Awesome guest post by Isaac Kim, ethos debater, alumni, and brand strategist.
10 debate national champions offer their single best debate insight
As a high school debater without a debate coach, I immediately learned that the most effective way to become better was to watch, learn, and seek debate insights from the best. I struck up conversations with tournament champions, emailed debate veterans, and asked for debate advice from coaches in-between rounds. From this, I gradually improved.
Debate is an art, not a science. You don’t get better at it by reading a textbook. And like any art, debate is best learned through practice and observation of the best.
In the past week, I reached out to 10 former debaters that I consider to be some of the very best I have ever competed against and/or witnessed—debate legends, gurus and opinion leaders. I asked them the following question:
What is the single best debate insight you would give to a debater trying to become better?
They answered. Here’s what they had to say:
Ethan Green – “Play to your strengths”
2012 LINCOLN-DOUGLAS DEBATE CHAMPION, NCFCA NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP
“My advice is simple: play to your strengths. Most competitors master the basics and practice helps everyone improve, but I didn’t really succeed until I found the approach that worked best for me. I spoke much more quickly than most other competitors and used far more evidence and concrete examples than many other LDers. That’s okay. I did so because that’s what my strengths were. If you excel at explaining the big picture, focus your arguments there. If you are a details wizard, incorporate that into your strategy. If you ignore your relative strengths, you are limiting your potential.”
Dan Pugh – “Think three speeches in advance”
2014 PARLIAMENTARY DEBATE CHAMPION, PI KAPPA DELTA NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP
“Think about your arguments three speeches in advance, not just in terms of your next speech.”
Sam Wolkenhauer – “Cause, context, history”
2009 TEAM POLICY DEBATE CHAMPION, NCFCA NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP
“The best debaters I have ever known were the ones who knew the importance of cause, context, and history. For every claim you make, be prepared to answer the question “why?” Winning rounds will follow if you’ve first won the battle to know more and understand better than your opponent.”
Jonathan Edelblut – “Seek out nuance”
2013 LINCOLN-DOUGLAS DEBATE CHAMPION, NCFCA NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP
“Don’t get so lost in the debate world that you forget about the real world. Seek out nuance in your argumentation, and understand that acknowledging the flaws in your own perspective does not weaken your position, it strengthens it.”
Drew Chambers – “Don’t underestimate definitions”
2012 1ST PLACE TEAM POLICY DEBATER, STOA SPEECHRANKS
“Don’t underestimate the importance of definitions. Definitions are the building blocks of all argumentation, so if you’ve miscalculated or are misinformed, under-informed, or not informed on that front you will find yourself in a losing battle. (And if your first response to this message is to think I’m just talking about topicality then this is for you especially because the message is as much about topicality as it is about anything else).”
J. Patrick Shipsey – “Persuasion by frames, not facts”
2010 TEAM POLICY DEBATE CHAMPION, NCFCA NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP
“Knowing the facts of your evidence is not enough to persuade and inspire. If you really believe in your case, tell the story. To tell a true story about public policy requires imagination and integrity. For the best evidence, use sources that allow the facts to tell the story. To use that evidence best, guide your audience’s imagination across the foundation of those facts…
Precise, empirical, contextual evidence anchors your argument in the deserts of the real. Imagination brings the conflict between courses of action to life by creating the frame in which the information is presented. Use humor. Use history. Use poetry. Use logic, use Looney Tunes, use the culture, use values, because these are how humans are persuaded: By frames, not by facts.”
Tyler Humphrey – “Talent is a myth”
2014 PARLIAMENTARY DEBATE CHAMPION, FIFA DEBATE CHAMPIONSHIP
“In my opinion, being a successful debater can look like two scenarios. The first is receiving awards, achieving high ranks, and winning lots of rounds. The second scenario is measured much later down the road- through your work ethic, communication, and problem solving skills, to name a few. If you want to win awards, I can recommend ways to say what judges want to hear, pander to audiences, and how to strategically present information. The second scenario, however, comes from dedicated practice. It comes from believing that talent is a myth and that anything worth having is worth working for earnestly and virtuously. It comes from creating a critical thinking machine within yourself and always striving for a better world. With this method, I can’t guarantee that you will win nationals, but I can guarantee that the true success will appear later, and will continue to be seen through your time in life.”
Chris Reigg – “The answer is human connection”
2011 TEAM POLICY DEBATE CHAMPION, NCFCA NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP
“Debaters often fail to think of the judge as a dynamic participant in the round. Instead, they treat her/him as a static mannequin who sites there, absorbs their arguments like a punching bag absorbs punches, and spits out a decision…
The answer is human connection, which sounds easy but isn’t. Debaters can better engage their judges by making themselves vulnerable (genuine humor, open body language, displaying enjoyment, etc.) and by intentionally speaking to the judge as a participant rather than an observer. Tailoring your performance to a judge’s requests at the beginning of the round goes a long way in this regard.
I think the basic test debaters should give themselves is this: am I talking to the judge the way that I would if we met in the hall, or on the street, or at a party? Or am I letting the formality of the round box in my personality and interfere with our connection?”
Peter Voell – “Know everything”
2011 PARLIMENTARY DEBATE CHAMPION, PITOC
“Know everything. Even if you aren’t the best speaker, the best at developing creative strategies, or any of the other ‘advanced’ debate arts, having an unmatched database of raw information enables you to call opponents out on fiction / misinterpretation / abuse. If you are even moderately capable of verbally explaining your opponents’ lies, the knowledge will get you the rest of the way to a win.”
Abbey Lovett – “Relate to your audience”
2015 POLICY DEBATE SPEAKER CHAMPION, NCFCA NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP
“The #1 lesson I’ve learned is to connect with your audience. So many debaters get caught up in sounding like a debater, but I found that stepping outside of that was what really made me excel. Both times I received a national title, I went into the tournament asking myself how I could be more conversational and relatable to judges. Content is important, but being able to relate to your audience will give you an advantage that can take you all the way.”
Isaac Kim is lifelong learner, creative problem-solver and entrepreneurial marketer from New York City. He writes on issues of marketing, debate theory, public policy, and art, which can be found on his personal blog.