Regional and national championships are rapidly approaching. If you’re planning to compete, that means you’ll have to step up your game. Here are four ways good debaters can start to become great debaters. (This list is by no means exhaustive – an exhaustive list would be much too long for a blog post!)
1. Develop a Unifying Vision
Some debaters treat rounds as mere aggregates of lots of miniature arguments, and they try to win each round by winning as many miniature arguments as possible.
Some good debaters win this way, but great debaters rarely do. Most arguments won’t hit home for judges unless they are integrated into a story. I don’t mean a narrative with characters (though these can be rhetorically helpful) – I mean a philosophical narrative, a story about the connection between your arguments and something of great value. In Lincoln Douglas, the best stories are constructed around the framework, i.e. the value and the criterion. Your framework should constitute a unifying vision that gives coherence to your arguments.
Once you have developed a unifying vision, you need to talk about it. It should come up at the beginning and the end of every speech (and as often as possible in between). If your value is justice and your criterion is equal opportunity, start the 1AR by reminding the judge, “The argument I’ve made today is simple: we have a moral duty to uphold justice, and that means giving everyone a fair shot. In the AFF world, everyone gets a fair shot; in the NEG world, almost no one does.” Even in the 2AR, it’s worth spending your first 40 seconds recapitulating the story you’ve been telling since the round began.
2. Impact Cross-Examination Questions
Good debaters are excellent at CX – they ask short, sweet, penetrating questions and force their opponents to tie themselves in knots.
And then they let everyone in the room forget that CX ever happened.
Great debaters impact CX throughout the round. They refer back to successful lines of CX every chance they get. Your odds of victory in a debate round are directly proportional to the number of sentences that start with, “As my opponent conceded…” or “As my opponent and I agreed…” etc.
Here’s a new motto for you to adopt: Spend CX winning the debate, and spend rebuttals explaining how you won the debate in CX. This is hard to do, but you’re almost certain to win if you can pull it off.
3. Find Common Ground
This one might be counterintuitive. But I have found that debaters who are willing to agree with their opponents on important questions tend to be much more persuasive. That’s because they appear more reasonable. It’s not advisable to agree with your opponent on something that critically damages your case or makes theirs unassailable. But you can very often concede an opponent’s point without conceding the round.
Here’s an example. Suppose my opponent and I are debating the 2022-2023 Stoa resolution, which states that criminal justice ought to prioritize rehabilitation over retribution, restitution, or deterrence. My opponent, who is AFF, has just cited statistics showing that successful cognitive-behavioral therapeutic interventions lower rearrest rates significantly. I can respond this way:
“My opponent has made a persuasive case for the effectiveness of rehabilitation. In fact, I agree with my opponent that rehabilitation has a positive impact on the lives of offenders, and I agree that rehabilitation should be made widely available. However, it doesn’t follow that rehabilitation should be our priority in criminal justice. The sorts of treatments to which my opponent appeals can be provided by non-profit and religious organizations. Effective rehabilitation does not require the exercise of state power. Effective deterrence does, however. Since non-governmental organization can provide rehabilitation but can’t police crime, criminal justice systems should focus on policing crime. Different institutions should have different priorities.”
This response works well for two reasons. First, as mentioned above, it appears quite reasonable: it proves that I’m willing to concede that my opponent has a point. Second, it saves me lots of time. Trying to falsify my opponent’s statistics would likely be a complicated task, but this response sidesteps that problem. Now the burden is on my opponent to engage with my arguments, rather than the other way around.
4. Script your introductions and conclusions
This one is easy, but almost no one does it. The first and last words of the round are among the most important, and a pithy message delivered in the closing moments of the 2AR can make the difference between victory and defeat.
This point is related to #1 above: your scripted introductions and conclusions should make direct reference to your unifying vision. And they should do so with style. Don’t ever end a speech with, “For all these reasons, I strongly urge you to vote affirmative.” That’s boring. Say something like, “Lest the blessings of liberty slowly erode, all people everywhere must resist the tide of government control. We must all affirm the resolution.” Or quote Ronald Reagan, or Thomas Jefferson, or Patrick Henry. Or do something else. Just say something interesting. Being interesting with the last few seconds of the 2AR is as powerful as it is uncommon.
These are just a few of the skills that make debaters great. Maybe I’ll write about more in a future post. In the meantime, I think I’ve given you plenty to practice.
Noah McKay is a debate coach and sourcebook author at Ethos Debate currently pursuing graduate studies in philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. He has coached individuals and groups in LD for five years.