Debaters don’t (usually) assert dominance with expensive sneakers or long, bushy beards. Instead, the token we typically rely on is the amount of evidence in our boxes, briefcases, or what have you. Evidence is power, and more evidence means more dedication to debate. So, we should load up on as much of it as we can, right? Well… maybe not.
I was prompted to write about this subject after I recently began dedicating more of my pre-tournament negative prep time towards strategizing and optimizing the arguments for each individual case, as opposed to loading up on cards. Personally, I found this type of prep much more enjoyable than endless card cutting, and my neg rounds haven’t suffered because of it. If anything, they’ve improved.
How did we get here?
Okay, more on my new prep style later. Let’s talk about how I used to allocate time and how I feel many people in the league still do: by spending countless hours building their briefs and aff backups, amassing evidence on every argument possible. Why is this something that many of us gravitate towards? In my opinion, there’s a variety of reasons.
First of all, there’s evidence to back up virtually any claim that you want to make. If you look hard enough, you can find a study to prove your point. More information is being published now than ever before, and this creates a system of endless rewards for policy debaters. If the evidence is out there, why not look for it?
Secondly, having hundreds of pages of evidence is a tangible indicator of the work that you’ve put into debate, and can help you feel prepared. Especially for newer debaters, nothing is more scary than walking into a neg round with no evidence. Having cards for every argument of every case gives reassurance that you’re going to have something to say, no matter what.
Finally, many debaters don’t know anything else. They’ve been taught that having good neg briefs or a huge aff backup is the secret to being a good debater, and they don’t know of any other way to improve their odds. Strategizing is highly specific to the team, and therefore does not often get discussed at club meetings. Unfortunately, this leads to many debaters having no idea how to properly build a strategy against a particular case.
Ok, but what’s the issue?
The first issue with evidence focused briefs is that they lose any sort of cohesive narrative. Instead of having a solid framework with evidence to add substance, many briefs are a jumble of unrelated, contradicting cards, with no structural backbone to persuade the judge with. There’s no “big idea” or negative thesis, and instead focus on proving stock issues true or false… with no reason provided for why the judge should care.
Ultimately, this results in a round where the negative strategy is incohesive or even contradictory. Both speakers seem to operate in their own world, independent of one another. At the end of the round, the judge is left with many arguments, but nothing holding them all together. Sometimes, they can feel overwhelmed by the unexplained quotes read by one team– and understood by no one.
Beyond this, teams are usually left with far too much evidence. While they could only conceivably read a few pages, some teams attempt to use briefs that are 20 or even 30 pages long. I’ve debated tournaments with aff backups exceeding 50 pages in length, and I always found myself turning to the same 4 or 5 cards every round. Of course, having extra evidence won’t hurt you during the round, but it represents something else: the opportunity cost. Every minute you spent cutting cards that you didn’t use was a minute that you could have spent fine-tuning your second line responses.
What can I do?
What does building a negative strategy look like? Well, it actually may need to begin with research! But I’m not talking about mindless card cutting, I’m talking about understanding the history and background necessary to understand the case that you are trying to attack. Negative strategies don’t start with negative arguments– they start with understanding affirmative arguments.
Afterwards, you can begin targeting some weak points of the case. Note the word some. Every case is going to be attackable (not sure if that’s a word or not but we’re going to roll with it) from many angles, but it’s foolish to attempt more than a few. Find the best combination of arguments (ones that are strong, explainable and compatible), and use those to determine your neg thesis/catchphrase, which will be the foundation of your entire narrative. Research to find specific evidence for building out those points.
Once that’s done, triple check to ensure that your arguments don’t assume that your judges know something that they may not know– background information is important.
Don’t forget cross examination! CX questions are an excellent thing to prepare ahead of time, so that they’re not forgotten in the heat of the moment.
At this point, you can jot down openers, analogies, stories, and closers that you may want to use, and then you’re done! Just kidding… you’re never done. In the same way that you can always add more evidence to a brief, negative strategies can be eternally fine-tuned. I obsess over reading my flows out loud to myself and to my parents, constantly making sure everything is cohesive and that I’m not forgetting something important.
If you begin to employ a more strategy focused research approach, I think that you’ll begin to have more fun, and you will understand the debate rounds better. Ultimately, I think rounds with a solid narrative and strategy are better for you, more tricky for your opponent, and more enjoyable for the judge.