A couple of months ago, I served as a judge for one of my daughter’s high school debate tournaments. The tournament was virtual, so it didn’t have quite the same (frenetic) energy that the in-person events have, but it was certainly an interesting way to spend a Saturday. And as I considered the various arguments, a special lesson about presentations occurred to me: Focus on quality over quantity

Debate Structure

I had never served as a judge for one of these debates (and wasn’t involved in debate in my own high school days), so it was a lot of learning on the job. Basically, there are two teams of two kids from different high schools. They had a Resolution for which each team needed to prepare both pro and con positions. At the beginning of each debate round (there were four rounds over the course of the entire day), teams were assigned one of the positions and given a few minutes to prepare.

For this particular tournament, the Resolution was as follows:

Resolved: Increased United States federal regulation of cryptocurrency transactions and/or assets will produce more benefits than harms.

I’ll spare you the details of the various arguments, but I’ll just say that these kids clearly know more about cryptocurrency than I do!

Screenshot of debate webpage with the debate Resolution

Over the next 35 minutes, the debate proceeded in well-defined rounds. In the first round, the team holding the pro position led off with four uninterrupted minutes to present their argument, followed by the team with the con position. That was followed by three minutes of Crossfire, where the teams would discuss and argue their respective positions (this was my favorite part, by the way, because the debaters would have a real discussion).

That basic structure would then repeat in a second round, followed by a Summary round and a Final Focus (summary) round.

Screenshot of debate webpage with the list of speech times

Common Approaches

Across four separate debates, the most common debating approach was to go as fast as possible, packing as many arguments as possible into the allotted time. Maybe only one or two debaters started their arguments by laying out a basic structure for their argument, such as “Judge, we have four parts to our argument against federal regulation of cryptocurrency. First,…” Instead, most just jumped right in and went about making their argument as fast as they possibly could.

When I think about how many of us present our information to an audience, we often do similar things. We take that 50-page report that took us six months to research and write, and pack it into a 20-minute presentation. We can’t fit every detail, every nuance, and every data challenge into that presentation. We speak so quickly (and I’m certainly guilty of talking fast!) to get all of this information to our audience, we lose the fact that the audience is often seeing this information for the first time. Yes, the details of the data and the methods are important, but we can often leave them to the written report or follow-up questions and conversations. 

A Better Way

A better way is to recognize that the quality of the content is more important than the quantity of the content. Focus on helping your audience better understand the most important parts of your argument. As judge in the debate tournament, I would have been better served by clearly understanding the three or four specific arguments from each side. I would have been better able to process and categorize the information in my head if the debaters gave me the most important points one at a time.

The next time you are preparing to present, consider your most important points and the most important aspects of your work. Give your audience the quality of the argument rather than giving them everything in and around the argument. You and your audience will be better off.

Feature photo image by Miguel Henriques on Unsplash