style (2)

Style - Part 2 - Relying less on notes

I spoke in my last post about “style,” the way you present yourself while giving a speech  general. I wrote that the ideal style for delivering a debate speech is naturalistic style similar to how you would speak in normal circumstances, but that this is difficult.  

Today I want to talk about a specific issue that is very common among debaters, relying too much on their notes which then harms their speaking style and therefore their overall persuasiveness.  


Over reliance on notes 

A lot of debaters, particularly when they first start, out will write out their speeches word for word, then stand up and read them out from their printed notes or laptop. This happens especially often for constructive speeches because those require the least improvisation and responses to the other side.

Reading from a written speech can be helpful in allowing you to remember everything, but it can change the way you speak in ways that makes it less persuasive.

In many ways, even for languages that are mostly phonetic like English the spoken and written forms are very different, to the extent they could be considered different languages entirely, or different dialects of the same language. Normal speech contains a huge number of subtle features that aren’t included in its written form, like the tiny differences in speed of speech, pauses and tone changes we use to put emphasis on different words.

You can often tell someone is reading from a script because they don’t speak in the normal rhythm, or emphasise things correctly. Instead they just say all the words one after another in a continuous flow, giving the same timing and tone to each of them (if you’ve ever heard a bad computer text to speech program you’ll have some idea).

Normally when we speak we haven’t planned out in our heads every single word we are going to say and the order in which we will say them. But instead we fill in the little words like conjunctions, prepositions, etc as we go along. We also use filler words and sounds like “uh,”“umm,” “like,” and “so.” Which also form part of the rhythm of speech. These are fine used sparsely, though avoid using them too much, as they can become distracting and give the impression of nervousness.

There are also elements of written language that sound weird when spoken aloud. In written text we will often use long sentences with lots of subclauses, asides, listing, etc. that we wouldn’t use in spoken language. We would normally use shorter, clearer, simpler sentences when speaking aloud.

This difference is partly a product of how people read, you can flick your eyes back to the beginning of a sentence easily so take in the whole context. Also saying a single long continuous sentence out loud would mean you would run out of breath. On a larger scale, the structure of paragraphs in written documents changes the way we lay out our ideas, you can get away with less context and explanation when people can go back to the beginning and reread.  

A useful way to make your speeches sound more natural is to not write out every word in advance, but instead write out key words, phrases, figures, bullet points etc. In the order in which you will make the argument. Then you improvise the grammatical structure around them, filling in all the little words like “is,” “are,” “then,” and “and.” With a little practice you will be able to generate a natural sounding speech that contains the key points and topics.

For example I might have as my notes:

  • Multinationals good for health because infrastructure

  • MNCs need roads, etc

  • Pay to build

  • Others can use

  • Doctors and medicine can travel

Rather than: When a multinational company does business in another country, it uses important infrastructure. Companies may pay for building roads and power lines, but even if they don’t, they pay the companies that provide these services, which gives those companies money to expand. To have a factory that operates internationally, you need a cheap way to move goods internationally, and a way to exchange information.​This same infrastructure is also used by the medical community. Container ships that bring iPads one way can bring medicine back, and airlines that carry businessmen can also carry doctors.”

After some practice you will generate your own habits of shorthand and codes for writing things down. Also over time you learn which are the important parts of the argument to take note of and which to skip.


This has several benefits:

Because you are generating words as you go they will sound more natural and sincere than they would otherwise. You sound more credible, and more like you know what you are talking about when you are improvising than when you are obviously reading from a script.

This also means you can fit more information onto a page of notes and write new notes more quickly than if you are writing out every single word (which is very useful for rebuttal, summaries and final focus).

This also makes your speeches more flexible. When you are used to having every word written out in order, it is more difficult to reorder your points, or add in new ones. But if you are working from a list of bullet points you can change more easily in response to what your opponent says, or news ideas you come up with.

Practising this also makes it easier to transition to things like crossfire where you have to completely improvise.


Tips and tricks

It is better to take notes in the language you are going to be speaking in even if you might normally be more comfortable writing in another. Because it is difficult to translate between languages while also speaking.  

Personally, when I debated competitively (shortly after we invented fire) I would use different coloured pens and highlighters to identify constructive, rebuttal, key points, etc. With arrows and other scribbled marks drawn between them. I found it best to take a sheet of paper for each point, with the headline written clearly at the top in big letters (so I didn’t lose it while speaking). You should experiment and find the things that work best for you.  

If you find speaking from bullet points difficult to start with, try transitioning into it by taking a fully written speech and highlighting the important words and phrases. From that you can gradually rely less on having everything written down.

You can also practice delivering speeches without any notes at all. An exercise I used to do with the kids I coached in London was to have them stand up, give them a topic (something simple like “my pets” or “my favourite food”), a few seconds to prepare then start talking. Its quite scary at first, but you soon develop the skill of improvising as you go along.


What about you guys? What tips and tricks have you found for making your notes easier to use, remembering your points or sounding more persuasive? Tell us in the comments box. 

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Style - Part 1 - The basics of style

In its most simple sense, “style” is everything in a speech other than its content.

Imagine you are an actor who has been given a speech to deliver. There are hundreds of different ways you could deliver that same speech, each containing literally the same information but having a dramatically different impact on your audience.

If one of the Great Speeches of History (e.g. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech), were delivered in a dull and disinterested tone, it wouldn’t be nearly as famous. However being overdramatic can also sound silly if it is inappropriate to the subject matter. So you need to match your tone and way of speaking to the speech you are making.

For example in a speech about a serious topic making jokes and flippant comments would look bad, but adding some emotion and energy to your points might go down well.

Good style is not the same thing as speaking good English. I’ve seen truly terrible native speakers, and extremely persuasive non-native speakers. While your skill in a language can make you easier to understand, there are still stylistic techniques you can use to improve your speech at every level of English.

What is good style?

For the sort of debating we are doing, a natural style is probably the best thing.

If you were leading an army into battle or declaring your undying love you would put a lot of rhetoric and emotion into what you are saying, using elaborate metaphors, rhyme, etc. But when you are primarily trying to convince someone of a logical argument speaking in a manner fairly close to conversational (how you normally speak) is best.

However this is quite difficult in the context of a debate speech, for a couple of reasons.

Firstly we naturally speak differently in front of a large group in a formal setting than we do in front of a smaller group talking informally. Even if you are not particularly nervous you will be thinking about what you are saying and how it sounds more than you normally do.

Also reading a pre-prepared speech is different from speaking as we normally do, improvising on the spot, in dialogue with another person. Both of these disrupt how we normally speak so we have to work to get our speech back to more normal tone and rhythm.

Confidence and nervousness

It is very common to be nervous or scared when speaking in public. This is particularly true when people first start, but it continues to happen to even the best and most experienced speakers. This can even sometimes include even experienced coaches doing training sessions or politicians before they do speeches. They’ll be pacing the floor, twitching and trying to distract themselves. The difference is not that they are never scared or worried or whatever, but that they overcome it and go on.

A little bit of nervousness can be good, it keeps you alert and concentrating on what you are doing. So won’t necessarily make you a worse speaker, as long as it doesn’t become overwhelming. In fact if you are too calm you may not pay enough attention or put in your full effort so make silly mistakes and won’t do as well.

For the physical manifestations of anxiety it can help to control your breathing, focus on breathing slowly in and out, and clear your head. Take some time between debates to have a walk, listen to music and chill out.      

It’s often useful to give yourself a reality check. Remember that everyone else at the competition is going to be just as nervous as you are, even the ones who look amazingly skilled and confident from the outside.

Also remember that while your opponents are opposed to you, your goal is to persuade the judge, and they are not. Judges want to listen to what you have to say. They often tell us how impressed they are to see students debate such complex topics in a foreign language. So you are speaking primarily to a friendly audience that is not specifically looking for reasons to dislike you or your tone.

Often when we have specific negative thoughts related to something we’re scared and nervous of they are totally irrational and unrealistic. This applies to not just debating but everything in life, it's easy to treat a small setback or problem as a catastrophe and work yourself up into a panic.  

For example: What if I forget what I’m supposed to say or lose my place? Then everyone will laugh at me. Then I’ll lose the debate and my partner will hate me. Then I’ll have no friends, and I’ll never get into a good college, and I’ll never be happy and and and....

A more realistic train of thought would be something like What if I forget what I’m supposed to say or lose my place? That might happen, it might not. If it does, I will deal with it by pausing to remember, or moving on. The worst case scenario, even if we lose the debate, is not the end of the world. I benefitted just by debating, and  I’ll have other chances in the future.

Body language

Body language is how you are standing while you give your speech, your gestures, your eye contact and general mannerisms. Obviously none of our judges are going to say “they were standing wrong so they lose” but your body language is another way to project confidence. If you look like you are confident and in control of the debate people will subconsciously lend your arguments more credibility.

Very often when people stand up to speak they will subconsciously assume a defensive posture, staring at their notes with their arms crossed and shoulders hunched, as if they are scared the audience will attack them.

Instead you should stand up straight, with your legs and shoulders spread out comfortably.  Having your head and chest up also helps you project your voice, debaters depend on their voice in the same way as singers do.  Try to not just read from your notes but periodically look up at the judges or audience. Your hands can do whatever you like, little bits of gesturing can add emphasis to your points, but don’t go so far that it becomes distracting.

Speed of speaking

It is quite common for debaters to speak as fast as they can in order to get as much information across as possible in the length of time available. But there is a point at which excessive speed limits clarity. Someone can’t agree with your arguments if they are not able to understand them, and if they are particularly fast that is difficult.

Also people often try to use speaking faster as a substitute for making better arguments. Rather than saying more words faster think about how to make your arguments more clear and concise using fewer words more precisely and in a structured manner.


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