Qualities of a Strong Public Forum Debater

Welcome to Public Forum Expertise! This is the first in a series of eight articles discussing how to become an expert at Public Forum debate. Public Forum is a relatively new event that is surging in popularity. It sells itself as a format that emphasizes persuasive communication. A big reason for its success is that it is accessible to participants of all backgrounds. Compared to Policy Debate and Lincoln-Douglas Debate, PF has a much smaller learning curve and demands a less consuming time commitment to be competitive.

There is only so much that can be taught in eight entries. In fact, there are many things that cannot be taught at all. This first primer will go over three of the fundamental personal qualities that most successful Public Forum debaters have. These may sound pretty rudimentary, but I cannot stress enough that they are of critical importance. If a person does not possess one of these traits, try to acquire it.

Work Ethic

Surprise (not really)! Actually, work ethic is a fairly universal requirement for success in any forensics event, be it every debate format or even IEs like Extemp. One of the things that is touted about Public Forum is its low-intensity workload. Speeches are very short and evidence is not necessarily valued at a premium like it is in Policy. I like to compare Public Forum to football (or soccer, for non-purists). Football is a very easy sport to participate in because all a player needs is a ball to kick around. Literally, millions of kids and adults play in recreational leagues all across the country. But while it is easy to pick up, it is extremely difficult to master the sport. I spent ten years of my life playing, mostly as a goalkeeper, and while I was not bad, I did not put in enough effort to step up my game to another level.

Public Forum is somewhat similar. It is easy to get into, with a very low work requirement. The top debaters though are in another tier altogether when it comes down to how much work they put in. Good Public Forum debaters do not need to spend their days endlessly cutting cards like Policy Debaters, but to become a proverbial expert on a resolution one must do a large amount of reading and a ton of studying. Debaters want to impress judges with their knowledge, and more importantly they want to make their opponents look like they do not know what they are talking about. Work ethic means prioritizing limited spare time to focus on debate. It is possible to be an okay Public Forum debater without too much effort, but to become dominant there will be a lot of extra effort.

Personality

Public forum is a communicative activity. As such, it is important to be able to consistently persuade people. Some people are naturally talented at this. They have a certain disposition that lends itself towards making audiences sympathize. Part of that is just charisma. But a lot of it is simply having a unique personality that makes people want to listen. The worst speaker is a stoic one. Bland, unconvincing speakers with no passion are a dime a dozen. Even if their arguments are superior they cannot win often because they cannot persuade anybody. Personal mannerisms are all-important. I cannot explain what they should be because it differs for everyone. If the comedian of a team, sprinkle some appropriate jokes into speeches. If the serious-faced intellect, use willpower and force when conveying arguments. And if just flat-out charismatic, it is apparent what to do. In essence, do not sound like the same boring debaters the judge has heard the last four rounds. Successful debaters spice things up. Add some personality and flair. Stand out and be remembered.

Rhetoric

What is rhetoric? To use rhetoric is to manipulate language to effectively communicate a message. Rhetoric is not a science; it is an art that some people are more skilled at than others. Gifted rhetoricians know exactly what to say, when to say it, and how to say it. We will discuss Aristotle’s tenets of rhetoric in this series, but the most effective users of rhetoric are almost always going to be naturals at it. Typically, skilled rhetoricians are very strong writers who understand the nuances of language and how words shape our thoughts and actions. They know exactly how to phrase a sentence and understand just what word choice should be used in order to obtain the desired effect. Rhetoric used in the spoken word works a little differently than rhetoric used in writing. But they share a lot of commonalities that can be applied across the two mediums.

While it is easy to instruct students on the use of rhetorical strategies, an inherent sense of rhetoric is not something that can really be qualified. It is just something that can be understood only through intuition and experience. If a debater has that internal rhetorician within them then Public Forum will be a lot easier. In that sense, rhetoric is almost like a language. Native speakers will always have better command of a language than people who learned that language after their formative years. One can still learn a foreign language and become very skilled at it, but it just takes a lot of work to do it.

So Then…

If a debater possess all three of these characteristics, they are well on their way to becoming an expert Public Forum debater. And even if one feels lacking in one or two departments, do not worry--Public Forum is forgiving enough as a debate format that a debater can always make up for that deficit with hard work and a drive to succeed. Good luck!