When most people think about mistakes, they usually have a negative perspective. But I’m here to inform you that mistakes are your greatest ally, at least in debate. Maybe it was my great ability at mispronouncing words and cracking blonde jokes that enabled me to come to this revelation. I’m prone to make mistakes when I speak, so I make sure that I make the most of my mistakes.
The idea is that judges don’t like to listen to a robotic speaker spout off a ton of knowledge. It’s impressive yes, but not appealing. The judges like to see that you’re human and know what to do when you make a mistake. They do, however, mind if you make a mistake and then make the mistake of making that mistake uncomfortable (in other words, don’t make it acquired). If you can make a mistake and then recover with poise and confidence, then you have earned likeability points, which is 80% of the battle. In fact, the other day one of my professors said that people only hear 20% of what you say; the other 80% of communication is non- verbal. So when you are competing in a “sport” that revolves around communication, likeability points are extremely valuable. Don’t tell me that it should be all about the flow and the arguments. When you look over a flow, more times than not, you can justify voting for either team. So you are better off being well liked.
I was at a region IX tournament a couple weeks ago and I saw a great example of a competitor using a mistake to ease the tension in the room and put a smile on the judges faces. It was during quarterfinals so the atmosphere was a little tense, but during cross-examination, the cross-examiner was asking the cross-examinee a question about the quantification of a harm, and he responded, “it’s probably somewhere around…” She then asked, “is that an exact estimate?” There was a slight pause a then he responded, “yes, that is an exact estimate.” At that point, she registered her mistake, laughed, and the said, “that was slightly contradictory,” and then moved on. You cannot image the tension that it broke. People smiled and laughed, and if you can accomplish that then you’ve accomplished half the battle.
I’m not telling you guys to go out and intentionally make mistakes, that would be dumb; however, I am saying to make room for mistakes and to not fear mistakes; they are not the bane of your debate existence. Everyone makes mistakes, and everyone knows it, so get used to it. If you allow yourself the freedom to make mistakes, then I guarantee that your speaking will be more relaxed; you’ll be more willing to crack a joke; and you’ll be more willing to take some risks.
Take it from the master of mistakes.
• Sat in front of a judge for 30 sec., trying to think of an argument, but drawing a blank.
• Mispronounced or misread every possible word.
• Used a competitor’s name instead of my source’s name.
• Grabbed the wrong stack of evidence during a final round, and left all my tagged evidence at the table.
The list could continue, but it’s not going to. Nonetheless, I can honestly say that these were not traumatic experiences and that they didn’t negatively affect rounds. Was I perfect? No. But then again, who is?