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In this post, Harrison discusses some basic principles to keep in mind when speaking to a larger audience. Next time, he’ll cover more specific techniques and action steps.

Since coming to college, I’ve participated in multiple debate rounds where we invite students and faculty to come watch and judge. These debates can end up having a rather sizeable audience—sometimes 30 or more people, equivalent to some tournaments’ outrounds—which also means that the “judging panel” is very large. Through these debates (as well as by watching other debates), I have come to better understand how large audiences can pose significantly different environments/feelings, challenges, and opportunities. Thus, I will use this article to touch on some of these differences, with an emphasis on how you can avoid some common pitfalls and/or utilize the situation to improve your debating.

The first section will cover some of the general/basic points (some of which admittedly may be old advice to advanced debaters), whereas the second section will cover some of the more-specific/advanced recommendations, including tactics/devices. (I won’t be focusing on stage fright, in large part because Anna Johansen has already written about that.) However, before I get into the points I do want to stress that this list is not meant to be exhaustive, nor are these points necessarily definitive/universal: I won’t be covering some of the basic points (e.g. “speak louder”), there are other potential techniques and principles to consider, and what works for one person or for one audience may not work for another. Thus, it would be good to consider these points and how they can best fit into your situations.

General Recommendations, Principles, and Observations

Broadly speaking, there are some important principles and other points to keep in mind when debating for large audiences.

Change slowly.

Be considerate about changing too much or in the wrong way, and don’t overthink it. Although this might seem strange given the rest of the recommendations, it is important that you don’t leap out into unfamiliar territory or overdo these changes. Sometimes, people think they need to radically alter their style/approach with crowds, but this is not the case. For example, if you are not comfortable with moving around on stage, don’t worry about moving; if you aren’t very familiar with your evidence/speech, don’t try to read it from memory; etc. Instead, if you are not comfortable with some of the more important recommendations, practice them beforehand, so that you are ready when the time comes. And when the time comes, make changes in moderation; you probably don’t want to try to implement all of these changes at once.

Know your audience.

This doesn’t just apply to crowd situations, but it is particularly important for them, due to some of the reasons covered later. Thus, take a moment to consider whether the crowd is familiar with debate in general or the topic at hand, if they’re tired, biased, bored, etc. and then consider how to adapt to that.

Identify the target audience(s).

If you have a judging panel separate from the audience, you should focus on them in content and technique (e.g. eye contact); if you have a segment of the audience that you need to convince, focus on them.

The mood is (usually) amplified.

If the mood is light/fun, humor can be very effective. If the mood is serious/tense, humor might help ease it, but a more substance-heavy approach may be better. If the mood is tired/uninterested, complex jargon should be avoided.

Emphasize likeability.

Again, you should generally try to do this in any case, but it is particularly important in the case of crowds (especially in light of the previous point).

Be aware of focus.

Crowds tend to be less focused on you: a small judging panel should (hopefully) still generally be focused, but other audience members are significantly more likely to be checking their phones, whispering with a neighbor, or in some cases even dozing off. In cases where all the audience members are judges, this latter observation means that you need to make sure to engage or interest your audience. Engagement can be improved in terms of content (e.g. not debating with complex jargon) as well as techniques, some examples of which are discussed in the next point and section.

Make deliberate—rather than frantic—eye contact.

Some people can develop a bad habit of looking at a crowd but constantly flitting back and forth between people, without making serious eye contact and focusing on anyone in the audience. Watch out for this: it’s easy to do, and it quickly wrecks your connection with the spectators.

Embrace your space.

In larger rooms and with larger audiences, you tend to have more space and an implied air of significance. Thus, in some cases it is good to use that space and air with some body movement and gestures, pauses, more intonation, etc. However, going back to the first point, this is one of the easiest ways to go overboard, so be very careful not to overdo it.

Next time, I’ll cover some more specific practices to implement when speaking to a crowd.

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