For most of my life, I have been an avid baseball player. The primary reason I have stuck with the sport thus far is that I find it incredibly fun to partake in, at least when my team isn’t getting pulverized. (Side-note: When you are getting pulverized, it is objectively the worst sport. The lesson here is to not get pulverized.)
The hardest thing about baseball is hitting. As a coach of mine used to explain, “you’ve got a round bat, and a round ball, and you’ve got to hit straight.” If that wasn’t difficult enough, pitchers at higher levels have developed tricks of their own, from curveballs with no bottom to sliders that look perfectly hittable until, all of a sudden, they aren’t.
However, to an experienced batter, the adjustment to hitting a curveball is child’s play. On one condition, that is: that the batter knows it is coming. If the batter is “looking fastball” (i.e., expecting a 90 mph heater down the middle) and gets a curveball (i.e., a 67 mph pitch that spins out of control), there is nothing they can do but hope to foul it off.
The change in speeds is devastating.
Like a surprisingly numerous amount of phenomena in “real” sports, the same can be said about forensics, and perhaps for a similar reason: a change in the tempo of your speech catches the judge off-guard. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This article will explain why you should consider purposely changing speeds and how you can put that into effect.
But first, what do I mean by “changing speeds?” In my estimation, most forensicators (which I just learned is not a word, though it should be) do not speak at average speed. Instead, they fall into two distinct categories: fast speakers and slow speakers. You likely know which type you would fall into.
From experience, it is exceedingly rare that speakers in these categories cross over party lines. Not necessarily because they are opposed to such a notion, but simply because it is more comfortable for them to speak how they usually speak and to avoid altering anything.
My suggestion is to purposely change pace for emphasis, which would sound commonsensical if it weren’t for the shockingly few people I have seen try.
Why is this worth doing? I would suggest two reasons.
Firstly, changing speeds keeps the judge alert. Whenever you change tempo, the audience is immediately snapped out of whatever lull they may have fallen into.
Through the process of habituation, our brain stops reacting to stimuli that don’t change or vary. For instance, if the voice of your math teacher drolls on and on without variance, your brain will eventually stop caring about the content and move on to new and more exciting things.
It is often cited that our attention span rivals that of a goldfish, and though the science on the issue seems worthy of skepticism, the point firmly remains: monotony is quite literally monotonous, and we tend to drown it out amidst everything else. By slowing down and speeding up within your speech, you will be sending a subconscious message to the judge to stay mentally awake.
The second reason I recommend purposely changing speeds is because it forces you to practice speaking both quickly and slowly. When I had just started speech and debate, I spoke incredibly fast. Not necessarily because I had a lot to say, but more because silence was somehow uncomfortable.
Perhaps that is true for everyone as they first attempt public speaking. From our experience within conversations, our brain tells us that pauses of any kind are to be avoided as they can only lead to awkwardness. In forensics, however, that is not the case. It has been said that perfectly-timed and well-executed pauses are worth more than several hundred words, and that seems to be entirely correct.
The same is also true in reverse. Some people are naturally slower speakers, which can be very effective on its own, but is rendered even more so when variance is introduced into the equation. The point is, both styles of communication are effective in different circumstances, and the adaptability garnered from being able to do both is worth the effort.
I have two suggestions as to how you can put this concept into effect.
Firstly, be as deliberate as you can, especially when you are first trying it out. For example, if you are a naturally slow speaker, slot out a moment or two within your speech where you will speed up, and vice versa.
Most importantly, be more dramatic than you think you need to be. Just like the most effective off-speed pitch in baseball is significantly slower than the pitcher’s fastball, the most effective change in tempo in forensics is between two markedly different speeds.
That does come with one caveat, which is my second suggestion: always remember to enunciate. One comment that I consistently received when I first tried this out was that the way I quickened my pace was intriguing but was accompanied by the notable disadvantage that whatever I was saying was totally incomprehensible.
That was especially the case for my scripted speeches, where I knew the words so well that it was difficult to imagine anyone in the audience not being able to make out what I was saying.
Too often, we forget that our audience is very probably hearing the speech for the first time and is thus unaccustomed to the particulars. Remember that while speeding up certainly improves engagement, it should not come at the cost of understandability. Only talk as fast as you are reasonably able.
Introducing variance is an integral part of keeping the judge mentally awake, and changing speeds is the simplest, easiest, and, in my estimation, most effective way to provide for variance within your speaking style.