Style or substance?
Style or substance?

They make you laugh. They make you cry. They make you listen. They play on the English language like a musical instrument, in touch with its flow, its rhythms, its ups and downs. Their jokes are perfectly timed; their references to popular culture have everyone nodding along in recognition. They manipulate the audience's emotions, making them turn this way and that. They carry people with them thanks to their sheer brilliance. They can get people to believe whatever they want - for the moment, at least.

Who doesn't admire a great public speaker? Who doesn't want to be like that? Shouldn't someone who can speak like that win every debate they enter?

No. They shouldn't.

This is one of the most common misconceptions about debating, and one which I often encounter when training debaters. Asked what makes an effective debater, students say time and again: 'Being confident / making the audience laugh / making everyone listen to them.' On one level, this is right. Of course, if no one listens to you, they will not hear what you have to say. You do need to be audible, and speak clearly. You do need to look at the people you are speaking to. You do need to vary your tone and pace. And the occasional joke or rhetorical trick to reinforce your points does no harm. Being an effective speaker is important, and you can learn more about how to do it in this article on how to make a speech.

But none of the techniques described above is any use without a substantial argument - or rather, several substantial arguments - behind them. Being a brilliant public speaker is a great gift for a politician who wants to lead a movement for change; for a preacher who wants to move and inspire their congregation; or just for someone who wants to pay tribute to a person they love at a wedding, birthday or retirement party. But it is not what debating is about. Style is not even mentioned in the mark scheme for British Parliamentary; it is in the Mace mark scheme, but only as one of four criteria.

The task of a debater is twofold. Present clear, logical arguments, expounded in detail supported by evidence and example for your side; rebut, clearly, logically and and in detail, referring to evidence and example, the arguments on the other side. Clever tricks of style often get in the way of doing this. They can lead you to mistake jokes, personal attacks and rhetorical flourishes for crunchy engagement with the essence of the argument. Most important of all, prioritising making the audience laugh, cry and generally be impressed with your brilliance and wit will not impress the only people who really matter in competitive debate: the judges. They will give the debate to the quiet, thoughtful, thorough exponent of their side's case over the dazzling charmer every time.

So put substance first. Substance over style is an excellent motto for debaters. It's not a bad motto for life either.