Watching a collegiate policy debate is like trying to strike up a conversation at an auctioneer convention. Top college debaters talk at speeds between 350 to 400 words a minute. The normal rate of speech is 100 to 150 words a minute. Which is to say, these people are not normal.
The idea behind the fast-talking debate strategy is to present as many arguments as humanly possible within the time limit, making it all but hopeless for your opponent to respond to all of them, at least if he’s into breathing.
In 2008, the Binghamton University debate team fast-talked its way to becoming the number one team in the nation, a remarkable achievement for a program with a fraction of the budget and staff support of other top programs.
When Joe Leeson-Schatz was a freshman debater at Binghamton in the late 1990s, the speech and debate team had no coach and a combined budget of less than $5,000. As a comparison, Liberty University — widely considered the best debate program in the country — has five full-time coaches and a travel budget of half a million dollars.
No surprise, Binghamton consistently stunk for years, ranking in the high 170s out of 200 national programs.
Binghamton’s road from worst to first began when Leeson-Schatz entered graduate school at Binghamton and volunteered to coach the college squad. As the team moved up the rankings, the University began to kick in more funding. Now Leeson-Schatz is officially on the payroll, the team competes in more than a dozen tournaments each year and consistently lands in the top 10.
Policy debate is not a sport for the weak. Schatz says that team members regularly put in 20 hours a week doing research, meeting with coaches and partners and honing their speed-speaking skills. And that doesn’t include the weekend tournaments that run from Friday to Sunday and can demand up to 24 hours of active, on-your-feet debating.
In the policy debate format, teams of two people argue opposing sides of a hypothetical U.S. government resolution. Teams will argue both sides of the same topic all year long, meaning that rhetorical strategies get increasingly complex from tournament to tournament. It’s not uncommon for a team to show up at a debate with a dozen 14-gallon plastic tubs stuffed with evidence to back up their arguments.
Policy debate is a lousy spectator sport — first-timers will be lucky to catch every 20th word. And it certainly isn’t a fashion show. Leeson-Schatz says he’s seen teams debate in their pajamas after staying up all night researching evidence.
Oddities of the sport aside, many policy debaters go on to be successful lawyers, politicians and community leaders. And if all else fails, there’s always the occasional auction gig.
Find out more about the Binghamton Speech and Debate Team.
Last Updated: 8/26/09