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We Ethos coaches frequently hear despair about how judges receive theory-heavy arguments. There’s a perception that judges despise topicality, counterplans never win rounds, and hardly anybody has even heard of a kritik… and those who have heard of a kritik just think you’re really bad at spelling.

This is frustrating because being able to articulate a logically sound argument feels like it should be enough to win. 

Jeremiah, a third-year debater, writes: my strategy to improve at debate was to do away with the “beginner” techniques like working through the burden proof. Instead, I decided I would overwhelm my opponents with as many arguments as I could think of, with specific on-case cards to back up every point I made on negative. It took me a while to realize that this strategy wasn’t quite working. When I got an alumni judge, I had no problems! But when I came back to parent or community judges, no one seemed to care for my style, and instead preferred the “beginner” strategies that I looked down on. 

Why does this happen?

You lose if the judge doesn’t understand your argument. That’s true regardless of the argument, be it some super fancy theory or just “they don’t solve.”

“Well duh,” you say. Why do judges frequently misunderstand theory-heavy arguments? Two reasons:

  1. They’re unfamiliar. Analogues to inherency, solvency, and significance are commonplace in everyday life. People frequently make arguments like “we don’t need to go out to eat because we have food at home” (inherency), “that place is probably closed by now” (solvency), and “I’d prefer watching TV over reading a book” (significance). Analogues to topicality, counterplans, and kritiks are less common and less familiar (though they do exist!).
  2. You’re familiar. (“The Curse of Knowledge.”) If you’re a student, you’re probably used to being less knowledgeable than the adults around you. You’re not used to explaining things. And so when something becomes familiar, you work it into your vocabulary and internal mental models without realizing it. Then, you make arguments with implicit assumptions that you never explain for the judge.

How do you start to win theory?

Focus on communicating the mechanism of causation to the judge rather than reading cards. If you’re saying “vote neg because aff’s extra-topical mandates harm education,” explain how that is true.

  1. Connect with your judge. Forget your flow, forget the other debaters. The only thing that matters is the answer to the question “do they understand?” If the answer is no, you lose. 
  2. Analogize. One great way to teach a judge something new is to connect to something they already understand. If you’re explaining a counterplan, talk about how we all consider alternative options when making decisions–”should I go to Whataburger? Probably not, I’m really craving Chick-Fil-A.” If you’re explaining topicality, talk about how we sometimes limit the scope of meetings to get things done.
  3. Develop. For a judge to vote on your argument, it needs to be explained well enough for them to get it. Ask yourself “have I said the magic words that would make me understand the concept?”
  4. Less theory is more. If you’re developing every argument, you’re going to run out of time. Explain only what you need to win.
  5. Practice. Don’t avoid theory the way you avoid those leftover vegetables in the back of your fridge. Challenge yourself to communicate nuanced theory arguments to the judge. If you lose, that’s fine! You’re here to learn how to communicate. 

A famous litigator once prepared for an oral argument before the Supreme Court by going to an elementary school and explaining her argument to the kids. She told them to raise their hands when they didn’t understand something she said. When someone raised their hand, she would stop and start completely over until everyone understood. Was it easy to communicate complicated legal theories to kids? Of course not. But she was better for it.

We commit to communicating hard things at Ethos, and we hope to inspire the same commitment in our students.

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