Debate has failed me. Over five years of competition, my quality of life was directly proportional to the amount of files I printed. I thought a catchy opener might be stunning numbers of how many forests I, Peter Voell, killed during my high school tenure.  Sadly, I have only eliminated 5.99880024 trees, according to data from (an unrivaled bastion of reliable tree-to-paper data). I am disappoint.

The point of this article, though, is not to whine about my apparently decent level of environmental responsibility.  The final preliminary note is that this is written in post-exam mode; my brain is running on minimum. Don’t get picky about grammar or style.

Everyone wants to win. Competitive forensics exists as a venue utilizing that drive to succeed as a catalyst for greater goals: job interviews, everyday conversations, being able to count to three. Basic things. Walking out of a tournament facility with one – or multiple – first place trophies in your possession feels incredible [until you grow up and realize those pieces of pewter or whatever don’t really mean anything besides bragging rights for a maximum of four years].

Everyone wants to win; very few know how. Do teams win debate rounds by mocking? Sure. Are rounds won by teams who abuse the 2AR because they know the judge isn’t flowing? Yes. Is debate completely predictable? If you think it is, I’ll put money on the fact this is your first year debating.

Debate is a game; games are never predictable. You will never win a game every time you play. With the proper strategy, though, it is easily possible to increase your success exponentially. You too, can be bi-winning.

Here’s the secret: Know. Everything. Understand. Everything. You think I’m kidding? I’m not. I tried hiding behind my massive binders stocked full of evidence. I tried smooth speaking, wowing the judge into my mesmerizing eyes [Jungle Book is full of amazing communication ideas]. I tried clever strategies in-round, hoping to out-smart the other team. I had moderate levels of success. The only technique that never failed me was being Lexis-Nexis incarnate.

“This is impossible!” you say. “I have a life! I have school!” Valid concerns. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time, if your palate savors such forms of red meat. Point being: You have to start early. You can’t wait until the week before the first tournament and expect to be an expert on all things criminal justice. It won’t happen.

So let’s break it down, how do you eat this elephant?

Step 1:  Do. Not. Research. Rather, know.

There is a key difference between knowing and researching. Research is focused, knowing is general. For the first two months – at least – of the fall, you should NOT be writing files. You should be digging up landmark court cases that define our criminal justice system and understanding how they interact with our modern system. Pop Quiz: How does Johnson v. Eisentrager effect military justice? What key element of a trial was under discussion in Gideon vs. Wainwright? In a opinion issued just this November, Greene v. Fisher, what was Scalia’s analysis? You should know this.

Understand the limits of the system. What exactly is the criminal justice system? What is it not? Not all crimes are criminal offences; there are civil crimes as well. Are those part of the criminal justice system? Why or why not? How do the courts function? How many courts are there in the US? What are the jurisdictions of the specific lower courts and if an appeal is made in a lower court, where does it go? Prisons. Sentencing. Composition and selection of Juries. This is basic knowledge that you MUST have, BEFORE you write a single negative file.

Step 2: Research Everything.

Before you have a nervous breakdown, I don’t mean research every possible case including your own. I mean, when you research, if you open a tab, you better read the article. If you download something from a database, get three pages in, and realize it won’t help you write your file, KEEP READING. So many debaters have a shallow understanding of the resolution because they only read to find what specific cards they thought they needed for a specific file they were writing at that specific time. In so doing, they shortchange themselves of a wealth of knowledge. Every little tidbit that you read in articles should be filed away in the back of your brain for future retrieval. THAT is how it’s possible to know everything. Because you accumulate it one little piece at a time, drawing links between everything as it becomes a coherent mass of information, wrapping your head literally around the entire resolution. I don’t care if an article doesn’t look helpful, read it anyway. Chances are high you’ll need the information later.

Step 3: Know Thy Enemy

Sun Tzu, the great strategist, is quoted as saying,

So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss.

If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose.

If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.

I respectfully add one clause. Know your enemies better than they know themselves. When you walk into a round, before the FIRST SPEECH begins, you should know everything that will be said in the round. If you’re aff, you should know exactly where your case is weak, exactly where the negative team will attack and exactly how you will respond. Then keep going. After the 1NC, you should be able to give their 2NC for them. Your 1AR should be able to be prepped after cx of the 1NC. The block should be you smiling at your psychic abilities as the neg reads off exactly what you knew they would.

If you’re negative, I jest not when I say you ought to be able to run the aff’s case better than they can. If someone asked you to give the aff’s 2AC, you should be able to OBLITERATE your 1NC shells. Sit down, and your partner should be able to get up and obliterate your perfect 2AC. THAT IS THE LEVEL OF DEBATE YOU SHOULD BE AT. THAT is knowing your enemy. THAT is how you win rounds.

Will you be surprised every so often by a curveball? Of course, but that’s debate. Having foresight is no excuse to not listen carefully to every word and every card the other team quotes.

How is step 3 possible? Extend the methodology of Step 2. Every time you write an affirmative case, every time you write a negative file, the ratio of articles you read should be 50-50. 50% articles that support your side, 50% articles that oppose your side. Craft your arguments from articles that support you, absorb the refutations from academia from the other 50% of articles, and go research how to defeat those refutations. Terminology nerds call that bi-directional research. I call it adequate preparation. You should too.

I’ve thrown at lot at you. Why should you do any of this? What’s the end result? Plain and simple: you win. You will be the team making the connections no one else is making. You will be the team who isn’t the best speakers but darn well confuses the slick-tongued with cold hard facts. You will be the only team to beat that crazy squirrel case someone pulls at regionals or nationals because you’ll be the only team that KNOWS ANYTHING outside of the files in your box. You’ll be the team who can whip out a counter-plan that no one has seen before and WIN WITH IT without a 30 page backup file because it makes sense and you can communicate WHY it makes sense.

That’s how you win rounds, you know.  Knowledge is power.

Go Debate.

  • Peter

Post-script: To those who think I’ve focused too heavily on winning in this article, you are entirely correct. There is nothing wrong with winning; it’s the well-earned fruit of hard labor. The concern comes when winning becomes the soul and substance of why one competes. Balance is key. We debate to become communicators, winning is a sign of progress towards that goal.

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