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Several students have come to me recently with variations on the same question: What should I do if judges complain that I speak too quickly or aggressively in debate rounds? (What I have to say below applies equally to speech events.)

Here is the simple, but unhelpful, answer: Speak more softly and more slowly.

The reason this answer is unhelpful is because some debaters struggle to pinpoint their optimal volume and rate of speech during rounds. At least one reason they struggle is because it sounds to them as if their tone is appropriately soft or their rate of speech appropriately measured, even though it isn’t.

I had this problem as a debater. Before every round, I experienced such a surge of adrenaline that the world “slowed down” from my vantage point. I actually became unable to accurately judge the rate and volume of my speech as a consequence of my excitement. I was able to regulate both during casual conversation, but not while speaking competitively. I always perceived myself to be speaking more slowly or softly than I actually was.

If this sounds like you, here are two ways to keep your volume and rate of speech under control that worked for me

1. Slow down, and quiet down, until you feel uncomfortable.

Debaters like me have a hard time moderating their volume and speed because it feels natural to speak loudly and quickly during rounds. The only way to overcome this obstacle is to speak unnaturally slowly and softly. A volume or speed that makes you feel slightly awkward will probably make everyone else in the room feel more comfortable.

Don’t go overboard with this suggestion – the discomfort shouldn’t be overpowering. But you should slow down and quiet down until you start to feel the urge to speak louder or more quickly. Once you’ve reached that minimally uncomfortable spot, stay there. For the whole round. It won’t be pleasant for you, but it will be much more pleasant for the judge.

I am happy to report that, after a while, speaking more slowly and softly will start to feel natural. It just takes practice to push your default volume and speed downward.

2. Watch your word count carefully.

There is one foolproof way to measure your rate of speech during constructives: count the number of words in your 1AC and divide that number by six (if you’re an LDer) or eight (if you’re a TPer). That is the number of words you are speaking per minute. In general, your rate of speech should fall somewhere between 120-170 words per minute. If the number you get is higher than that, you are almost certainly speaking too quickly.

I say “almost certainly” because different rates of speech are optimal for different debaters. My voice is somewhat high pitched and a bit nasal, which makes my speech sound faster than the average person’s. So I have to work harder to moderate my speed than, say, someone like Ronald Reagan, who spoke at a blistering rate of about 175 words per minute in his first inaugural address and somehow still sounded slower than molasses running uphill.

How do you determine what rate of speech is optimal for you? Surprisingly, this is quite simple: keep close track of the word count in each of your speeches, and keep close track of complaints from judges about your rate of speech. If you get complaints after delivering a 1,500-word, 10-minute platform speech, then 150 words per minute is too fast. If you get complaints after delivering an 840-word, 6-minute 1AC, then 140 words per minute is too fast. Keep cutting your word count until you stop getting complaints. Then calculate your rate of speech, and do your best to stay below that number for the rest of the season. (This is harder to do in rebuttals, since you can’t keep track of the number of words you say in rebuttal. But close attention to your constructives and platforms will give you a good rule of thumb.)

Again, different people will get wildly different results, and judges’ expectations can vary between categories. I once had to cut a platform speech down to 90 words per minute before judges stopped complaining that I was speaking too fast. (That’s a pretty extreme case – I don’t know of anyone else who has had to speak that slowly.) The only way to know for sure where you will land is to count your words and read your ballots carefully.

Noah McKay is an NCFCA alumnus and a PhD candidate in philosophy at Purdue University. He has been a Lincoln Douglas coach and sourcebook author for six years.

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