Talking Fast (With charts and graphs!)

I'd like to talk a little bit about talking fast. I haven't touched on this topic yet mostly because it's just not that big a deal. At least it's far less important a topic than you might think having seen, say, a TV news segment on competetive debate. Lots of novices are intimidated by how fast us crazy debaters can flap our jaws, though, so I figure I ought to give some concrete advice.

But before I go into the how of talking fast, let's talk for a moment about why debaters talk fast. Remember when I layed out the three laws of debate strategy? Well, one of the fundamental rules of the activity is that an argument, if conceded, becomes true. This gives us an incentive to make lots of arguments, because our opponent might drop one, or in their rush to cover all arguments their answers might be lacking in depth or strategy.

It follows, then, that a good tactic is to make many arguments in our speech. Think of your speech as conveying information, and we want to convey the maximum amount of information in a given time. Remember that.

So how do you learn to talk at 100 miles per minute? You read the words on the page. Only do it faster. This may be dissapointing, but I swear that's all there is to it. All the things that make you a good reader at normal pace - standing up straght, deep breaths, clear diction, and lots and lots of practice - are what give you ability to hit the gas pedal. Sure, there are some training exercizes that help you develop a bit faster, but they pretty much all boil down to "practice reading a lot." Just like if you wanted to train to be an olympic weightlifter, most of your excercizes are going to involve lifting a lot of increasingly heavy things.

But just like you need proper form when lifting heavy things so you don't damager your back, you need to be mindful of a few things while you practice reading so you don't develop bad habits.

First of all, remember Clarity is King. New debaters tend to want to push themselves too hard, especially during actual rounds. The problem with this is that everybody starts to develop "speed artifacts" as they push the envelope of speed. You start to slur your consonants, you cut off the end of words, your pitch is too high or your volume too quiet, you start gasping for breath, etc. Don't do that. If your speech is any less understandable than normal speed, you need to slow down.

That advice is not followed very widely in the high school community, so allow me to justify my position on the matter a little more. In my experience, debaters tend to see clarity as a binary proposition, either I'm "unclear" or I'm "clear." They want to push their speed as hard as possible until the judge yells at them, thinking that they will be able to squeeze in a few more args. Their mental model of clarity looks like this:

They think that the faster they try to go, the more information they convey, until they become "unclear" (and the judge will surely warn them of that).

As it turns out, though, clarity isn't a binary proposition. Sure, if a debater is so unclear that I can't understand anything I'm going to let them know, but there is a whole lot of gray area. If I'm catching 80%, 75%, maybe even as low as 50% I can still flow, but I'm going to get less of the speech. I'm going to understand the cards less, I might make minor flowing errors, I'm going to have a harder time piecing together the debater's story. Remember our goal for talking fast - Maximise information? If I can go "10% faster" but the judge only catches 75% of my slurred words, I've defeated the entire purpose of talking fast

To use another poorly-drawn chart, the real model of clarity looks like this:

I drew the red dotted line in the same place, but see how the information conveyed slopes downward as you push it too hard? You want to avoid that. The sweet spot as fast as you can without any speed artifacts, or maaaaaybe just a little bit faster to keep improving your baseline speed.

The other important piece of advice to remember about talking fast is All information is not created equal. Your speech isn't just one homogenous blob of text, so don't treat every word the same. It doesn't matter how well I'm flowing your cards if I didn't realize you moved on to a new disad, is it? Here's a rough list of the kinds of information in the average debate speech, ordered by importance.

  1. The "Highway Signs." When have you moved on to a new position? What is that position's name?

  2. The "Street Signs." When have you moved on to a new argument within a position?

  3. Poiting out major drops, voting issues, other stuff you want the judge to extra-special-remember

  4. Overviews of your argument that "tell the story"

  5. The Tags of cards

  6. The Tags of your analytical arguments

  7. The Cites of cards

  8. The Text of your analytical arguments

  9. The Text of your cards

We might quibble over which item goes where on the list, but the point is that you need to treat different types of information differently. Phrases like "Next off is the Healthcare Disad!" are the most important bits of your speech - they need to be clearer, slower, and with more "dead space" on both sides to allow people to flip paper. Don't mash the end of one card into the beginning of the next, or else I won't realize that there are two different arguments here. The tag and cite should be set out from the text in some way - louder, slower, more dynamics, something.

Note that this heirarchy doesn't give you an excuse to be unclear during the text of the card. Even there, you want a judge to be able to understand every last word. You (or someone) spent blood, sweat, and battery life cutting these cards, and you want them to have the maximum impact. If your cards aren't important enough to articulate clearly, why are you even reading them?

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