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Before every tournament, my partner took me outside the registration building and had a pow-wow. He wanted to go through each of our briefs and make a strategy out of them, card by card. These two-hour meetings were stressful. As we watched other debaters enjoy ultimate-frisbee and Moe’s, we sat on the ground and put to purpose every sheet of paper we had. I wouldn’t describe it as riveting. Yet our debate rounds transformed. We found ourselves thrust into a different caliber of communication.

It came down to taking our research and briefs a leap further. But instead of jumping into a debate round and taking a leap of faith, we lept into strategy. Having evidence quotes, and shoving them into a Word document, does not a strategy make.  Most debaters talk about their “briefs” and trade “evidence.” But most debaters, too, end up wasting years of time “reading evidence” instead of making strategies and arguments. The reason that the top debaters at nationals usually have only two binders of evidence, not four rolling suitcases, isn’t because they know less about the topic. It’s because they know that briefs are no substitute for strategies.

This post is dedicated to showing you the three sins of brief writing, and the three virtues of strategy making. By the end of this post, you will know why to never assign a “brief” on a topic again – instead, you will see why to ask for a strategy. A strategy is a cohesive plan for beating a case. Here’s why you should prefer it.

Sin 1: Contradiction

Why is a strategy preferable over a brief? A brief can contradict itself. Ever made annotations in your briefs that say something like “Do not run Inherency 1 with Disadvantage 5 – they contradict”? Contradictions in briefs are evidence that you don’t have a cohesive strategy for that particular case. You probably have several strategies that are all thrown in together for some reason. It doesn’t make sense. Confusion in your material will lead to confusion in your communication. A strategy is far more powerful; it’s an actual plan. Ask even three people for strategies, and you get three different ones on the same topic, each of which can beat a case – all while avoiding the madness of 25 pages of evidence that don’t work together.

Sin 2: Information Overload

When briefs are so massive that locating and extracting the good cards is a skill worthy for your resume, it’s gone too far. No one enjoys watching you overload yourself with information while dragging your audience along for the wild ride. In contrast, strong strategies don’t rely on length. Your strategy just needs to be long enough to be fully fleshed-out. One card isn’t a strategy, but neither are 50. They can include elements of what you normally put into briefs: countervalues, supporting evidence, table of contents. Whatever you include, it just needs to be a fluent mindset and structure behind one line of argumentation. The girth of your document doesn’t matter.

Sin 3: When Quote Leads Debater, instead of Quote Proves Debater’s Point, Audience Cry

Quotes alone should never carry you through a debate. Debate isn’t a blind, mindless activity in which you recite from a brief. Debate is analysis, communication, and refutation. You don’t get to dump quotes on your audience and sit down. You call yourself a debater? Then replace senseless quotations with sharp refutation. How does that happen? Strategy! Structuring your argumentation to a specific gameplan streamlines your round, clarifies your approach, and presents a more compelling reason to vote for you. People love a clear-cut, well-researched call to action. Briefs don’t always accomplish that. Strategies do.


Virtue 1: Engage in the World of Ideas, not “immigration courts are bad”

Research is more difficult than “name of AFF topic is bad,” but more simple than beating your head against a wall. Immerse yourself in what people are saying, and use your debate theory to determine which types of arguments they match. Then go grab some light facts to support it all.

Virtue 2: Get a Real Strategy

A strategy means a cohesive plan to defeat a case. Not everything you could say against a case, but ONE thing that will win the whole round. Like a disadvantage, two solvency arguments, and some mitigating cards, all with the same centralized thesis, wrapped around a goal of the status quo. Or a counterplan and a disadvantage that shows its superiority. Sometimes a winning strategy is 25 pages of material – you might have state-by-state analysis and statistics to support your position, depending on which way AFF goes. Sometimes a winning strategy is 2 pages of material, and is mostly lifted from a single Economist article, like this strategy Drew Chambers and Isaac Kim had in outrounds at nationals. The contents of your debate box should never be conglomerations of evidence you’ve never read before, and have no strategy for using.

Virtue 3: Be Satisfied with Strategy, not Ammo

Final step? Tactic. You have your strategy, you have your structure, you have your gameplan. But how and when do you use it? Tactic is method. Strategies aren’t weapons to deploy at the first sign of cause. Strategies are what you methodically unfold when they actually apply. You want to lay out strategy, not fire away. Debating is a two-fold activity: strategy and tactic. Strategy employs (not deploys) analysis, preparation, and “brains”. But interestingly, tactic requires just as many synapses. Don’t stop listening and engaging just because you think you’re prepared.

Summarized by Sun Tsu: “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

Bonus Tip: Strategies can be Lemmings

As Isaiah pointed out in an xL Club Meeting last week, strategies aren’t lemmings. Once you’ve developed your strategy, don’t think you’re debating yet. Debate is a listening activity and execution-oriented. Strategy is just a plan. So even if you made a great one before the round, you have to listen and adapt to the round. Don’t blindly follow a strategy if it won’t fully apply to your opponents’ case just because you made it. Ethos teaches wisdom in execution of strategy. Knowing when to lay out your prepared strategy – and when to adjust the gameplan – is wisdom. Brains, not briefs, beat the best.


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