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Dear Aggressive Female Debater (Katherine),

Unfortunately the battle you have ahead of you will take a bigger armory than just verbal ethos. You need to have non-verbal credibility on your side as well. Debate rounds are won and lost in the margins. Oftentimes there is little more than a 2% difference between the teams. Non-verbals are your biggest weakness right now, and they’re probably setting you back by between 15% and 20%.  Even if you change nothing else, there are a few (relatively) easy tricks to help you overcome the odds and make people want to vote for you.

Standard non-verbal coaching is geared at people who seem nervous or not credible. This is certainly not your problem. This means that almost everything you’ve heard will be the opposite for you. Here are some tips for overcoming past habits and your natural non-verbals to turn cattiness into calm credibility. 

There are two kinds of people; light bubbly personalities, and darker serious ones. You have a darker personality. That’s certainly not a bad thing, but it will define the way you dress and gesture in the competition arena. Light people who wear light clothes come off as fluffy and sometimes even ditzy. Light people who wear dark clothes are pleasantly likable. Dark people who wear dark clothes seem scary or distant (there’s a reason why villains wear black), and dark people who wear lighter clothes reach peak credibility. This means a few things for AFDs.

1) Give up the black. I know, I know. If you’re like me (you probably are), you love wearing black. It’s just an easy color to wear! But shifting from black to a charcoal grey or navy blue will lighten you up a bit more. Don’t be afraid of wearing khaki or light grey pieces either! You can actually get away with wearing things not generally seen as credible/professional because your assertiveness will correct for it.

2) Wear happy colors. A pearly pink, light orange, or sky blue shirt will do you worlds of good. Try to stick with muted colors, though, because bright colors can be too abrasive if you speak loudly and/or quickly. Also, be sure and accessorize with feminine jewelry. I generally wore pearls when debating. Wearing a classically feminine piece can sometimes be just enough to soften your image.

3) Break up the suits. Wearing lighter, colorful skirts will make you appear less formal and stuffy, and play up the cool-professorial vibe that you’re going for. Try wearing a navy jacket with a light grey skirt, or a black jacket with a light blue one. Your clothing should seem put together and intentional, but not overly formal or matchy-matchy.

4)  A-line skirts are your friend. Instead of wearing a tight pencil skirt, try wearing a looser swishy skirt. Dressing in a text-book professional style will only serve to alienate you from your judge and will decrease your likability. This is much the same principle as wearing classically feminine accessories.

This definitely doesn’t mean that you can’t dress how you want to; you just need to be intentional about it. My favorite black jacket has a pocket, and I wore a pocket square the day I won nationals in Apol. Now, that definitely wasn’t a traditionally feminine way of dressing, but I offset the edginess of my outfit with a polka dotted shirt, and a bright blue skirt. It’s all about finding the happy medium.

For three years now, I’ve had some form of a pixie cut. When I did the chop, my mother’s immediate response was ‘Clare you’re going to lose rounds over that.’ I know for a fact that she was right. Here’s the interesting part: I did better when my hair was proportionately longer or softer. While you don’t want to have your hair down, try to avoid tight ponytails or buns, and instead use softer styles when debating. Lastly, shy away from bright red or darker colors for lipstick. Pink or coral are your friends.

Unfortunately, we can’t just stop with clothing. The way you gesture and use your hands is also incredibly important. Chances are, your natural hand gestures include authoritative motions, or broad hands-down movement. Most people are taught to do exactly that. We learn that hands-up gestures are perceived as begging, but sadly, that’s the exact gesture that you need to be making. Hands-up motions open you up to the audience and make you seem more humble in your opinion. (It’s an odd world we live in when hand motions that imply begging or uncertainty are seen as attractive in women, but c’est la vie). Secondarily, be sure and move the lectern to the side. Your greatest problem is inaccessibility, so you need to do everything you can to increase openness and connection with the judge.

Lastly, watch your facial expressions. Most AFDs don’t realize how much they frown in debate rounds.  Even if you’re speaking from your natural expression, you will likely seem cold, or even angry. There are three areas where you can intentionally smile to build connection with your judge.

1) During cross ex. I’m a firm believer in the idea that you can’t win rounds in cross ex, but that you can lose them there. Stop, take a breath, and keep smiling no matter what’s going on with your opponent. By my second year, I’d built up a reputation as a force to be reckoned with in cross ex.  One of the light-bulb moments came in Regional Octafinals when my partner (another AFD) and I debated the team that would end up both the Regional and National Champions in Team Policy Debate. I was being cross exed by one of the sweeter guys in our region, and instead of opening with a typical snarky answer, I took a breath, smiled, and answered quietly. My opponent physical jumped and the unexpected kindness threw him off for the rest of the round. Being nice in cross ex isn’t so bad. I promise.

2) Before your speeches. Before you start speaking, make eye contact with your judge and smile at them until they smile back. It might feel weird at first, but the first impression is incredibly important. Their first picture of you needs to be one with a smile on your face. This is especially true in out/elimination-rounds when some of your judges will be ready before others. The worst thing you can do is look bored while you wait on the slower judges.

3) While you’re at the table. I know it’s hard to not smirk when you’re listening to patently ridiculous arguments. The most reaction you can give is one of bemusement. Nothing your opponent can say should make you mad or frustrated. Only amused. Debate isn’t personal – don’t let your opponent get under your skin.

Non-verbals are hard to learn, and it will take some time, but you can do it if you work at it. Be intentional about the signals you give, and mastering these skills will serve you well long past your debate years.

Regards and respect,


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