The Importance of Competitive Debate

By Barry Regan, MA
Faculty, College of Humanities and Social Sciences

a man standing at a podium speaking

The 2012 U.S. presidential campaign offered many memorable moments, but none were more infamous than the “forgotten third department” by former Texas Governor Rick Perry in a November 2011 Republican primary debate.

When attempting to list the departments he would cut as president, Rick Perry could not recall the Department of Energy. After this gaffe, Perry’s supporters publicly stated that this cost him the chance to capture the nomination, and he left the race just over two months later.

To an outside observer, leaving a presidential race due to a temporary blank in memory may seem to be an enormous overreaction, but it demonstrates the central role that public speaking and competitive debate play in American public discourse.

Generations of politicians, lawyers and other public figures used high school and intercollegiate debate as the launching point for their careers. Former U.S. President John F. Kennedy noted its importance when he declared that “debating in high school and college is the most valuable training for politics, the law, business or for service on community committees.”

As research on the activity grew, it became clear that participation in competitive debate greatly helped students overcome the number one fear that Americans are found to hold: public speaking.

Groundbreaking research on job interviews may hold the key for the continued growth of intercollegiate debate. A recent study found that interviewers form strongly held judgments about an interviewee in less than 30 seconds and that the interviewer is more likely to hold a positive view of the interviewee if they demonstrate high levels of extraversion and verbal skills.

Demonstrating these behaviors in such a high pressure situation is immensely difficult, and intercollegiate debate offers one of the few environments to hone and polish these skills.

For example, in Parliamentary debate, competitors are given only 20 minutes to prepare for a 40-minute debate on a complex current event topic. Much like an interview, debaters are taught to present their strongest arguments first to make a quick, positive impression on the judge.

Over the course of a four-year career in competition, the average competitor will have spent between 6,000 and 8,000 hours constructing arguments, tailoring them to their topics and clarifying important positions for the judge.

It is easy to see now why a majority of debate competitors move on to graduate school and make up nearly half of the current U.S. Supreme Court.

Although presidential debates bear little resemblance to a competitive debate round, the lesson of Rick Perry is ingrained into thousands of debaters across the country every year: The inability to clearly articulate your point clearly in a public setting can have enormous consequences.

Find out more about speech and debate at GCU by checking out our website.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.

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