October 6, 2016
Earning a top-five speaker award feels awesome. Being recognized as the top speaker of a tournament is even more awesome.
Though I received a lot of bids to the Tournament of Champions, I never really won many tournaments. I’d usually end up dropping the elim following the bid round, or drop in semis/finals. That didn’t bother me because I knew I wasn’t perfect. It especially didn’t bother me at tournaments where I ended up the top speaker!
But this article isn’t about me. It’s about how, with the right effort, you can consistently make the list of top-five speakers during your season. It goes without saying that high speaker points are a testament to your debate skills. What you need to remember, though, is that speaker points have a real influence over how well you end up at the tournament. If you’re 4-2 with low speaker points, you could end up getting the dreaded “4-2 screw” where those low speaks are the only reason you don’t break. Speaker points also determine seeding in elimination rounds, which influences your placement on the bracket and thereby the difficulty of your debates. If you just make it as the 32nd seed, you’ll have a tougher time winning doubles against the top seed than if you were the 9th seed debating the 24th.
It’s clear that speaker points are important. But how do you improve your speaks? What’s the difference between a debate where you deserve a 29 and one where you deserve a 30? I’m not claiming to have devised a formula that guarantees you 30s, because speaker point scales are very subjective. However, by learning general tips for improving your delivery, persuasion, and strategic intuition, you’ll see your speaker points improve significantly.
Over time, the wins will come. When you start winning more debates because of these tips, your speaker points will tend to be higher simply because the judge knows you have a proven record of success. That might seem political, but judges’ determinations of speaks do tend to be influenced by how well they think you’ll do at the tournament, or in elims.
There are three things that you can do to improve your speaker points: (1) schedule regular practice speeches, (2) do solid research, and (3) think many steps ahead of your opponents when you prepare a set of arguments to read.
Giving regular practice speeches is important for improving your delivery, your efficiency, and your comfortability with arguments. Speaking drills are one thing, but if you aren’t practicing a speech that simulates the conditions of a real debate, you’re only going to be fast and clear when you’re reading evidence. The key is to be fast and clear when you’re talking about your evidence as well. I’ve seen too many high school speeches where debaters will be really fast in the constructives, but their rebuttals will be inexplicably slow or inefficient because debaters won’t be able to give a 2NR or 2AR as fluidly as if they were reading the AC.
The best way to give practice speeches is to have lots and lots of practice debates. If you’re on a large squad, take advantage of the fact you have lots of teammates who are committed to win, just like you. If you’re a lone wolf (like I was in high school), make connections with debaters from other schools and arrange practice debates to have on Skype.
You can also arrange practice speeches with yourself and a coach. Put together a 1AR block to an NC that you want to read, and prepare a 2NR to give in front of a coach or a friend. Don’t type out the entire speech, because that defeats the purpose of practice. Pull together the cards you want to read, flow the 1AR block as if someone else read it against you, and write out some answers to each argument. Then give the speech! The benefit of having a coach or a friend watch your speech is that they can give you immediate feedback. You can also record a video of yourself giving the speech then watch it for some crucial self-coaching.
I’m a firm believer in the old adage that practice makes perfect. Practice speeches not only make you more acquainted with your arguments, they also help you correct for inefficiencies and poor speaking habits. For example, in high school I picked up a horrible habit of double breathing. So, I would practice giving speeches where, every time I double breathed, I would stop the speech and start over. The goal would be for me to complete the speech without double breathing once. This can be done as well with inefficiencies like “um,” “like,” “insofar as” (that one was huge back in my day) and more.
Rebuttal redoes are one of the best ways that you can do practice speaking, but I think an even more effective method of practice is to give a speech for the first time given a series of arguments you’ve prepped to answer your own positions. In a sense, once you’ve given these speeches the first time, when you give them at the tournament those tournament speeches will be as amazing as a rebuttal re-do. Because you’d already simulated the conditions of a debate you expect to have, you will have ironed out any mistakes you could have made at a tournament if you didn’t watch out for them.
Since practice makes perfect, you’ll give better speeches and expect to see higher speaks!
Cutting lots of amazing cards is actually great for improving your speaker points. If you do a lot of research, you’ll be very well-educated on the topic. If you’re well-educated on the topic, you’ll have a firm command over all the evidence that’s been read in the debate—yours and your opponents. One judge complimented me on how effectively I could just look at an opponent’s cards and immediately know how I was going to answer them. That’s because I did so much research that I thought about my positions a lot. I’d played out the back-and-forth arguments in my head multiple times already, so I knew what I was going to say if a debater said x, y, or z to answer my offense.
Having a strong command over evidence gives you more credibility when you harness your topic knowledge to make sound analytic arguments as well. If the judge can tell you’ve done your homework, your ethos has significantly improved on everything you say in the debate.
Aristotle said that between ethos (credibility), logos (logic), and pathos (emotion), ethos mattered most for one’s rhetorical abilities. If you don’t have any credibility with the judge, that affects how they’ll view your logic. This isn’t to say that debaters with the most evidence will always win their debates, but you generally tend to be more persuasive when you can give a detailed and educated defense of your arguments.
If you’re more persuasive, judges will be really impressed with your debating—resulting in higher speaks.
Whenever you prepare a position—your AC, your NC, your off-case positions, etc.—you have to think about what you want your 2NR or 2AR to look like. For example, if you know that your 1NC against a certain affirmative is going to consist of four off-cases, some framework answers, and link turns, you need to think about what you plan to jettison and what you want to defend by the end of the debate. You should have a sense of what your ideal 2NRs would look like (for example, you know that your best bet of winning is the elections disadvantage and link turns, so that’s what you should intend to collapse to unless the 1AR really screwed up some other area of the debate).
Similarly, when you’re aff, you should think about how you’re going to explain the story of the debate, or how you’ll explain your affirmative position vis-à-vis what you expect the 2NR to do. For example, if you know the 2NR is likely to be the anti-blackness kritik, you need to think about how you’re going to explain your aff in relation to the links and alternative. If you know the 2NR is likely to be a Kantian NC (and you’ve read util), you need to think about how you’ll articulate your best util justification in relation to their own framework justifications.
Thinking multiple steps ahead of your opponent means you’ll anticipate things that they haven’t. You’ll be more aware of mistakes they’ve made and how the arguments you make position you to win in the long-term. It’s just like a game of chess; thinking many steps ahead of your opponent makes your debating a lot better.
Most judges will use speaker points to reward your strategic insights. If you went for a horrible argument but managed to win the debate, the judge will give you low speaks. If you lost a close debate but had an amazing strategy, the judge will reward you with high speaks.
You certainly want to be in debates where you end up with high speaks and you’ve won. But wins aren’t everything. That’s true in general, but that’s especially true when you think about speaker points.
The only way to become a champion is to win like one. And winning like a champion starts with getting the highest points from your judges!