Although things seem to be moving in the direction of the return of fully in-person Congressional Debate across the country, the effect of two years of virtual debate is undeniable. With summer debate camps still offering online workshops, or the ability of competitors to host virtual tournaments with the goal of raising charity (like this one), or even the willingness of large tournaments like the University of Kentucky Tournament of Champions to host virtual events alongside in-person ones (at least, before an uptick in COVID-19 cases pushed the tournament to go fully virtual), it seems that virtual tournaments and virtual debate — including Student Congress — will continue to endure in the future.
Thus, considering that online debate will continue to remain a status quo, if not the status quo, let’s examine the quintessential Congressional Debater that competes in this day and age.
A typical Congress round online sees only twelve speakers in a chamber, of which at least three-quarters of them seem to deliver speeches completely extemporaneously.
Except, that can’t be right. Everyone looks like that in a Congress chamber. But in an in-person tournament, more than half of those would have to look down to reference their legal pad at some point. In reality, a completely extemporaneous delivery for most debaters takes years to master, or if not, it takes practice, practice, and more practice. More commonly seen, even in the national final rounds of years past, most of the speech would be memorized, but even they would look down for refutations and data points.
But in the Congressional Debate rounds of 2020–2022, almost no one is looking down at a legal pad; they’re all looking up at their screens, sometimes into their cameras.
If people were looking down at legal pads in January of 2020 (and even into the competition season of 2020, which was forced to go virtual), but even novices were looking up at their audience when discussing data or refuting an opposing point in September of 2020, it is impossible for there to be such a vast increase in ability previously only commonly found in outrounds at high-level tournaments amongst everyone.
I should like to make clear that I do not mean any offense — nor do I intend to disparage — the ability of competitors from September 2020 to the current time. I firmly believe that there are incredibly talented competitors that actually made that skill jump in such a short time, and of course, there are competitors who still debated via the traditional medium of a legal pad, but for the majority of people, it is evident that there is something else at play.
Google Docs. Microsoft Word. Even Apple Pages may have a part to play in this.
The cause, and perhaps one of the worst plagues of Congress, is docbotting. The practice of competitors to literally read a speech from a word processor while looking as though they are delivering a speech extemporaneously.
The worst part is that in most cases in virtual Congress, judges are completely oblivious (or perhaps choose to ignore) the fact that competitors are committing such a practice. In in-person Student Congress, such practices would most likely result in the dropping of competitors, but now, a competitor who does such a thing may even be the winner of the tournament.
I acknowledge the fact that such competitors may actually have sound argumentation skills and that they also may be able to proficiently utilize extemporaneous speaking skills. But when everyone seems to be speaking the same way in a round, the question remains: how do I stand out?
There are a couple of ways. But above all, everything can be summarized in one, irreplaceable, incomparable practice.
This has probably been said thousands of times, and every debater has probably heard this at least a hundred times, but preparation is the most valuable resource you have access to in a round.
Not only does preparation allow you to deliver more nuanced speeches, more complex refutations, and a more expansive view of the issue at large, but it also allows you to progress in Congress tournaments with a greater vitality.
Preparation requires brain. Sometimes, a lot of it. And if you’re preparing two-thirds of legislation in round or in breaks, by the end of your second session, you will be exhausted.
This will be exacerbated by the fact that you’re most likely sitting in a chair all day with Zoom fatigue and a searing headache. This can destroy your ability, and sometimes (and even worse), your motivation to do well in the round.
Save yourself, your career, and prep.
Another important thing to note is that there is an increased importance on delivery in online Congressional Debate. When almost everyone is using a doc to deliver their speech, they have more room to script what they say more. This means a higher vocabulary, a more polished intonation, and overall, a better speaking presence.
Projecting doesn’t work here. This isn’t in-person Congress. You aren’t standing in a room with eighteen people and walking from one side to another. You’re most likely sitting in front of your desk, a few inches away from your computer microphone.
Instead, modulate your tone. Speak softly. And most importantly, use emotional levels. Believe in your advocacy. Believe that you’re correct. And believe that the validity of your argument will ultimately bring the most benefit to people. You believe you have the highest ground; make the judge believe it too.
Above all, make sure you don’t sound monotone. If you’re having trouble with this, record yourself and show it to a friend. Or ask your mother. Your parents/guardians end up being the ones providing the most valuable feedback with regards to your delivery. And if you’re in a preliminary round, facing a lay judging panel, if you can speak well, consider yourself in the next round.
I can reluctantly concede that there are some benefits to docbotting. The one that I will acknowledge here, and I think that everyone should acknowledge and attempt to practice, is to develop a sense of narrative in your speech.
Your speech is a story. It’s a story about people, who they are, how they are, and how a piece of legislation fits into their lives. Even if you have to use more words on the document to begin with, pare it down gradually to really develop those skills. If you can take the judge out of the round for a minute and into the true reality of a status quo or an impact, sit and wait for the 1 or the 2 to roll in.
The final and time-tested way of standing out in a round is to preside. I don’t have much to say here. Stay focused, look at the timer frequently, and use paper and online precedence and recency for the best accuracy. Black out names fully on the online presiding sheet to avoid making mistakes. PO ranks have mostly remained consistent between in-person and online debate, so as long as you keep the round running efficiently, you’ll probably end up within the top five.
I will confess to having docbotted in the past, and I can even concede that it helped me immensely in my Congressional Debate career. However, even if you do decide to use the assistance of a Google Doc instead of a legal pad, try to limit the number of words you have on the page (ideally, no more than a page), and use it to really develop the narrative.
If you do decide to go the traditional paper route for an online tournament, hats off to you, though I still recommend Google Docs for storing cards. Do your best, and remember, it’s okay to mess up, especially if it’s your first time. Just keep going.
One final bit of advice: make sure you look alive. Warm your voice up. Deliver your speech a few times (but don’t spread, it won’t help). Jump a few times in between sessions. Use your points of personal privilege. Drink water. Eat lunch. And most importantly, have fun and enjoy the experience to the fullest to gain the greatest benefit from it.