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Three Ways to Improve Your Perceptual Dominance by Adam Torson
How an argument is presented should be less important than the quality of the argument. Nevertheless, perceptually dominating the round can pay dividends. Looking like you know what you’re doing is one of the big steps between novice and varsity level debate. Perceptual dominance is one reason some students get consistently higher speaker scores. Finally, even in very high level rounds judges will ultimately be left to evaluate the quality of arguments. This evaluation is inevitably influenced by how the argument is presented, especially for judges who don’t feel especially secure in their decisions. It’s easy to use perceptual dominance as a heuristic for who is right on a given issue or in the round as a whole.
So, a few tips to help you improve your perceptual dominance:
1. Project a calm and confident demeanor.
The best debaters look calm and confident. There are many intangibles that go into projecting this demeanor, but it’s good to conceptualize it as a balance between extremes.
Calm is somewhere in between a) the foaming at the mouth, hectic, angry debater and b) the lackadaisical, doesn’t fill his time, I’m-here-because-my-parents-made-me debater.
Confident is somewhere in between a) the cocky, condescending, thinks he won every round debater and b) the shy, soft-spoken, nervous about all his arguments debater.
Confidence is notoriously elusive; the time-honored “fake it ‘till you make it” advice will get you a long way toward cultivating self-belief. Another good technique is to do drills in front of a mirror to observe your own mannerisms and demeanor. You may be surprised by what your non-verbals are saying about you. While demeanor is a multi-faceted thing, there are three touchstones that might be helpful to think about.
First, if you can’t help getting angry, you probably need to examine your demeanor. Overt expressions of anger are rarely situationally appropriate in a debate round. Reasonableness is built into the ethos of the activity. Some arguments seem to have an innately more emotional tone, e.g. positions that passionately condemn a particular injustice. That type of emotion is justified and sometimes helpful, but it should always be directed at passionate advocacy rather than hostility toward an opponent.
Second, be cognizant of the volume at which you speak. You would be amazed how quickly your deportment can change simply by virtue of speaking louder or softer. If you feel like you don’t have a great deal of confidence, try to increase your volume by 20%, and do drills even louder than that. Most often people have a problem with speaking to softly rather than too loudly, but if you are getting a look of surprise from judges when you start speaking you might consider lowering the volume a tad.
Finally, avoid asking rhetorical questions. They are almost always more confidently expressed as statements. Instead of asking “Do you really think that a student survey is as rigorous as a study published in a peer-reviewed journal?” you can argue “A study published in a peer-reviewed journal is much more rigorous than a student survey.” The problem with inviting a judge to answer a question in her own mind is that she might not think the answer is quite so self-evident as you do. Better to express the same idea as an argument.
2. Give status updates.
An important technique for perceptual dominance is to frequently update the judge on what is happening in the round. More specifically, as you go along tell the judge about the significance of your arguments not just in argumentative terms but also in terms of constructing a reason for her decision on the ballot. For example, after defending and extending your standard you might say “That means that all I have to do to win is to show that valuing rehabilitation over retribution minimizes suffering.” After extending a contention you might say “That’s the first place you can pull the trigger on the AC,” or “That’s the first place you can exclude the NC.”
This is perceptually dominant for several reasons. First, status updates make it look like you are in command of your strategy and executing it purposively. Instead of wandering around the flow without a plan you appear to be telling a cohesive story about what is happening in the round. Second, it is easy to highlight the fact that you are layering. “This is the first place you reject the NC, this is the second place, this is the third place.” Finally, status updates are a framing device. They allow you to tell the judge which arguments are the most important so as to cast your opponent’s strongest argument as a secondary consideration.
3. Press weakness in CX
Cross-examination is critical for establishing perceptual dominance. The best way to do this is to press your opponent to explain weak or missing links in their case positions. If your opponent’s argument doesn’t make sense to you, you should start with the assumption that the argument is non-sense rather than the assumption that you just don’t understand it. Don’t let them obfuscate or otherwise wriggle out of your question. Keep asking them about the link until either they give you a real answer or you are satisfied that the judge understands that there is no link.
Not only will this kind of press set up the refutation strategy for your rebuttals (and sometimes produce some useful admissions), but it will let you take command of the round on a perceptual basis. Some of the best cross-examinations I have seen have dealt with only one or two issues. But, they were critical issues, and pressing on them both served strategic interests and helped the interlocutor to establish the tone for the round.
Go forth with confidence!