Steve the superb sweater salesman is constantly debating. His prospective clients can be the most vicious cross-examiners and deliver disadvantages that wreck his sales pitch. But Steve isn’t just any ‘ol sales rep. Steve has skin made of rubber. He lets these things bounce right off of his snazzy sweaters and ropes his clients right back in. He’s successful because he adapts.
Steve may venture off of his original pitch and offer a lower price than originally planned. If the client realizes they have a huge problem with their wardrobe, then Steve will move on to talk about why his product offers the best solution. If a client loves the sweater but doesn’t think they need it, Steve will talk about why the customer has a huge sweater sized hole in his life instead of elaborating on the great attributes of the sweater. Steve listens to the needs of the customer adapts to fit the specific situation. He’s not a rigid salesman, glued to his script with little to no creativity. Neither is he a sophist, a chameleon of sorts who flatters and fawns his way to success. He won’t sacrifice the truth for a sale. He merely chooses which of his many benefits to prioritize and market to the consumer based on their needs. He’s flexible but uncompromising.
Academic debaters are stubborn. They have an agenda, a plan for how the round will go, and they’ll stick to it no matter what. They’ll read their scripted case, regardless of audience, opponent or argument. They’re confused on how to adapt, so the academic debaters will retreat to their familiar piles of evidence or stash of John Locke quotes and restate their original position and case for the judge. While they’re doing this, their client, the judge, will be confused and unconvinced because his questions were never addressed.
This tragedy happens when debaters don’t listen. Aristotle said that “Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you’d rather have been talking.” Debaters have a lot to learn from both Aristotle and Steve. There’s a myriad of problems with the way current debate culture handles cases and case-writing. Yet, they all stem from one common thread.
Your case is not a script
A case of bad time management
How much time did you spend on your case last year? (LD’ers, I’m looking at you.) How much of your time was spent refining, writing, gathering the perfect evidence, finding the best values, the best philosophers and the best font for your beautiful 1AC and 1NC? If you do LD, the answer is probably around 80%. For TP kids, you’ve got a lower percentage because you’re actually forced to write negative and 2A briefs. But about how much of your time spent working on affirmative was spent perfecting your 1AC? Probably around 40-50% if you’re like most TP debaters.
The fact is, too much time is spent on writing cases at the expense of developing second layer argumentation and refutation. LD debaters are the biggest culprits. As I’ve left policy and made my foray into Lincoln-Douglas, I get made fun of all the time for preparing response sheets with evidence; but by the 1NR, they’re not laughing. 😉
Here’s the truth, debates are won and lost in the rebuttals. Nail those, and you’ll see marked improvement before you know it. However, you can’t win your rebuttals if you aren’t adequately prepared. Most LD debaters (and plenty of policy debaters) think of their case like the script to a platform speech. If they can get it perfect, their performance will go perfectly. The problem with solely or majorly focusing on your case is that you spend a lot less time developing responses and refutation that make up the actual meat of the majority of rounds. Rebuttals are the opportunity cost of excessive case work.
Last year, I was going to a tournament in Arkansas. My partner couldn’t make it, but my siblings needed one more speech check and I tagged along for the extra practice before NITOC. I decided to venture into LD for the first time. So, I bought one neg case from Travis Herche’s website and wrote one aff case. I walked into that tournament with two cases, and a couple articles/studies I’d gone through and highlighted. Do you want to know what kept me from doing really well at that tournament? My lack of evidence and preparation.
This was during the economic growth v. environmental protection Stoa resolution and I was blindsided in one round by an argument that claimed economic growth doesn’t equal money. I was extremely confused by the argument because I hadn’t spent time developing responses or looking at opposing positions and cases. I lost that round to an argument I later realized was very easily destroyed, because I wasn’t prepared. Don’t let that happen to you.
Takeaway: Spend as much time on your second and third layer argumentation as you do on your case.
A case of debate-disconnect
Remember Steve the superb sweater salesman? Steve works hard on his pitch. His case is airtight. However, he knows that the real battle comes in the back-and-forth. The true fight is in the nitty-gritty. So Steve spends the same amount of time prepping his rebuttal strategy. He knows that in a meeting with his potential client, he must be prepared to answer every argument massive or minuscule. If you asked Steve why he doesn’t spend more time on his elevator pitch, he’d tell you that the elevator pitch is the easiest thing he does. No one raises an objection to the pitch until after he’s done talking. Then comes the hard part.
Leaving debaterland and entering the real world, you often don’t get much prep time. Real life is a bit too unforgiving for that. Learning how to write an amazing case over the course of months isn’t very useful in the real world. Here in actualhumanland, a place pretty far off from debaterland, we make cases all the time.
We make them often and we make them fast. I made a case to my friends about why we should go a Chinese buffet instead of a Mexican restaurant. I made a case to the team here at Ethos about why they should bring me onto the team as an intern. Steve made a case to a customer, Ken Bone, about why he should buy his new line of red sweaters.
In each of these examples, Steve and I didn’t labor for weeks on the case or just worry about our beginning pitch. In fact, our beginning pitch didn’t do anything besides hook the audience in and get them interested. I told my friends that they could have all the food they want if they went to the Chinese buffet. But that in itself was not enough to convince them. They retorted that Mexican food tasted better. So I shot back with my thoughts on the deliciousness that Chinese food can give you based upon the variety at the buffet. Then they said that it was cheaper to eat at the Mexican place. So I told them we were getting more bang for our buck etc. This back-and-forth that takes place in the rebuttals is where rounds are won and lost.
Steve the sweater salesman knows this too. When Steve was selling to Ken Bone, he, of course, used his pitch and told Ken about how soft the sweater fabric was and how tomato-like the red color appeared. But he knew that Ken would have his own questions. Ken probably asked how well the sweater covered up sweat, how affordable it was compared to other sweaters, how well it went with khakis, black-rimmed glasses, and a white tie. Steve the superb sweater salesman must be prepared to answer all of these questions and more.
For more on rebuttals, check out this video by a fantastic nationals-winning PHC debater on rebuttal strategy.
Takeaway: In real life and in debate, the argument is won in the rebuttals.
A case of overblown difficulty
A huge problem with this case obsession is that case writing is perceived as an insurmountable difficulty. Many debaters feel like they can’t write a case from scratch; so they take a pre-written case they bought or one given to them by a coach or friend and they work from there.
In a vacuum, there’s nothing wrong with this practice. When you’re just starting or need a jumping off point, this system works well. However, it gets problematic when debaters have been debating for 3 years and never learned the real life skill of case writing. Since case writing is such a crucial and practical skill we can pull from our debate education, it’s a shame that some debaters are missing out because they view this whole idea of a case as something much harder than it actually is.
When I first started debating, the very first thing I did was write a case. Before I learned technique, parts of an argument, research skills, any of it! Building a case isn’t as hard as academic debate makes it out to be. At my old homeschool group, we would have a class of 9th graders, brand new to debate, write three separate cases for three separate resolutions in one year. Were they amazing? No, but each case progressively got better, as did each debater.
With that as my intro to debate, I found it weird and somewhat counter-intuitive that you could just buy cases to use. Writing a case is a lot easier than we think. Take a look at parli debaters! They have 15 or 20 minutes to write a case. And they do this all year! Honestly, I’ve seen quite a few parli cases prepared in 15 minutes that could go toe-to-toe with plenty of the policy and LD cases that take debaters weeks to write.
Takeaway: Writing a case is simple; don’t make it scary.
Solution: Cultivate the true skill of case writing
Learn what a true case is
What do 70% of debaters miss when they’re developing their case? They miss a true thesis. When I’m coaching my students, before they start writing their cases, they develop their thesis for why the resolution is true. For example, on the resolution, “The United States Federal Government should replace the death penalty.” A student of mine has the thesis, “The USFG should replace the death penalty because we shouldn’t be wasting taxpayer money on a failed program.”
After developing a thesis, a case is intuitive. After all, a case is really just a logical syllogism for why your thesis is true. For example: “The USFG shouldn’t waste taxpayer money on failed programs. The death penalty is a failed program. The USFG shouldn’t waste money on the death penalty.”
All we have to prove to win our thesis and therefore the resolution is that the USFG is wasting money on the death penalty and it’s a failure. Now that we know that, the case outline and writing is a breeze. This truth is even more obvious in a value case. Take the Stoa public needs vs. private property rights resolution. If you’re debating affirmative with a value of security, your thesis could be something like “Meeting the public need creates a more secure nation.” Your case could then go like this: “Public needs create x amount of security. Private property rights create x-2 amount of security. Therefore, public needs are more important than private property rights.”
Boom chackalacka! You’ve got yourself a case! See how easy that was? Steve the superb sweater salesman is a pro at this too! Let’s say he needs to sell his vibrant red sweaters to a man who values comfort over everything else. Here’s what Steve’s case would look like: “You should buy the sweater that is the most comfortable. Our sweater is the most comfortable sweater on the market. You should buy it.”
If you think about it, you already do this in every speech. You figure out what claim you need to prove, slap some points together, throw some warrants under them and get up for your 1AR. You’re building a case after each speech, so why over-prioritize and over-dramatize the first case? Yes, it is important, but what’s more important are all the cases you’ll be making during the speeches that make up 90% of the round.
Where to now?
The next step is to learn some case structures. Isaiah has a great list of parli case structures that I’ve linked to. Upside-Down Debate, chapter 10 also covers different case structures in depth. Once you can master those, you’ll be an expert case writer, not just in debaterland, but in actualhumandland as well.
Or, you can look at this post! This whole blog post is actually structured exactly like a debate case!
Thesis: Your case is not a script
Problem 1: Poor Time Management
Problem 2: Debate-Disconnect
Problem 3: Overblown Difficulty
Solution: Cultivate the true skill of case writing
Disclaimer 1: Now, I’m not saying you need to make every case be formatted exactly like a syllogism. In fact, you almost definitely should not form every case like this. However, at its core, every case, once drilled down to its most basic elements, can be reduced to a syllogism. If you can figure out the syllogism at the core of your case, you’ll know your foundation.
Disclaimer 2: I’m also not saying that you should neglect to work on your first case. The first case is crucial. It’s the first time the judge hears your ideas, making it his first impression of you and it usually becomes the foundation for the whole round. Work on it! Just don’t obsess at the cost of losing your rebuttals.
So learn from Steve the superb sweater salesman. Steve knows his case is more than just his pitch. So he spends time knowing his entire case backward and forward to prepare for his rebuttals. Someday, if you’re as successful a salesman as Steve, you too may be able to sell sweaters to Ken Bone.
Drew Magness is a sixteen year old junior currently in his third year of debate. He’s competed in Lincoln-Douglas, Team Policy and Parliamentary Debate claiming top 5 finishes in each form including two tournament titles. Pursuing every opportunity he can, Drew writes for two different debate publications and is competing in three leagues this competitive season. As a speaker and debater, he’s placed in the top ten at tournaments fifty separate times, including two top ten national finishes in his second year of competition. On the intangible side of things, Drew strongly believes in the way speech and debate trains students to think and speak in a winsome manner while evaluating every side of a story and developing their own opinion.