Dear Aggressive Female Debater (Katherine),
I was you once. The frustration of being perceived as angry, bitter, or mean is one that I am familiar with. You are a round peg in a square hole. Chances are, you’ve tried to soften your image and have received ballot feedback comments which include variations on ‘look less mean,’ ‘try not to be angry,’ and ‘slow down’ from parents, coaches, and judges.
In fact, one of my earliest debate memories is of being cornered by a well-meaning mother who had just watched one of my rounds. Her advice boiled down to ‘women are supposed to be calming influences in debate rounds. You should be more like that. Why aren’t you like that?’ You’ve probably also lost rounds because of how some people perceive you, and have received nasty comments on ballots. Learning to (re)construct perceptions is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. It took me four years to figure it out. Here is some advice, from woman to woman, about refining your image and smoothing out the wrinkles.
The number one mistake that naturally aggressive/smart/opinionated/stubborn girls make in Homeschool Speech and Debate is giving up their personality. This partially results from your desire to appease well-meaning parents who have expressed concerns about your attitude. The cookie cutter (read: ideal in the eyes of most parent judges) female debater oozes charm and grace, and responds to arguments with an unwavering, demure smile.
The easiest way to give up your inherent credibility is to put on a mask. Fake kindness doesn’t seem kind. If you are a natural hard-hitter, that’s a good thing! Don’t let anyone take that from you. Overcoming negative perceptions is all about minor changes that turn what can be perceived as cattiness, arrogance, or frustration into credibility. There are both verbal and non-verbal ways to shift perspectives. This first letter will look at verbal edits; the second will look at your biggest challenge – nonverbal kindness.
You’ve probably received plenty of comments on ballots stating that you speak too quickly. One of my favorite ballots compared my 1AC to standing in front of a fire hose. I’m not really sure why AFDs (Aggressive Female Debater) are labeled as fast talkers, but for some reason we are. Quick fix: slow down at the beginning and end of your speeches and arguments. If the judge can track with you during those parts at least they’ll forget that you’re talking at a fair clip in the middle.
In much the same way, vary your tone. If you’re like most AFDs your default tone is probably accusatory. It is incredibly hard to give (what we think are) ridiculous arguments much credit and the tone tends to seepthrough, no matter how hard we try to disguise it. A large part of fixing this can be broken down into three solutions:
1) Separate your opponent from the argument. Most debaters address their opponents directly. For example, when responding, it’s logical to say ‘the negative team said.’ We don’t have that luxury. Instead, we need to carefully parse the argument away from the team. Try using phrases like ‘the argument I’m responding to is…’ or ‘the idea X, Y, Z, is untrue because…’ Addressing your opponent directly can come off as accusatory or abrasive.
2) Avoid accusatory and hyperbolic language. This literally means that you need to have words/phrases/tones that you can not use. Try taping yourself debating and some of the problems will pop out. I had to cut out words like ‘ridiculous,’ ‘nonsensical,’ and ‘small minded’ (and shift to phrasing like ‘not true,’ ‘unwarranted,’ or ‘understandable, but not supported by the other facts I’ve seen/am about to read.’) On that same note, you might want to un-formalize your language. Addressing the other team as ‘the opposition,’ or ‘my opponent’ will distance you from everyone else in the room. Try addressing your opponent by their first name. Your end goal should be to sound like a cool college professor. You don’t need to be a nice person; you need to be a not-mean person. Not-mean people are believable, fake-nice people aren’t.
3) Discuss, don’t argue. You have to think of yourself as an advocate of truth, not as someone trying to win an argument. Here’s a practical application. Until my senior year, ballot feedback pegged me as a bulldog in cross ex. There is no power quite like a confident woman who knows the facts better than her opponent, and, as a result, you’ve probably humiliated more than one or two debaters. Here’s how to fix the perception – forget the rules you’ve heard. There is nothing wrong with not asking a single closed ended question in cross ex (you probably don’t need their answers to win anyway). It’s decidedly worse to seem mean than it is to have a reasonable discussion about the arguments and never get to that killer line of questions you have prepared.
Boosting your credibility is all about picking the right words. Caution in phrasing is your friend. We are not all cut from the same cloth, and pretending to be someone you aren’t won’t help. I’m a firm believer in the strength of a professionally likablefemale debater. Those are the people who win speaks, who win speeches, and who earn success in the real world. You have the key to success in your hands – more than almost any other type of debater, and shifting from catty to credible is entirely worth the work.
Regards and Respect,