The season wasn’t going so well. We had been almost undefeated debating neg, but our affs had been losing rounds we felt like we should have been winning. Something was not working. We had changed cases, changed speaker positions, rewritten cases, expanded our research, but it still felt like we were missing an essential piece of what would take us to the next level of affirmative debating. We knew we had solid evidence. We knew we had solid arguments. But we also knew that we were not getting all of that across to judges.
So we asked for help. After one tournament, we emailed Isaiah, hoping he could give us some insight into what we were doing wrong and what needed to be done to make it right. That exchange led to Isaiah writing this article. A theme. That’s what we needed, and that’s what we created.
Finding a theme transformed a case that was struggling to win rounds at all to one that would only lose one round from that point onward.
The problem we identified was that we were overthinking our case. Here’s what I mean: We had over 100 pages of research at one point. With the sheer quantity of information we had, it was easy to convince ourselves that most of it was necessary information. But we were wrong. In reality, only a fraction of that information was truly important. In terms of in-round mechanics, it caused us to have a scattered 1AC, followed by responses that added even further complexity on top of that. Not only was that hard to manage from a time management perspective, but it was impossible for judges to really sink their teeth into any of our ideas because there were just too many of them.
While the arguments were all important and conceptually compelling, the time constraints of the round made it very difficult to convey that effectively, making them either confusing or insignificant in the mind of the judge.
I was like so many debaters out there: I knew my research! I knew my case! And I knew that every bit of it was absolutely necessary for this case to work and be persuasive! Yeah, I was wrong. I got so consumed by the desire to know everything that I forgot to give thought to what actually mattered. That’s an incredibly important distinction, and I wish I had realized it earlier. Everything you say can be true, but if you can’t prioritise those statements and distill them into something you can present effectively under the time constraints of the round, it doesn’t matter how true it might be. Your points can be true. They can be important. They can even be very compelling. But the question that really matters is this: Are these points the most important? Are they the most compelling? Prioritization is extremely difficult, and it can be painful to cut huge parts of your case. But it’s worth it.
Here’s the before and after 1AC.
Themes solved problems of overthinking by providing clarity. Rather than having 3 arguments underlying our case and 1 advantage, we had 1 argument. Sanctions have historically failed, and they will fail now. That was our case. We went in depth into how exactly they failed and how the mechanics of sanctions led to that failure, but we always brought it back to the most important argument. “Sanctions oppress the innocent to punish the guilty. It hasn’t worked in the past, and it’s ludicrous to think we can defy overwhelming historical precedent. “ The clarity that such a linear case structure made it easier for us to know where to focus, and made it much easier for the judge to follow all the arguments. It made for cleaner and, honestly, more enjoyable rounds.
Want to make your case more focused? Here’s how:
Step 1: Forget your research. Think only about the issue itself. What is the most compelling facts about the issue? Why do they sway you to believe in your case? Focus only on the most compelling arguments. Go back to square one and ask yourself which issue would be most convincing to you before you did all of your research.
Step 2: Find a theme. Try to get those arguments boiled down to one idea. Find the best, most pithy way to phrase that idea. Don’t let the judge forget it. If you go through a speech without reiterating that idea at least twice, you’re doing it wrong.
Step 3: Minimize your evidence. Think chainsaw rather than scalpel. Gut your case down to the bare bones. I know all you debaters out there with your giant briefs that like to bring 10 pages of evidence up with you for constructives. I was that guy before. But remember: debate isn’t about density of information, it’s about effectiveness of communication. More times than not, less is more. 90% of the time I would take to write a 1AC would be cutting down as much of the evidence as possible to ensure I had as much time as possible to talk about impacts and on those oh-so-important concepts that formed the core of my case.
Step 4: Field test it. One of the most useful things for me was gauging people’s reactions when I would explain my case to them. You can usually tell what information piques their interest and when they start zoning out. Those “I bet you didn’t know this” facts can be great for this. Tell them something they didn’t know, and it forces them to reconsider the idea that maybe they don’t know the full story.
Step 5: Get your coach to tear it to shreds. After I did all of this, I always tried to get either a coach or another debater I looked up to to give me the bluntest reaction they could to the case. Make sure to find someone that won’t pull any punches. (Ethos coaches, by the way, are pretty great at that.)
Focusing your case around a theme isn’t easy, and honestly, it made case writing much more time intensive and tricky. That time, however, reaped great rewards. Give it a try. You’ll never want to run 5 advantages again. Trust me.