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A couple of years ago, Harrison wrote a couple of excellent articles (here and here) delving into the different types of debate judges, and the pros and cons of each style. While we all understand the fact that there are different kinds of judges, it’s still very common for me to hear stories like this: “I had far better argumentation in the round and shouldn’t have lost, etc.” In my opinion, this dissatisfaction with the judging pool is unfair for a couple of reasons. First, because the round should not necessarily be evaluated by objective flow, and secondly, because it is your job as a debater to identify the judge’s paradigm and adapt to it.

How Should the Debate Be Evaluated?

While I would generally agree with Harrison’s ideas on what the ideal judge/judging pool should look like, that’s not the point that I’m trying to make. My point is that the vast majority of judging paradigms will not be inherently “unfair” or “wrong.” With the exception of heavily biased judges, etc., I believe that almost any way the judge chooses to evaluate the round has some merit, and should be okay. Most debaters fall into this trap of thinking that flow-heavy, objective evaluation is the correct way of judging the round, and that any other philosophies are inferior. But of course, that’s not always the case– some of us think that it should be the opposite, and that speaking skill and persuasiveness should be prioritized over the actual arguments presented.

I would heavily caution against either of these mindsets. In fact, I would caution against any mindset that says that there is one correct way to judge a round, or that there is one way that is better than any others. It isn’t fair to say that your judge didn’t judge the way they should have, just because it isn’t the way that you would have evaluated the round. As extreme as this may sound, I think most of us (I certainly do) unconsciously impose this kind of a burden on every judge we have. Don’t forget: The judge is almost always right, with very few exceptions.

Is There Anything We Can Do?

At this point, it seems like a lost cause. “What persona should I assume during the round? I’ll never know, since I don’t know how the judge is evaluating the round, right?” Well, actually no. You might not be able to guarantee a win, but there are two things that you can do to greatly improve your chances. 

First, find out how the judge will evaluate the round. I wrote an article on this already, as I believe it is so crucial. The judging philosophy isn’t just this time before the round when the judge tells you how many years they’ve been around debate, the judging philosophy is when the standards are set for the round. The judging philosophy is when you learn what the judge wants from you, and how they will decide the winner of the debate. If you don’t do this, you’re essentially going into the round blind.

Secondly, adapt to what the judge tells you. As Harrison concluded, debaters must adapt to their judges. They told you what they want, so you need to give it to them. For appealing to judges who prioritize speaking, I would recommend the articles here, here, here, here, and here. For appealing to more objective, flow heavy judges, I would recommend discussing with your coaches any arguments that you know you will run. 

My final piece of advice would be to look back at your past ballots: is there a recurring theme where you lose/win rounds against similar judging types? If so, dedicate more time to improving in that area. If you really want to take things to the next level, start writing your judges’ philosophies down on a sticky note before every round. Then, after the tournament is over, you can compare the sticky notes to the ballots, to see if they line up. 

The best debaters are the ones who can appeal to all types of judges, and are well rounded in their abilities. I’ve said it many times, but I really do think that debate boils down to understanding what your judges want, and giving it to them.

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