It’s probably happened to you before.
But even though it happens pretty often, lots of people continue to make the same exact mistake. So I felt the need to address this.
What you should strive for
You want to give the judge the impression that you’re the expert in the room. That everyone else does debate kind of as a hobby and they’re okay, but you’re the guy who would get paid to sub in for a President. You’re just that good.
Of course, it’s easy to have an arrogant attitude if you look that professional, so it’s important to avoid arrogance.
But if you successfully portray yourself as a kind professional, you’ll already have the judge listening to you.
I get this odd feeling… I’m not sure why, but it seems to me like a professional wouldn’t be chatting uselessly before a round only to hide it from the judge. Just a thought. 😉
Here are a few guidelines for chatting before the round.
1. I get that you are a social butterfly, but you have plenty of time after the round to talk. In my experience with pre-round chatter, nothing of use is said.
2. I’m obviously not saying to ignore the other team. Greet them politely and ask them if they want to pray before the judge gets there. Yes, before. Don’t try for brownie points by saying it loudly when the judge comes to look spiritual. I’ve totally seen teams do that.
3. Use this extra time to study your case or your brief against the team. You can never be too prepared. The other team gets the message if your nose is to a piece of paper.
4. Talk to your partner about doing this before the next tournament so that you both appear professional.
5. If the judge walks in while you are having a necessary interaction with the other team, finish what you’re saying (don’t just randomly shut up), then greet the judge warmly. If you feel the need to stop abruptly, you’re probably saying something you shouldn’t have been saying.
Okay, what else?
Your image of being professional extends beyond simply limiting your conversation before the round. Here’s a bullet-point list of other things you can try.
- Don’t talk to the other team throughout the round or look over to make eye contact. (For example, I’ve heard of someone whispering to the guy he was cross-examining “You’re totally creaming us”). Seriously? Come on.
- Don’t joke around back at the table. Save your witty jokes for the judge or for after the round. If the judge doesn’t know what you’re laughing at, they get to assume what you are laughing at.
- Dress sharply. I won’t go into details here because I have a wide audience, and fashion is a totally touchy subject. I’ll just say this—my first year, when I wore oversized suits and didn’t do my hair well, I got no comments on my appearance. My last year, when I started reading style blogs and applying what I learned, doing my hair, etc. I got a comment on my “slick” and “professional” appearance, including “nice suit”, “cool hair”, “I like your glasses”, and more. It makes a difference.
- Be serious. Serious people are perceived as being older than they really are. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t smile or be kind, but it does mean you look poised and calm. Treat debate with respect.
- Don’t make dumb arguments for the sake of having an argument. It’s better to end a speech early than to tarnish your appearance with a bad argument. (You shouldn’t ever have to end early anyway, but that’s another story).
- Adopt good posture. This includes the way you sit at your table. Guys, don’t spread your legs from one end of the table to the other, no matter how comfortable it might feel. Girls… idk, you know better than me how you should sit.
- If possible, use aesthetically appealing gear. A good debate box, a good notebook, slick pens, etc.
- When you get up to the lectern, make sure your evidence/notes are organized. It looks bad when your paper is all over the place. Even worse when you make a self-conscious comment about how disorganized you are. Put your evidence in the proper order back at the table.
- Don’t apologize in an uncertain voice when you make a mistake, or smirk if you pause too long. If you need to pause, don a thoughtful look to make it seem like you’re pausing to find the perfect word.
- Words/phrases such as “like”, “um”, “you know”, “I don’t know”, “what’s the word”, and “totes adorbs” don’t belong in a debate round. “Totes adorbs” doesn’t belong anywhere else either, though.
Hey, I get it. You’re the class clown. Your purpose in life is basically to make people laugh.
Good! Follow these guidelines, then show your wit with well-placed jokes in your speech. Appearing unprofessional is not worth the laughs.
Unprofessional debaters occasionally win rounds because they seem more personable to the judge, but please keep in mind two things.
1. They usually get low speaker points in those rounds.
2. You can achieve the same “I like you” effect by being professional but kind and witty throughout your speech.