There was a debate at Skeptics of Oz that had me salivating to be up on stage destroying the theist side. But it’s important to let new debaters get their feet wet. It was kind of heartwarming to watch the atheist team make some of the same mistakes I made when I first began doing organized debates.
1. Don’t get married to talking points.
You’re going into the debate and you’re nervous, so you’ve studied your heart out. You have some killer rebuttals you’re dying to drop on the opposing team as a result. That’s awesome. But if the opposing team doesn’t use an argument that would make that rebuttal appropriate, don’t use it. It could be the most amazing point in the world, but if it’s irrelevant to what’s being said, the audience will care more about the fact that you’re obviously not listening, and they will resent you for treating the debate like your own personal monologue.
2. Brevity is the soul of wit.
When you’re nervous, sometimes you don’t make a point as well as you would normally. That’s ok! The temptation will be to try and restate the point you just made. Don’t do that. On the stage, it may seem like taking five minutes to make a single point means you have tons of info about that point, but even if you are sitting on a veritable encyclopedic knowledge about the subject at hand, don’t dump it all out at once. Taking five minutes to make a single point makes you look nervous, not knowledgeable. Keep it as concise as you can. Use only as many words as you need and no more.
3. Speak English.
If you have to pause to think of the most eloquent way to finish a phrase, then it’s not worth it. Sure, dropping the occasional polysyllabic word with make you look more perspicacious as a public speaker, but if you have to pause to do it then people will think you’re just posturing. Speak like a human being and let the rightness of your arguments sell you as the more capable debater. Remember, all the good arguments in the world are useless if people aren’t listening to you. You have to keep the audience’s attention, and speaking as fluidly as possible is how you achieve that.
These three things will go a long way toward helping your points resonate with the audience.