Debate Tip of the Week: Vary Sentence Length

You’ve probably heard many, many different tips for how to make your speaking more dynamic and exciting.

Varying speed and pitch can be good, as can picking places to become more enthusiastic. One could teach a class about how to use gestures effectively. What you want to avoid is sounding monotonous or, perhaps even worse, like a “typical debater” who is polished but otherwise completely unmemorable.

Speaking well–and by well I mean in such a way that your audience is interested in what you’re saying and likely to remember it–can be taught by generating an internal sense of enthusiasm and polish, allowing the speaker to express that excitement through their words, or it can be assembled piecemeal through a number of different mechanical techniques. Either method can work. While I tend to prefer the former, personally, I’m going to focus today’s tip on one particular technique: varying sentence length.

Take a look at the previous two paragraphs and find where I’ve utilized this in both subtle and extreme examples. In the first paragraph the third sentence serves to break up the pace set by the first two, which to my ear sound relatively similar. The final sentence follows that up with the most complex construction of the paragraph.

In the second paragraph I include a large nested clause in the first sentence that bulks it out, followed by a 4-word quip that allows a bit of a reprieve. Playing with sentence length can be fun; I recall a multi-page sentence in Infinite Jest that tapped into the mind of a truly paranoid individual.

In a debate context, use this rule of thumb: long sentences are for education and short sentences for impact. Think of the delivery like a joke. The punch line is always shorter than the set-up. Plus your evidence is probably from an academic source and we all know how academic types like to drone on. So give the judge a break from all of the ostentatious prose and deliver your main point like a punch. Trust me, it works.

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