Our elite Mastership Sourcebooks for NCFCA and Stoa will release soon! Check them out here!
Source for cover image is istock.com

Judge, the Affirmative plan is like the four legs of a table. If you cut off one of the legs, the table won’t stand. That’s why they have the burden of proof to show…

Often, as this analogy is given, you can almost feel the eyes of everyone in the room begin to glaze over. It’s a spiel so familiar to competitors and judges that it’s almost lost all its meaning.

So has the idea of “The Burden of Proof.” Ask a debater why the burden of proof is important or what would happen if the Affirmative fails their burden of proof, and the answers are typically no longer than “Well, then a Negative ballot is warranted.”

If this is your typical answer, you’re not alone. If you are anything like I was in my early years in debate, you quickly gave up on treating the Burden of Proof as a valuable argument to make on its own. Instead, you quickly moved on to develop other flashier tactics – the topical counterplan, the disadvantages with 4 separate impacts, source indictments, etc. The burden of proof was an obligatory spiel to be given if I couldn’t think of a better opener, a cross examination question to be asked when I wasn’t sure what to ask next, or an extra sentence-long reason to vote Negative crammed in the 2NR. In other words, it was a waste of time. 

Which is a real shame, because as I eventually learned, burden arguments are crushing for Affirmative teams and can single-handedly win rounds when properly leveraged. They have that potential for every round, not just for the cases with glaring vagueness weaknesses. 

While every debater likes to portray their proposals as no-brainers, there are typically good reasons why they have not been implemented. In the real world, Affirmative teams would face extensive questioning from experts with intimate familiarity with the policy field. Comparatively, they get off easy in debate rounds! Burdens arguments are all about seeking to subject your opponents to the same level of scrutiny and pressure they would face in real-world policymaking circles. 

So how do you make a burden argument well? A good burdens argument should include at least three basic elements: 

  1. Specific demands for what the Affirmative team must prove. 

Making vague demands such as “The Affirmative team must prove their plan solves the problem and doesn’t make the system worse” lets Affirmative teams off far too easily. Here, Affirmatives are free to broadly claim they’ve met their burden without judges having any way to tell key evidence is still missing. However, by giving the judge a list of specific facts and standards to expect to hear from the Affirmative, you shape what the judge is looking for in the round and make it less likely the Affirmative can squeak by with vague evidence. 

  • Do: Make this list as specific as possible. E.g. “The Affirmative team must show that all of the 5 nations they’re adding to the Visa waiver program meet each of the statutory requirements under the program.”
  • Do: Demand evidence from specific timeframes, reliable peer-reviewed studies, proof of specific facts, evidence specific to only the Affirmative proposal, etc. 
  • Do not: Be vague and broad. 
  1. Warrants explaining why the Affirmative team must prove those things.

If you fail to give reasoning why the Affirmative must meet your demands, they can easily dismiss your argument as too nitpicky or try to argue that their current insufficient evidence really is sufficient. Clearly explaining the rationale for your demands is your opportunity to get the judge to buy into your reasoning. If you convince the judge that your demand is a basic requirement of good policymaking, a surface level response from the Affirmative won’t be enough. 

  • Do: Give detailed rationale explaining the importance of your demands. “Without the Affirmative showing us these two things, there’s no way to evaluate whether or not their plan will successfully end the abuse of the U.S. financial system. For all we know…”
  • Do: Have good common-sense reasoning for your demands. 
  • Do: Draw parallels to real-world policymaking or use other applicable analogies
  • Do Not: Skip the warrant. 
  • Do Not: Give weak, vague, or confusing reasoning. E.g. “Because good policymakers need to be fully informed before making a decision.”
  1. Impacts for what happens if those demands are not met, both for the plan and for the debate round. 

Far too often, debaters who make burdens arguments stop short of explaining the consequences of their unmet demands. This element is what gives burdens arguments real teeth. Here, teams should outline in as much detail as possible both the real world consequences of lacking key information and the consequences for the round. This is your opportunity to link burdens arguments to solvency and disadvantages impacts. 

Examples include: 

  • “In the absence of such evidence, because of the magnitude and risk a single terrorist attack can have, that uncertainty warrants a NEG ballot.”
  • “For all we know there might be a subsection of the bill the AFF missed that makes terror-supporting nations they mention ineligible, or makes our allies eligible for sanctions.”
  • “If the AFF can’t prove all five nations they hope to add meet all requirements, first those nations shouldn’t be added to the Visa Waiver Program, and second, they can’t be under the law’s statutory requirements.”

Without any one of those three basic elements, a burdens argument is far less persuasive and often wastes time. For debaters who have mastered the basic form of a burdens argument, there are more ways to take these arguments to the next level. 

First, in-round follow-up is essential. Follow up on your burdens arguments with piercing lines of cross-examination questions. If the Affirmative evidence doesn’t meet your demands or was exaggerated, grill them on the wording and highlight the contradictions. If they vaguely reference evidence or “studies” that they never read into the round, point it out. Bring up key admissions in your next speech and continue to highlight the gap between your demands and what the Affirmative provided. If it has round-winning implications, make it a voting issue in the 2NR. Without such follow-ups, even good burdens arguments serve little purpose in the round. 

Second, burdens arguments should always be incorporated into a broader prepared strategy. Link your burdens arguments to disadvantage or solvency impacts whenever possible. Contrast the Affirmative’s unanswered questions with your own precise research. Bring up your arguments in an order that places maximum pressure on the Affirmative. But follow the substance – if a burdens argument can be run, but has little impact, look to other arguments. 

While in-round follow-up and prepared strategies are what makes burdens arguments truly lethal, knowing what questions to ask and the ability to explain their importance is not possible without a deep knowledge base (from lots of research). Without true understanding of the substance of the issues, burdens arguments are rarely successful. But this true understanding – and the willingness to do the hard work to get it – is what makes great debaters stand out in the crowd.


Nick Storz competed in the NCFCA for four years and has been coaching policy debate since his junior year of high school. He recently graduated Patrick Henry College with a degree in American Politics & Policy. If you would like to book coaching with Nick, click here.

%d bloggers like this: