You’re feeling great. You’re feeling ecstatic. You’re feeling like you’re going to win.

You responded to every single critique, turned every DA, and defended every advocate. Over 15 of your friends watched the round, and every single one of them said you were going to win in a landslide.

You’re feeling like you’re going to win. But somehow you end up losing anyway.

It’s every debater’s worst nightmare to lose a round that they should’ve won, but for some reason, “unfair” results seem to happen to everyone. Especially around the end of the season.

Everything has a cause, and in this case, it’s typically because of something called the “Curse of Knowledge” (sounds ominous and nerdy, I know. Just go with it). The curse happens anytime you know too much to communicate to your audience effectively and is the main cause of unfair ballots.

Understanding the Problem:

The Curse of Knowledge happens to virtually everyone, but unfortunately, it’s recognized by almost no one. Assuming you put the work in, by the end of the year you’ll undoubtedly struggle with knowing too much at some point or another; the key is realizing when that happens.

The curse is brought on by two main things. First, because you just know too much for your own good, and second, because you’ve gotten so used to debating the same arguments that you assume that your audience knows all of the essentials, even when they don’t. Essentially, the curse of knowledge stems from being so immersed in the topic that you forget what things were like on the outside (where your audience usually is).

The problem is, the curse can be really difficult to diagnose because as debaters we’re used to more information meaning more effective debating. And it usually does. But when you know so much that you start talking above your audience’s level, you begin to fail to communicate effectively.

There are 3 main symptoms to look out for:

1) Having trouble conveying ideas when you never used to.
2) RFD’s asking for more links in your arguments.
3) An increase in losses with community judges.

Okay. Now that we understand the problem, what can we do to fix things?

Back to the Basics:

There are three main steps you can take to rectify the problem:

1. Deconstruct Everything

Since the curse originates from knowing too much, the first step to lifting it is to lose all non-relevant information. Or, more specifically, to figure out what information is important, and what information isn’t. To do this, take all your main arguments and work backward to the beginning, deconstructing them until only the bare bones are left standing. Then, practice delivering each argument without saying a single sentence that isn’t relevant to your overall point. This is especially helpful for your affirmative case.

2. Identify the Crux

Typically, only one main idea will end up on your judges RFD. We call that idea the crux. The crux is the center of the debate, and, (whether you recognize it or not), is the deciding factor in whether or not you walk away with a win. So what does it have to do with the curse of knowledge? Well, when the curse is upon you, it’s extremely difficult to figure out what really matters in the debate round. Not because it’s impossible to find the crux, but instead because most of us forget to look for it altogether. So, once you recognize that you’re dealing with an information overload, make a special, concerted effort to hone in on the crux in every single round. It will make a big difference.

3. Simplify your Language

Finally, but probably most importantly, stop using big, hard to understand words and concepts to communicate small, simple ideas. When you know too much to communicate well, you speak like an expert; and experts can be really, really difficult to understand. Take a step back and start speaking like you did at the beginning of the season, and you’ll see your audience comprehension jump right back up.

Test Yourself:

The biggest step towards change is figuring out what you’re doing wrong, and the best way to do that is to talk to someone with no knowledge on the topic at all. Get a neighbor, your mom, or a friend, and try explaining your case or a negative press to them. Then, have them try and tell it all back to you.

Chances are, if you’re under the curse, they’ll be missing a lot — and mainly the important parts. Figure out what you’re missing, and try it again with someone else until you can explain everything to a layman without them needing to ask a single question. Because the moment you can do that, the curse is lifted.

Conclusion
As any couples therapist will tell you, communication is key, and as we move into the last few tournaments of the year, it’s important to make sure that we’re communicating effectively.

Last year, I lost in outrounds at one of the most important tournaments of the year because I knew too much and was too familiar with the arguments the negative team brought up. Even though every single debater that watched the round thought we would win in a sweep, our ballots revealed that our judges had no idea what we were saying or why it mattered.

So go back to square one. Don’t make the same mistake I did. Lift the curse of knowledge, and communicate effectively once more.


Noah Howard is going into his 4th year of competitive debate. Having competed at the national level for the majority of his career, Noah believes that there’s more to an argument than just a list of impacts. Behind each simple piece of evidence, there’s a much deeper world waiting to be explored. In his eyes, debate is about immersing yourself in this world of ideas, and learning to convey your findings in simple, clear terms. He believes debaters should seek primarily to grow in their own understanding; only by diving headfirst into the world of ideas can you ever reach true mastery of rhetoric.