The One-Second Change That Will Dramatically Improve Your Speeches


There is one change you can make to the way you give speeches that only takes about one second, but makes a huge difference. Skeptical? Read on.


Many high school debaters have a fundamental misunderstanding of what it’s like to judge a debate. This is understandable; after all, most debaters never experience life from the “other side of the ballot” until after they graduate. However, sometimes this results in harmful (but easily correctable!) communicative mistakes.


Perhaps the most significant of these mistakes is falling into the trap of “I said it, so it’s in the debate.” You’ve probably been told since your first day of debate that “silence is consent” and have had the importance of covering the flow drilled into your head. What your well-meaning coaches might have forgotten to tell you, though, is that judges aren’t computers that parse text and spit out ballots. They are human beings who have to rely on their ears and their fingers to keep track of what is going on. And even the smartest ears and fingers can sometimes encounter snags. Sometimes, multiple factors can compete for your judge’s cognitive power and cause her to miss or misunderstand your argument. Unfortunately, If your judge misses your argument, you might as well have not made it.


Today’s one-second trick is an easy way to minimize this problem. It’s commonly known as PEN TIME.


pen time



What is pen time?: It’s really very simple. It is pausing for a second (or two) of your speech to allow your judge to move across the flow with you. During this time, you consciously stop talking and allow a beat, during which you’re not asking anything of your judge other than for her to move her pen (or fingers—“pen time” is a figure of speech that applies just as well to computer flow-ers as pen-and-paper traditionalists). This ensures she can dedicate her full attention to your words when you resume speaking.


When should you do it?: Any time you are moving between sheets of paper/flow tabs, or when moving between sections of theory arguments where you are spitting out lots of analytical arguments without reading cards. Both of these occasions call for pen time because they are rather taxing from a judging standpoint: the judge has to locate the place you want them to move to, physically lift their fingers and move there, and then re-immerse herself in listening, all within a very small amount of time. This isn’t exactly a herculean task, but it is one that takes about a second. Which is where pen time comes in.


So, for example, let’s say you just finished talking about a disad and want to move to case. After finishing your last argument, you would say “now to solvency…” and then pause for one solid beat. Look at the judge and verify she appears to have successfully moved and looks engaged, not confused. Then proceed with your speech.


The whole thing should only take about one second per flow, but it makes a huge difference in your performance. It’s important to realize that, even if you make an argument, it doesn’t do you any good if your judge doesn’t hear it, recognize it as an argument, and write it down. Any one of those three steps could get accidentally missed if your judge is mentally tied-up in moving between flows while you’re still spewing out arguments. Pausing for a second while they move is an insanely easy way to solve that problem.


Pen time is particularly important if you’re quick, but even those of you who debate at a more conversational pace will benefit from implementing it. Remember, you want the judge’s full attention on your words when you’re speaking. When you know something (like physically moving) is likely to distract them, it’s just smart to wait for the judge to catch up.


I guarantee that your debating will improve as soon as you force yourself to think about debate rounds from the standpoint of a judge, instead of as a debater. No matter how focused we are on the flow, debate is still a fundamentally communicative activity. If your communication doesn’t effectively reach your audience (your judge), you are going to lose, even if you were making the right arguments. So take a second, and give the nice person in the back of the room a little pen time.


Tell us what you think in the comments! And for more information on winning over judges by understanding them, see:

How to get a better RFD

How to win close debates

7 ways to win in front of lay judges

Judge pet peeves & how to avoid them: part 1

Judge pet peeves & how to avoid them: part 2


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One Response to The One-Second Change That Will Dramatically Improve Your Speeches

  1. Pingback: Judges’ Top Pet Peeves, and How to Avoid Them (Part 1/2) « Free Debate Resources | Debate Central

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