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A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to take a trip Tampa and get out of the cold weather in Chicago. I usually do what most people do on a flight, put on headphones, turn up some music, and sleep. However, this flight was different. Instead of being wedged between two middle-aged men for two and a half hours, I had the opportunity to witness a demonstration right before my eyes of principles I’d learned in debate.

How? By watching a father talk to his three-year-old daughter. Below are the eight ideas I gleaned from the experience.

1. Explain All the Details Even if YOU Know Them and YOU Think Everyone Else Does.

Almost as soon as the plane had pulled away from the gate, the young child started asking questions. One of the questions was, “Where is the plane going now, daddy?” Now, in a debate round, these are the details questions. The ones where after the round we ask ourselves, “How could the judge not understand our mandate? Is the judge just dumb?” So, most of us would answer that question either, we’re taxiing to the runway or to Tampa.

The dad, however, explained it by not just saying the word taxiing. He explained why the plane taxied, when a plane can taxi, and didn’t skip a detail. He didn’t assume his daughter knew anything about flying, and because he didn’t make that assumption his daughter understood what he said—to a T. If debaters explained things the same way, we’d worry less about “crazy” RFD’s.

2. Explain the Unknown in Terms of the Known

What was going through your mind when you first heard the term Free Trade or Bilateral Investment Treaty or Board of Appeals for Veterans Claims? Probably a sense of confusion, even though none of us debaters ever want to admit we’re confused… 😛

So how did you end up understanding what terms like those mean? Either:

  1. You looked it up on the Internet and read until you knew.
  2. Someone explained it to you in a way you understood.

Judges don’t have the luxury of looking up your plan afterwards and reading about it until they understand it. So how do you explain it to them in a way they’ll understand in an 8 or 5 minute speech?

Like this: Compare it to things the Judge knows. This is what analogies and stories were created for. Critical note: we’re not suggesting analogies for arguments, like the dumb stuff about penguins or how your mom gets you to clean your room, but analogies for teaching – simply to help us understand what something is like.

For example, on the plane ride, the young girl was playing with a sticker book and saw a sticker of a horse blanket to put on a horse. She, however, had no idea it was a horse blanket, so she asked her dad what it was. Instead of saying, it’s a horse blanket, which she probably wouldn’t have understood; he instead compared it to pajamas. Our conclusion, take complex things and use analogies and comparisons to make the unknowns understood.

3. Be New and Exciting! Don’t Do The Same Old Same Old

No, I don’t mean run new arguments in the 2NR and 2AR. No, I don’t mean run a new case every round. No, I don’t mean try to speak in a foreign accent. I mean try to use humor during your speeches. Try and present information that the judge didn’t know before, and present it in an exciting way. It doesn’t matter whether it’s presented through a story, joke, or surprising statistic. If it’s exciting and helps the judge better understand your argument, do it! Little kids as a whole really emphasize this principle. They have a short attention span, but they love to learn new things. And if you help them learn in a way that keeps their attention, everyone’s happy. So, help your judge by helping them see your case through the eyes of a child.

This is a struggle every debater faces, especially at regionals and nationals. After four or so tournaments of running the same case, hearing the same argument, and responding with the same responses, it becomes difficult to stay excited about your case. However, staying excited about your case can take your debating to the next level.

4. Give the AUDIENCE What They Want

Too often, debaters try to “win the flow” – persuading any debaters watching, including possibly the opposing team – instead of trying to persuade the audience. Responding to arguments and bringing up theory arguments is a means to an end. The end is, of course, persuading your judge. The audience has responses they want to hear, issues they want addressed, and clarification they want provided. So instead of “going down the flow” and responding, present the material your audience wants presented!

The little girl sitting next to me would cry or complain when her dad didn’t give her the sticker she wanted. And, while a judge won’t cry about it, they will let you know you didn’t persuade the audience.

5. Help the Judge Have That Aha! Moment

No, I don’t mean the band Aha! (And if you thought that, you get 80s rock, and you are awesome.) I mean the moment where all the dots connect for the judge and they understand what you’re saying. You can do that by doing what’s on this list. Explain every detail is if the judge doesn’t know all that you know about your case. Help the judge understand by explaining the things they don’t know in terms of things they do know. Keep the judge’s attention by explaining things in an exciting way that caters to what the Judge, not what the debaters find interesting. Teach don’t conquer, as Drew would say.

6. Don’t Take More Time Than You Need

Debaters have some mystical obsession with filling all 8 minutes of speech time. As if not filling your time makes you a bad debater and communicator. However, if you don’t have 8 minutes’ worth of things to say, then don’t speak for 8 minutes. If you can clearly explain a concept in two minutes, do it in two minutes. If you can clearly shell a disadvantage in 3 minutes, do it in three minutes. Even if that means you speak for seven minutes instead of eight. Your judge and audience will thank you.

7. Perspective is Everything

When you’re driving down a street, do you really pay attention to each street light? Probably not. Why? Cause all you can see is one streetlight after another. It’s not very exciting from your perspective. However, what if you could see all of them from about 10,000 feet? Would that change your opinion about how “ordinary” streetlights look? Let’s see.


So, do those streetlights look cool or what? Why? Because our perspective changed. Every time you get up to speak, you have an opportunity to shape and influence the judge’s perspective on the round and on life. All too often however, debaters tend to not see the forest for the trees. We focus and put too much emphasis on point by point refutation and not enough focus on why any of what we say actually matters. Instead of having a refutation-based perspective, let’s see the big picture and help the judge see the aerial perspective instead of just staying street level.

8. Avoid Information Overload

This one is honestly the thing I struggle with the most. One of the most impressive things I noticed during the flight is how the girl’s dad allowed the girl to process his answers to her questions. Debaters tend to spew out boatloads of facts, stats, and history and end up losing their judge in the process. While we speak in “debater jargon” about inherency, solvency, and effects topicality, real-world people are struggling to wrap their minds around it.

So what can we do? First, slow down. While you might think you’re speaking at an absolutely reasonable pace, your judge doesn’t have time to comprehend the “round-winning” statistic or “solvency destroying” card. (And yeah, I’ve heard people say those things…) If you slow down, you’ll persuade your judge more than your fifth topicality response and third impact turn. Second, emphasize and sometimes (SOMETIMES) repeat the key part of a card. That doesn’t mean double tag everything. That doesn’t mean say “I have a piece of evidence that says this.” It means change your inflection as you say, “over ten million jobs will be lost.” It means, after reading a card, saying here are the three (or however many you have) takeaways from the author’s statement.


While some people fear sitting next to toddlers on an airplane, I find it a great way to understand the basics of how we communicate. Now I’m not saying go buy a plane ticket and sit next to the nearest toddler you can find. Instead, observe how real people communicate and find where the principles of communication are applied in the real world. I wrote just eight of the observations I made, but there are more than just that. Find them, write them down, and use them for the rest of your life. Your judges and everyone who you communicate with will thank you.

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