It surprises me to this day that most debaters I speak to have never ever watched a video of themselves giving a debate speech. When I quiz them on why that is the case, they usually tell me that they find it embarrassing. As someone who used to be so obsessed over my own speeches I bought myself a video camera for the sole purpose of recording debates, I always found people’s reluctance to watch videos of their own debates absolutely bizarre. Debaters regularly subject their coaches, teammates, judges and opponents to many of their speeches in a single week. For every speech someone has ever given, there’s usually anywhere between 5 to 15 others who have had to sit through that same speech.
Recording and reviewing your own debate speeches is absolutely vital to your own improvement and I would highly recommend that you start doing this if you haven’t already incorporated it into part of your training regimen. To illustrate this point, allow me to use one of my favorite Kopitiam (Coffee Shop) analogies. Imagine you are a Hawker selling noodles, you will probably tell your potential customers that your noodles are the most amazing and delicious noodles they can find anywhere. Let’s assume that you have never actually tasted the noodles you are peddling:
How would you know whether it is any good?
How can you hope to improve on the recipe if you don’t know what it tastes like?
How would you know that your culinary skills in cooking noodles are improving over time?
You may ask, what does eating one’s own noodles have anything to do with debating? Besides, don’t we already listen to our own speeches while we are giving those speeches on the debate floor? Why do we have to watch a recording of our speeches in order to review them? Isn’t that the job of my debate coach or adjudicator for the round?
A few responses:
Human memories are fallible (imperfect)
An athlete’s memory of what happened during the match will likely be biased and unreliable. Your memory of the debate, and more importantly of your own speech is going to be hazy because you are not actually focusing on listening to yourself when you are delivering that speech. In the heat of the moment, while you are thinking on your feet and hopefully focusing all your mental energies on the delivery of your speech and feeling stressed out, you are just not going to be self-aware enough to remember every element of the speech. This is why debaters who look at videos of their own speeches are often surprised by how much they stammer or how wildly they swing their arms.
To further illustrate this, consider how witness testimonies in crime scenes can be notoriously unreliable.
“ In the first 130 cases the Innocence Project overturned, eyewitness testimony played a part in 78 percent of those wrongful convictions... Researchers have found that stress can also affect an eyewitness account, as well as the ability to pick someone out of a police lineup.”
Human egos and biases are really strong
In between the preparation time and time elapsed during the debate, you have probably invested a great deal of thought and emotion taking on a particle stance of the debate. As a result, you are likely to have a biased view of how strong your arguments actually are and overestimated your performance. This is one of the reasons why debaters (myself included) often end up disagreeing with the adjudicator’s decision when they lose, even though the adjudicator is usually likely to be comparably more objective.
There have been many debates where I felt I got an undeserved loss only to change my opinion later on when I reviewed the video recording of the debate a few days later when I was less emotionally invested in my speech and was therefore better able to evaluate its strengths and weaknesses in an objective fashion. You can also review your speech with a friend to get a 3rd party perspective.
A matter of perspective
Adjudicators judge debates by sitting in front of you and listening carefully to your speech. As a result, their perspective on the debate can and often does differ from your own first-hand experience of your own speech.
If you set up your video camera near where the adjudicator is sitting, you will be able to obtain a recording that is similar to the adjudicator’s perspective. As a coach I very often encourage my students to take on the perspective of the adjudicator in order to make their speeches more stylistically appealing and easier to track, the video recording literally puts yourself in the position of the adjudicator.
If you would like judges to give you higher scores you need to replicate the adjudicator’s experience of your speech; a video recording is the best way to see and hear yourself in the same way the judge is perceiving your speech.
There are multiple ways to utilize videos for training purposes, to provide an extensive list would require me to write a full-length thesis, this article really shouldn’t exceed 2000 words.
(This is a reference to 1st Prop or Prime Minister speeches where the speaker goes: Panel, it would take a full-length thesis to spell out all the possible checks and balances we could implement, I only have 7 minutes.)
In the previous article, I discussed how debaters could learn from professional athletes in terms of their approach to training. Almost every competitive athlete/team does a great deal of video analysis, including but not limited to scouting their opponents, reviewing their previous matches, evaluating training sessions and scrutinizing over every minute detail in slow motion, observing their technique, positioning, movement, tactics etc… with the aim of seeking every small advantage possible. Some athletes/teams even pay millions of dollars to hire staff for the sole purpose of reviewing these videos.
In this article, I would like to discuss how I used video recordings of my speeches to identify weaknesses that I wanted to work on. Even though the insights I gained from watching my speeches were relatively simple, the improvements I made to the way I debated had a revolutionary impact on my performance at tournaments and I would highly recommend all those who have never seen a recording of themselves make a debate speech to do so in the near future. There is really no excuse for not recording and reviewing your debate speeches when the overwhelming majority of you are reading this website through a smartphone equipped with a video camera capable of recording in at least HD resolution.
The first time I saw a recording of one of my speeches, I started cringing in embarrassment, just like most of my students. That was the monumental (ok, not really) day I came up with one of my many famous (ok, again, not really) mantras:
“If you are putting others through the pain of watching your debate speeches on a regular basis, you should at least have the decency to put yourself through the same ordeal once in awhile, just so you understand what it feels like.”
I immediately identified 2 obvious problems which required my urgent attention.
1) I was speaking too loudly and quickly, and my speeches would only get louder and faster over time. At various points of time in my speech, I would look like I was screaming my head off, running out of breath and even losing my voice.
2) I looked like I had little to no control of my body movements. My arms were flailing around like a music conductor gone mad, I was shuffling my feet for no apparent reason and swaying from side to side so much I probably made my adjudicators feel faint (not for the right reasons).
To be fair, this was a problem which many of my teammates, seniors and adjudicators had pointed out repeatedly. At that time, I had simply refused to believe or acknowledge that my manner was so bad that it was becoming a major impediment to getting higher speaker scores and consequently causing my team to lose debates.
Like many others, I wanted to believe that the content of my speech was all that mattered, I needed to learn that the way I said something was as important as what I would say in a speech. Debate is after all, an exercise in persuasion.
One of the above is simply more persuasive than the other.
After identifying the problems I wanted to fix with my speeches, there was still the issue of actually doing something about them. Improving on my manner was way harder than I would have imagined. The first thing I tried was to remind myself to calm down and speak at a reasonable pace and volume at the beginning of my speech, after all, nobody loses control and evolves into a madman once they start their opening lines. After reviewing the recording of those speeches, I realized that habits were harder to kick than I thought. While I was able to sound and look like a civilized human being for the first 1 or 2 minutes of my speech, I would revert back to my original style (or lack thereof) halfway through my speech. This actually made things worse, because the calm demeanor I adopted at the beginning of my speech only served to make the moments when I sounded and looked like a maniac all the more jarring.
The next thing I tried was to take a Point of Information in the middle of my speech and to use that time to calm myself down to revert back to the calm and collected speaker I was at the beginning of every speech. This was effective in forcing myself to relax whenever I realized I was losing control of my speech, but it wasn’t at all sustainable. After all, it wouldn’t make sense to take more than 2 POIs in a speech and I would like to actually be able to choose when I am prepared to take a POI rather than being forced to take one whenever I needed to breathe.
After watching through my videos over a few weeks repeatedly, I finally came to the acceptance that I needed to completely overhaul the way in which I was speaking. The way in which I spoke in my debate speeches was a habit that had been solidified over a few years and my attempts to make gradual and incremental changes just were not working in the way I had envisioned. I needed to break myself out of the habit of screaming my head off at breakneck speed, I was desperate to radically change my manner of speaking.
What I did next made me a laughing stock for the next 2 months.
Frustrated with myself for reverting back to old habits despite my every attempt to change, I decided to make it impossible for me to speak like a madman. Making it impossible for myself to gesticulate wildly (moving my hands and legs too much) was relatively simple. I forced myself to leave my hands in my pocket and planted my feet firmly on the ground (I toyed with the idea of planting my feet in two cardboard boxes but to my relief it wasn’t actually that difficult to stand still).
Making it impossible for myself to speak loudly and rapidly required more creativity and genius (even though it seemed completely idiotic at that time). As someone who used to play the piano, I would utilize a metronome to ensure that I would play the music pieces at a constant pace. Since I wanted to make it impossible for myself to speed up, I basically set-up a metronome for every single one of my speeches and spoke as if I was reciting poetry in an iambic pentameter. If you don’t know what an iambic pentameter is, I suggest you google it, just so you can understand how ridiculous it is to deliver a debate speech that way.
The metronome made it impossible for me to speed up, with the major side-effect of me sounding like a robot. Once I was forced to speak at a constant, slow pace, it became relatively to keep my volume under control. If you have ever tried to speak slowly at the constant pace of a metronome you will understand that it is actually difficult to speak very loudly. Of course, my teammates would all descend into hysterical laughter, they would make jokes about how I previously looked and sounded crazy in my debate speeches but now I have actually gone mad.
For an entire month, I persisted with this method of speaking, and there was only one reason why I didn’t give up despite all the mockery. When I reviewed the recording of my speeches, I could see that I was, for the first time in my debate career, succeeding in gaining control over my manner. I experimented with this harebrained plan because I thought that it would be easier to introduce variations into a robotic style where I was in control and speaking at a reasonable (albeit constant) pace and volume.
To my surprise, I was right.
Slowly but surely, I took my hands out of my pocket, I allowed myself to move around a little more, to increase my volume in order to stress a certain part of my speech, and once I was happy with what I saw in my recordings, I took away the metronome. Comparing the most recent videos to the first video I cringed at, I knew I had finally succeeded.
Not long after, I won my first top 10 speaker award at a debate tournament. All this would never have been possible if I had never first looked at a video recording of one of my debate speeches.