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“Everybody here? Great. Anna, would you pray for us before we get started?”

“Oh. Me? Oh. Yeah, sure! Um. Okay.”

You know that moment when you’re handed something completely unexpected? When you’re strolling along a sunny lane and then a giant iguana shows up out of nowhere? (Don’t judge. It was the first random thing that popped into my head, okay?)

This moment was like that.

It was the first time I’d joined one of these company meetings, so I was planning on lying low and skulking in the background until I figured out how things worked. That plan went out the window when my boss, without any warning, asked if I’d pray for the group.

I can do this, I told myself. I’m a debater. I think on my feet.

What followed was the most awkward prayer of my life. I stumbled through a few words, realized I wasn’t getting anywhere, and quickly resorted to the salvation of all awkward public prayers: stock Christian phrases.

I don’t remember which ones I actually used that day, but if you grew up in church, you know the sort of thing I mean. “Hedge of protection,” “bless the hands that prepared this,” “bless this food to our bodies.”

The thing is, these phrases are just crutches for when I don’t actually know what to say or how to say it. That’s something I need to overcome. If you’re a debater, it’s probably something you struggle with, too.

“Thank you, and I strongly urge a Negative ballot.” “I’ll be going down the flow…” “Aff has the burden of proof…” “This argument flows to the Affirmative team.” We use these catchphrases because they’re comfortable, but they aren’t actually useful debate tools. Let’s talk about how to get rid of them.

There are two main reasons debaters fall back on these phrases.

Maybe they’re in the habit of using debate lingo.

As debaters, we have our own private language we use to talk to other debaters. That’s fine until we have to talk to a judge who doesn’t speak that language. At best, these phrases go right over the judge’s head and have no impact. At worst, they’re confusing.

Maybe they don’t actually understand what they’re saying.

If I don’t really understand my argument, it’s so much easier to use “pre-approved” phrases. I do this with taxes all the time. Let’s face it, I don’t really understand modified adjustable gross income or bundling charitable deductions. I can use those terms and pretend like I know what I’m talking about, but if I actually had to solve a problem or explain the concepts to someone else, I would fail. So if you, the debater, don’t understand what you’re saying, how can you communicate it to your audience? This happens a lot with evidence. It’s so easy to state a tag, read a card, and move on, hoping your judge got the gist of it (even if you didn’t). But that’s not effective communication. You have to be able to express ideas in your own words.

So what are some ways to overcome this?

First, weed out unnecessary catchphrases. If you think you don’t use any, you probably need to have a friend, sibling, parent, or coach watch you debate and identify the ones you use most. Think about what they actually mean and why you’re using them. Do they even serve a purpose?

After you’ve identified the small handful of phrases that actually have a practical use, reword all of those stock phrases into normal English. You can use this list as a reference.

Finally, drill it. Give mini speeches and focus on eliminating all stock phrases. Watch out for transitions: “moving on to my next point” is fine, but you can’t use it every time you move on to a new point. Especially drill intros and conclusions. It’s really easy to slip into catchphrases when you’re beginning or ending a speech and you need something polished and confident to say.

Using debater lingo sometimes feels empowering—like you’re one of the cool kids with knowledge not granted to the common folk. But when it gets in the way of actual communication, there’s nothing cool about it.

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