Loose Nukes Because every debate can be improved with a little highly-enriched uranium.

26May/112

Clarity-In-A-Box: One easy trick to better delivery

When I first started debating, my view of delivering a good argument was pretty minimalistic. Everybody just makes it up as they go; good speakers are just a whole lot better at making it up as they go. The only way to get good at delivering arguments is to practice a lot. Right?

Not exactly. Here's the trick: You don't have to make it up as you go. "Good arguments" have a very recognizable form and content; if you can discover and emulate that form, much of the delivery will take care of itself. This post is about how to do that.

The Apocalypse Structure

The Apocalypse Structure is a basic four-point sequence of the key elements of an argument:

  1. Link - What argument you're responding to, in a few words.
  2. Response - What your argument is, in a few words.
  3. Warrants - Why the judge should believe this.
  4. Impact - Why the judge should vote on this.

Whenever you don't know in advance exactly how to deliver your point, use this structure.

Defaulting to this structure has huge advantages over just making it up on the fly. First, by having a set pattern, you won't have to worry about what to say next - once you've finished one point, move on to the next. This makes the flow of your speech a lot smoother. Second, by thinking of each component as a distinct element, you're less likely to accidentally leave out key parts like the response tag or impact.

Third, everything comes in the order judges expect. Instead of struggling to flow a disconnected series of facts, they get the core message up front, followed by the exposition - the way that's easiest to follow. The end result sounds a lot clearer and more organized than just jumbling everything together on the fly.

But won't using the same structure for every argument sound repetitive? Not really. Everyday language is filled with specific patterns and protocols, but we don't notice them because information is being conveyed. Unless you're using the exact same set of words for every argument, it won't sound awkward - just clear. Remember, you don't have to say "Point 1 is the link..." - just say the content and move on.

The necessary information: The link & response

These two points are key, so don't shortchange them.

The first is the link, which is straightforward. This is basically a short summary of what you're responding to. They key word here is short. You don't want to waste time or make your opponent's argument for them, so keep your summary very brief, bland, and factual. "Under Solvency 2, they claimed that our plan requires the abolition of the Federal Reserve." Etc.

Now, the response. Key thing to remember: the response is not your whole argument. It's just a short summary of your argument. You'll explain the specifics in the next point - for now, you just want to give the judge something to write down. For example:

"This is false, because illegal immigrants pay sales taxes." (rebuttal)

"If you pass this plan, it will be harder to win the war in Afghanistan." (disadvantage)

"This won't work because it requires technology that doesn't exist yet." (solvency point)

This point shouldn't take more than a sentence - the shorter, the better. Remember, you're trying to give the judge something to write down and remember, so an epic masterpiece the length of War and Peace is counterproductive.

Because I said so! The warrants

The "warrants" are the logic and evidence that back up your claim. For example, if your response is "historical precedent disproves this", you might have an evidence card describing comparable past events. You know what to do.

On occasion, you may be able to skip the warrants if they're self-contained in the response tag (like "we never said that", "this evidence is out of date", etc.)

Leave a crater: The impact

This is Barringer Crater in Arizona:This is what happens when a 50-meter hunk of metal has an unexpected encounter with Planet Earth while traveling at 30,000 miles per hour.

Before it hit the ground, the Barringer object was just another meteoroid - one of thousands of random objects floating around in the middle of a whole lot of nothing. Throwing an argument at the other team is like creating a meteoroid. By itself, it's interesting, but it's not immediately important. Your job is to show the judge a picture of the crater.

That's the impact: Tell the judge exactly why your argument matters. Do not forget to do this. It's easy to stop after the warrants, assuming that you've made your point. That might be enough for pure flow judges, but the average judge votes on what points they "get", not just what points you "made". So impact. 🙂

What makes a good impact? Let me quickly digress and talk about the ladder of abstraction.

The ladder of abstraction is a term that describes the range from general (encompassing a lot of subparts) to very specific. For example, "farm assets" is very high on the ladder of abstraction. "The tractor engine" is very low. To use the example to the left, "economy hurt" is a very general, abstract concept; "the judge can't fix their broken car" is a very specific, low-level concept.

A typical "impact" I hear is usually something like: "Judge! If you don't vote for this plan, people will die from pollution!" That's powerful, but not as powerful as it could be. "People dying" is a fairly abstract idea; it has punch, but no more than a news announcer casually reading a death toll for a tornado in Iowa. The best impacts are lower on the ladder of abstraction. Vague death tolls suddenly become much more relevant when you point out that one of the victims could be the judge's kid.

Be specific, be powerful.

(I expect this will be covered in more detail in a future post, but if you want some additional reading in the meantime, check out Thomas Umstattd's fantastic presentation on this subject here.)

Conclusion

Making everything up as you go is like reinventing the wheel every time you want to design a car - it just makes everything harder than it needs to be. Why start from scratch when you already know what works?

Structure isn't everything, but it's a good part of everything. If you use the standard four-point layout above, the other parts will be a lot easier.

16Mar/110

Running out of time?

Running out of time, especially in the 1AR, can be a major problem. You need to respond, but how do you get through everything you need to without speed-talking like a dying fish? In this post, I'll lay out some basic techniques to improve efficiency and timeliness.

There are two main "problem areas" that contribute to running overtime: The table and the stand, or how you construct your speech and how you deliver it.

At the table

When planning your speech, you first need to very quickly estimate how much content you'll have to omit. (A few things? A lot of things? Almost everything?) Once you have a baseline, you need to "clump and dump" until you have a reasonable amount of content.

1. Clump

If you can take out several arguments with one response, do it. Recognizing opportunities for clumping is highly intuitive, but if you actively look for patterns, it will quickly become automatic. Procedurally, you want to imagine all the possible responses you could give to each argument, and see which ones are similar across subjects. If you can use the same response against a lot of different arguments, clump them. If all else fails, never underestimate the power of simply outweighing things en masse. (More on that later.)

2. Dump

If it isn't important, drop it. An "unimportant" argument is, basically, one that you can drop without losing the round. (Obviously.) Some examples of arguments you can safely drop:

  1. Disadvantages you can outweigh later.
  2. Weak arguments.
  3. Extra responses to things.
  4. Otherwise-strong arguments that the judge clearly isn't buying.

Basically, when in doubt, just focus on the core theses of your strongest arguments.

At the stand
Image courtesy of the U.S. Department of State. Not even kidding.

Not a podium.

First, a quick side note. That thing you are standing behind (a music stand, a stack of debate boxes, whatever it is) is not a "podium", it's a lectern. A podium (derived from the Greek πόδι, or pódi, meaning "foot") is a raised platform that you stand on; a lectern is a slanted desk that you stand behind. Got it? (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)

1. Organization

Bad organization (and bad explanation of your organization) can waste a lot of time. If you're constantly having to explain where you are, you won't be able to say as many things. Design your speech to flow smoothly, but as you talk, keep that flow low-key.

A flowery, long-winded introduction/roadmap is sort of like a really big bun with a tiny hamburger patty on it. The bun is important, but if it's the entire burger, the judge is just going to go to Wendy's instead. In other words, you need a roadmap, but keep it short - no more than one or two sentences. (For example: "In this speech you'll be seeing that a lot of the Negative's 'problems' are actually just benefits of our plan. I'll be covering the two disadvantages first, followed by the three solvency points." Literally that short.)

In the speech, keep your signposting clear but concise. Before each argument, try to summarize what you're responding to in one sentence or less. ("They said this would hurt the economy. However...") Keep it short and sweet.

2. Know when to stop

By far, the single most effective way to save time is to talk less. Most people use more time than they really need to make their points. Additional explanation helps drive the argument home, but if you're pressed for time, just leave it out.

The first key is simplicity. Skip the complicated side-issues and focus only on the core concept. This is pretty straightforward - you just have to do it.

The second key is conciseness. Get to the point immediately. A good way to practice conciseness is to break all your arguments down into four points (argument, response, warrants, and impact) and try to say only one sentence for each point. For example:

"They said that their plan will improve relations with Russia. (argument) However, history disproves this. (response) Almost their exact plan was passed in 1949, and again in 1973, and both times it made relations worse. (warrants) If you pass the Affirmative plan, relations won't get better, they'll get worse. (impact)"

In a real round, you'll usually have evidence in your Warrants section. (By the way, getting in the habit of responding to all arguments with this basic structure will help your clarity and make it easier for the judge to follow you. Personal experience here.)

The third key is to simply stop talking. Once you've said everything you need to say, don't repeat it - just move on. 99 times out of 100, if you make your point clearly, the judge will get it the first time and won't need to hear it again. Force yourself to stop talking and move on down the flow.

3. Talk faster... but sparingly

Generally speaking (pun intended) slower is better. However, there are certain situations where being able to talk fast is an advantage. When you have a lot to say, for example!

As I've mentioned before, however, your word economy will usually degrade the faster you go (and your judges will take longer to understand what you're saying.) Thus, you may not actually be able to say any more by talking faster. Focus on conciseness first.

9Feb/119

CONFESS, HERETIC!!!

You've just finished a fantastic speech, and your opponent is getting up to cross-examine you. Renowned for his brilliant, probing questions, his reputation alone would make any self-respective debater quake in fear. Not you. Over the course of your career you've become a master at eloquently avoiding questions, not conceding points, and generally wasting the other team's time. You have nothing to fear. You're great at taking CX.

Wrong.

I argue that you should do two things:

  1. Answer every question directly and accurately.
  2. Intentionally make your answers as concise as possible. Say only what is neccessary to make your point, and then stop talking.

This is a radical proposition. Not only am I telling you to answer all the questions, I'm essentially telling you to give the other team as much time as possible. "But wait," you may say. "Am I just supposed to lay down and let them walk all over me?" Not at all. If anything, responding directly increases your ability to defend yourself in cross-examination.

Answers are power

Evasive CXes are, simply put, tactical attempts to avoid arguments. This is entirely the wrong approach: the point of debate is to beat arguments, not sneak around them. The other team is handing you an opportunity to respond on a silver platter. Use it, and just crush the argument. Seriously. A concise, clear rebuttal is infinitely more powerful than a jumble of slippery weasel eggs. If your arguments are sound, you have nothing to fear from answering questions frankly; if they aren't, you need to change your arguments, not give tricky answers.

Brevity is wit

Basically, don't try to waste the other team's time. There are several good reasons to keep your answers as concise as possible:

  1. Your judges will like you. Judges love clear, simple rhetoric, and will consider you more articulate and professional. I've seen this theme consistently across innumerable ballots and conversations with parent, alumni, and community judges.
  2. Your opponents will like you. There are few things more annoying than a longwinded answerer. If they don't constantly have to cut you off, CX will be less aggressive. If nothing else, this will help keep your blood pressure down.
  3. It's good practice. In contrast to CX, brevity is at premium during speeches. Learning how to concisely respond in CX is excellent practice for concisely responding in rebuttals. In contrast, getting used to rambling can form bad habits.

Note that by "brevity" I don't mean "leaving out information" (unless the information is unnecessary, of course.) I merely mean "not rambling on endlessly when you could make your point in a few words" - cutting out the fluff and getting straight to the point. ("No, our second mandate says the program will be canceled if that happens." Quick and neat.)

A final note

One final issue I'd like to address: what about the other team trapping you into saying something that they later turn against you? This is a legitimate concern, but avoiding questions isn't the solution. You will still say things that your opponents can use against you. Learning to give powerful, straightforward answers has helped me avoid slipping up much more than avoiding questions ever did.

Done right, answering CX questions can be just as powerful as asking them. You'll come away with your arguments clearer and your credibility enhanced. Use your answers to answer, and your ballots will thank you.

Extend-o-tron 5000: A video example

Bonus: Here's an quick example to illustrate what this looks like (national champion Patrick Shipsey being cross-examined at NCFCA Nationals in 2010.) While a few of his answers could be a bit more concise, it's an excellent example of the general concept I'm talking about. Notice how the Affirmative spends more time asking the questions than he spends answering them - and how she completely fails to get any useful concessions out of him.