Throughout my time in NCFCA, I would fairly consistently receive the same comment: “Slow down!” Whenever I got this comment, I would smirk and think, “Aw c’mon…you can understand what I’m saying!” Throughout my five years in speech and debate, this was my mantra. I thought that, as long as I could be understood, I did not have to worry about going too fast.

Then, last month, I judged speech rounds for the first time. Now, I can firmly say that all the judges who told me to “slow down” were right.

Why this is true requires some explanation. In most instances in the real world, you can get away with speaking a bit too fast. In my estimation, people typically understand about 75-85% of what other people are saying. That is almost always more than enough to comprehend the part of the meaning which was essential (i.e., the part of the meaning that their interlocutors wanted to communicate). Thus, in most instances, we get the gist of what the person said—and that is more than sufficient.

Judging is different, and much harder. Judges are trying to track everything you are saying so that they can rank you as accurately as possible. More than that, they must score you based on how you are speaking (vocal delivery), how you are moving (physical delivery), and how you have organized your content (e.g., your point structure). And, all the while, they are trying to take notes on all of this so that they can remember! In short, judges are being overloaded with information in a way that normal people in normal conversations are not.

Last month, I judged two platform events—Persuasive and Informative. I have seen dozens—maybe hundreds—of these speeches before. As such, I thought that ranking them from first to last would be easy. It wasn’t! That is partly because it was my first time judging, but it is also partly because judging is hard…harder than you know. No matter how much you try, you are not going to pick up on all the information that you need to be able to make the best/most accurate decision possible.

So, how do judges vote? While I cannot speak for all judges, I can certainly speak for myself. While I was ranking the competitors, I first looked at the parts of the performance I picked up on—things like ticks in delivery, cleverly-written lines, or creative topics. Those are the sorts of things that most competitors think they are being exclusively judged on. But after considering those things, there were lots of ties. In fact, if I’m being honest, those factors really only condensed the group of eight competitors into three categories—advanced, intermediate, and beginner. Within those categories, there were many deadlocks.

Thus, I was forced to turn to secondary questions. Who had the best writing style? Who had the best thesis? Who had the best point structure? Or even: Who looked like they were enjoying themselves the most?

The point is this: All the little things matter. And the “little things” (e.g., writing style) are the things that judges only really notice if the competitor is speaking slowly enough. The 15-25% of meaning that most people don’t pick up on in everyday conversation might determine who wins the room.

This all boils down to one, overarching piece of advice: “Slow enough to understand” is not slow enough to win. Avoid hustling through parts of your speeches just to get them over with. Go very slow during your road map and point transitions. Go very slow and speak with emphasis as you give your thesis. Perhaps most importantly: Have fun with your presentation, and don’t just run through the motions.

All of these things seem small—and, in the real world, they are small. But—as I can now say from experience—in speech and debate, they pay huge dividends.

Patrick McDonald competed in the NCFCA for five years. He is currently attending Hillsdale College in Michigan, where he is pursuing a double major in Politics and History.

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