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A critical aspect of marketing is understanding the consumer. While it may not seem like it at first glance, debate has everything to do with marketing. You present the judge with a case, and you must prove that your case, or “product,” is better than your opponent’s. Such a task requires a clear and complete understanding of how your judge thinks about debate.

The Background

Before I get too deep into the details, I think it’s necessary that we understand that there are a few different “categories” of judges. The three biggest categories that come to mind are parent judges, alumni judges, and community judges. As you know, a community judge is going to approach the round differently than an alumni judge. Their exposure to debate and knowledge of it radically differs from that of an experienced former debater. In the same way, parent judges have varied experience and opinions. As such, the way that they think about arguments, their method for calculating speaker points, and the way that they decide a winner will diverge in several key areas.

Let’s examine perhaps the most obvious example of their divergence: the judges’ perspective on debate theory. It should go without saying that if you have a community judge, the way you present theory-heavy arguments (if you present them at all) should not be the same as the way that you present theory arguments to an alumni judge. Alumni have experience with debate, so they understand topicality and counterplans and recognize them as a legitimate strategy. Community judges, on the other hand, typically have no experience with debate and are probably just going to be confused. To further complicate matters, parent judges are on a strange middle ground, a ground on which most debaters deem too risky to attempt theory arguments.

The Problem

We all understand that we need to treat different judges in different ways, so as to best “market” the case being presented, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The problem that we face arises when we try to assign our judge to a particular category based on a stereotype. Too often, debaters use the “categories” of judges as a shortcut and as an excuse to not find out what your judge really wants. As an example, let’s say that your judge is a young guy, probably in his early 20s. In his judging philosophy, he tells you that he’s an alumnus, only three years out of the league. He doesn’t really tell you how he wants the round to go, but you assume it’s fine because he’s an alumnus and knows what’s going on. In this round, you go all in on theory arguments, and are a little snarky in CX, but nothing too crazy. Then you get the ballot back. To your horror, you discover that this judge didn’t like how much time you spent on theory, and docked your speaker points because of how abrasive you were in CX.

This, my friends, is what happens when you put your judge in a box. Just because a judge is an alumni, that doesn’t mean they will necessarily act like the typical “alumni judge” Just because a judge is a community judge doesn’t automatically mean that they’re a complete newbie and require babying throughout the entire round. Just because a judge is a parent of an experienced team, that doesn’t make them an experienced judge. We make these assumptions far too often, with disastrous results.

The Solution

The solution to this problem is surprisingly simple: all you need to do is rethink the judging philosophy. More specifically, you need to ask your judge better questions. When we ask for the judge’s philosophy, all they know to tell us is what they think is helpful. The thing is, the judge doesn’t always know what is helpful. The fact that this problem is so widespread is clear-cut proof that this is not the fault of the judge, but an issue with the debater.

Instead of being incredibly vague and asking for “the judge’s philosophy,” ask more specific questions. “What speaking style do you prefer?” “Would you like us to stay away from theory arguments?” and perhaps most importantly, “What metric do you use to decide the round?” Asking specific questions like these makes it infinitely easier for the judge to give you helpful information. Instead of asking, “what do you like?” you need to ask, “how do you feel about X?” or “do you prefer X or Y?” Your judge telling you their life story isn’t necessarily bad (in fact, it can be an excellent ice breaker or way to learn useful background) but don’t be like every other debater and leave it at that. If they haven’t told you what you want to know, keep asking.

Side note: If you’re negative, don’t assume the affirmative team has read this article. Talk to them before the judge walks into the room, and do your best to convince them to follow the same principles. Doing so will make it a higher-quality round for everyone.

Ultimately, understanding what type of judge you have, and the metrics they use to decide the round, will make everyone in the round much happier. Understanding your judge allows you to craft beautiful arguments that might not work in every situation, but you know will work in this round. It allows for much more personalized and persuasive points, and with any luck, it will show up on your ballot.

Trying to understand your judge by trying to connect them to a category will only work half the time, and even when it does work you’re probably wasting a lot of argumentation. Understanding your judge through what they tell you is a far better strategy, but they’ll only tell you if you ask. Start asking better questions.

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