Earlier this season, I received a ballot from a judge who was thoroughly and absolutely confused. At the base of her puzzlement was the solitary word: inherency.
My partner and I had argued that the affirmative plan had essentially already been passed, and thus passing it a second time would be nothing more than redundant. In my opinion, it was quite a robust argument in the given context and sufficient to give us the win.
The judge begged to differ, not because the argument lacked merit but instead because we had presented it incomprehensibly. At least, she didn’t understand it. We had introduced the argument as an “inherency” point, a word that was a complete novelty to her, and therefore it fell flat.
Initially, I looked on that ballot with scorn. Who doesn’t know what inherency means?
However, after reevaluating that question, I have come to a surprising and perhaps disconcerting answer: most people. Most people don’t know what inherency means. In fact, before debaters are introduced to team policy, even they have no clue what inherency means. Why would they? It’s not a word that “normal” people use in day-to-day life.
The other stock issues — topicality, significance, and solvency — are an improvement, but are still not immediately recognizable or comprehensible. Neither, for that matter, are words like “harm” or “mandate,” let alone “fiat,” “kritik,” “counterplan,” “uniqueness,” and “procedural.”
To seasoned debaters, these words are just another part of our vernacular. (Except for “procedural,” I still have no idea what that means.) However, for community and newer parent judges, they are complex and challenging to understand, bordering on meaningless. Do you remember the first time you watched a team policy debate? If you do, your recollection likely includes this same experience, one of complete and utter confusion.
Yet, despite this fundamental fact, debaters continue to use terms like inherency and solvency (or worse, fiat) without even attempting to explain what they mean. We assume that our audience is as up-to-date on their debate jargon as we are.
The goal of this article is to fix that. I will challenge you to reconsider how you frame every debate round to maximize understandability and conversational-style discussion and minimize confused judges and their symptom, frustrating ballots. These tips will likely apply universally across debate formats and styles, though I will zero in on team policy as therein lie the biggest and most glaring problems.
To start, you would have a fair point if you were to ask, “do I really have to explain what inherency means to the debate coach that is judging me?” Of course not. If your judge asks for stock issues or explicitly states that they are fine with your debate lingo, you don’t have to heed any of my advice. However, that is a surprisingly rare occasion. In fact, in my experience, long-time judges tell you to treat them as if they are new judges more often than they give you full license to use debate jargon. There’s a reason for that, one we will delve into later on.
But, before we go anywhere else, what am I advocating for in the first place? What does it mean to treat a judge as if they are new? What precisely is “conversational team policy”? The concept is built around two central ideas.
First, that incoherent arguments never win and should be avoided at all costs. If your judge doesn’t understand your point, your chances of winning are exactly zero. The aforementioned inherency press was by no means a poorly-constructed or irrational argument, but it went right over the judge’s head, and thus its content was irrelevant from the get-go.
Second, that real-world debate should be prioritized. There are many reasons why debate is worth pursuing. Perhaps the best is its educational value: debate lays the framework for persuasion and public speaking later on in life. That value can only be maximized by making competitive debate as real-world as possible. Real-world arguments are almost always conversation-based; there are no speeches, no cross-examination, and certainly no jargon. Thus, competitive debate should mimic that standard.
OK, so conversational-style debate is good, and jargon is bad… but how does this affect your debate style? Where can you go from here? To apply these principles, I’ll specify down to three implications.
First, describe your points of argumentation as broadly and as simply as possible. Primarily, this means that you should avoid classifying arguments as “inherency 1” or “solvency 3.” Rather, present them merely as “arguments,” “points,” or “contentions.” Perhaps even categorize them under overarching headers or themes. One strategy, in particular, has impressed me: it substitutes the stock issues for questions (i.e. instead of using the word “solvency,” ask the question “does the plan work?”). If you don’t like any of those suggestions (or would like to see some more), head over to this post.
Second, if you have to delve into debate theory, explain it as simply as possible. If you reference “fiat power” in a debate, ensure that you don’t move on to your next point without explaining what that is and why it matters. If you are running a topicality press, explain the pretense for such an argument and why the judge should care in the first place. Before you conduct impact calculus, take a moment to reference why it should determine the outcome of the debate. If you want to entitle one of your sub-points as a “uniqueness” point, give the judge at least one sentence as to what that means.
Third, revise your 1AC, and while you are doing so, remember that it ought to read like a speech, not a legal code. While three facts, two harms, and four justifications (each with multiple sub-points) will keep everyone busy flowing, it typically is neither persuasive nor immediately understandable. Like it or not, most debates are not won on the flow. Debate is a game of persuading the judge to your point of view, not overwhelming your opponents with claims, warrants, and impacts. In the 1AC (and debate in general), less is typically more, and the simple and understandable almost always wins over the complex and technical.
One of the cardinal rules of forensics is that you should never assume that the judge knows what you are talking about. Don’t forget that rule. If you do, you will end up winning your debates on the flow but failing to persuade your audience; you will be victorious on paper, but not in your judge’s mind. Aim for a healthy mix of both; give conversational team policy a try.