“I don’t understand. I had superior arguments, evidence, and refutation, but the judge voted for the other team.”
I imagine every debater has felt this way at some point. Yet, even when we think we should win “on paper,” the judge is always right. Inevitably, you will enter a round and discern that you are much more experienced with debate than your judge. At that moment, your burden to communicate effectively to that judge has increased! Fortunately, it’s not impossible.
Over three years as a debater and longer as a judge, I picked up some tips for communicating with novice judges, and I want to share seven with you.
1. Be organized and signpost clearly.
This is always critical, but especially with inexperienced judges.
Why? Because you can flow the round better than your judge. An experienced debater or judge might be able to pick out the main arguments of a speech, or connect them from one speech to the next, without much verbal help. But with a novice judge, without clear organization, you’re basically rolling the dice about what they will write down. Instead of writing down your first point, perhaps they get just the link or just the impact—or just the tagline for a card.
If your judge mistakenly writes down your argument as different than it actually is, it could derail, for them, the entire flow of the round. That mistaken note on their flowsheet becomes an anchor point, and they will try to interpret all future arguments based on that point.
It’s not really the judge’s fault. They haven’t developed their own shorthand or trained their ear to listen to arguments presented in this format. So be careful to help your judge flow accurately.
By the way, the most important and most neglected way you can do this is by organizing your opponents’ arguments well. If your opponent makes a vague or ill-defined point, set it forth clearly in your own speech so the judge can understand it, and then respond to it so the judge can see how you counter it. Otherwise, the judge may misinterpret the point, misplace your response, and at the end of the round think that vague argument was a compelling reason to vote for the other team.
If the opponent’s point is so vague that you can’t even make sense of it, be sure to press for specifics in cross-examination. If clarification is not forthcoming, be sure to explain to the judge in your next speech how the point is so vague as to be meaningless to the round.
2. Repeat key ideas often.
First, I need to clarify what I don’t mean. Some debaters will repeat every major argument or tagline twice. While that’s fine (and will help the judge to follow along), it’s not really what I mean here. I mean that you should say the same thing in the same way five or six times across multiple speeches.
Why? Because you understand the subject matter better than your judge. Remember that feeling when you first started debate of being overwhelmed by the debate theory, the policy jargon, and the challenge of writing down and analyzing arguments thrown at you non-stop? That’s exactly what the judge is feeling. Especially when that grandparent, neighbor, or novice parent is judging their fifth round of the day, it’s easy for them to zone out for a few seconds every now and then (even if only to concentrate on writing down what you just said).
Thus, repeating your key points does two things. First, it safeguards against a judge struggling to focus. If they missed it once, they get another opportunity to hear it. Second, it highlights what’s important to your team in the round. To a novice judge, all the arguments begin to sound the same, and it’s difficult to tell what is critical and what is irrelevant when casting their ballot. But if they can remember that you and your partner repeated the same theme over and over again, it will be hard for them to forget.
3. Manage your time to prioritize the most important issues.
Make sure that you leave yourself ample time to address all the critical arguments in your speech.
Why? Because you can give an argument faster than your judge can receive it.
On your pre-flowed outline, it may look like you had a great speech. But if you squeezed a response to a major disadvantage into the last 12 seconds of your affirmative rebuttal, then 1) it’s probably not persuasive, and 2) the judge might not even catch it and write it down. If the judge is still trying to write down your last three rapid-fire responses while listening to you, they are likely to miss one. Even if they catch it, they won’t have time to analyze it, and you won’t be doing effective persuasion.
4. Make your arguments as concrete as possible.
When deciding which arguments to raise, select the most concrete, or at least present your points in the most tangible way.
Why? Because you are better equipped to remember abstraction than your judge. This is one point I only realized as I got older. Memories fade quickly, especially if they are not anchored to anything. When you construct an abstract argument, you are building for your judge an edifice of words that they have to store in their mind. Since they have to listen to everything else in the round, the judge will send the argument to memory in hopes of recalling it at the end of the round. They might write two or three words on their flow chart to jog their memory about what the argument was, but they will rarely write out the whole thing word-for-word.
This is a problem, because words are an unreliable building material. The poet T. S. Eliot mused (and my own experience tends to agree with him),
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.
If this is true, then the argument you so carefully constructed can literally change shape in the judge’s mind between the time you deliver the argument and the time the judge recalls the argument to fill out the ballot.
How can you counteract this problem? Anchor your arguments to something less malleable than abstract thought: an object, a specific numerical outcome, something within the judge’s experience, or, best of all, a narrative.
5. Keep it simple.
This is pretty much Part 2 of the previous tip. When you do make an abstract argument, take a no-frills approach, and cut the structure down to the bare minimum. Don’t bet against Murphy’s Law: if there are fewer pieces, then fewer things can go wrong.
For example, topicality should have two pieces, not seven or nine. Most other arguments should consist only of a link and an impact. An exception would be when establishing a disadvantage or solvency point requires multiple intermediate links. If that is the case, however, it might be best just to present the entire bit as a narrative.
The need for simplicity is especially important on short arguments. If you want to get more complicated, you need to devote enough speaking time to make sure that the judge can keep up with note-taking. So some of it is a judgment call based on how the judge is responding.
6. Always compare your arguments with your opponents’.
I find this gets left out of a lot of rebuttal speeches. By the end of most rounds, the affirmative has won some arguments, and the negative has won others. The question is, who decides which arguments are more important? I can’t tell how many times as a judge I have had to invent a reason why one team’s arguments were better because neither team addressed that question. This will lead to surprises on the ballot that you likely want to avoid. Therefore, always weigh the arguments.
If you’re feeling pressed for time, one temptation is to assume that you won all your points and the other team won all their points, and weigh the arguments according to that assumption. That can work, but only if the judge agrees with you. Try to make your reasoning as severable as possible from any particular argument, so that if the judge decides you lost that point, you don’t lose your reason for being preferred as well.
7. Watch the judge’s body language throughout the round.
Are they nodding or frowning? This can clue you into who the judge considers to be winning on certain points.
Do they seem disinterested? The argument doesn’t matter. Move on.
Do they seem confused? Either back up to explain that argument longer or cut your losses and move on quickly. If it happens during the other team’s speech, take note, and be sure to explain the other team’s argument so the judge can understand (and, of course, refute it). The judge will be grateful.
Are they not writing anything down? They probably feel totally overwhelmed. Make fewer shallower points. Back off on the logic and turn up the rhetoric and emotion. Tell a story. Find some other form of speech (news report, presidential debate, sermon) with which the judge might be more familiar and try to imitate that style. At that point, it’s less about which team has the better arguments than about which team can successfully connect with the judge.
I once had an afternoon round with a parent judge who had clearly been up late the night before helping with the tournament. She looked like she was falling asleep in every speech. When my turn came, I tried to punctuate my speech dramatically. Every 30 seconds or so, I would drastically change my volume and cadence. On the whole, my speech probably felt jarring, and would be inappropriate in most contexts. There, however, the jarring shifts were an intentional attempt to adapt to the needs of the judge; I hope it worked.
Some of these tips might seem obvious, and some you should do all the time. However, in the chaos of the round, it’s easy to let something slip through the cracks. When you have a novice judge, I recommend making sure that you prioritize these seven things to best connect with them.