High school debate secrets aren’t really secrets; they are skills that, if honed and nurtured, can result in winning. A debate is essentially an argument that is won or lost according to the rules and something that requires presentation and rebuttal skills. The aforementioned skils are, in turn, the application of the art of persuasion and developing the knack of public speaking.
Developing persuasive skills
To win a high school debate, one team has to do a more credible job in rebutting the other team’s argument (either pro or con) and present a stronger one. Three elements are involved in that persuasive rebuttal:
1. An appeal to the listener based on logic. Otherwise known as logos, this appeal is based on the garnering of logic, facts, as well as commonly-accepted intuitive “statistics.” (Since high school debate topics are not known in advance, debating teams must be very careful when purporting that something is statistically correct.)
2. A reliance on trustworthy sources. This approach relies on another Greek-sounding term, ethos. In other words, whatever hard facts a debating team uses, the facts must be generally trustworthy and come from credible sources. For example, an argument against smoking would be better supported by referring to a report the American Lung Association, rather than a comment posted on a pop-culture web site.
3. An appeal to emotions. Again, the Greeks gave us this one: pathos. This persuasive approach is the strategy of evoking feelings and empathy through the listener’s own imagination. Be careful with this one, however. While any debate argument must include logic and reliable resources, it might not always be appropriate to “go for the gut.” For example, using an excessive appeal to emotions could quickly get into the realm of unprofessional schmaltz.
The Knack of Public Speaking
One of the best-kept secrets in high school debating is how, through just doing it, it leads to developing the important academic and life skill of public speaking. Everyone gets nervous at the very thought of standing up in public, and actually standing up in public can be a true act of personal bravery. Here are a few pointers for the public speaking aspect of debating:
1. Practice presenting arguments out loud. Speak in front of a friendly audience and go slowly. Rushing a presentation causes slurring and stumbling. Enunciate!
2. Avoid drinking carbonated and caffeinated beverages on the day of the debate. Soda causes dry mouth; caffein is a diuretic (makes you want to run to the bathroom).
3. Pause and gather your thoughts before speaking. It looks professional and avoids the appearance of rambling and groping for ideas.
4. If your voice becomes shaky, pause for a moment. Take a drink of water or clear your throat.
5. Focus on someone towards the back of the room. This feels weird at first, but it works.
6. Concentrate on the microphone and speak to it. This has a calming effect of many speakers.
7. Look for a good “escape” or ending line. Perhaps a summary of your most important points will help, but avoid the hackneyed “in summary…” phrase.
8. Remember that the biggest confidence builder is a thorough grasp of your subject matter. Being “110 percent” prepared will pay dividends during the stress of the speaking.
Read more about tips for public speaking on the Toastmasters International web site.