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I have said elsewhere that one of the cardinal rules of forensics is to “never assume that the judge knows everything you do about a topic.” This is an essential rule because being on the same page with your judge is a prerequisite to persuading or informing them. If you assume the judge knows something that they don’t, the quality of your point is irrelevant. It does not matter how confident you seem—or how right you are—if the judge does not understand what you are saying.

Despite the consequences of doing so, this rule is often broken. This is evidenced by the number of confused ballots which debaters receive. I would estimate that in at least a quarter of my debate rounds, there was a significant issue that the judge misunderstood or failed to grasp. This is typically the debaters’ fault—they likely presented an abbreviated version of an argument (instead of working it out step-by-step). In other words, they did not give the judge the requisite time or explanation to understand the complexity or realize the significance of the point they were making.

Breaking this rule is understandable. Everything in forensics has a time limit, and one of the most critical skills in forensics is deciding which content is worth keeping in and which content should be cut out. It is also exceedingly easy to forget that debate is an esoteric sport and that debate rounds center on obscure topics. Debaters research, argue, and strategize about each resolution for months before attending their first official competition. Judges do not have that benefit; a substantial portion of every judge pool (especially in Team Policy) is being exposed to the specific topic being discussed for the very first time. If you want to succeed, you have to remember that fact, and you must take account of it when presenting your arguments.

Here’s what I’m getting at: When it comes to the topic you are arguing about, your judge’s knowledge is infantile compared to yours. It does not matter how much of an expert you are if you cannot communicate your knowledge to someone who knows very little, and might even be a bit slow on the uptake.

So, what is the impact of all of this? My advice is to rarely (if ever) give the judge the benefit of the doubt. Assume that they are as uninformed as they reasonably could be. Take a moment to explain things so that your argument is simple and straightforward. This does not mean you should spell out every part of your argument; efficiency is important. But efficiency is irrelevant if the judge is not following what you are saying. Thus, clarity is the more fundamental concern.

There are several secondary benefits to explaining arguments more completely. The first is that you will understand them better; explaining arguments in simple terms helps you grasp how the argument works (or doesn’t) in a significantly more precise way. Additionally, your speaker points will likely improve as you demonstrate your comprehensive knowledge of the issue in question to the judge.

The primary and most obvious exception to this principle is when you personally know your judge (or perhaps they have judged you before) and are aware that they are neither uninformed nor slow on the uptake. If this is the case, you should not be unnecessarily thorough. The rule I am advocating is that when you do not know how much knowledge your judge has, you should assume that they have less rather than more.

One final point I will make is the importance of understanding (and reacting to) a judge’s background/philosophy. If you know how much background knowledge a judge has, you can utilize your time more effectively and perhaps avoid guesswork altogether.

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