It’s halftime. You just got past the NEG block and the 1AR is about to start. You’re feeling pretty confident about your arguments and believe that there’s no way the other team can recover from your heavy onslaught.
The rebuttals come around and you just solidify your already enormous payload. There is nothing the other team can do in your mind. They’ve just been (super kindly of course) wrecked. Demolished. Destroyed. You’re convinced that the judge walked out of that room with a huge smile on their face because they wouldn’t need to waste time thinking about who they should vote for.
…..that is until you saw the ballot. You were devastated that the judge just didn’t seem to understand your fire arguments that absolutely destroyed the other team. The judge seemed to be on the face and narrowly voted for your opponents. You chalk up your loss to you being too biased towards your own arguments that you believed and knew were super good. But there’s a part of you that tells yourself that that is simply not the reason.
Well, I’m here to tell you that you’re absolutely right. After losing a couple of rounds that I absolutely thought I won, I spend hours pondering and investigating what could have possibly gone wrong. And then I finally figured it out. The homeschool leagues all have one critical problem…. Argument construction. You can make a good point in any debate, yes, but what determines if that’s a nationally winning argument (and by extension round) is determined by how well you construct that argument.
Once I figured this out, I went from averaging 18 in speaker points two tournaments ago to placing 4th at nationals (as well as averaging 25, which was still objectively one of the lowest speaker averages in the entire out rounds.) So how did I get so far with one of the lowest speaks in out rounds?
I did several things, but we’ll be focusing on the three easiest of those ways in which you can improve on your argument construction and win those close regional and national rounds without relying on the way you speak.
Way #1: Clear Formatting
The first and easiest way to improve your argument construction is to improve the way you construct, or format, your arguments. For instance, how are you structuring your topicality presses? Your disadvantages? Your solvency arguments?
Oftentimes, it’s helpful to just go back to the basics for the more common category of argumentation structures. I know going back sounds counterintuitive if you’re trying to go forward, but I promise it’s worth it! Go back to the Toulmin model, which at it’s most simplest and absolutely diluted form is (1) claim (2) warrant (3) impact. Also go back to four point refutation (which by the way, you should check out this excellent Ethos camp lecture on four point refutation done by one of the greatest Ethos coaches, Coach Thaddeus Tague).
Know these well and by heart. Whenever you see or hear an argument — even outside of debate rounds — think in terms of these structures.
But clear formatting goes beyond a simplified Toulmin model. For instance, let’s take a look at topicality. While I’ll be going more in-depth on how to run topicality in the future (subscribe to the blog to get notified when it comes out!), the basic structure of topicality is (1) Interpretation [how you should interpret the rez] (2) Violation [how the AFF fails this] (3) Standards [why your interpretation is better than the alternative one] and (4) Impact [why this means that you should exclude parts of the AFF case or just straight up vote NEG].
This is the ONLY right way to run topicality. I apologize for making such a bold claim, but notice how much the homeschool leagues hate topicality? They don’t hate topicality because topicality is inherently bad. They hate it because it’s not run right. They hate it because teams read a definition and then argue about how theirs is better (and provide super weak warrants, aka standards). I changed my T presses to use the argument construction above, and I went from never winning T to winning it once or twice at the 9 NCFCA tournaments I competed in my senior year.
We could also talk about DAs. The most common structure for a Unique DA is (1) Uniqueness (2) Link (3) Internal Link and (4) Impact. Most teams leave out the uniqueness part of this argument and run their DAs as a Linear DA. If you have uniqueness…. This is a terrible idea! The reason being is that first AFF can in less than 5 seconds say “non-unique” and move on, but second and more importantly, it’s harder to determine the quantity of the DA. If the AFF was reducing the size of lakes so we could use more water from them and the NEG DA was simply “this harms ducks” with no uniqueness, then the judge is going to discount your argument in their head automatically if AFF can come up and say that their policy would benefit the economy by $200 billion while ducks already die every day anyways. You lose the impact calculus battle every single time. Instead, structure your DA with the uniqueness that ducks aren’t dying in mass numbers right now and passing the AFF policy will lead to ducks being significantly harmed.
I’ll be writing about the best way to structure and win DAs in the future (once more, subscribe to get notified!), but for now, know that you should be learning super technical debate theory. Why? Because if you on a fundamental level know exactly how to structure these arguments by heart and what exactly every single part does, you can easily overturn badly structured arguments of your opponents and show that their arguments are built on bad logic.
You might have audibly gasped when I said “super technical debate theory knowledge” — “Isn’t that against the beliefs of the homeschool leagues?? We have community judges and parent judges who aren’t super technical!!” you might ask. I get asked this question more times than you might expect, and while I get your hesitancy, here’s why you’re safe: Once you learn the structure of technical arguments, you can break it down and explain it in a persuasive manner to someone who has no idea about what debate even is. That’s the beauty of the homeschool leagues. Unlike leagues like NSDA, students are trained to take super-advanced and technical arguments and explain them in a way that any normal person can understand.
Way #2: Clear Warranting
I’m gonna come out and say it. Warranting is one of the biggest issues I see in homeschool debate rounds. Students make a claim and then read a piece of evidence. Or perhaps they state a debate stance that some people hold (such as stock issues as a weighing mechanism, or topicality or topical counterplans are bad etc) but never state the reasoning for why.
My friends, this is not the way it should be! Instead, you must support your claims… and no, not just with evidence, but with reasons — with logic. The only persuasive way to construct logical arguments is to have reasons for that argument. And not to be repetitive, but we call reasons for an argument warrants. Therefore, warrants are super important to the construction of your argument.
Okay, so I’m sure we agree now, but how specifically can you get better at warranted? Here’s a cool drill that I would recommend: it’s called the “why?” drill. Take a claim from an argument, any argument. Then just ask yourself “why?” but not just once or twice, but three or more times until you get to a satisfying point.
For instance, let’s say that the claim of an argument is “pineapple pizza is awesome.” Okay, why is pineapple pizza awesome? Because it tastes great. Why does it taste great? Because there’s pineapple on the pizza. Why is pineapple on the pizza so awesome? Because the taste of pineapple compliments the cheese and tomato sauce around it.
[Now, this isn’t so bad of a warrant and we could end here, but oftentimes going a bit more will get you some better reasons, so let’s continue our questioning.]
Why so? Because when you bite into the small piece of pineapple, it releases this sweet and juicy taste. The next question would be why are pineapples sweet, but I think we’ve gone far enough.
Your first warrant for the claim of “pineapple pizza is awesome” is that pineapples are sweet and juicy. Notice how the previous question got us the answer of “pineapples compliment the cheese and tomato sauce” which isn’t as strong? We can still use that as an additional warrant though! So your two warrants are that (1) pineapples are sweet and juicy and (2) pineapples compliment cheese and the sauce.
Notice how much more persuasive that is than just claiming that pineapple pizza is awesome because it tastes great and then citing Dr. John Smith and then moving on? The “it tastes great” is a warrant for sure, not but as persuasive as the other warrants mentioned above.
Way #3: Clear Impacting
If poor warranting is the biggest issue I see in many homeschool debate rounds, poor impacting is a close second. The impact of your argument is the part of your argument where you tell me — or rather, your judge — why the argument matters to them. For instance, you could tell me that the “debt is rising” but so what? So what?? Why do I care if the debt rises?
Your obvious reaction is probably to exclaim the questions “UMM, taxes??? Inflation?? Economic destruction via recessions/depressions?????”
And to this, I say, well done! Because those are awesome impacts. You just gotta explicitly use them in round, but also be very clear when you say them. Something I like to do when I point out my impacts is rhetoric along the following lines after I’ve stated my claim, presented a couple of warrants, and then cited evidence from a credible PhD: “Judge, the debt is rising, but why does that matter to you and why does that matter to this round? It matters because of (1) impact #1 which you can tag down X because the debt rising causes X which is bad for everyone, (2) impact #2 which you can tag down as Y because the debt rising causes Y which is bad for everyone” etc, where X and Y are the impacts of taxes and inflation and recessions et al.
ALWAYS make sure to tag down impacts so that your judge knows about them and do your part to harp and make your impacts the biggest deal of your argument and the round as a whole, because honestly? They kinda are. Warrants are supercritical as well because they prove or disprove your argument, but what’s the point in winning an argument that has little impact (i.e matter) on the round? I.e, what’s the point in winning the claim that “the sky is blue” if it doesn’t do much to help you win a team policy round about criminal justice?
Also, while we’re on the subject of impacting, do make sure that you impact calculate at the end of every single speech and especially in your last rebuttal! Impact calculus is basically just grabbing together all your best and most persuasive impacts and then weighing them against the AFF’s impacts assuming that the AFF’s impacts actually happen. If you’d like to learn a bit more about impact calculus, go ahead and take a look at one of our own, Allen Sheie’s, well-written article on the subject. While you’re at that, I also recommend Ethos blogger Harrison Durland’s advice of the “impact calculus plant” which you can use after every offensive argument you make. I can personally say that the tactic will help you out a lot.
Conclusion: Keep Learning & Growing!
Before we finish off here and you exit this page, I want you to remember one thing: keep learning and keep growing! The three ways above are just a few of the ways to get better at argument construction, but there are many many more things you can do.
My advice, now that you know what you need to improve on, is to go to your coach, alum friends, and fellow competitors and ask them for the best advice they have on improving. They’ll have amazing advice! Once you do that, come back here and share what you’ve learned with the rest of us in the comments below.
If you don’t have a regular coach or would like to up your game up a bit more, feel free to head over to our coaches page and take a look at buying a coaching package with us here at Ethos. I’d personally be willing to mentor you into more superb argument construction. But just remember, we all have something to learn and no single person has the answers to everything. Go ahead and get advice from as many people as possible! Keep learning and keep growing!