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.

Comments (2) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Amazing. I wish I learned this sooner. I hate in when you start rambling like:

    “And they said… heres this evidence…somewhere… but anyway their point was (oh, heres the evidence)… and we read this before, but we said that it didn’t have any impact because of a point my partner responded to (where’s my flow)… but the point is… ummm….

  2. That is EXACTLY what I was telling to the teams preparing for Nationals. Ladder of abstraction!… impact! etc…

    All very good points. As usual.


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