Do you like President Obama? What about his speaking style?

Several months ago I was coaching a room of new students, exposing them to the fundamentals of debate. While going through several techniques of how to speak more effectively, I asked the group to list some aspects of President Obama’s speaking style. After all he is an effective speaker.

While I still believe the President to be a fantastic speaker, I will not again ask my students to list the President’s mannerisms. This is because, after attending a Marco Rubio rally, I’ve realized that debaters should not strive to carry themselves or speak like Presidents, Presidential candidates, or politicians in general.

Here are four signs that you are doing just that.

Sign 1. Too many stories

Whether it’s the father who served as a bartender or who immigrated from Poland, or their mother who was abandoned by her parents, Presidential candidates display pride in their heritage by telling family stories. A lot of them. Debaters, too, spend (waste) valuable time during their rounds telling personal stories.

I’ve been there. The Affirmative team is wrapping up a perfectly adequate 1AC, and you’re hastily struggling to throw together what you hope will be a half-as-adequate 1NC. All of the sudden you realize you have no opener. Instead of stating the thesis of your speech or summarizing the theme of your position in the round, you tell the story of that time you cracked a tooth the week after your braces were removed. If that seems oddly specific, feel free to ask me sometime.

Examples are fine, but personal stories come across as desperate and may make you appear uninformed. You cannot only reference your mom and siblings when discussing national policy. That is extremely childish. It would be much better to make a simple statement against the opposing team’s position in the round. For example, “Term Limits on the Supreme Court are unnecessary and will create disastrous effects not only in the Federal Court System, but across America.”

Sign 2. Fake personality

At the Rubio Rally, I was struck when the Presidential hopeful made his way to the stage – shaking hands, smiling, and thanking everyone around him. I made specific note of his apparent authenticity in his gratitude. How often do we thank the judges without true appreciation in our hearts? While we may be thankful, it’s easy to feel the temptation to make the other team look worse by being overly-pleasant with the judge.

Some of my least favorite debate speakers are the ones who obviously try to win points with the judge by attempting to impress with attitude. These are the kind of people who thank the judge six hundred times before she leaves. There’s nothing wrong with being grateful, and many competitors are. There’s something fundamentally wrong with pandering, especially if it’s waiting for a judge, then leading a prayer to be seen.

Most see the sacrifice of time that judges make when they come to our competitions. With that said, realize that no judge will cast his ballot based on who smiled more or who was more friendly and polite.

Sign 3. Ignoring the real issue

Watch any presidential debate, with an open mind, and you’ll see clearly how the candidates often choose to neglect the questions posed by the moderators and the challenges presented by the other candidates. Presidential candidates have an agenda to sell. They must appear collected and confident, and perhaps the best way for them to do this is to bring the discussion back to their message.

While it may work for politicians, disregarding what the other team said can prove drastic for debaters. Always refrain from ignoring the crux of the opposition’s arguments. The other day, my partner and I were in semis asking the judges to share their judging philosophies. The 3rd judge reminded us all that “often, it’s the forgotten argument that wins the debate round.”

Be the debater who isn’t afraid for the judge to hear the opposing arguments again. Who is so firmly set in his belief that he has no doubt of what he advocates. Remember that it is always best to be thorough in your analysis of and response to the other speaker’s points.

Sign 4. Twisting opponent’s words

There are many differences between Presidential debates and their individual rallies. Perhaps the greatest difference is that at a debate the candidates can defend themselves against the claims their opponents make. But when they aren’t together, candidates can stretch the truth of their opponent’s histories and policies.

If your opponent begins to do this, of course you can put an end to it. With the exception of the 2AR, you’ll always have the ability to clarify your position and your arguments. In light of this, be aware that it’s not easy to get away with twisting the truth. Even if you’re able to slip a few misleading statements into the 2AR, understand that the judge is sharp and will sometimes catch this. Twisting your opponent’s words, taking them out of context, or stretching the truth of any part of the debate is unethical and unwise.

Be truthful – not just to your judge, opponents, and audience, but to yourself as well. Your best option will always be to do what is fair and reasonable, regardless of the outcome. Don’t cheat yourself by twisting what the other side of the debate has said. Instead, strive to be upright in your examination and recounting of the debate.

Closing thoughts

Please don’t be under the impression that I’m opposed to you telling funny stories (assuming they’re specific enough) or thanking the judge during your debate round. I’m not that cynical. You can use each of these four things to your advantage. However, it is best to keep them in balance.

You can most easily determine whether or not you’re going too far with one of these by examining your speeches from a (questionably) overly objective perspective. Be fair with yourself when you ask if you’re ignoring your opponent’s real point, or if you’re twisting their words.
These ideas can be used effectively. Just look at our selection of Presidential nominees. I appreciate both President Obama and Senator Rubio and I admire their style of speaking in the context that they’re set in. But in the context of a debate round you would be wise to be far more cautious than they are.

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