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


Schema Shifting: Breaking judge bias

Schema shifting is, hands down, the single most consistently effective technique for modifying the judge's emotional impression of an argument. It's also something that I've never seen systematically explained - anywhere. So yeah. Blog post.

Before we start...

A "schema" (pronounced "SKEE-muh", if you care) is, loosely defined, a set of preconceived ideas about something. For example, when I say "watermelon", you think of a large green fruit; when I say "housefire", you think of flames and firetrucks; and when I say "economic depression", you think of falling stock markets, pay cuts, and unemployment.

Schemas (or schemata, if you're being technical) allow your brain to easily absorb new information. Instead of building your vision of something from scratch, you can start with the nearest schema and just focus on the ways in which it is different. The classic example (taken from the fantastic book Made to Stick) is the word "pomelo". Here's a technical explanation from Wikipedia:

The pomelo (Citrus maxima or Citrus grandis) is a crisp citrus fruit native to South and Southeast Asia. It is usually pale green to yellow when ripe, with sweet white (or, more rarely, pink or red) flesh and very thick albedo (rind pith). It is the largest citrus fruit, 15–25 centimetres (5.9–9.8 in) in diameter, and usually weighing 1–2 kilograms (2.2–4.4 lb).

...and here's a simple explanation from Made to Stick:

A pomelo is basically an oversized grapefruit with a very thick and soft rind.

Which explanation gave you the fastest mental image of a pomelo? The second, obviously. You already know what a grapefruit is; you just had to modify your mental image with "oversized" and "thick and soft rind." That's a schema at work. (Actually, the first explanation also made use of schemas - "citrus fruit" and "rind" - but in a less direct way.)

A world of magnets

Explaining an idea to the judge is a little like throwing a paper clip into a maze full of magnets - it will stick to whatever compatible schema it hits first. If a case's harms are about pollution, the judge will instinctively activate their "toxic chemicals" schema. If your someone reads a scientific study to back up their point, the judge will instinctively activate their "scientists say so" schema. And so forth.

Like magnets, schemas have a powerful attractive force. Our brains try very hard to fit new information into an existing schema, because it minimizes the amount of new information we have to learn. We have a very difficult time with concepts that don't fit into any existing schema (like, say, polynomial division). Similarly, once an idea is attached to a schema, it's very difficult to detach. In fact, studies have found that people will often outright ignore evidence that doesn't fit their preconceived schema. Uncertainty is uncomfortable - rather than letting new evidence introduce uncertainty into our way of thinking, we often just choose to ignore it.

Schema Shifting: The easy way to break bias

Here's the thing: all judge bias is a result of schemas. When we say that a judge is "biased" against plans that raise taxes, it really just means that their schema for "higher taxes" has a lot of negative emotions attached to it: lower income, government overspending, regulations interfering with personal liberty, etc. In order to overcome the bias, we have to break the schema - either reprogram their idea of what "higher taxes" means, or keep them from thinking of the plan as "higher taxes" in the first place.

Reprogramming a schema is hard. Detaching an idea from a schema is also hard. Shifting from one schema to another similar schema, however, is quite easy. When you think of it this way, breaking bias is easy:

First, look at how the judge will perceive the argument. Then, find
another schema that's really similar (but positive), and shift to it.

In other words, don't try to convince someone that their schema is wrong; convince them that they're using the wrong schema.

  • The plan benefits large corporations. The judge has latched onto the "corporations creating jobs" schema. Shift it to the "greedy executives get a bailout" schema. (Both involve companies getting money, but it's much more helpful.)
  • The plan lowers taxes. The judge has latched onto the "plan lowers wasteful government spending" schema. Shift it to the "plan cuts vital services for protecting the innocent" schema. (Both involve less spending, but it's much more helpful.)
  • Most of the experts dislike your plan. The judge has latched onto the "expert opinion" schema. Shift it to the "brainwashed masses engaging in groupthink" schema. (Both involve experts believing something, but it's much more helpful.)

But how do you shift a schema? Easy: rhetoric. Just reference lots of terminology and ideas from the ideal schema. For example, if you're trying to get the judge to shift into the "brainwashed masses" schema, use lots of words like "propaganda", "misinformed", and "ignorance". Focus on examples where the "experts" were clearly mislead. If the schemas are similar enough, the shift will happen automatically.

Filed under: Speaking 1 Comment

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.


Educationally speaking…

In which we learn that judges are not extraterrestrials. Also, how to talk to them so they actually pay attention to what you are saying.

Clarity outweighs strength

Really? Yes, really. To illustrate this, let's look at two (fictional) plans, presented as a community judge hears them. Which would you rather vote for?

“We propose carrying out a forsolith transform using micro-ethicalic nodules. This has something to do with pollution. Here's some evidence saying this is a really great idea.”

“The government currently has a blank fund where they put taxes paid with invalid Social Security numbers. This fund currently has $138 million in it, and it's not being used for anything. We propose using this money to improve water treatment in rural America; this could potentially save up to 20,000 lives every year.”

If you're like most people, you would rather vote for the second plan. It's simple, it makes sense, and it sounds like a good idea. The first plan sounds decent - for all you know, it could be fantastic - but it's inherently less appealing because you don't understand how it works.

Judges are the same way – they inherently prefer plans that make intuitive sense to them. This effect is so strong that it can override the actual efficacy of the plan. After seeing a lot of weird decisions, I've become convinced of a simple rule:

Most judges would rather vote for something they understand than something flawless.

This is so important, I'm going to say it again:

Most judges would rather vote for something they understand than something flawless.

The conclusion is straightforward: Explaining your arguments well gives you an automatic advantage. Why? I don't really know. I suspect a large part is memory – if the judge understands the route to a conclusion, the conclusion itself will be much more memorable, and hence more important in the judge's mind.

We three kings

Okay, so you should explain yourself. End of discussion. Right? Wrong.

There are three basic mindsets of argumentation. Pretty much any competent debater will fall into one of these categories:

The first mindset is The Debater. The Debater is all about argumentation and proving the point. The Debater tries to win on the flow (even if it requires reading an H subpoint to their fifth disadvantage.)

The second mindset is The Talker. The Talker is all about presenting the point well. He talks smart, looks smart, and walks smart. The Talker tries to win through surface persuasion - the "this guy sounds like he's right" effect.

"Hmmm... I behold a plan..."

The third mindset is The Teacher. The Teacher knows he's right, so winning the round is simply a matter of educating the judge until he or she recognizes the fact. The Teacher tries to win through knowledge.

Which is best? Think about how you are persuaded: you learn the facts and come to a conclusion. Judges are not extraterrestrials - they think like you do. Both The Debater and The Talker presuppose that information is conveyed, but The Teacher is the only mindset that starts with education, and uses speaking and argumentation structure as tools, instead of the focus. Talking like a teacher ties directly into the "persuasion" part of the judge's brain.

One size does fit all

You might think that these mindsets are for different types of judges: The Debater for flow judges, The Talker for speaker judges, etc. That's a mistake. Because The Teacher ties into fundamental brainwork, all you have to do to adapt it to different judges is change what knowledge you presuppose.

Let's say you're got a super-strict former-NFL flow judge. He already knows what it means when you "drop", "extend", or "perm" something, and what "prolif" entails, so you can start at a very high of education - like speed-reading Khalilzad.

Switch to a parent judge, and you have to start a little lower. You can assume that he or she generally understands how to evaluate your arguments, but you'll need to take some time explaining exactly how (for example) the plan causes inflation, and why that's bad. (Instead of just saying "mandate 2 presupposes inflation cross-apply 1NC Smith 09 equals economic collapse which goes global Mead 92 nuclear war, next point.")

Community judges require you to start even lower, with basic concepts like "why it matters that I quoted an expert on this, and they didn't," but the argument explanation itself is similar.

But what about speaker judges? Is there any hope? Well, yes. Clarity overrides many flaws - most judges will think you speak a lot better if they understand what you're talking about. (Learning is interesting. If the judge is learning, they'll find you interesting.) At any rate, good speaking is a skill to pursue regardless of what mindset you hold.

The bottom line

People are persuaded by knowledge. If you start with the basic idea that debate is about educating the judge until they understand why you're right, your ideas will stick.

Instead of trying to debate, try to teach.

Filed under: Speaking 1 Comment

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.


Top 5 simple speaking tips

1. Smile!

Being friendly can make the difference between a speech that the judge understands and a speech that the judge likes. If you've never intentionally smiled in a speech, give it a try. Obviously, use discretion - you don't want to be grinning from ear to ear while talking about human trafficking - but there's rarely a reason to look like the Grim Reaper all the way through your speech. Treat your subjects with respect, but don't look like you're about to die.

2. If the judge asks you to do something, actually do it.

This seems kind of... obvious, but I see it violated almost every. single. round. Recently, one judge's entire "judging philosophy" was basically, "I like it when you repeat your taglines." Guess what? Nobody repeated their taglines.

If the judge asks you to do something, doing it should be your highest priority for the round. If the judge asks you to repeat your taglines, then by golly, you better repeat your taglines. If the judge asks you to signpost your arguments, then those arguments had better be signposted. They're the ones checking the ballot, after all.

3. Fix your tics.

Most of us have some little thing we do constantly that annoys the fuzzy furballs out of everyone else - saying "um", clicking pens, etc. Stop doing it.

Most of the time, we just don't realize we're doing it, so all we need is to have someone point it out repeatedly. Have someone watch you speak and *BANG!* on the table really loudly whenever you do it. (Alternatively, you can have a little sibling shoot rubber bands at you.) Several years back, our club president decided to stop saying "um" (which he said all. the. time) and had everyone do this whenever he talked. By the end of the meeting, the "um"s were practically gone.

If, like me, you have problems with "dancing" (moving your feet around too much), a good way to stop is to use a "magic mat". Basically, just stand on something while speaking and pretend your feet are glued to it. It sounds silly, but it's actually remarkably effective at forcing you to think about what your feet are doing.

4. Get sleep.

Caffeine is overrated. If you want to talk well, sleep well. What comes out of your mouth will make a lot more sense.

About a month ago, I inadvertently became a good illustration of this. I was attending a tournament in Fort Worth, and on the first day, I got about 5 hours of sleep. Average speaker points? 25. On the second day, I got about 8 hours of sleep. Average speaker points? 29.

Obviously, that's not statistically robust, but it's illustrative nonetheless. I felt a lot better on the second day, and apparently I spoke a lot better too.

5. If you're a fast talker, SLOW DOWN, seriously.

Think about it this way: If you make sense when you talk fast, you'll make more sense when you talk slow. The average person has difficulty producing an eloquent sentence at ordinary talking speed; if you can do it at 300 WPM, what you come up with at 160 WPM will be brilliant.

I'll use myself as an example. A few years back, I talked... really fast. I was good at it - I won rounds, the judges understood me, and I got decent speaker points. I got a lot of "SLOW DOWN" comments, however, so I decided to cut the speed a bit. It was one of the best decisions I've ever made in debate.

All of a sudden, I didn't just make sense, I was eloquent. Talking slower gave my mind more time to think about what it was saying. I still said the same things in about the same amount of time; I just said them a lot better. (I was afraid I would run out of time, but slowing down made it so much easier to be concise that I never really had problems with it.) My speaker points went through the roof.

There are some situations where being able to go fast is still useful - like when you have 50 arguments to tackle in your 1AR and you can't clump any of them - but as a general rule, talking at a normal rate is far superior. Seriously - slow down. You'll be glad you did.

How? 10% luck, 20% skill, 15% concentrated power of will. (Mostly concentrated power of will, though.) Unfortunately, as with most habits, the only real way to stop talking fast is to force yourself not to. It may also help to intentionally breath at the end of every sentence, or intentionally pause now and again to "reset" your speed.

Filed under: Speaking, Speed 7 Comments


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.


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.