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As zealous a proponent of high school speech and debate I may be, I’m forced to admit that its practical applications have their limits.  Specifically, many might argue that those who succeed in speech and debate are able to do so because they develop skills which help them win competitions, and, so goes the argument, those skills in turn better prepare them for life beyond high school; in other words, speech and debate is so great because it incentivizes self-betterment.  And while a correlation between competitive success and personal development undoubtedly exists, I believe that said correlation isn’t as strong as many believe it to be.  

Think of it this way: any time you practice for anything, whether a sporting event, a musical performance, or anything at all, you generally prefer to practice under circumstances as similar to the actual event as possible.  For example, if you’re practicing for a swim meet, you’d much rather do laps in a natatorium than a river.  This is for two reasons: first, and most obviously, it prepares you mentally for the “real thing;” you know what to expect for the actual performance and therefore feel and are more prepared when it comes around.  But second and more importantly, it prevents you from “cheating the system.”  Let’s go back to the swimming example.  Suppose that you and some friends decided to practice in a river for some reason, perhaps because it was closer to home.  You all get in and prepare to race.  While your stated motive for this race is to prepare for your meet, in the moment, you’ll be much more focused on winning the race since you don’t want to look like a lug of a fish in front of all your cool swimmer friends.  In an effort to win the race, therefore, you might shift slightly left or right over the course of the race in order to keep your body where the current going downstream is strongest.  Sure, you might win the race since you took advantage of the boost afforded to you by the river’s flow, but in the process, you’re forming habits that will harm you later on; if you’re shifting left and right during a race in a pool where there isn’t a current, it will take you longer to traverse the pool since you’re dedicating less energy to moving forward and more to moving side to side.

All that to say, I argue that the same is true of speech and debate; while there might be some overlap between the skills necessary to succeed here and the skills necessary to succeed in life, one must acknowledge that, similar to the limited homogeneity of a river and pool, the two skill sets inevitably diverge at some point.  In the realm of forensics, I maintain that this generally occurs due to unspoken rules and norms that form over time on a local and/or national level.  Allow me to offer a few examples:

  • In TP, judges tend to strongly dislike topicality arguments, and they dislike counterplans even more
  • In LD, it’s expected that you have a value in your case
  • In LD and Parli, contentions and applications which illustrate those contentions are treated as two separate lines of argumentation, meaning that if you don’t explicitly respond to one, judges will consider the point dropped
  • In Impromptu, competitors are expected to have an explicitly clear and almost stilted roadmap
  • In Apologetics, judges generally mark speakers up or down based on the number of Bible verses quoted
  • And we’ve all heard the joke that Extemp judges count news sources the way Apologetics judges count Bible verses and the way Interp judges count dead characters

Assuming that debate should center around whether aff proves the resolution true and that speech should center around how engaging and impactful a speaker is, none of these norms are necessary; it’s completely possible to prove your case and engage your judges without doing any of the things I’ve just listed–and yet, oftentimes it seems competitors are penalized if they don’t.  

In light of this, I offer a suggestion: everybody has different reasons for competing in speech and debate, and the specific reason you have in mind can and should dictate how you compete.  If you’re in it for the scholarship money, for instance, then playing by the unspoken rules is a good thing since it wins you more ballots.  If you’re here to develop your speaking skills, you might consider ignoring those unspoken rules since they can tend to impede what most would consider “quality speaking” in an absolute sense, even if it means picking up fewer ballots.  I’m not suggesting that any one motive is inherently superior to another, but rather, that you must, first, make yourself aware of unspoken rules and second, decide how your motives for competing influence whether you ought to adhere to them.

Hope y’all found this helpful!


Ben Brown is the blog manager for Ethos Debate LLC. He has competed in Team Policy debate for four years, ranking in the top 16 nationally every year of his high school career in addition to having obtained a smattering of national placings in speech. When not debating, Ben can be found wishing he was debating, playing board games, or hanging out with friends and family.

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