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


The Epic Tagline Post

Hitler on a magic carpet

Picture is unrelated.

Since this post is a day late, here's a picture of Hitler on a magic carpet.

What's a tagline?


More importantly, "why should I care?" Simple: good taglines make good rounds. How you write your taglines can have wide-ranging consequences:

  1. Organization - Good taglines make it easy for the judge to follow what you are saying, making you sound more organized.
  2. Persuasiveness - Good taglines make your arguments sound more distinct and pre-planned, making you sound more confident.
  3. Argumentation - Good taglines make it easy to understand evidence at a glance, improving your understanding of the case and helping you argue better.
  4. Flowing - Good taglines are easier to write down, making your flow more organized and useful.

In short, if you're not paying much attention to your taglines, you probably have a lot of room to stretch out and improve your speaking.

Flow tags vs. Brief tags

Taglines serve two purposes. First, they tell you what the card says so you don't have to read the whole thing (the "brief" tag.) Second, they provide a short "handle" for the evidence that the judge can write down and use to track it throughout the round (the "flow" tag.) These two purposes are very different, and often require very different tags. For example:

Brief tag: "Obama promises to veto any new spending"

Flow tag: "Spending freeze"

All sorts of problems arise when people don't understand this distinction and try to use the same tagline for both. Usually, the tagline winds up being either far too complicated to write down, or far too short to adequately explain the card. (Ethos tends to land on the former side; most novices tend to land on the latter.)

In reality, these two tags are rarely the same, nor should they be. A good tag must have both. Many debaters eschew the flow tag and only include the descriptive brief tag in their printed briefs, on the grounds that the flow tag can change in different contexts. While this is true, prepared flow tags save a lot of time in the vast majority of cases, so there's no reason not to include them.

There are basically two ways of including both:

  1. Put the brief tag on a different line from the flow tag. What this will look like depends on your formatting.
  2. Combine the two in some way.

Since the two-line method is straightforward, I'll focus on #2. There are basically two ways of combining the brief tag and flow tag:

  1. Separate, on one line. To use the example above, "Spending Freeze: Obama promises to veto any new spending". This is simple and clean, and is probably the easiest way to start doing flow tags if you're used to only using brief tags.
  2. Flow tag, then any additional information that's needed (but not included in in the flow tag.) For example: "Spending freeze - Obama promises to veto". This is usually shorter. Some people may find it confusing if they're not used to thinking schematically.

Flow tags: Be S.A.F.E.

What makes a good flow tag? I follow a standard I call SAFE.

Short: The tag should contain as few words as possible. If there's a way to rewrite it to make it shorter, do it. (For example, "Damages our relationship" becomes "Relations hurt".)

Accurate: The tag should accurately reflect the core meaning of the card. (If the tag says it will hurt relations, then the card had better actually say it will hurt relations.)

Flowable: The tag should avoid words that are long, hard to spell, or otherwise not easy to write down. (Use "hurt" instead of "damage", "bad" instead of "detrimental", etc.)

Easily-understood: The tag should immediately make sense. This seems obvious, but it's violated surprisingly often. (For example, "IRC can't make laws" is much easier to understand than "IRC is not a legislative body".)

Brief tags: What's the difference?

The purpose of the flow tag is to help the judge understand and manipulate the evidence. The purpose of the brief tag is to help you understand and manipulate the evidence. In other words, the brief tag tells you what the evidence says, and how to use it.

Generally speaking, the brief tag will merely be a factual summary of what the evidence says, including all the details you need to understand it without reading it.

Avoid needless words

Short is golden. When you're scanning a brief, the more compact the taglines are, the faster you can read and understand them. This translates to a better understanding of the case, and hence a better chance of winning. Basically, if you can make a tagline shorter without significantly damaging usability, do it.

I should clarify that I'm not advising you to cut out information, although that may be a good idea under some circumstances. I'm just saying that there is no reason to write "The Forkoro nuclear reactor meltdown was the result of an accident" when you can write "Forkoro meltdown was an accident". (Remember that your taglines do not necessarily have to be complete sentences.)

A related note: Sticking All Your Tags In Title Case Like This Makes Them Slightly Harder To Read And Hence Harder To Use. If You Really Prefer Them That Way, Go Ahead, But For Most People, they're a lot easier to read if you write them in sentence case like this. See?

Direct-quote tagging is the spawn of Satan

Direct-quote tagging is the practice of taking sentences from the quote verbatim and using them as your taglines. This method was originated by several high-profile researchers, and has since spread to many other people. It's fast, it's easy, it identifies you with the elites, and it is the Manifestation of Pure Evil.

I'm deadly serious. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever for you to do this. Direct-quote tagging consistently violates all of the principles discussed above, leading to taglines that are wordy, obtuse, and unflowable. (If you don't believe me, here's a real-life example from a brief I had to reformat: "Sulfate concentrations in the atmosphere – a major component of fine particles, especially in the East – have decreased since 1990." It means "Acid rain has gotten better since 1990." WHY?)

The only real justifications for doing this are "it's fast" and "it reduces powertagging". However, the amount of time saved when researching is more than offset by the amount of time wasted when trying to use the darn thing, and if you really can't afford to spend an extra 15 seconds writing a good tag, you're doing something wrong. Similarly, the best way to reduce powertagging is simply to not write powertags. Direct quotes don't reduce powertagging anyway, since one sentence rarely captures the nuances of the whole card.

I understand that there are plenty of excellent debaters for whom direct-quote tagging works perfectly fine. That doesn't mean it's a good idea any more than the existence of perfectly healthy smokers means smoking is a good idea. In my experience, people who use direct tags tend to be less concise and harder to flow overall. You can make it work, but it requires a lot of unnecessary effort that could be avoided if you just did it right from the beginning. Please, if only for the sake of the people you'll trade evidence with, don't use direct-quote tagging.

Extend-o-tron 5000: A tagline workshop

Here's a real-life example to test out some of these concepts on.

US has permanent veto over any changes to the convention
William H. Neukom, President of the American Bar Association, September 27, 2007. LL.B. Stanford University. A.B. Dartmouth College “Statement submitted to the Committee on Foreign Relations of the United States Senate regarding the Convention on the Law of the Sea” http://meetings.abanet.org/webupload/commupload/IC965000/relatedresources/2007sept27sfrcstatements_t.pdf

The rule of law in the oceans is not static, and the Convention will provide the platform for additional legal rules on future uses and protections of the oceans. The ABA did not endorse the treaty until 1994 because we agreed with objections to one part of the treaty dealing with deep seabed mining. After intensive negotiations, again led by the United States, those objections were resolved in an Agreement signed by the United States in August 1994 and now in force with the Convention. In accordance with that Agreement, the United States will become a permanent member of the governing Council of the International Seabed Authority and of the Finance Committee, which operate by consensus, once it becomes a party to the Convention. From that point forward, no decisions will be able to be made over the objections of the United States. Our failure to become a party to the Convention and take advantage of these changes negotiated in the Agreement will become more problematic in the future when and if mining of the deep seabed becomes commercially feasible.”

This evidence doesn't have a flow tag at all, so we'll have to create one, but first let's work on the brief tag. What we have right now is fairly accurate and contains pretty much all the information we need, but it's wordy. Here are a few possible alternatives:

  • "U.S. will be able to veto changes to UNCLOS"
  • "Changes will require U.S. consent"

Etc. I'll go with the second one for simplicity (you'll see why later.)

The flow tag is supposed to be a short handle that describes the content of the quote. Let's go with "Can veto". Now check: Is this SAFE?

Short - Two words. Check.
Accurate - That's what the quote says. Check.
Flowable - Neither of the words are longer than four letters. Check.
Easily understood - We can veto it, obviously. Check.

Now, combine the two together in some way. I'll go with the separate-on-one-line method: "Can veto: Changes will require U.S. consent". (If you want, you can add in some extra notation to indicate what this is responding to.)

And that's it!


The Epic Flow Post

I cannot overemphasize the importance of good flowing. Last year, there were over 50,000 flowing-related injuries worldwide, outstripping shark attacks, homicides, and teletubbies.

Okay, I'm kidding. But I'm entirely serious when I saw that good flowing is one of the most important keys to winning rounds. In this post, I'll be explaining how I flow. I don't expect everyone to like this system or adopt it completely; I'm just trying to give you a range of ideas and tips that you can adapt to your own styles. First, though, an overview.

There is no such thing as a "right" or "wrong" flowing style

The "right" way to flow is "whatever works best for you" - no more, no less. That said, some flowing styles work better than others. Any good flow system needs to include all of the following characteristics:

  1. Contain a complete, readable record of every major point raised in the round.
  2. Easily track the flow of arguments across speeches. You should be able to easily tell what every rebuttal is responding to, and how it was refuted.
  3. Allow you to easily construct the outline of your next speech.
  4. Be easy to set up, execute, and shut down (no super-complicated diagrams to draw, long phrases to write, or tons of pages to gather up at the end.)

My basic setup

(Note: If you ever have trouble visualizing what I'm talking about, scroll down to the bottom and take a look at the interactive flow scan - it'll make things clearer.)

I flow on a standard 8½-by-11 pad of paper, across two facing pages. I fold each page into quarters, so there are creases that demarcate four speeches on each page. (You can also draw lines, but I usually don't bother.) It looks like this:

Unlike many people, I don't usually put the speech names (1AC, 1NC, etc.) at the top of each column; you're not likely to forget which column is the 2AC halfway through the round.

If you find yourself needing more space, you can also use a legal-size pad (for wider columns) or flip up the page and write on the one underneath. The latter option messes up my argument tracking (coming later), and the former option wouldn't fit into my spiffy brown flowpad folder, so I usually just write smaller. About a minute into a speech, you can usually guesstimate about how much content is going to be in it, and use your space accordingly.

I flow in pencil so I can erase mistakes; others prefer pen. A single pad of paper is preferable to several loose sheets, since it's easier to keep track of it at the table.

Flowing arguments

I flow chronologically; i.e. I write down everything they say, in the order they say it. This contrasts to a number of other systems that flow responses side-by-side or on different sheets of paper. Both methods have their downsides; I've managed to solve most of the shortcomings of the chronological method with my argument-tracking system (below), but organizing your speeches can take a little practice. In my opinion, however, this is less of a problem than some of the downsides of argument-based systems.

I leave small gaps between each argument to distinguish them visually. This works better than lines, which would be confusing (since I use lines for other things.) Consistency is the key; you want arguments to have a unique visual style, so you can pick them out instantly without having to wade through lots of text.


I obsessively break things up into sections. If it feels like my opponents are moving on to a new topic (for example, a new stock issue), I make a new section heading for it. There are a couple of reasons for this:

  1. It increases the visual "texture" of the flow, so it's easier for your eyes to find things. Section headers give your eyes a sort of landmark to work off of, like grid lines on a map, or paragraph breaks in a newspaper.
  2. It improves your organization and refutation by helping you think of arguments as part of general topics. ("Solvency point three" as opposed to "argument number 14", for example.) This helps you make connections and recognize underlying themes, so you don't have to respond to every single point directly.

I differentiate sections, arguments, and subpoints of arguments by indentation level. For example:

Inherent barriers
a - corruption
b - national sovereignty
ev: Russia will refuse

For those of you wondering "don't you sometimes get squished up really close to the right side of the column?", the answer is yes. Fortunately, having more than two levels of indentation is rare, so it's not much of a problem.

Abbreviations and symbols

Having a good set of abbreviations and symbols is probably the biggest secret to flowing. Everyone will gradually evolve their own set, but here are some ones I use frequently, to give you some ideas:

Adv -  advantage
c/app -  cross-apply (as in, "c/app 1AC ev" - cross-apply the evidence from the 1AC)
crit -  criterion
DA -  disadvantage
dep -  dependent (as in, "rel dep on JV" - relations are dependent on Jackson-Vanik.)
ev: -  indicates that evidence was read for a point (for example, "ev: will improve relations with Russia".) I've seen a circled "e" used for this, but I try to avoid circles since it looks too much like my argument tracking system (see below.)
fx -  effects
inh -  inherency
sol -  solvency
n/spec (or n-spec)  -  indicates that evidence was not specific to the policy or country being discussed (for example, solvency evidence for the 123 agreement that says "nuclear cooperation improves relations with the recipient country" but doesn't specifically mention Russia.)
R -  Russia
ref -  refutation or reform ("no ref" could mean "they haven't refuted this" OR "this is not a reform", depending on the context)
rel -  relations
sig -  significance (the stock issue) or significant (the word).
src -  source (as of evidence)
T -  topicality
w/ -  with (for example, w/R would be "with Russia")
w/out -  without

I also invent a ton of abbreviations on the fly - usually for important issues in the round, like the name of the law they're passing. (For example, JV for Jackson-Vanik, EMD for European Missile Defense, NS for New START, etc.)

A super-useful symbol: The "splorple" (redirect symbol)

If you don't try anything else, try this - it's incredibly useful. Basically, the splorple (redirect symbol) tells you to insert something from somewhere else on the flow. You draw the splorple, and then draw a curvy line to the text you want to insert. When you're giving your speech, the symbol tells you to insert whatever it points to there. It's hard to miss. (Later, when you hit the text that you already inserted, the line coming out of it tells you not to say it.) Here's what it looks like:

This is immensely useful, because it allows you to quickly change the order of your speech. If you need to move an argument around after you've already written things down, you don't have to erase anything; just quickly draw the symbol. It saves a ton of time and helps make your speeches more organized.

Argument tracking/bubble flowing

One of the key problems with chronological flowing is that it's hard to track the flow of arguments throughout the round. To help solve this, I use a version of something called "bubble flowing." Here's how it works:

  1. When an argument is responded to, circle it,
  2. And draw a straight line from the circle to the response.

That's pretty much it. Now, you can easily trace an argument throughout the round, and tell what's been dropped just by look at what isn't circled. There are a couple of particulars worth mentioning:

  1. Use straight lines, not curvy lines. Your eyes can jump to the end of a straight line a lot faster than they can follow a curve. It doesn't matter if the line crosses text; you'll still be able to read it (unless you're flowing with a really thick pen, which you shouldn't be.)
  2. This isn't inflexible - if the argument was several speeches back, don't bother with the line; it's more trouble than it's worth. The most common instances of this are new 1AC responses in the 2NC. (They're basically new arguments anyway, so it's not really important to show what they're responding to.)
  3. Don't overdo it. You don't need to link every solvency argument back to the Solvency section in the 1AC - just direct responses.

For examples, see below.

Extend-o-tron 5000: An interactive flow

For your study, I've put together an interactive visual scan of one of my flows, from quarterfinals at the last tournament. (I picked this flow because it's very detailed and illustrates a lot of my techniques; in-round flows tend to be a lot messier.) Click on the image below and hover your mouse over any text to see what it says, and what I mean by it.

Click to go to the interactive flow

Filed under: Flowing 7 Comments