Sunday, September 18, 2011

Elements of Debate - More on Constructive Speeches

Having presented the role of modes of persuasion in the formulation of constructive speeches, some time must be given to the discussion of style and presentation.

Regional Style
Acceptable argumentation and presentation style is dependent upon regional norms and influences.  In some areas, debate is very much evidence-based, in other areas, more pragmatic orations are preferred and have greater influence on the local judges. The National Forensics League establishes procedural rules governing how debate rounds should be conducted but do not regulate elements of style.  Additionally, local governing bodies may mandate particular rules which may establish stylistic elements.  The Ohio High School Speech League, for example, has a constitution which defines how tournaments are conducted and provides instruction for debaters and judges but regional styles still exist. The role of evidence in debates often varies regionally. While I firmly believe that any debate which makes claims based on data which is not common knowledge, should be grounded on verifiable evidence, there are many stylistic considerations as to how that evidence is warranted and revealed in a speech. These conventions also vary region to region according to the debate category. For example; in some districts, public forum cases may include many direct quotations from sources, in effect letting the evidence do the persuading, while in other districts, evidence may be simply paraphrased and not directly quoted at all. In either case, the evidence exists and can be produced in the round if needed but styles used to present the evidence are entirely different according to the expectation of the regional judges.  In Ohio, there are several regional styles, especially with regard to the presentation of debate evidence, that requires debaters who travel to other regions to adapt their cases to the preferences of the host region.  Since the goal of any case is to persuade a judge, it only makes sense to be sensitive to the regional style in which the competition is hosted.  Policy debate avoids many of the regional differences in how evidence is presented since policy debate has evolved into a very evidence-driven form of debate. Nevertheless, regional styles may play a very big role in how the cases are presented, with some districts expecting a much slower oration in place of the more common speed reading techniques employed in other regions.

Word Economy
While the text of these essays may not be as concise as possible, I am not under time constraints.  Debate speeches do have time constraints and so efficiency in the use of words is essential in order to convey as much information as possible in the allowed time.  Whereas, policy debate in many regions relies on a very fast speaking style to deliver a huge volume of information, not every category of debate benefits by speed reading. In fact in some regions it weighs negatively against the debater.  First and foremost I should mention that in most cases, a few quality arguments are more effective than many poor arguments. So the reason for writing efficient and concise speeches is not so more arguments can be made in the allowed time.  Word economy provides time to insert more stylistic elements into a speech and to enrich the arguments to be made with additional data and/or warrants which provide the grounds for the claims.  I advocate spreading in all forms of debate. Not the spreading (SPeed READING) prevalent in policy debate rather spreading the foundations of claims in order to establish solid grounds backed by more than a single source of evidence. When one can make a claim and support it with several independent pieces of evidence, the claim has more weight in the minds of most judges.  Concise wording affords the time to build the case foundation.

Presentation Style
Reading a case is one thing, presenting a case is something else entirely. The presentation style conveys information to the judge and the opponents and so debaters need be very aware of what messages are being communicated in non-verbal ways. Posture, demeanor, eye contact and intonation are noticed and evoke subtle reactions in the observers. This kind of nonverbal communication has a direct impact upon the speaker's perceived ethos and upon the pathos of the audience or judge.  A skilled orator can evoke emotional reactions simply by his intonation, delivery speed or facial expressions without making any direct, verbal appeal to emotions. Another key element of presentation style, involves the structure and flow of the case itself.  It's very important to present a case which flows easily from point to point without requiring any mental gymnastics from the judge. In other words the judge should expend minimal mental energy trying to follow the logical progression of the case. A case which flows linearly or circularly is preferable to a case which jumps back and forth between points or revisits points made previously.

Poor elocution can destroy even the best cases.  It should go without saying that unless a case is presented in clear and distinct language projected with correct volume, the speech may ultimately be a complete waste of breath. The object of the persuasive speech is to communicate ideas, but no communication takes place if the judge can not understand your words due to poor elocution or if the judge can not hear you.  Policy debate is one area where proper enunciation and elocution is essential, especially when reading a case at 300 words a minute.  If the judge has to spend a single second trying to interpret your words that is a moment in time when you have lost the judge.  In districts where speed reading is the norm, elocution becomes all the more important for effective communication.

Presentation Style as a Voting Issue
In principle, the judge will probably not base a decision about who wins or loses based on stylistic issues unless the judge simply has difficulty hearing or understanding due to the style in which the speech was given.  In most districts, I think judges are reluctant to vote on stylistic concerns. Nevertheless, they will definitely comment on the ballots when a debater's style, or volume, or methods violated the judge's norms.  For example a judge comment on a ballot may read: "NVI - try to speak louder - I had trouble hearing you over the air conditioner". The judge is careful to mark the criticism, NVI, non-voting issue, but the mere fact he has taken the time to comment indicates there was problem.  And while that judge may say it did not weigh on the decision, it creates a reaction within the judge that may evoke a subconscious or extremely subtle bias against you.  Who's to say whether or not that reaction meant the difference between winning or losing a round. Rarely are the cases so evenly matched that they come down to a very subtle stylistic difference, but if such problems can be avoided in the first place one need never wonder if it truly was a NVI.

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