Dear friends, not unfriendly acquaintances, others,
I have a confession to make. Several days ago, I unearthed the script of the first full-length speech I ever wrote. On a hunch, I opened up the search function via Ctrl + F and punched in a solitary question mark. Zero results.
Shock is too timid a word to describe my reaction. I was horrified. How could I have committed such an atrocity as writing a 10-minute speech with not a single question? Have no fear, for I will firmly strive never to fall prey to such a blunder again.
Let me explain. No, I haven’t overdosed on mutated alphabet soup that harbors naught but question marks, nor have I been recruited into a religious cult that worships that sensational punctuation.
Instead, I merely enjoy questions and recognize the utility of asking them. More relevantly, they have a universal application in speech and debate. This article will elucidate that application by examining why and how to ask questions in all of your forensic endeavors.
Before delving into the intricate and complex theory involved in the art of asking questions, why should you bother in the first place? I offer two reasons.
First, it makes the audience an active part of your speech. Put yourself in the judge’s shoes for a minute. You are effectively little more than a passive observer to the competition. You don’t get to talk, you don’t get to shake the competitor’s hand (at least not at online tournaments), and you definitely don’t get to ask any questions of your own. In fact, the only time you get to interact with the competitor in any substantial manner is on your ballot, which the competitors won’t read until it is too late for them to respond.
It is no wonder that many judges seem to miss the crucial sections of a speech or debate: their minds are elsewhere. Have you ever been watching a sports game or movie, or perhaps been reading a book, and perplexedly come to your senses after minutes of unconsciousness? That happens because your brain had no active role in your activity and thus shut itself down. The same thing can occur in forensics. When you make a statement, the judge will glance over its content but will typically fail to analyze its significance or realize its impact. To put it candidly, they have no reason to.
When you ask them a question, however, you are effectively laying before them a gauntlet: a challenge to find an answer. Our brains hate it when a problem remains unsolved; we dislike the feeling of an unanswered question. Posing a question to the judges gets their minds moving and renders them an active part of the speech and not merely a passive observer. The more questions you ask, the more of a participatory event your speech will become.
Second, questions are memorable. One of the best elements of a speech is that it lasts in the judge’s mind. If the judge thinks about your speech while waiting for the next competitor, you have an advantage. If the judge is still thinking about your speech during the following speech, you’re going to beat your successor. If the judge is still thinking about your speech while filling out their ballot, you are going to win the room.
One of the best ways to ensure that the judge continues to think about your speech long after you are gone is to pose a profound question in your conclusion. That is remarkably potent but also incredibly efficient. That is because their mind is doing all of your work for you; you don’t necessarily have to provide an answer to the question. You just have to get them started on the path to the answer.
Your coach’s advice on this subject probably goes something like this: after you make a particularly complicated statement, pause and query aloud, “what does that mean?” Then proceed to answer your own question. While this is sound advice and should be taken to heart, there are several other applications to explore.
First, use questions as introductions. Over the past several years, I have fallen into the habit of starting limited prep speeches with the phrase “I have a question for you.” I do that primarily because the words hold an incredible amount of potential. From those few words, I can pivot anywhere, and the judges know it. That builds up anticipation for them while maintaining options for me.
If my question is pertinent, their ears will be open. If it is relevant, I will have a gateway to their mind through which I can drive my thesis. If I’m feeling especially audacious, I can even use the question as a segue to an introductory story or personal application. From an opening question, I can pivot virtually anywhere.
Second, experiment with using questions as a point structure. There are a few reasons why I believe this is beneficial. For one thing, it is exceedingly simple, which makes it both understandable and memorable. For another, it is broad enough to be useful in a wide array of instances while simultaneously being specific enough to be applicable in each of those scenarios.
For instance, in impromptu, my point structure often consists of three questions: what, who, and why. Merely by answering those three questions, I can explain what the topic means, explore examples that demonstrated its message, and analyze why the audience should care through its implications. That is by no means original, nor is it perfect, but it serves as a robust template for what are often hastily-prepared and thereby disorganized speeches.
All too often, speeches — some of them exceptionally pertinent — commit one grave error. The error is not that they don’t answer questions; it is that they don’t ask them. Try to avoid that. Give your audience something to think about; allow them to have an active and participatory role in your speech.
Scratch that. Stop thinking of it as a speech. Think of it as a dialogue — a dialogue between you and the judges. Any good discussion needs volleys; there needs to be a constant back-and-forth between the interlocutors. In short, one person cannot be doing all of the talking. In forensics, that feels inevitable. But anything you can do to minimize that feeling is worth pursuing. That’s why questions are so important.