In my novice year of debate, I had a time distribution problem. Perhaps this was because I enjoyed hearing myself ramble on about irrelevant points or demolishing the applicability of my opponent’s introduction. More likely, it was because my brain had yet to come to terms with the concept of a three-minute 2AR.
For my first several tournaments, I attempted to give line-by-line responses to each of my opponent’s points. That was unfortunate, primarily because I ended up with much too many arguments and much too little time. Dense negative rebuttals occasionally harbor upwards of 15 sub-points and direct responses, each of which I felt obliged to address in my 2AR. That was a mistake. Not only was I unable to adequately refute any of the real issues, I also ended up speaking too fast for it to have mattered if I did.
Were all of the points important? Of course not. Some of them were completely irrelevant. Very few held much sway in the judge’s mind. Midway through my novice year of debate, I arrived at two indispensable conclusions, almost simultaneously. First, that most rounds have three voting issues and no more, and second, that debate is not about scoring the most points or winning the most arguments, it is about persuading the most people.
The minutiae of the debate are not necessarily superfluous, and it is tempting to meticulously explain how your opponent’s fine print is cataclysmically wrong. But there are only so many issues on which the judge could cast their ballot. A select group of arguments are far more important than all of the others and must be prioritized.
This article will explain how to do exactly that. It stems from a round that I had last year, in which the judge described his philosophy as “time equals importance.” He further explained that “the more time you spend on an argument, the more likely I am to vote on it.” This philosophy is built into most (if not all) weighing mechanisms, even if the judge doesn’t explicitly say so. That’s for two reasons.
First, the more time you spend on a given argument, the more it will entrench itself in your audience’s mind. If you spend half of your 1NC talking about debate theory, the judge will likely classify you as someone who doesn’t want to debate the plan on the merits. To an extent, this remains true regardless of whether you have more and better arguments to present later on. The judge is going to remember what you talked the most about, regardless of what it was.
Second, judges are less likely to vote on an issue if you spend an inconsequential amount of time on it. If you use 10 seconds to address an argument right at the end of a rebuttal, the judge probably won’t cast their ballot for you on its basis. That is true even if said point is a legitimate voting issue. Most debaters have received ballots saying “if this argument had been better impacted/further discussed, I would have voted on it.” That is concurrently the most frustrating and the most inspiring kind of ballot — it means that all the arguments you needed to win were at your disposal, you just didn’t prioritize them.
But this principle impacts down to much more than “allocate more time for the more important points.” While that goal seems simple enough, it is not always easy to effectuate. To that end, I have three tips for your consideration.
First, don’t be afraid to drop arguments. Right from the get-go, it seems that novice debaters are programmed to never, ever drop an argument. “If you don’t respond to an argument in any of your speeches,” they are told, “you may as well have conceded it to your opponent.” While this is technically true, it doesn’t always matter. Sometimes, it can even work to your advantage. If your opponent makes a contention as a smokescreen, dropping it is effectively the same as looking away; yes, your opponent will “win” it, but the victory is often less valuable than the time spent to attain it. I have found that this principle also applies in Team Policy, especially in the 1AR; if your opponent presents a trivial disadvantage, don’t be afraid to concede the point and outweigh by further substantiating your advantages.
Second, strategically re-evaluate the round after every speech. Understanding that time equals importance is imperative to success, but so is recognizing which claims are important and why. If you don’t understand the relationship between the premises of each argument and the impact on the resolution, then you have nowhere to start, and nothing to prioritize. After identifying the voting issues, utilize your prep time to construct rebuttals that revolve around them. If there are other, minor issues that are worth mentioning or points that deserve/require clarifying, don’t be afraid to do so. But always remember the points where the ballot hangs in the balance.
Third, cut down on extraneous information. If there is a point that you know is not a winning issue, don’t make it. Any second you spend constructing a useless argument is a second that wasn’t spent fortifying the claims that actually matter. My dad typically has a four-word judging philosophy: “don’t make stupid arguments.” It seems facile, doesn’t it? If a contention is irrelevant, of course it should never be made, even if you have time to fill. However, countless debaters seem to justify doing exactly that with the fallacious mantra of “it can’t hurt.” Strategically speaking, it absolutely can.
Obviously enough, these tips will not make or identify the important points for you; those are skills that can only be honed through constant practice and strategic re-evaluation. Once you do that, however, they will help you to unlock a balanced and structured rebuttal that is conscious of the arguments that truly matter in the judge’s mind. Time equals importance, and understanding that principle is fundamental to the art of persuasion.