Emphatically Speaking

Valerie Lim, a passionate national debater, ah lian and ardent Star Wars fan offers her insights into giving your speeches that extra punch.

I was never a stranger to public speaking. Having been blessed with the gift of the gab at an unfortunately early age, I spent most of my childhood tormenting my parents, siblings, and teachers with tireless tirades and countless confrontations about everything and nothing. This aversion to silence was bolstered further when I decided to join my primary school debating team and participate in my first tournament ever, Wits and Words. Since then, debating has grown into a ravenous Venus fly trap that has held hostage my hopes and aspirations. It has become an inextricable part of my life. And perhaps all this has been for the better.

My eleven year-old self discovered, much to her chagrin, that speaking to an audience was indeed more than the wit she had and the words she used. It was about establishing a genuine human connection, and making messages that resonated with people. Once I believed that the only way to win was to out-smart and out-speak an opponent; but a now not-so-young me has learnt that it is also important to out-feel and out-connect. Delivering messages that resonate beyond the debate room has now become more integral to the way I communicate than ever before.

The importances of emphatic rhetoric and a genuine understanding of the human condition are often obscured by the clinical, logical processes which go behind forming arguments. Speeches are for people, and should be made considering experiences that real individuals have every day. A debate coach of mine once said in a tearful Facebook note – “I leave you guys this: that you might find your internal happy medium and grow into persons you can be proud of. One day the world will not care whether you do a killer reply, swept Best Speakers, won the Nationals or spoke for Singapore. But it will care if you’re a person with a sense of serenity, of empathy, of justice. We can’t take our debate championship medals to the grave, but we can live like champions while we have breath.”

This house believes that empathy should be the focus of speech-making. Here are three questions for the house today, supported by my own anecdotal examples (so you can laugh with me or at me):

1) Why does the motion exist?

Often, speakers approach the making of a presentation or writing of the message in a very tactical, technical manner. Everything becomes about definitions, parameters, logic and thinking of the most all-encapsulating punchline. The aim, then, is to pitch an idea with the sheer convictive power of its logic, inductive value and its complexity. Surely, this is the recipe for an impressive presentation, yes?

While certainly the key ingredient of a well-planned and well-written speech, logic alone is far from what makes it wholly relatable. The main problem with these speeches is that they appeal to a detached understanding of reality, and are stuck analysing intangible complications – far too removed for most people to truly relate to. Without the power to relate, messages don’t stick and become empty, far-flung ramblings. As a young debater, I once made these idealistic arguments (chiefly to sound smart, although I didn’t really comprehend them). “You sound like an old crazy bureaucrat leh,” a senior of mine said to me. Never again, I told myself.


2) How does empathy change this?

Empathy, or even the illusion of empathic understanding, makes a speaker more compelling and convincing. We recently took part in the 2016 Thailand Debate Opens, against university teams far more experienced, and far sharper. But an appeal to rhetoric, and a better understanding of the people we were speaking to – especially their biases – enabled us to top the speaker rankings, and gave us three top speakers. Relating points to the people you interact with and their experiences makes it immediately clear why your presentation is necessary and relevant. That empathy gives your ideas power.

3) How does empathy make you a better person in general?

This point threatens to veer off into the world of life advice; but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, is it! After winning people over with a heart-wrenching speech, empathy makes it easier for you outside the room too. Like many aphorisms go, listening is perhaps the most crucial part of speaking. Solving a problem first requires understanding of what that problem is. Focusing on the empathic value of an argument changes the way you communicate with people, because you become more inclined to hear what they have to say; and in doing so your own opinions become more informed. Knowledge is power – and knowledge about the problems of the world make you better equipped to find solutions.

The beauty of a speech is in its power to move and compel beyond its duty to inform and educate. Wit and words matter, but so does heart.

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