How to Amaze Your Judges Before You Say a Word

I remember it well.

I was sitting in the Apologetics room, ready to go.

My pen was out.

My mind was sharp.

My blood was pumping.

I was ready to speak!

Oh wait…. I’m sitting behind the judges’ table. Guess I’m not speaking this time.

That is what it was like to go from speaking to judging. Sitting on the evaluation side of the table was very weird. But beneficial—and today I hope to pass that benefit on to you.

I learned a lot about Apologetics from judging it. One of the most surprising aspects was how judges evaluate students.

A common viewpoint is, “Content is king.” I’ve always held this opinion. While I don’t think it’s incorrect, judging has modified my perspective.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying that content doesn’t matter. Better great content and poor speaking than the reverse.

But if you want to reach the upper echelon of Apologetics competitors, excellent content alone won’t be enough. How you deliver the speech matters too.

In this article we’ll focus on just one aspect of delivery: the first impression.

Studies reveal that you have 7 seconds to make a first impression.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, BAM!

That’s your one and only chance to make a good first impression.

And the judges’ first impression of you affects how they view your entire speech.

Yes, it’s true. The moment you enter the room, you predispose me to evaluate you in a certain way.

It may be good.

It may be bad.

It’s up to you to determine.

Four tips:

1. Project Confidence

When you walk into the room, do so confidently. Stride to center stage and face the judges. Keep your shoulders back and your chin up. Make eye contact with the judges who are looking at you.

Before you say a word, prove to me that you belong in this room.

2. Smile

You need to look like you’re having fun. The best speakers aren’t just good at Apologetics—they love Apologetics.

I remember judging a girl recently who was obviously enjoying herself. Her marvelous speech backed up her first impression—just as that impression prepared me for her speech. By the time she began, I was expecting her to succeed. And since I’m the one who decides if she has succeeded or failed, my expectation matters.

It took me several years to reach this point. About year 3, I became relaxed enough that I could really enjoy speaking. No longer did I enter “speech mode” and become “robot Caleb” who did his little presentation then left. Now it was just me and the judges, enjoying the event.

Enjoying yourself lightens the mood of everyone in the room. It sets the judges at ease and predisposes them to judge you favorably. If you’re happy, we’re happy. And if we’re happy, you’re likely going to receive higher rankings.

This might sound unfair. But I believe that how you present the truth matters. If you don’t love and enjoy the truth, you’re doing it wrong. Joyful ambassadors for Christ reflect their joyful king. Gloomy ambassadors do not.

Insofar as Apologetics intends to prepare you for the real world, delivery matters. This is a communication event, after all.

3. Speak Forcibly

“Forcibly” is a word I’ve always wanted to use, but never have. Strunk and White (in their famous Elements of Style) recommend it above “forceful.” Apparently it’s more forcible to say forcible. (I’m inclined to agree.)

Vocabulary discussion aside, you should speak forcibly. By this I mean the opposite of weak, quiet, meek, and small. Not necessarily loud—but assertive. Confident.

This comes into play very soon after you enter the room. In fact, if a judge is writing, their first impression of you may be auditory. You ask:

“Do the judges mind if I choose my topics?”

And of course the judges say yes (except on rare occasions).

You pick your topics and prep time begins.

Now I have four minutes to finish up my ballot. And to think about your first impression.

How did you speak? Were you respectful yet confident? Or did you seem nervous, uncertain, scared?

I’m already beginning to make up my mind about your character from those first 10 seconds.

Practical suggestion: In club or at home, practice as though you were at a real tournament. Have parents or friends sit at a table as judges. Enter the mock “Apologetics room” and act as you typically do. Then request an evaluation. What impression did you leave? How could you improve it?

4. Wait Patiently

This is technically outside the bounds of the first impression. Perhaps it’s the second impression: when you have concluded prep time and are ready to speak.

If a judge is still writing on the ballot when you ask “Is everyone ready?”, do not begin to talk until that judge makes eye contact or nods.

I’m speaking from personal experience here, but I assume other people like me exist.

As an introvert, I sometimes prefer to communicate via body language. If I’m looking down at my paper and writing, it obviously (right?) means that I’m not ready.

If you begin your speech without my verbal or physical assent, you’ve just ignored my communication.

It wasn’t verbal communication. But it was communication.

Now I have to finish writing (and thinking about!) whatever I was writing—before I can engage with you. So you’ve already lost me for the first 15 seconds.

A word to the wise: Wait. Ensure that each of your judges can bestow their full attention upon you. Then begin.

And amaze.