How Fast Do “Fast” Debaters Speak? A Study

Competitive policy debaters speak very quickly; critics have complained about it for more than 100 years. But how quickly do the fastest debaters actually speak?

In the past, I’ve estimated that “fast” debaters speak at between 280 and 340 words per minute (WPM). This estimate was based on my experiences over many years working with high school debaters to improve their speaking, often including formal tracking of their WPM rates over time. It was also based on anecdotal reviews of debaters’ speech documents. When calculating WPMs, nearly all elimination round-caliber debaters seemed to speak somewhere in that 280-340 range.

While I was confident that my estimate was relatively accurate, I decided to attempt a more authoritative investigation into debaters’ speaking speeds. My goal was to answer two questions: (1) How quickly do “fast” debaters speak?, and (2) Have “fast” debaters slowed down for online debate?

To answer these questions, I downloaded open source affirmative speech documents from the openCaselist wiki from teams that cleared at the National Debate Tournament in 2019 (the most recent “in-person” NDT) and 2021 (the first online NDT).1

When possible, I used open source documents from rounds at the NDT. If NDT documents were not available, I used documents from another second semester tournament. Using this system, I obtained 44 documents from 23 of the 26 teams that cleared at the 2021 NDT and 38 documents from 17 of the 30 teams that cleared at the 2019 NDT. Teams that were not included did not share open source documents on the wiki or — in a few instances — formatted their documents in ways that prevented me from analyzing them.

After deleting everything except the 1AC (and making sure it was properly formatted), I used Verbatim‘s Stats2 feature to calculate the number of tags and highlighted words in the document.

After compiling this data in a spreadsheet, I calculated the 90th, 75th, 50th, 25th, and 10th percentile WPMs for the 2019 NDT, the 2021 NDT, and the combined 2019-2021 NDT. The results were as follows:

These results seem to suggest two conclusions:

1. “Fast” debaters speak at between 260 and 320 words per minute. This is slightly slower than my estimated (280-340) range.

2. Debaters do not seem to have slowed down for online debates, at least not significantly enough to show up in this data.

There are some important limitations of these results: my dataset was incomplete, 1ACs might be delivered slightly more slowly than other speeches (especially 1NCs and 2ACs), and I only evaluated data from one (college national championship) tournament.3

Nonetheless, these results can at least provide greater certainty about the range of speaking speeds demonstrated by the most successful college policy debaters. If a debater’s delivery exceeds 300 words per minute, they are indeed (to use the language of the Verbatim scale) “Super Fast.”

Footnotes

1. I decided to analyze 1ACs because they are the only reliably “complete” speech documents available. While 1NCs and 2ACs might be delivered at a faster speed — an important limitation of this study — they are often edited/amended in ways that preclude standardized restrospective WPM calculations. While it is possible that some 1ACs included “extra” cards that weren’t actually read in the debate, I am confident that this will have a relatively negligible effect on this dataset — especially given the reasonably large sample size.

2. The Stats feature — developed by Aaron Hardy for Version 5 of Verbatim, first released in 2015 — allows users to estimate how long it would take them to read a speech document out loud. This was a groundbreaking feature at the time, and it remains one of my favorite capabilities of the (still “industry standard”) Verbatim template in 2021.

Verbatim’s Stats function includes a link to an online reading test and the following chart of WPM speeds:

Super Fast: 450 WPM
Fast: 400 WPM
Average: 350 WPM
Pretty Slow: 300 WPM
Really Slow: 250 WPM

It has been obvious from the beginning that this chart is incorrect; it conflates “reading speed” with “speaking (out loud) speed.” Figuring out the proper scale was part of my motivation for conducting this research.

3. In the future, I would like to repeat this study for high school debaters — both experienced, national championship-contending debaters and younger, less competitively successful debaters. My guess is that the fastest high school debaters are generally just as fast as the fastest college debaters, but that a higher percentage of high school debaters fall below 280 WPM. Anecdotal evidence seems to confirm this theory, but a more comprehensive dataset would need to be created in order to be certain.

2 thoughts on “How Fast Do “Fast” Debaters Speak? A Study

  1. Bill Batterman

    If this data is correct, debaters haven’t really gotten much faster in the last 30 years. Bill Southworth produced a statistical breakdown of WPMs in NDT final rounds from 1949 to 1990: https://groups.wfu.edu/NDT/HistoricalLists/90schart.html. The first team to reach 300 WPM in their 1AC was Georgetown in 1980; the fastest NDT 1AC in that stretch was Harvard in 1990 (317 WPM). My guess is that debaters reached the upper limits of the WPM range in the 1990s and early 2000s, with contemporary debaters (2010-present: the paperless era) perhaps speaking a bit more slowly (but still near the upper limit of comprehensible WPMs).

    Reply
  2. Bill Batterman

    I dug into my archives and found more information about debaters’ speaking speeds. Kent Colbert, then Director of Forensics at East Tennessee State University and later Director of Debate at Georgia State University, published an article in the journal Debate Issues in 1987 called “Debater Speaking Rates: How Fast Is Too Fast?”. In it, he summarized the existing literature about speaking speed up to that point:

    >>>>>>>>>>
    Debater Speaking Rates
    How fast do intercollegiate debaters speak? Some critics assert speaking rates of intercollegiate debating are “too fast,” but never say precisely how fast is best. While the literature is abundant with assertions concerning the rapid speaking rates of debaters, little empirical data exist to quantify their claims. Rives (1976) reports the results of one final round of the NDT concluding, “the average speaking rate is 245 words per minute. . .” (p. 47). Colbert’s (1981) content analysis of 13 years of the final round of NDT found, “(t)he average (speaking rate) of all debaters observed in this study has risen from approximately 200 wpm (1968) to 270 wpm (1980). A Pearson correlation was used to determine the degree of significance for increases in speaking rates and it was discovered that r = .9244, N = 13, p = .001. This indicates that 85% of the rate is a function of the recency of the round” (p. 74).
    >>>>>>>>>>

    TL;DR: From 1968 to 1980, speaking speed increased from 200 WPM to 270 WPM.

    Colbert then extended his study through the 1985 NDT:

    >>>>>>>>>>
    The results indicate that the average speaking rate of NDT finalists from 1968 through 1985 have increased significantly over time. Table 2 provides a visual representation of the data. The results appear to suggest that the top end of the range peaks at approximately 302 wpm in 1982. The low end ranges approximately 200 wpm in 1969. One interesting finding involves the direction of speaking rates in 1968-69 which was skewed downward primarily by Robert Shields of Wichita State University who averaged 368 wpm. Mr. Shields was the fastest debater observed in the 18 years of NDT finalists in this study.
    >>>>>>>>>>

    In a separate article in CEDA Yearbook in 1991, Colbert updated his study again to include NDT final rounds through 1988 (the last year that transcripts were made available) and “every CEDA final round,” which presumably means 1986 (the first CEDA tournament) through 1990 or 1991. He found:

    >>>>>>>>>>
    The results of speaking rates for the CEDA and NDT final debate rounds are reported in Table I. … The mean wpm for all CEDA finalists in this study was 237 wpm. … The mean for all NDT finalists in this study was 284 wpm.
    >>>>>>>>>>

    This seems to corroborate Southworth’s findings (summarized above).

    Citations:
    1. Colbert, Kent R. “Debater Speaking Rates: How Fast Is Too Fast?.” Debate Issues, Volume 20, Number 5, March, 1987, p. 1-6.
    2. Colbert, Kent R. “A Study of CEDA and NDT Finalists Speaking Rates.” CEDA Yearbook, Volume 12, 1991, p. 88-92.

    Reply

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