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“May I say that I have not thoroughly enjoyed serving with humans? I find their illogic and foolish emotions a constant irritant.” – Spock, played by Leonard Nimoy. Sometimes I wish that humans were all like Spock, but it’s not true. In reality, a heart is what makes us human. Unfortunately, however, we insulated debaters often pretend that both us and the judge is Vulcan. We pretend the judge will always vote for the team that “wins the flow.” The result? We concern ourselves only with pure argumentation, only focus on “winning the flow,” and in the process ignore real-world communication.

How People Think: Hearts over Minds

In short, people feel first and think later.

In a study documented in his book Campaigning for Hearts and Minds, Ted Brader found that “emotional appeal triumphs over the logical appeal in nearly three-quarters of all political ads… Politicians do set out to campaign for the hearts and minds of voters, and, for better or for worse, it is primarily through hearts that minds are won.” Dr. Peter Noel Murray says that “Emotions are the primary reason why consumers prefer brand name products.” In fact, Professor of neuroscience Antonio Damasio argues in Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain that nearly everything we do is guided or influenced by our emotions. In an interesting discovery, Professor Damasio found that people with damage in the part of the brain where emotions are generated were normal, except that they couldn’t make decisions. They could describe their situation and what they were doing in clear, logical terms. But when it came to a choice of whether to eat turkey and chicken, for example, they couldn’t decide.

In the debate world, this can mean two things. First, people’s (AKA judges) decisions are motivated by feelings and emotions just as much as other factors, like logic. Second, judges (often) decide who they “want” for early on in the debate, and rationalize that decision later.

As Dr. Murray writes, our feelings can be a deciding factor in our decisions, whether consciously or subconsciously: “perhaps the most important characteristic of emotions is that they push us toward action. In response to an emotion, humans are compelled to do something.” I believe this can be a “scientific” explanation for why a judge may have voted against you and for the affirmative/negative team’s position, even though you “won the flow.” Your opponents offered the moral high ground, and the judge, as a human being, felt obligated to “do something” and side with them.

But emotions are just the tip of the iceberg and are the deciding factor in very few rounds. Pathos, rather, is what moves us in most cases. Aristotle defined pathos as the ability to put the audience in a certain state of mind, influence the audience’s disposition, or even appealing to their prejudices and feelings. Not just mere passion as it’s so often equivocated. Successful use of stirring pathos can most certainly happen in close debates, even (and especially) outrounds. Since to the judge, both sides appear very logical, articulate, and evidentiary, the judge finds it hard to differentiate between both sides’ logos and thus (often without realizing it) votes on one side’s pathos.

Almost every debater has experienced rounds where he/she felt the judge voted off of “emotional appeal.” Although emotion’s role is conspicuous in only a small minority of RFDs, I think one would be surprised at how often emotion may be the deciding factor in our decision-making process – including debate rounds. Even if an appeal to emotion doesn’t directly appear on the ballot, it could have influenced the judge’s internal thought process and they justified their conclusion on paper.


“Last year a judge voted against us because immigrant children were being put in immigration court proceedings without lawyers even though the aff’s plan for providing lawyers had 0 advocates, 0 statistics, and 3 dropped DA’s against it.” – Noah Howard

“Lost a round once (I won Speaks) despite demolishing the Neg case and carrying through all my applications because neg brought up Communism.  The specific argument was a poorly-impacted appeal to fear.” – Noah Farley

“I was debating against a team that was running a human rights case (with obvious emotional appeal). Aside from good presentation and strong emotional appeal, the case was terrible. My partner and I objectively thought we crushed them. The other team dropped topicality, multiple DAs, and other stuff. [The] judge basically said that because HR violations were like slavery we should fix it (judge completely disregarded the arguments).”  – Anonymous

“I once beat [someone] as gov on the resolution “This house should value liberty over community” all because I said, “Liberty is what made America great.” I still feel bad about it because that was one of our worst rounds in all parli (it was I think my first parli tournament).”  – Harrison Durland

“She [judge] said we did a better job supporting, but she just couldn’t agree with us because of the emotion.” – Anonymous

We don’t share these examples in order to encourage blaming the judge or your opponents for these losses. In fact, we believe that every one of these debate rounds could have been won if the teams had recognized the emotional appeal and fought against it properly.  Unless the judge picked up a ballot and went out of his way to specifically go to your room and give you a loss, you should never be blaming anyone else for your loss. Take responsibility.

The examples go on and on and on, but I think you get the picture. You most likely have experienced a round where you still scratch your head wondering how you lost. Avoiding these types of ballots is every debater’s goal. The question becomes how do we prevent them.

What’s Next?

The saying “winning hearts and minds” is very true. Men have both hearts and minds. First, win their hearts. Then win their minds.

When strategizing against a case, think of how to incorporate persuasion into your case. Instead of refuting a DA with 7 unique responses, enhance the idea and concept of your argument(s). Instead of proving solvency, paint a picture, since pictures speak a thousand words. When reading your ballots, consider, from the judge’s perspective, who resonated more at a personal level.

This isn’t a strategy to win debate rounds. It’s a life skill. Because as Spock recognized, people have hearts. It’s what makes us human.

Joshua Anumolu is in his fourth year of speech and debate. Last year, he was blessed to place 6th at the NCFCA National Championship in Team Policy debate. For him, competitive debate is about learning how to communicate truth effectively. Every round he lost, was a round he learned from to become a better communicator. He believes true mastery of rhetoric is accomplished when one finds their own balance between ethos, pathos, and logos. He loves to use debate as a platform to inform the audience of issues he cares about.

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