Disclaimer: I have begun writing this article from the refuge of my college dorm room while noted almost-poet Gwen Stefani’s Hollaback Girl blares from the courtyard immediately outside my window. If the tone of this piece seems more cynical, fatalistic, or otherwise sad than it ought to be, your gripe is with Stefani, her almost-poetry, and its insuppressible fans, not me.
There is a common saying in sports: “defense wins championships.” That saying is not strictly true, but it does strike at a point that is pertinent to today’s topic.
In sports, relying purely on offense is an unreliable strategy. Every team—even the best—have “off nights”: games where their offense just isn’t working like it’s supposed to. The offense can’t function continually in a cohesive fashion. Inevitably, at some point, it will break down. For excellent offenses, the breakdowns last for only a short time; but they occur nonetheless. Every quarterback, shooting guard, and striker in the world have days when things just don’t fall their way.
Defense, by comparison, is much more reliable. A good defense rarely (if ever) has a bad game. Once they have perfected their strategy, they can easily apply it come game time—day in, day out. Even though defense by itself can rarely “put points on the board,” a phenomenal defense will set the bar very low for the offense to succeed. In other words, if the defense does its job well, they make the offense’s job much easier. Thus, the team can still win even when the offense has an off night.
We can transpose this analogy onto the “sport” of competitive speech and debate. Just as defense is more reliable than offense, aiming to inform your audience is more reliable than seeking to persuade them. As such, in much the same way that “defense wins championships,” having an informative presentation is an integral part of winning speech competitions.
There are a few reasons why I believe this is true.
The first reason is also the simplest: You can’t always persuade your audience to your point of view. If the thesis of your speech is worth talking about, at least some people in your audience will disagree with at least some part of it. And even if your speech is highly persuasive, some of the people in your audience will still disagree with your point even after you have finished making it. Persuading people to a point of view they previously rejected is hard, and you won’t always be successful.
Informing your audience, by contrast, is much easier. Your only impediment is stupidity, not antipathy—and the former is a much easier obstacle to overcome. If you explain your point well enough, people will understand it. And if your point is factually correct, you will have successfully informed your audience. It’s a simple process.
It’s also worthwhile. For one thing, the audience now has something specific and tangible to take away from your speech, even if they found your overall topic uninteresting or unpersuasive. Regardless of the speech category, your judges will be glad to have learned something new.
That comes with two benefits. First and most obviously, judges will be more likely to score your speech highly. But also, your credibility with the judges will have significantly increased, making them more likely to accept the persuasive aspect of your thesis. The more profitable the speech is for them, the more attention they will pay to your presentation and the more credence they will give to your argument.
What’s the impact of all of this? How should it affect your speechwriting?
Well, first, let me clarify what the impact isn’t. I’m not here to say that persuading your audience isn’t an admirable goal. Of course it is. In many cases, it is an essential part of your speech. My point is different: While writing your speech, you should always value pertinence, and ideally your end product should be, in some way, informative. Informing is simple, easy, and conducive to success. Its value transcends speech categories. If you can do it, you should.
Here’s one effect that principle can have in practice: Interesting facts are worth including in your speech simply because they are interesting. If you stumble across a comical or noteworthy factoid somewhat related to your thesis, put it in your speech! If it felt productive or enjoyable for you to learn about, your audience will likely find that same process equally worthwhile.
(Obviously, you shouldn’t regularly go off on long tangents that have nothing to do with your thesis, but if you can include a short, tangentially-related tidbit that you found to be worth knowing, you should.)
Patrick McDonald competed in the NCFCA for five years. He is currently attending Hillsdale College in Michigan, The United States of America, where he is pursuing a double major in Politics and History.