Have you ever played Mousetrap?
You know, the game with the epic contraption: you turn the crank, which pulls back a sign, that slams into a bucket, that sets loose a marble, that slides down a pipe, that jostles a pole, that drops a marble, that flips a diver, that bumps a basket, that—in an epic, long-awaited finale—traps the unfortunate mice. Why the mice just hung out and waited for the basket to descend upon them, no one knows. The real point is this: you can take a simple task and make it really complicated.
Similarly, you can take words and ideas and make them really complicated. It’s easy. In fact, essays throughout high school and college encourage it. How often have you padded your word count by introducing a few extra clauses or descriptors? You want to sound academic and intelligent, so instead of saying, “First, a disclaimer: this structure is not universal,” you say, “Before I commence, allow me to make a brief disclaimer: the following structure is not strictly universal. It does not work best for every type of prompt/case, nor should it be treated as a rigid prescription in general.”
We all do it. But in speech and debate, it’s a death sentence. Your judges’ eyes will glaze in seconds if you talk like that. Instead, use fewer words.
Pre-Written Speeches: 1ACs and Platforms
This is the easy one. When you write your speeches, simplify.
-Don’t use two words when one will do.
-Read your sentences out loud. They should flow easily.
-Pretend you’re talking to a sibling or neighbor or your mom. How would you explain this concept in real life? Write like that.
Off the Cuff: Debate Rounds and Limited Prep
It’s harder to practice word economy in off-the-cuff speeches. You have to change the way you think, and you have to practice. A lot. Here are some drills to help you out.
Drill 1: Pack and Punch
- Pick an argument. You can get one from a debate round on YouTube if you want, or a point from a recent round you’ve been in, or a statement from a book/movie/news headline.
- Set a timer for two minutes and deliver the argument.
- Set a timer for 90 seconds and deliver the same argument. Don’t speed up your rate of speaking; don’t cut content—just use fewer words.
- Keep cutting your time until you can give that argument in 30 seconds flat.
Drill 2: Caveman
- Record yourself making a claim or argument.
- Count how many words you used.
- Do it multiple times, but decrease the number of words you use each time. See how concise you can get it. You might end up sounding like a caveman, but it’s good practice. Then when you actually run that argument in a round, using real sentences will feel like a luxury.
- You can turn this into a competition, too—see who can give the same concept in the fewest words.
When you’re writing an essay, your reader has the chance to go back and re-read something that confused them. Speakers don’t have that luxury. You have one shot to make an idea stick in your listeners’ minds, so quit blathering and cut to the chase.