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In every sentence, some words are more important than others. Each word is necessary to make the sentence meaningful, but particular words carry more meaning than others. 

Consider the sentence: “Some time ago, I went to the zoo and saw a gorilla with a spatula.” Each word in that sentence is required to formulate the complete thought, but the only words that are critical to the sentence’s meaning are “zoo,” “gorilla,” and “spatula.” If I were to include this sentence in a story I was telling, these would be the words that I would want you to picture.

The same principle is true in speech and debate. In every speech, some points are more important than others; in every point, some sentences are more important than others; and in every sentence, some words are more important than others. 

A critical skill in forensics is being able to demonstrate to the judge which portions really matter. Given the constraints of the competition, the judge has a (usually significantly) limited amount of mental focus: They are not going to be able to examine or consider every point that you make in complete detail.

Your goal is for them to focus on the points that help your case the most. This is true in debate, where you want the judge to focus on your voting issues, and in speech, where you want them to focus on the points that are most impactful.

The art of indicating that some of your prepared material is more important than the rest of it can be thought of as a kind of “vocal highlighting.” Just as you might draw attention to certain portions of a book with a highlighter, you can draw attention to certain portions of your speech with specific types of inflection. The goal of this article is to express some tips on this matter.

In every form of speech and debate—from interpretive speeches to platforms to limited preps to debate—some portions of your presentation are more important than others. How can you demonstrate that to the judge? How can you catch their attention and cause them to pay undivided attention?

You have a few options, and they all involve a common theme: To highlight a portion of your speech, change something about the delivery. Typically, your aim is to increase the energy level in the room.

How do you do that? The first option is to simply speak louder. During an important point, raise your volume by about 20%. To be clear, I am not urging you to shout at the judges (from experience, they tend not to appreciate that), but do increase the urgency of your tone and project more than you typically do.

The second option is the precise opposite of the first: speak softer. By softer, I don’t exactly mean quieter, though that is part of what I mean. The word quieter refers strictly to your volume, while the word softer refers to your tone. Softer, careful, deliberate tones are excellent at bringing attention to the gravity, seriousness, or emotional impact of a point, sentence, or word.

Additionally, utilize pauses and questions. These especially highlight individual words and sentences. A pregnant, two-beat pause alerts the judge that a transition to an important point is about to happen. A brief, interjectory pause alerts the judge to the importance of a single word or term. A question near or at the end of the speech can cause the audience to ponder your material long after you have finished speaking.

All of these tips come with one attendant point: These types of delivery are helpful because of the contrast they create with the rest of your speech. The whole point here is that the parts you want to highlight are different from the rest of your speech.

It is, by definition, impossible to give your entire speech in a unique way. If your entire presentation is a bit loud, that’s not “vocal highlighting,” and it can actually be annoying for the audience. In the same way that you would not want to highlight an entire book, do not highlight an entire speech.

One final advantage of proper inflection that I ought to mention is that it will make your speech more engaging. When you vocally highlight salient issues, the subject material jumps out at the audience in a way that it otherwise would not. 

For one thing, the audience is forced to focus on the most appealing issues. For another, presenters who project and inflect well are simply more interesting to listen to—regardless of the subject of their presentation.

Picture orators speaking in a foreign language. In this hypothetical, one of them has excellent inflection and delivery skills. The other does not. Which would you be more likely to listen to for any length of time? Is the difference significant?

I would wager that, even though you do not understand the points either of them are making, you would still be substantially more inclined to listen to the more capable presenter. The same is true, to an extent, in your competition: Subject matter being equal, judges will be significantly more inclined to listen to more engaging presenters.

None of this is to say that you should disregard or neglect the quality of the content in your speeches. But it is to say that when you vocally highlight the portions of your speech that you find important, you maximize the potential of your written material.

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