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When I was just getting a good grip on how to debate well, I struggled with winning the judges over. Oftentimes the ballots blamed this on my aggressiveness, but looking back on it now, I realize that that was only one facet of the problem. Counterintuitively, the more I knew about the subject, the less the judge was likely to be convinced by my argumentation. This wasn’t always true, but especially when debating teams that were as good or better than me and my partner, we found ourselves losing rounds that should have been very easy to win based on our preparedness.

The next season, I researched really hard and prepared more than ever, and although we performed significantly better that year, every now and then this mysterious phenomenon would rear its head once more. If you’re in a position where you struggle to persuade the judge of your position, despite clearly knowing more about the subject than your opponents, then the following advice may be of use to you. 

If I could say one thing to my past debater self, it would be this: don’t demonize your opponents’ argumentation. As easy as it is to treat bad and silly arguments as worthy of ridicule and even disdain, judges will immediately be turned off by your presentation of their side. Even if the argument is actually as bad as you think it is, you have to give it a fair shot, both in your rhetoric and in your mannerisms, in order for the judge to find it persuasive. 

So, how should you go about responding to nit-picky or silly arguments that your opponents manage to present as plausible? I recommend two things to keep in mind. First, steel man their position. Give them the benefit of the doubt, and then destroy the argument anyway. If it’s actually as bad of an argument as you originally thought, it should be easy to do this. Second, if it’s really insignificant and doesn’t matter, then a calm, confident dismissal should do the trick. This communicates to the judge that you are respectful of your opponents, while simultaneously firm in your own position. 

A coach I know once told me that judges tend to form an opinion early on within the round about who they want to vote for, and spend the rest of the round trying to justify voting for that team. They may not be able to do so (that’s where you get ballots that say something like “I found the Aff’s case persuasive, but I was forced to vote Neg because of the Topicality argument”), but their bias is in the direction of the most winsome team. This makes treating the arguments with reasonability and respect all the more important, especially in outrounds. In outrounds, judges are also much more concerned with who looks like they deserve to win; although one team may bring up many valid and compelling arguments, if they don’t debate like they deserve that first place trophy, judges won’t want to vote for them. 

In summary, it’s very important to not go too far in making your opponent’s arguments seem ridiculous or stupid, even if they are objectively wrong. Conduct yourself in a respectful and reasoned manner, and the judge will not be turned off by your attitude. 

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Nathanael Morgan is a sophomore at the Saint Constantine College in Houston, Texas. As an accomplished debater with 3 years of competitive experience in Stoa and numerous awards, he enjoys researching and coaching others. He is studying to be a foreign policy analyst and currently works for a telecommunications company based in Wisconsin.
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