It was the first tournament of the year, and it was going to be a good one. It had to be. A National Open in my neck of the woods. It was Gonzales/Segar’s time to shine.
Nicknamed the two tall Mexicans (guess why), we didn’t have a ton going for us. This was my fourth year of debate, and my best speaker award so far had been 12th place. It was technically Elijah’s second year of debate—if you consider his first year to be of any instructive value.
We didn’t break. I didn’t get a speaker award. Elijah didn’t get a speaker award.
That’s a bleak picture I’m painting. But if you have been in the NCFCA for a bit, you may recognize Elijah’s name. He and Simon Sefzik were the National Champions in 2016, just two years after the dumpster fire that was the Idaho National Open with Giovanni Segar.
But sometimes it takes a failure to spark something in you. I was done being a lame fourth-year debater. It was time to make something of myself.
I spent that year poring over public speaking blogs and books. There was a lot of information, but it was a lot of the same stuff for the most part. But there was one book I read that changed everything. The Charisma Myth, by Olivia Fox Cabane.
I learned that there were four types of charisma: focus, visionary, kindness, and authority. Kindness is what really stuck out to me. Kind charismatic people make you feel completely welcome and accepted. They make you feel important and loved. The other forms of charisma are nice too, but I wanted that kind of kindness for myself.
The book had some exercises to help you develop any of these forms of charisma, and they were actually practical and interesting exercises. Many of them were honestly pretty strange. For example, one of them asked you to imagine people with angel wings on their back. The reasoning: if you start to visualize everyone as being an angel, then you will rationalize away the things you don’t like about them and you’ll start to feel a connection to them.
Call me crazy, but some of these exercises really did work. I started to truly listen to people and care about what they had to say. I became better at conversation and became more confident. But most of all, I actually connected with people.
The #1 thing you can do to improve your speaking…
…is to improve the judge’s perception of your speaking by connecting with them.
Now, some of you are currently pulling out your moral compasses and checking the direction of the shaky needle. You’re wondering, “Giovanni, are you asking us to manipulate judges?”
I’m asking you to become a genuinely more kind and likeable person.
I’m asking you to try to connect with your judges—to care about them.
That doesn’t mean talking to the judge before the round and asking about their lives, because that’s not allowed. But you don’t need to do that in order to connect with them.
So, how do you connect with your judge?
- Pay attention when you ask the judging philosophy/background question. What does their answer tell you about them? If they’re a parent, imagine their great love and protective nature towards their kids. If they state an occupation, imagine what it must be like for them on a day to day basis. Based on their personality and what you tell them, construct an image of who they are in your mind.
- Get in their shoes. If you were them, how would you think about things? Why would you be wearing what they’re wearing today? If you don’t like something about them, consider the things you don’t like about yourself. Maybe it’s something they struggle with and want to improve on. Don’t reduce the judge into a shell of a human. You never know what unique things people are going through or have gone through.
- Show kindness to the judge. Smile when you make eye contact, and use analogies that make sense based on their judging philosophy.
- Think the best of your judge. If you develop a liking for your judge, it’ll come across in your body language, and they will like you more. If you have to imagine the judge with angel wings, then do it. 🙂
Back to my story
In one year, I had a major transformation. I went from being nobody to winning first place speaker at two tournaments back to back, and never getting below 5th place speaker for the rest of the year. That includes 4th place speaker at Nationals.
Remember that before that year, I had one speaker award: 12th place.
Yes, I became a much better speaker from the beginning to the end of that year. But the single biggest change in success for me came from that connection with judges. Judges liked me, so they saw my speaking with rose-tinted glasses. There were some rounds in particular where I just knew the judge was going to give me 30 speaker points because we had such a strong connection.
Don’t give up on becoming a better speaker
I don’t want you to read this and say, “okay, so all I have to do is be likeable. Got it!” There are plenty of likeable people in debate. You still need to work on your speaking skills. Throughout the year, I tried out many techniques that really accelerated my speaking ability. I also taught Elijah much of what I was learning in addition to coaching him after I was done with debate. And, apparently, it paid off for him.
Don’t neglect improving as a speaker, but if you can only tweak one knob, then your best bet is learning to truly connect with your judges.
Giovanni Segar created and maintains a public speaking blog called Potent Speaking which provides deep and unique tips for public speaking. Potent Speaking also has 70 debate-specific articles on its debate subdomain which you can find at debate.potentspeaking.com.