“At the end of the day… Moving down the flow… The fact of the matter is…”
What do all of these fragments have in common? For one, they operate as “crutch words,” phrases that serve no purpose apart from buying you time to think of what you are going to say next. For another, throughout a given tournament, competitors, judges, and spectators alike will hear them used repeatedly. These phrases are so common that, if you have been around debate for any considerable amount of time, you have probably started to tune them out entirely.
When was the last time you heard one of these phrases used effectively? It is difficult to picture a single instance in which you were impressed by any of them, isn’t it? How odd is that? These words and phrases are used in almost every debate round, but not one single application sticks out. That is because they are inherently unremarkable; no one remembers them, no one is supposed to remember them, they just take up time.
The purpose of this article is to persuade you to consciously find alternatives to crutch words. It will examine the reasons why they ought to be replaced and provide some tips to start you on your way to doing exactly that.
But first, what do I mean by “stop saying things that everyone else says”? I do not mean to avoid taking inspiration from other debaters’ speaking style or format. One of the beautiful aspects of forensics is that you can incorporate the good ideas of your fellow competitors into your own skill set. In this respect, debate is not alone. The majority of education involves, in one way or another, copying people who are smarter and more talented than you are.
That leads to an important distinction, between building off what some people say, and mindlessly chanting what everyone says. For instance, in the debate community, it has become stock to close your final rebuttal with “and for these reasons, I strongly urge a(n) affirmative/negative ballot.”
There is no utility in that phrase. Judges will never learn anything from it, and no competitor will ever hear an opponent use it and think “wow, that was incredible! I need to use that next round!” Rather, debaters passively decide to regurgitate the line because they don’t have any better ideas. It is phrases like these — the ones that are purposeless, commonplace, and bland — that are begging to be defenestrated. (Look it up.)
What is so problematic with falling back on crutch words? There are two reasons why you should try to avoid them.
First and foremost, most of the forensic platitudes share one unfortunate characteristic: they don’t mean anything. Telling the judge that you think they should vote for you is the most unuseful sentiment I can presently think of, and the same applies to most — if not all — crutch words.
Furthermore, even if they once meant something, they certainly don’t anymore. Consider the practice of asking “how are you doing today?” at the beginning of cross-examination. It is conceivable that this was once a genuine and kind-hearted practice initiated by debaters who legitimately cared about their opponent’s feelings. (It is unlikely that this is the case, as anyone nice enough to care would be nice enough to ask the question before the debate started, but I digress.)
Even if I give the benefit of the doubt, the question has nevertheless been diluted by countless debaters who don’t care but have jumped on the bandwagon regardless. Have you ever noticed that repeatedly listening to the same song makes it considerably less fun? The same rings true for “things that everyone says,” the more they are used, the less meaningful they become.
If you are still not convinced, there is a second reason why you should avoid these clichés: it will help you think of better ways to express your arguments by “getting you back on your feet.” Think of it this way: crutch words function as exactly that… crutches. The more you use them, the more you become reliant on them, and the more they seem forced. By consciously avoiding them, you will give yourself the strength to “walk” without them.
There is no one in the forensic community advocating for the use of filler words, and the very concept of a debate coach imploring his/her students to say “moving down the flow” is laughable. Despite this, they are still used with incredible frequency, mostly because there are no easily-apparent alternatives. I have two recommendations.
First, alter the filler words in your repertoire so that you effectively say the same thing but in a fresh and unique way. If nothing else, exchange “moving down the flow” with “let’s look at my opponent’s next point” or the like. Mind you, I’m not trying to persuade you to replace cliché filler words and phrases with unique filler words and phrases; the goal here is to avoid making anything stock (unless it is hilarious, then you will be forgiven).
Second, if you can’t think of anything to say, don’t say anything at all. If no clever/unique opener comes to you, begin your speech by refuting one of your opponent’s points. If you can’t think of a segue between points of refutation, pause for 2 seconds, and move on. This is helpful because, in roughly the same amount of time, you will have piqued the judge’s interest instead of allowing it to subside. Utilizing pauses may seem awkward at first, but the more you do so, the more natural and powerful they will become. (Unlike filler words, which exhibit the opposite effect.)
The primary supporter of filler words and phrases will forever be passivity. No one actively chooses them of their conscious volition, but almost everyone accepts them as a dull yet innocuous reality. It doesn’t have to be that way. Once you start consciously replacing filler words, you will become increasingly more able to avoid them. Doing so will not single-handedly win you rounds, but it will make you a better and more efficient communicator. And what purpose does debate have, apart from that?