They say first impressions are solidified within 5 seconds of interacting with someone. In the same way, the judge’s first impression of what you are as a speaker is solidified after a few seconds of your first speech.
They will have an impression of you before that, don’t get me wrong, but the judge is there to decide if you’re a good speaker or not.
Because introductions to speeches are so important, I am always shocked at how many people begin with the exact same lines. “Is the judge ready? Timer? Negative/Affirmative team? Okay, let’s begin. *cue high-pitched debater voice that sounds completely unnatural* [insert Benjamin Franklin quote]… In this speech I’ll just be going down the flow and addressing the arguments the negative team made.”
Ideas for better intros
A lot of people think that simply reading a quote is a great introduction, so they always end up starting with an extremely generic, pre-memorized quotes. Some examples include the “facts and evidence” quote, the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” quote, and anything by Ronald Reagan.
Starting off with a quote is definitely better than saying something about going down the flow. The more unique, specific, and intriguing the quote, the better the intro is. But, at best, this type of introduction is decent.
Here are a few ideas of more useful introductions.
Sometimes you need to make the judge aware of how all your arguments connect to form a grand narrative. If your theme is that the affirmative team’s case is a good idea but too insignificant to count as a debate case, then start off your speech explaining that. “What I want you to understand is that all our arguments come back to this main idea…”
You’re probably getting more done with an introduction of this sort than with quotes.
Sometimes the other team makes several misinformed arguments that make no sense. This can be a good 1AR opener. You can start by saying “In their last speech(es), the negative team made plenty of compelling arguments that are actually based on misconceptions about our case, and I would like to clear those up. The first misconception is…”
Setting standards for the affirmative team
Something I’ve seen some good debaters do is tell the judge what the affirmative team has to do to win. They set up a standard, in effect. “In order to win this debate round, the affirmative team needs to conclusively prove three things. 1. Experts support their specific plan. 2. History shows that this type of idea is successful. 3. They will actually solve all four of the issues identified, not just one or two.”
I just made up three standards from thin air, but you would usually customize it to the specific round. Choose reasonable standards, but standards you know the affirmative team can not uphold because their case is flawed in that area.
Please don’t use this as a generic introduction where you basically explain that they need to prove solvency, lack of disadvantages, and inherency. That’s boring and common sense. Use it for very specific things the affirmative team really should prove.
I love starting off with a debate-related joke when I have an alumni judge. I’ve started off speeches by saying “Benjamin Franklin once said that the Federal Election Commission is completely broken and should be reformed. He also said never to trust quotes from debaters.” This usually makes the judge crack up, once they’re done looking confused at the notion that Benjamin Franklin could predict the future.
When I talk about “jokes”, I’m not talking about the types of jokes you’d find online or in a joke book. I would cringe if a debater started off his speech saying “What did the alligator say to the snake?” or something of that nature.
Interesting fact: I pre-scripted jokes/humorous comments for almost every case that I knew would be at nationals. I partially attribute getting the speaker award I did to being humorous and loose even in rounds where we were getting pounded. I’m still a bit ashamed that I actually pre-scripted jokes, but what is a non-witty guy to do?
Explaining a frustration intro
This connects with my other post, “say bold things”. If you want to explain to the judge that the affirmative team’s case is built on emotional appeal and no substance, sometimes the introduction is the best place for that. You can start out far away from the lectern, with your eyes slightly wider than usual and an open, honest posture. If you say something very personal, honest, and open in this way at the beginning of your speech, your judge will be tracking with you throughout the entire thing.
At nationals, in a round we were losing horribly, I actually started out the 2NR (last negative speech) by telling the judge that I thought we were losing the round, and that I was frustrated because I knew in my head why the affirmative team was wrong. I asked him to give me those last 5 minutes of full attention, a last chance to show him why he should vote negative.
Woah, controversial. Most people I’ve talked to about that said it was probably a bad idea. And to be honest I’m not even sure about it myself. I just figured there was nothing to lose since we were going to lose anyway. Two things.
1) The judge wrote on the ballot that he liked the approach I took in my last speech, and that it nearly convinced him to vote for us. (Pretty incredible considering how badly we got pounded).
2) Gerry Spence, an attorney who has never lost a single criminal case either as a prosecutor or a defense attorney, tells anecdotes of doing pretty much the exact same thing in court. He told the jury that he was frustrated with himself because he thought he hadn’t been clear enough with his case and he figured he was about to lose it for his client.
I can’t say I recommend that approach, but I think it was the right thing to do in that debate round.
Additional notes on intros
- You should have several intros ready for your affirmative case that apply to different scenarios. That way you can spend more time on the rest of the speech, or visualizing.
- Although introductions that are prepared before the tournament can be good, sometimes it’s better to come up with one that applies directly to the round. Especially if it follows the principle of “relevant analogies”.
- That said, you should come up with one or two introductions for each case you have a negative brief on. Be ready to drop them for one you come up with in round if they’re not as good.
- As usual, do whatever is natural to you.
- Some debaters are the very “professional”, “intellectual” type, and in many cases they sound best if they start with a quote. There’s room for disagreeing with some of the things I said in this post for that reason.
I very carefully plan all the introductions to my posts. I want to grab attention and avoid sounding generic.
If I can do it for blog posts, you can do it for a debate speech. If you need to spend some extra prep time to come up with a better introduction, trust me—it’s worth it.
Give these new types of intros a try, I think you’ll enjoy the improved connection with the judge.