Looming ten feet tall, their steps shattered paving stones. The rumble of their debate boxes sent panicked crowds fleeing. Several witnesses reported seeing them breathe fire on at least one occasion, and their refutation skills had been known to make small children cry.
This was the team my partner and I were debating.
“We’re going Neg,” Makala said, faintly, as the horror dawned.
“We are going to die,” I said, dazed. “We are going to be completely obliterated beneath an Everest-sized pile of points and subpoints.”
We had one weapon: a Neg brief compiled by a couple of debater friends way smarter than the two of us. We clung to that slim sheaf of paper like a drowning man clings to straws—a last, desperate hope. The eight minutes of the 1AC slipped through our fingers, chased out by three minutes of cross ex and a few fleeting seconds of precious prep time. Abruptly, I found myself standing at the lectern, wondering if I could stretch out my meager content to fill at least six of my allotted eight minutes. I glanced down at my outline. It was a dismal prospect. Half of the arguments there had already been spiked by the Affirmative team. That point about taxation, for example. They’d already refuted it. But by golly, I thought with a rare flash of spunk, it’s in the brief. Other people, smarter than me, wrote it up as a good point against this case. So I’m going to run it.
I ran that argument. I ran it like it was the most important argument in the world. I ran it like the Light Brigade charging into the Valley of Death.
We won that round.
To this day, I’m not quite sure how we pulled it off. But it did teach me one very important lesson: confidence.
If you have none of your own, borrow some.
If you don’t have any to borrow, then pretend.
Usually, confidence takes time to develop. You will become confident by exposing yourself to difficult situations and conquering them. The knowledge that you have walked across the coals and survived lets you hold your chin up when faced with a similarly fiery situation. But gaining confidence takes time, and it takes intentionality. Here are some tips to increase your confidence—and the appearance of confidence.
Slow down. This does two truly miraculous things. Not only do you appear to be calm and in control, but you actually—gasp—are more in control. Slowing down lets you think about what you’re saying and have more command over the words you choose.
Speak up. Nothing screams ‘uncertainty’ more than a soft or low vocal register. You want to be perceived as credible and authoritative? Speak up. Use a clear, even tone with good breath support. Avoid vocal fry—that croaky popcorn-like range at the bottom of your throat. You know, the one you slip into when you’re tired or just don’t want to exert the effort. (If for no other reason, avoid it because Kim Kardashian. But it’s also been claimed to hamper job interviews.) Use your voice to fill the room, like that old cliché about bouncing your voice off the back wall. Most of the debaters I’ve judged could have upped their speaker points and credibility just by raising their volume a few notches.
Move with purpose. Don’t shuffle papers, don’t shift your feet, don’t flutter your hands. Don’t play with your hair. Don’t fiddle with a pen. Don’t pick up your notes and put them down. Don’t rearrange your evidence again. Instead, slow down. Use calm, purposeful gestures. It gives the illusion of confidence, and it helps foster it as well.
Avoid ‘I think’. When debaters start out, they tend to use phrases like, “I think that ___,” or “It seems like ___,” or “I don’t know if ___.” Those phrases decrease your credibility. You might not be sure if China will actually decide to cooperate with your extradition treaty: that’s okay. But instead of curling up and admitting it, say things like, “While we cannot guarantee a perfect system,” or “Of course, we’ll never have all the answers, however…” It’s okay to not know everything. If you did, you’d be God.
Turn questions into statements. When I started debating, I had very little to say. During the 1AC, I would sit and stare at my blank flowpad, desperately trying to generate content. Typically, all I came up with would be a few hesitant questions. Are you sure your plan doesn’t need funding? Why don’t you talk about the bunnies who are going to die as a result of your policy? Wait, didn’t that expert also say he wanted to nuke North Korea? And because the other team seemed so polished, so poised, so confident, I would back off timidly and assume that they knew better than I did—my questions must be mistaken. It wasn’t until I’d gotten a few tournaments under my belt that I started to realize that hey, these were valid questions. I learned to follow through on those, and turn them into arguments: “The Affirmative plan needs funding, and does not have it.” “The Affirmative team is avoiding a discussion about collateral damage.” “The supposed expert they quoted also advocates bombing a psychologically unstable global power.” Your questions are the kernels that, given a chance, will flourish and grow into—I don’t know, maybe a tree or bush or something. Give it a shot and see what happens.
One last thing. I am an unapologetic advocate of improv games. They’ll make you look, act, and feel ridiculous—which is a great way to get over yourself; to quit worrying about your image. That, really, is the best way to get past insecurity and develop confidence.
I say it to novice debaters over and over again: stand your ground. Don’t be intimidated by speakers who seem like they have all the answers. Don’t feel like an imposter. You have things to say: say them. And say them with confidence.