the general point to remember is to be aware of your message and match it with your body language. If you don’t connect to your message, neither will your audience.

  1. Be Confident (fake it till you make it)

Confidence wins trust, attention, and ballots. It’s perhaps the most important nonverbal signal to send. But the problem is most of us are not naturally confident public speakers. So how do we fake it? Here are a few nonverbal pointers to look confident:

➤Keep your chin up and your eyes on the audience.

➤Keep your fingers still. Fidgeting with your hands is a sign of discomfort and insecurity.

➤Stand up straight.

➤Keep your feet planted firmly at shoulder-width apart, unless you’re walking around to make a point.

➤Show the palm of your hands. Gesturing with open hands gives off an honest vibe while closed hands make you seem uptight and anxious.

➤Slow it down. The rush of nerves that comes with public speaking sometimes makes you unconsciously speed up your words and actions. This leaves you with jerky, unnatural hand movements and nervous pacing. Try to take a deep breath and relax your movements.

Of course appearing to be confident is never as good as actually being confident, but the good news is that faking confidence can often create real confidence. Standing up tall and smiling can trick your mind into thinking you’re in complete control. As author Jarod Kintz advised, “Feeling depressed? Lift your chin up, pull your shoulders back, raise your arms, walk with a spring in your step, smile, and very soon your spirits will rise, just like your posture. It works. My spirit just rose, and left me cold and alone in this terrestrial body.”

Your Judge’s Body Language:

Communication is a two-way street, if you ignore your judge’s nonverbal feedback you may miss the information that might have won you the round. Sometimes your judge is clearly trying to communicate—by perhaps shaking their head or nodding—but we often either ignore or misinterpret it. For example, if your judge is shaking their head side to side and narrowing their eyes, it might not necessarily mean that they dislike you, they could just be confused about the point. Try reiterating the point in a clearer way, rather than dropping it and scurrying to move on. Keeping your eye on your judge’s nonverbal feedback also helps strengthen the connection. If you listen to them, they’ll listen to you.

The stuff I went over today is only the tip of the iceberg. There are thousands of resources about body language and how to improve it. Your movements, your clothes, your posture, your face are sending out signals that others are picking up. Don’t miss the opportunity to take control of that message.  

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