Something was bothering me as I watched Jonathan Zittrain‘s excellent and engaging talk at PDF the other day. I mean, beyond the fact that he looks approximately my age, which would cause me to weep bitter, bitter tears of shame and envy if it were true. No, it was something awfully familiar about his gestures, about the way he gestured and roamed the stage, about his cadence, about his whole speaking style.
When I ran into him later in the press room, I revealed my dark suspicion: “Did you by any chance do parliamentary debate in college?” He gave me a truly priceless look of astonishment—I was tempted to follow up with “you have been in Afghanistan, I perceive”—and confirmed that, yes, he had, though with the Yale Political Union rather than the collegiate circuit I was on.
The interesting thing to me was that if you asked me precisely what it was that had given it away, I doubt I could articulate it. And Zittrain clearly wasn’t conscious of it. (He did not, as he noted, begin by thanking the right honorable speaker.) Which makes me wonder how much I or other erstwhile debate geeks are still unwittingly carrying the stamp of the activity. I don’t have hard numbers here, but I’ll assume ex-debaters are more likely than most to go on to careers involving some sort of public speaking. (I recently learned, with some amusement, that one of the best teams of their day on APDA was the duo of Slate legal reporter Dahlia Lithwick and Obama economics guru Austan Goolsbee.) How many of us are unwittingly broadcasting our membership in that weird fraternity?