Debate and Speech Impediments by Ben Koh

Since the beginning of the year I’ve had a few words in my paradigm about debaters who are struggling with speech impediments. This never came to actualize itself or be a relevant question for me, however, until fairly recently. At Blake, I had just finished judging a round when one of the debaters asked me how much I noticed her stuttering and if I had any advice on how she should potentially improve it- which surprised me considering that I hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary with her speaking. This past weekend at Scarsdale a debater I judged told me to “forgive him” for he has a bit of a stutter. In both of these cases, I nodded and said that it’s not a problem, but it begs the question of if there could be something to do to help in some way the self-consciousness of those with of speech impediments.

There are two basic causes of stuttering. The first is physical; the second is emotional. Physical typically refers to a born tendency to stutter, it could be a physical issue that appears when persons are younger. The second is emotional- where issues of stress or other environments cause speaking to become difficult. This is not to suggest that it’s just one or the other: typically these two causes exist to variant degrees and they vary from person to person.

I am a stutterer.

In my case, I stuttered mostly when under emotional stress. My everyday speaking seemed nearly stutter free, except for debate rounds. My cross examinations would be clear in my speaking, but the speeches themselves tended to not be.

Everybody stutters to an extent. If you look for it in normal speech you’ll find a few bits of unintentional repetition here and there- but having a speech impediment is different. Stuttering is an impediment that becomes so frequent that it becomes impossible to not notice. To clarify, stuttering and speech impediments vary from person to person. In my case, I would get stuck on phrases and certain sounds typically. I would stop and try to start over again but the muscles in my throat become locked to the point that I would just keep machine gunning out the same letter or same phrase. In my worst experiences, I was so tense that I was unable to speak at all: my vocal cords were so tight that it literally became impossible to utter anything.

The advice given is typically to stop and take a breath- but, while well intentioned, that’s no small request. The pressure to go fast and the need to get through all the arguments on the flow relentlessly frustrates when you have a minute left at the end of the 1ar and you aren’t saying anything. The fear of debating goes beyond the desire to win and the content of the arguments, beyond the intimidation of opponents and adaptation to judges. It goes further, the question before every round becomes “will I stutter?”

My sophomore year was like a lot of debaters’ sophomore years: competitively tough. Admittedly at times I used my speaking issue as my own explanation for my lack of success, but it wouldn’t help when at Berkeley Round 1 I would get something like 19 speaker points: the ballot specifically noted my inability to speak and how I would need to practice speaking fluently or something like that. I can’t take offense to it today; it was just ignorance is all.

I haven’t “solved this problem,” but I’ve luckily been able to lessen its frequency. I went to a speech therapist from my sophomore to senior year (if you live near West LA and want a suggestion, please let me know). I started to meditate and tried to figure out how to debate slower. I stopped sitting down in rounds and got a table to help the flow of breath. But in truth at times I felt like giving up (or I did give up) in my career. I find it pretty hilarious now considering how much I miss it.

This article is not intended to be a sob story though. I’ve never experienced something that gets me as excited as debate. Even at those tournaments where I was worried about my stuttering, I always preferred to be there than at home preparing for the next weekend. Rather, this is my experience in a speaking activity while at times being unable to speak.

I hope that there’ll be a point at which debaters will not have to fear for their speaker points or be so self-conscious about stuttering as much as they do now. Rather, we should all play a role for this community within the community.

The first is for coaches. I was fortunate enough to have coaches that were very concerned with me and whom I felt shared in my losses. I had many, but I want to discuss my experiences with two. My coach Mr. Michael Overing was in frequent contact with my speech therapist, and I always felt he was truly invested in my success, even when my success at times seemed dim. Whenever he saw me debate, I never felt as if I was judged as a stutterer. There were weeks where stuttering clearly was the cause of a loss but he would talk and treat me as a debater, not as one with an impediment. In every RFD of every practice round he saw, the criticism was not of my speaking, but of the arguments on the flow. I felt like a real debater, which wasn’t always easy. My coach Tim McHugh was there when I wished to vent my frustration. He listened. At tournaments when I felt like my difficulty competing would never let me even break at a tournament (which in my junior year I only did once at a very local tournament), I knew that Tim knew I could. That was comforting.

I believe that coaches should do two things. 1) They should treat their debaters as competitors. There were many times where I felt like I was just recognized as being the kid at Loyola who can’t speak. My coaches reminded me that I was more than that. I was a debater. 2) Coaches should ensure that their debaters know how much they care and that they are aware of the issue. It’s the fact that my coaches had my case in mind that helped me feel less alone.

The second is for judges. I’m not going to go as far as to suggest that every judge should talk to every stuttering debater on the issue, but at least for me I was always intimidated and sometimes fearful of judges. Ironically though, it was a judge at the time who gave me hope when I was the closest to giving up on this activity.

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Rebar Niemi. I was incredibly lucky to teach several electives with him at NSD this summer, and to now coach a successful debater with him. My junior year I was pretty close to quitting the activity: it was just an issue of a lack of competitive success and what felt like nothing really changing in my speaking. At Alta, Rebar judged me against a very successful debater where I was crushed: it was the second time he had judged me. At that tournament I went 3-4, which wasn’t out of the ordinary, and as I stood around the posted doubles panels talking about whatever it was, I didn’t expect a judge let alone somebody as respected as Rebar to talk to me. I’ll never forget it, but it was the first time I’ve felt like somebody outside of my close circle really believed that I could do well in this activity even with my speaking. He told me that this activity won’t be easy for me: my story wasn’t going to be the same as others, but I should not give up, that one day things are going to just click for me, and that’s when I’ll realize how strong I really am.

I interpreted it as pity at first. I was used to people telling me “You can do it!” and lines like that and I was admittedly tired of it. It was thinking about Rebar’s talk and how he did not have to reach out that sparked my fully processing of what he said. I still hold that experience to this day.

In light of this experience, I’ve tried to make an effort to facebook message debaters who are maybe struggling competitively, but have impressed me. That’s not to say I’ve reached out to everybody (nor that everybody I’ve tried to reach out to has been having competitive problems), but I hope that I can at least do something similar to what Rebar did for me. To clarify, I don’t advocate that everybody tells every debater struggling with their speaking a line of advice. But, I do believe judges should let debaters know that they’re noticed. So many judges were competitors themselves. Even beyond those that have impeded speech, judges shouldn’t be distant figures. They should make people feel comfortable around them. I had a list of judges who I always preferred on the purse basis that I always felt comfortable debating in front of them. I knew those judges cared about more than the money they’re making: they really care about the kids they judge.

The third is for fellow competitors. I always looked for a role model in my competitive experience, and my role model was my friend Kyle. I searched for evidence that I really could do this or even have a winning record at a tournament. There’s not much to read about or hear about people who struggled with speaking that also debate, and so hearing that Kyle broke at Stanford intrigued me. It made me feel hopeful seeing him win an outround. I honestly never thought it was possible. It was talking to him about the mutual issue that made me feel as if I had a companion in this fight. I realized that I’m not the only one- that was awesome.

Stuttering silences but if you are a debater who is struggling with the issue (or other speech impediments) then speak out. You should not be embarrassed. Obviously you don’t have a choice in it. If you are a debater with a speech impediment and you see another struggling with the same issue then make yourself known! It means more for a commiserating stranger to make an effort. Don’t be afraid.

In an activity built on speaking, a speaking impediment is hard to endure. I will not claim that my experience is wholly encompassing of the experience of others who have stuttered (though of course there are other speech impediments as well), but this is my story and how my competitive experience went. Coaches, judges, and students should respectfully be there for their students. A speech impediment does not mean that a debater is any less competitive. The content of the RFD should not have to depend upon speaking. But, this article should not suggest that I avoided all problems related to my speaking. At Berkeley my senior year, the RFD of one of my prelim losses went something along the lines of  “I know you stutter, but I negate” (the words maybe were not in that order).

It was at those times though that I remembered the lessons and the comfort I got from my coaches, judges, and friends. Debate is fun. No matter the struggle and obstacle on the way, there is a basic idea that there are few things as fun as standing in a room with a Radioshack timer and overpriced pens.

Don’t give up- remember why you’re debating in the first place.

If you want to contact me, please message me on facebook for the fastest response. I will be at Harvard this weekend. Please don’t feel hesitate to talk.



  • Tom Amestoy

    Great article Benjamin Koh! I’m sure you have helped and encouraged so many debaters with these words. By the way, it was an honor to judge you in debate and you are continuing to impress me! You truly are a Man for Others.

  • Rebar Niemi

    Powerful words from my dear colleague. And sweet thank you to him and to Steven for their very kind statements amount my meager contributions.

    I would emphasize as a message from my own experience that having someone you respect or just think is cool encourage you and position themselves as a support and ally. The amount of friends that one has is significantly less important than the quality of those friends, mentors, and allies. I urge all judges and coaches to reach out, even if only in small ways, and give those daps that often go unheard or unspoken.

  • Mod Sloot

    Nice, Ben. Good piece–

    -Francis Lee

  • Karan Das-Grande

    As someone who debated with a speech impediment, I encountered many of the same struggles as Ben mentioned in the article. I had a combination of both physical and emotional stutter; I had it as a young child, as well as throughout middle school. I had many similar experiences with receiving low speaker points, which would affect my draws and thus my competitive success in the activity. I’ll be the first to say I never became a top debater but by my senior year I was at least decent. What I did to eventually overcome my stutter in the context of debate was to focus on creating a good tempo and rhythm to which I could speak at fluidly. I took my stutter in stride, and saw it as simply another obstacle I’d have to overcome if I wanted to succeed in the activity. At no point did I ever consider quitting, because debate was something I enjoyed, I simply used it to fuel me to work harder on drills and practicing speaking. A speech impediment is certainly a big detriment to a debater, but it’s not the end of the world, it will simply make you have to work harder than everyone else to achieve the same level of success.

    My advice for debaters with stutters and speaking issues:

    1. Practice, practice, practice. The more comfortable you are reading your cases, as well as giving rebuttals, the better you will be in round.

    2. Patience. You won’t be able to be the fastest on the circuit, but that’s not everything. You’ll have to debate smarter than people if you can’t just blaze by them.

    3. Don’t pity yourself. As soon as you begin to believe that you won’t be able to succeed because of it, you will not succeed.
    If you don’t believe in yourself, who will?

    I’m fairly out of the activity now, but if anyone who wants
    advice on the issue can feel free to contact me on Facebook.

    • Martin Sigalow

      My advice is gonna be pretty weaksauce, defer to Ben K, but here’s what I did as a debater:

      I stuttered constantly up until later junior year, which is why I consistently got poor speaks (that didn’t stop, though). I got around my problem by shouting literally everything I said, which is one of the probably many reasons why I was intolerable to debate against/judge. If the room was sufficiently big it tended to not be a problem, and sometimes I turned it into a joke in debates (In Dowling finals I caught Dan Jennis’ eye before my 2NR, he gestured for me to be softer and I vigorously shook my head no). But, there’s no question that me shouting everything was the only way I was able to form coherent sentences in constructives and rebuttals

      I’ve given this advice to people in my labs at NDF before and it seems to help, for some bizarre reason. I guess I just didn’t give myself air to stutter? I don’t know if this is even generalizable, but maybe something to think about?

  • TaylorAmey

    Even though I myself do not have anything like a stutter that I have struggled with throughout my debate career, I would like to say that this article is very touching and is proof that the debate community can be extremely benevolent. The debate community sometimes gets some smack for being too elitist or too white, but this is really something that the debate community should get recognition for. People like Ben are examples of individuals that are willing to go out of their way to tell a personal story and give advice to all debaters. I think we overlook the number of people who really do care about everyone around them in the community. Thank you, Ben.

  • Mark Gorthey

    Ben, this story was so touching to myself and I’m sure everyone who read this. Your willingness to speak about this issue is incredible and so brave. I think I speak for everyone when I say your compassion and kindness to all has made this community a better place.

    • sjadler

      I agree hugely with this. Ben, it’s great to hear Rebar getting his due props, especially because he inspired me in similar ways when I was a young debater. And now you’re carrying on that legacy of keeping kids in it for the right reasons, and I’m really glad that you continue to be a part of the community.

  • Mathew Pregasen

    This is a brilliant article. In many ways, I think the lessons thought can be extended to the context of judges yelling “clear”. This comes from a personal narrative as well.

    Clarity is, of course, a major issue and a lack of clarity is a reasonably enough for a judge to discount arguments. Personally, going into my sophomore year and parts of my junior year, I had a lot of clarity issues due to my accent (which I have 0 idea of where it came from given I was born here and my parents do not have it either). I totally agreed that not being clear when reading the theoretical underview or even any card tags is a total discomfort for both an opponent and a judge. But I think, often, clarity is a byproduct of the “idea” that debaters need to sound a certain way. As a novice, I entered the activity with certain spreading styles ingrained in my mind from a few varsity rounds I watched. In order to
    live up to that “threshold” of speed, I tended to push my limits against the
    confines of my accent. And that produced quite problematic results often resulting in low speaks.

    Personally, my speaking style has gotten better in my opinion, especially with a huge decrease in the “clears” It is a personal success whenever I come back home without I managed without a single clear. But it took me almost three years. I think that clarity can be tackled both as a debater and as a community. As a debater, slowing down obviously helps, and there are a diverse amount of new styles to try to get a higher word economy opposed to word count out.

    But often I think I have seen personally and witnessed judges being far too harsh on debaters for clarity. While a decision should not be changed due to overcompensating for an unclear debater, and while I get that speaker points may be docked by a lack of a debaters effort to try to stay clear, the verbal RFD that directly criticizes clarity can lead to emotional feelings being triggered which do no good.

    Honestly, some of the best judges I remember are those that actually
    discussed ways to improve clarity opposed to downright criticize it. But just stating, “the AC is not clear, I could not even understand one sentence” doesn’t always come across as honest criticism but rather as “you are not equipped for this activity.” The stigma that some debaters are naturally clear compounds this phenomenon especially because for some, it seems like debate is unfair for those with certain vocal patterns. I totally agree with Ben that stuttering should
    be treated with comfort by judges because honestly there were times I would
    come home from tournaments and be just annoyed about my accent. I learned to get around my accent. But I wanted to point that I think for some judges, who I know possess to emotional maturity to know that whatever happened
    in the last 45 minutes there is no way to reverse it, that taking out their
    frustration by citing clarity as a “major problem with a debaters performance”
    sometimes hurts much more than it will ever help.

    • cosmarchy

      Mathew’s progress with his speaking was remarkable. I have known Mathew for three years; we debated twice (once my junior year, once my senior year) and I have also judged him this year. He beat me easily the first time we hit. Perhaps out of frustration from actually being beaten in that round, I blamed the loss on my inability to understand almost anything he read because my debate friends would likely have accepted that as an excuse (and did). Given Mathew’s description of struggling with the harshness of judges’ criticisms, I owe him an apology for making many of those same comments myself (not to say others haven’t also).

      The following year, we debated at Crestian. He improved noticeably and we had an engaging round without any serious miscommunications or misunderstandings. At times, it was probably the need to speed through theory spikes that made him slightly difficult to understand, but the improvement was significant. This year, I judged him in prelims at Crestian and gave him some of the highest speaks I have given all year. He slowed down slightly, but even at his very impressive pace, he maintained almost perfect clarity when reading spikes, tags, cards, author names, everything. I don’t remember my RFD from that round, but hopefully I commended him on his tremendous progress in clarity.

      This guy is brilliant; it really was satisfying to finally hear everything he had to say and I left the room thinking that the model for how debaters should debate in front of me had changed to resemble him. He should be a role model for other debaters struggling with any kind of vocal disadvantage.

      Thank you for telling your story here. Hopefully judges take it to heart. I’ll do my best as well.

      • Mathew Pregasen

        Thanks Eli, I appreciate it. 🙂

  • JPrime

    Just a perspective from a(fairly successful) speechie: I’ve seen MANY people stutter and have trouble getting words out and I sometimes struggle with the same problem, when I’m nervous pre-round, when I’m actually in the round, and in regular conversation. There’s nothing wrong with a speech impediment. What really matters is learning and having fun, like Ben says.

    I was very close to giving up speech this October after I received extremely poor ranks in a semifinal round with a particular judge, who heavily criticized me on the ballot for what he called “extremely poor articulation”. After I read the ballot and dropped, I sat in an abandoned hallway and cried rather than watching finals.

    I was lucky enough to know a couple of instructors from(speech) camp who had gone through similar experiences, and they gave me some of the most useful advice that I’ve gotten.

    “You have to remember the reasons that you do what you do. Do you spend hours of your time on this just to win and get trophies, or because you love it and love learning?”

    Good people like Ben who struggling debaters without many connections can reach out to are some of the best parts of the debate community. Without my friends and mentors talking with me for hours on end, I couldn’t have been where I am now.

  • David Joannides

    i didn’t read all of this, but if any debaters have hearing loss, please contact me. i had profound hearing loss ( to the point of needing hearing aids) for much of my career. i think its a very under-examinated part of debate, and if you ever need help dealing with it, i can offer all of my emotional support. davidjn710@gmail . com

    • David Joannides

      seriously, trust me. i basically didn’t flow my senior year, i had to just stand behind debaters and see what they read. if someone went off paper and i couldn’t read what they said, i probably lost that debate. finally my parents bought be hearing aids and my could read that debate. this isn’t me trying to make debate a place for only social justice. i still love phil and trick debates, i just think they’re better if people can actually participate in them, which i barely could. just think about that next time you’re spreading, please.