Our elite Mastership Sourcebooks for NCFCA and Stoa will release soon! Check them out here!

Be Orators, Not Debaters

“All right,” you may be thinking, “Community judges may be a necessity. I recognize they approach debate with a mindset of hesitancy and self-doubt. And I may very well be able to mitigate this mindset by somewhat adapting to this mindset. But how for heaven’s sake do I stop getting bogus ballots? WHAT’S WRONG WITH THESE COMMUNITY JUDGES?!”

For the vast majority of community judges (excepting those who may be overwhelmingly biased, many of whom aren’t hopeless either) the so-called “problem” is that they are real people unadulterated by debate community conventions. Hence, persuading community judges amounts to one overarching element: You cannot just be a debater. You must be an orator. Here are three tactics to help you persuade real people who value real communication.

Persuasion Tactic #1: Be Concrete

LDers are notorious for speaking exclusively from the ivory tower. Yet, even policy debaters exhibit a propensity for retreating into the realm of abstractions and failing to engage with tangible reality–rattling off esoteric statistics, detailing theoretical data, and\or compartmentalizing cases into (to community judges) irremediably impenetrable stock issues (Lucile Vaughan Paine in The Lively Art of Writing writes many people disengage when confronted by new nouns ending in “-y” because they deem them too abstract). How to suffuse your arguments with tangibility? Change your mindset, have a theme, and tell a story.

(A) Change Your Mindset

Whether you’re competing in TP, LD, or parli, forget that you’re in a debate round. Instead, envision yourself advocating your new posture towards China before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, or your reasons to prioritize rehabilitation during a congressional session on overhauling criminal justice. Relegating debate to an academic activity divorces it from reality. Don’t consider debate to be an argumentation game. Treat it like a simulation of the real world. When you communicate concretely, as if you were seeking to effect actual change, you become far more persuasive.

Embody a disposition that you’re communicating not to win a debate, but to change the world. Formulate plans that you desire to write Congress about. Remain cognizant of the real world of argumentation–the world you will be forced to confront after leaving the sterile environments of NCFCA and Stoa. You’re most persuasive when you’re genuine, and altering your mindset is the first step to authenticity in debate.

(B) Have a Theme

“In this speech, I’m going to be going down the flow and addressing some of my opponents arguments…” Aside from being cliche, obvious, and verbally cumbersome, this phrase expresses a flawed mentality–that your case is a conglomeration of arguments and that the debate round itself is a haphazard terrain of conflicting lines of argumentation, devoid of overarching purpose. On this terrain, community judges give up, confused, overwhelmed with arguments and not knowing how to vote for or why.

The solution is simple. Imbue your case with teleology–purpose. Have a theme, a logically cogent and emotionally compelling theme… then, orient your case around that singular principle. Phrase it as a bumper sticker caption. Then as a haiku. Then as a vivid, succinct thesis. Reference your theme at the outset or conclusion of every speech… and, furthermore, impact. Every. Single. Argument. To. It. Your theme is the rationale that undergirds your arguments, the nexus of the debate round, the “why” that the community judge pens in the RFD when your thematically oriented case obliterates your (albeit brilliant) opponent’s disjointed collage of argumentation.

(C) Tell a Story

In Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, brothers Chip and Dan Heath impart the following principle–stories are the pinnacle of persuasion. They render you more relatable. They resonate with a judge’s predisposition to perceiving life as a narrative. They reduce your ideas to concrete elements. Back in hospitality, regardless of whether or not the judges recalls that all-too-crucial solvency evidence in a high-caliber elimination round, they’ll remember the stories you and your partner referenced throughout your speeches.

Persuasion Tactic #2: Be Compelling

Even if you bolster the concreteness of your arguments by adding narrative dimensions and thematic elements, you need to now persuade judges of these points by communicating compellingly. Without a shared vocabulary, a simplicity of arguments, and a slow speaking tempo, your palpable ideas will elude your judges.

(A) Simplify Vocabulary

For many, this might be the most difficult to master. (It was for me… “What?! I’ve learned all these words, and now I shouldn’t use them?”) While cultivating professionalism in your word selection is important, we need to ensure that we’re not using arcane words (no matter how apropos) because 1) if we’re trying to show off, that’s wrong AND unpersuasive, 2) judges will disengage from the debate to figure out what we meant, and, most importantly, 3) we can never expect to persuade anyone of anything if we communicate with them in terms they don’t understand.

Don’t think that this point merely precludes you from using “floccinaucinihilipilification” in your next round. Having inculcated yourself in research for at least six months now, you’re already vulnerable to the “Curse of Knowledge” — the notion that certain terms and concepts that likely were foreign to us upon first exposure have now seamlessly integrated themselves into our vocabulary, and we forget that other people don’t know what they mean. Terms like “recidivism,” “restitution,” or even the resolution itself — a phrase so overused it almost becomes like a single unit in our minds “resolvedrehabilitationoughttobevaluedaboveretributionincriminaljusticesystems” that we speed through and forget that community judges who have heard it once in orientation need to process it. Not to mention acronyms… simply stating the name of an organization once and then referring to it by its acronym the rest of the round only serves to confuse judges, not compel them.

We need to thwart the Curse of Knowledge by recapturing that unfamiliarity we first experienced upon encountering words and concepts, remembering our judges feel the same way, and reacting accordingly.

(B) Reduce Argument Quantity

DO NOT run four contentions each with three subpoints and two examples, ten-point rebuttals, or seven mandates. Judges want a compelling reason to vote for you. In the real world (and therefore in the minds of community judges), winning a multiplicity of arguments is insufficient. Having a theme (explains above) serves as a beacon of light in the darkness, guiding your judges through the haze of arguments to an understanding of why your side matters.

Quash the “more arguments = winning” notion that pervades NPDA. Eschew the quantity of arguments and responses for a few simple, potent, developed, thematically-oriented points. Remember that less is more.

(C) Decrease Speaking Tempo

In a similar vein, persuasion and rapid speaking tempo are incompatible. All judges have a limited comprehension, and, unless they’re overly exuberant alumni, typically are not living and breathing the debate resolution. They enter the room preoccupied with concerns for making dinner, pondering impending deadlines, and worrying about sick children. After the debate round, they use the restroom, talk to a few people, help themselves to a snack, and, finally sitting down at a table, stare at their flows and try to wrap their minds the overwhelming spectacle they just observed. In light of this, expecting neophyte judges to apprehend, process, and ultimately adjudicate complex argumentation spoken at absurdly rapid tempi is ludicrous.

Slow down. It’s compelling. It enables the judge to process your points. It affords you more control and enhances your professionalism. Besides, the real world will shun speed as well. Opt for rhetorical argumentation, not rapid analysis.

Persuasion Tactic #3: Be Charismatic

(A) Modulate Voice

I remember vividly the first time I experimented with vocal modulation in debate. In Octafinals at my second LD tournament ever, I was delivering the 2AR and was suddenly gripped with a visceral passion for economic freedom. At the conclusion of my speech, I paused, lowered my voice, and began to whisper. Intrigued, the judges leaned forward. “But freedom is not like this,” I said, looking at each one in turn. “It enables societies to prosper… to burgeon… to flourish!” — each time increasing my volume until I reached the resounding crescendo: “And for all these reasons I strongly urge a negative ballot!”

Yeah, yeah, it was probably the classic case of the melodramatic novice. Except for the final sentence, however, I wish I had employed this tactic far more. Vocal modulation augments your charisma. When you speak softly, judges deem your words more important. When you speak loudly, judges respect your passion. When you alternate between loud and soft (coupled with changing your speaking tempo as well), judges remain transfixed by what you have to say.

(B) Incorporate Introductions and Conclusions

As Isaiah explains, recycling classic debate cliches to commence and conclude your speeches is banal and unappetizing. Instead of tacking on the perfunctory “for all these reasons I strongly urge a negative ballot” or “in the first rebuttal I will be going over the flow and addressing all my opponent’s argument,” try something with more pizzazz. Restate your thesis differently at the beginning of your openings and closings. Tell a story. Relate an applicable and poignant quote. Introducing and concluding your speeches with these elements not only improves your speaker points (I actively made an effort to open with strong quotes and iterations of my thesis at Nationals my senior year and got three 30s) but heightens your charisma, and thus your persuasiveness to community judges.

(C) Pause

Debaters do not pause. I’ve only come to this realization after judging a number of rounds at practice tournaments and Ziggy, and observing rounds as a coach. Debaters never pause. Even if they are speaking slowly, one sentence blurs into the next and slides into the next and shifts into the next and they read their next point and their next point and a piece of evidence here and a sob story there and for all these reasons please vote for them thank you.

They don’t pause. And it’s killing their charisma.

If you pause, you become more persuasive than 90% of the debate community. Take a breath at points during your speeches. After a particularly impactful sentence, look your judge in the eye and don’t say anything. The silence will speak for you. It gives your judge a chance to breathe, to process, to absorb the full weight of your brilliant argument.

(D) Inject Humor

“It’s hard to say ‘no’ when you’re laughing.” If you feel comfortable, humor can be an effective way at generating rapport with your audience. Above all, community judges want to feel comfortable. Humor sets them at ease, makes them less self-conscious, and ingratiates you with them.


Because the impetus of communication is on you, be an orator, not a debater.

It’s challenging. And that’s the point. Being an orator demands creativity coupled with tenacity–a willingness to experiment with rhetoric and to continue experimenting even when your first attempts fail. Robotically reading evidence cards, regurgitating insipid debate cliches and reciting a case in a rapid monotone designed to encompass as many points as possible is simply easier.

The real world does not want debaters. It needs orators. Orators who refuse to objectify the audience by treating the judges as instruments for personal glory, but who recognize that they themselves are vessels for conveying truth. Orators who realize who that debate rounds are not contests of argumentation, but persuasion. Orators who resolve to embark on a journey of rhetoric and communication, not sophistry and specialization.

You cannot expect to merely debate well. You must also persuade well.

This is the third and final post about community judges. Further techniques for effective persuasion are elaborated upon in Part 1 and Part 2.

Joel Erickson is a Coach in Training and Blogger for Ethos Debate. In his two years competing in the NCFCA, he consistently advanced to finals and semifinals in Lincoln-Douglas and qualified to elimination rounds at Nationals in several speech and debate events. Currently, he is enrolled Wheaton College (IL), pursuing a double major in Philosophy and English with the aim of teaching at the collegiate level or attending law school. Education is his primary passion, and after coaching his local club’s apologetics program for two years, he is serving this year as their assistant coach for LD.

Joel Erickson coaches for Ethos Debate. In his two years competing in the NCFCA, he consistently advanced to finals and semifinals in Lincoln-Douglas and qualified to elimination rounds at Nationals in several speech and debate events, and has won tournaments in speech, LD, collegiate parliamentary, and collegiate mock trial. Currently, he is enrolled Wheaton College (IL), pursuing a double major in Philosophy and English with the aim of teaching at the collegiate level or attending law school.

%d bloggers like this: