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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!

Comments (3) Trackbacks (0)
  1. So you have successfully convinced me that using both flow tags and brief tags is necessary. Now my only question is: How do I properly use the flow tag in a speech?
    When I introduce a piece of evidence I generally try to stick to the 4 pt refutation rule: 1-summarizing their argument, 2-telling the judge my response, 3-reading the evidence, and 4-impacting. At the end of the 2nd step I always tie in my brief tagline (as I am not in the habit of using flow tags). How can I say the short flow tag to the judge without it disrupting the natural flow of the argument and making everything sound choppy?

    • Basically just work it into a sentence somehow, and put a little emphasis on it. For example: “This means that there is No Vote.” Or, more directly, something like: “This means that the vote that’s supposed to be happening doesn’t actually happen. (You can write that down as No Vote, if you want.)”

      Still slightly choppy, perhaps, but a little choppiness is really not as big of a deal as you might think – and it can actually help the judge wake up and write the tag down. Unless you’re stopping suddenly, taking a breath, and then repeating the same sentence fragment twice in a monotone, it probably sounds fine. 🙂

  2. Finally, someone who understands the evil of the powertag. The way I think of it, if you can’t remember all of it without looking down, neither can your judge, your opponent, or your partner if you’re doing parli or TP. Also, like you said, it takes up way too much space on the card/flowpad.
    One thing that bugs me, and I know it’s weird and picky, but when people use “baby” tags. Basically tags that make it feel as though it’s being seriously dumbed down for me and the judge, and when they repeat they baby tags three times over it gives me the feeling they’re trying to hypnotize the judge instead of actually debating.
    Example, instead of:
    “Contention Two, Freedom needs limits. Why does freedom need limits? Because…”
    They do:
    “Freedom Bad. *slower like you’re talking to a three-year-old* Freedom Bad. *like you’re an army captain and you listen or you die* I repeat FREEDOM BAD.”

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