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


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.)


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.


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!


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.