Debaters Have Been Criticized For Speaking Too Fast For Over 100 Years

That competitive debaters speak too quickly — and too monotonously, without clarity or persuasiveness — is a common criticism. I wrote about this a few months ago after reading a masterful description of “fast debate” in Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School. If you’ve been involved even tangentially in debate, you’re undoubtedly familiar with this criticism. I knew it had been common for many (many) years, but I didn’t realize until recently just how long ago it began.

In a 1918 article (“Delivery in Debate”) in the nascent Quarterly Journal of Speech Education (later renamed the Quarterly Journal of Speech), Chas F. Lindsley—a professor at the University of Minnesota—expressed many of the same gripes about debaters’ speaking that one still hears today. Think I’m exaggerating?

Writing more than 100 years ago, Lindsley condemned the “volcanic furor” and “constant hammering” of the average debater’s “forced, rapid-fire, tense, and nervous delivery,” as if “a high sustained key and lightning rapidity was a proof of excellent skill and training.”

He criticized teams that “pound furiously for thirty minutes without pause or variety” and debaters that speak with a “torrent of speech accompanied by violent shakings of the head, a flood of facts and quotations, a fifteen minute speech in ten.”

He bemoaned debaters that “roll forth automatically a mass of highly concentrated data,” “grind along monotonously for ten minutes like a hand organ,” and force judges to endure “the agony of senseless jargon that rattled upon us mercilessly as hailstones.”

In short, Lindsey argued, “there is nothing of the human quality, no conversational style, no sincere personality.”

These criticisms have continued to be levied against debaters ever since. I don’t think this proves Lindsley right or wrong, but it’s interesting to know that this contemporary controversy began so long ago.

If nothing else, this should call into question anyone’s nostalgic gripes about how “debaters today” are bad speakers and that “back in my day” the debaters were so much better. Maybe, but probably not.

For those interested in reading the full article, I have duplicated its text and embedded it as a PDF below. I believe it is in the public domain.

Lindsley, Chas F. “Delivery in Debate,” The Quarterly Journal of Speech Education (Volume 4, Issue 1), 1918, pp. 116-118.

We have inherited wrong ideas about argumentative delivery. These wrong ideas are allowed to grow. Instructors in debate should be more severe in correcting these faults.

Ninety per cent of college debaters seem to have not the slightest knowledge of effective presentation. Their speaking is so “preponderantly boisterous and conclusive, so disfigured by volcanic fervor, for which the matter ejected affords no adequate excuse, that our sensibilities are paralyzed and rendered incapable of absorbing the evidence they produce. They seem to be competing with a hurdy-gurdy outfit. This constant hammering, this over-contentious spirit, “tho it make the unskilled laugh cannot help but make the judicious grieve.” To encourage this forced, rapid-fire, tense, and nervous delivery is wrong. So true is the statement that it may not challenge attention, but I am criticizing methods, not opinions; practice and not theory.

Delivery is an important factor in the art of persuasion and conviction. It is of more value than our methods of coaching seem to indicate. Logic and evidence are but rough stones in the structure of oral argument. In presentation these stones are given smoothness and polish. I do not mean that delivery is the dominant factor in persuasion, yet we must not minimize its value. The ultimate test of every speech is its effect upon the hearers of to-day. Mr. Balfour in his eulogy of Gladstone said: “The test of a speaker is the audience he addressed. There is no other judge: from that court there is no appeal.” Debaters are urging the acceptance of ideas. They are salesmen. The test is, Do they sell the goods? Lord Morley is reported to have said: “Three things matter in a speech—who says it, how he says it, and what he says, and of the three the last matters the least.” 

There is more truth in this statement than its cynicism seems to indicate. Other factors equal, speech substance and speech construction are the essence of effectiveness, but many well constructed speeches fail because of delivery. This factor is important.

I inveigh against the prevalent style of debate for several reasons. First, average debating is not good public speaking. Most modern authorities will accept as the definition of public speaking, “enlarged and dignified conservation.” The virtues of good address are clearness, directness, and force. But what coach can have these principles in mind and allow his team to pound furiously for thirty minutes without pause or variety. Confused thinking only can result. How many debaters can look calmly at their audience and say implicitly, “I am talking to you and you and you. I want this idea to get under your skin?” No! There is a torrent of speech accompanied by violent shakings of the head, a flood of facts and quotations, a fifteen minute speech in ten and a “Thank you.” Now the first end of all speech is to make itself clear. Lincoln accused Douglas of being like a cuttle fish, a fish that throws out a dark substance into the water to hide its exact position. Again, he said Judge Douglas reminded him of the little Frenchman he knew in the northwest whose legs were so short that when he walked through the snow the seat of his trousers rubbed out his footprints. These analogies characterize the average college debater. His speeches also lack force. Things are great or small only by comparison. Ideas are made important by contrast. The speech that strikes a constant key, that plunges along in the same channel, oratund and extreme, lacks the first degree of force. Yes, average debating is not good public speaking. There is nothing of the human quality, no conversational style, no sincere personality. Should we not pay more attention to debate delivery?

Secondly, to allow this style of speaking is to lose the ideal of training a student to think on his feet. To roll forth automatically a mass of highly concentrated data, to grind along monotonously for ten minutes like a hand organ, to recite parrot fashion as most debaters do, is not thinking on one’s feet. The chief concern of our profession—physical and psychical correlation—is totally obscured.

Last of all, we must face the evident lack of public interest in debating and overcome it. I again blame poor delivery. An instructor, asked recently to judge some class tryouts, said: “Yes, but I hate debates, they are bores.” He served, and for two hours bravely endured the agony of senseless jargon that rattled upon us mercilessly as hailstones. I sympathized with him. Each of the twenty speakers except one labored under the delusion that because this was a debate tryout he must rant and yell and glare; that a high sustained key and lightning rapidity was a proof of excellent skill and training. Shades of Caesar! If they could learn to talk, just talk.

I plead, therefore, for more common sense in debate delivery, more of the “just human” quality, more of conversational style. I know that we are more intense and excited in a conversation over Roosevelt than over Longfellow, that barber shop conversation contains more dynamite than after dinner talk—in short, that genuine argument is the expression of deep feeling and strong conviction, but let us practice more moderacy. What debater expresses correctly irony or sarcasm? How often do we hear an anecdote delivered effectively? It is easy for the fever of discussion to blind discretion. I shall never forget the student in an intercollegiate debate who rushed frantically to the front of the stage, glared savagely at his opponents, and with upraised fist, roared: “At last we have tracked the dreaded animal to his lair, and instead of finding the roarings of a terrible lion, ’tis nothing but the gentle snoring of a peaceful fox terrier.”

You may think my criticism exaggerated, but I appeal to your own experience. So firmly established have the above ideas become, that the average student will read you his speech in your private office as if reading to five thousand people in the open air. All sense of proportion is distorted. Let us revert to the basic definition of effective public speaking. Let us put our work more on the plane of intelligent public discussion. Let speech training become thought training. Let us relearn the principles of clearness, directness, and force. Let us give more attention to debate delivery.