“In this rebuttal, I want to go down the flow and refute everything my opponent has said thus far and explain why, at the end of the day, you should vote for me.”
This line, in all of its iterations, is useless. For one thing, it is outstanding only in its mediocrity. For another, it has been uttered so many times that whatever meaning it may once have had is now completely hollow. On top of that, it does not tell the judge anything new, useful, or interesting. It is almost as if debaters think that the judge’s response will be: “Oh? You want to refute your opponent? And you are trying to convince me to vote for you? I had no idea! How very elucidating!”
Except, that never happens. Instead, the judge’s mind starts to wander, their interest dissipates, and any mental focus they may have retained throughout the tournament gets redirected elsewhere. That is the last thing that you want to occur because if you don’t have the judge’s attention, it doesn’t matter how logical or well-supported your arguments are. If you don’t have the judge’s attention, you will lose the debate. Moreover, the 10-15 seconds that it takes to re-explain how debate works — in case the judge has somehow forgotten — is valuable time that could be used on points that actually matter.
If expressions such as these are so counterproductive, why are they still in use? Why would debaters decide to open their speeches in such a redundant and unhelpful manner? Perhaps it is because the line is safe: conveniently pronounceable and effortlessly understandable. More likely, it is because they have not given any thought to the matter.
This article will attempt to change that; its goal is to challenge forensic speakers of all kinds to consider (or reconsider) the first line of every speech they give. This advice will indirectly apply to the majority of categories — from Persuasive to Apologetics to Team Policy. In this article, however, I will focus primarily on debate (it seems to need the most help).
Before exploring how to craft a memorable opening line, it is useful to understand why they are important in the first place. They are critical for two reasons.
First, they occur when the judge’s curiosity and attentiveness are both peaked. Regardless of whether the debate round is heated or relaxed, the most exciting part of a speech is the opener. At that moment, its content is a complete unknown; and if there is one thing that builds anticipation, it is the element of surprise.
Second, judges tend to categorize you very quickly. That is the same reason why it is imperative to have a firm handshake and not trip over the door on your way into the room. Neither of these affects the substance of your performance, but they do alert the judge that you know what you are doing. That is important because once the judge establishes their first impression of you, changing it is exceedingly difficult. If your introduction is professional, judges will write off any mistakes you go on to make as flukes to confirm their preexisting notion of your capability. However, if your opener is both choppy and tedious, the opposite will be the case.
There are many helpful tactics to employ when brainstorming an opening line: ideal openers are original, applicable, and impactful. They can consist of a rehearsed personal story, a quote from an outside source, or anything in between.
But above all, they are intriguing. The primary goal of the opening line is to captivate the attention of your audience and, more importantly, of your judge. Before each speech, ask yourself the question: “what would the judge like to see?” Does one of your opponent’s points seem to confuse or disturb them? Is there an aspect of your case that they seem to find persuasive? If so, start there; nothing captivates attention more than starting by saying what the judge wants to hear.
This advice is ubiquitous across forensics but is particularly applicable in cross-examination. For example, consider the opening Team Policy cross-ex, which occasionally begins something like this:
- (Timer starts.)
- 2N: “Great speech, I have a couple of questions about it, but before getting into those, how are you doing today?”
- 1A: “I’m doing alright, a bit tired, but doing alright.”
- (1A chuckles at their own joke, 2N forces a smile just a second too late, inadvertently revealing that he/she never cared to begin with.)
- 2N: (Awkwardly) “Aren’t we all? Before we jump into my questions, can we see a copy of your 1AC?”
- 1A: “Sure, let me get that for you.”
- (2-second pause as the 1A hands the case to the 2N.)
- 2N: “Do you mind if I pass this back to my partner?”
- 1A: “Not at all.”
- (Another 2-second pause as the 2N hands the case to the 1N.)
And, at long last, the actual cross-examination begins. By this point, not a single relevant or useful question has surfaced, and the judge’s attention is already starting to slip away.
That is a colossal waste of opportunity. Judges are impressively reliable at reacting negatively to at least one part of every constructive speech. Moreover, if you look carefully at their facial expressions, you can generally determine where their confusion or disagreement lies vis-à-vis your opponent’s position.
In cross-ex, try walking up to the podium, starting your timer, and immediately querying about that one point at which the judge frowned. If no such area exists, begin by attacking one of your opponent’s weaker arguments. Chances are, the judge will have noticed the hole as well, in which case you have their attention. Now all you have to do is keep it.
As you have undoubtedly noticed, this advice is not very complicated, nor is it all that difficult to effectuate. The point of this article is not to ensure that every opening line you give is perfect, nor is it to convince you to spend valuable prep time crafting an impeccable introduction. The point is to inspire you to ask yourself whether there is a better way to start your speech or cross-ex than you are using right now. (From experience, there probably is.)