When I first joined the NCFCA, I was overwhelmed by all the things I had to learn. Depending on how long it has been since you were a novice, you may have forgotten what it was like to learn all the terminology and ways of doing things. Wait, so what is the difference between Inherency and Significance? And how do you explain Topicality again?
But over time, you started to get used to these debate concepts. It became part of your standard lingo. Now, you could argue for hours with someone about whether Topical counterplans are ok. As you continue to improve, you eventually get pretty good at speaking and convincing judges of your position.
And if you’re like most debaters, you’ll continue to improve accidentally—just as a result of going to tournaments and debating and researching a lot, not because you spend hours practicing and refining your techniques.
Have you ever thought to revisit the basic habits that you built as a novice? See, when you were a novice, you looked to other debaters to figure out how to behave. You scribbled down mental notes as they asked the judge for their “judging philosophy”, you observed carefully as they “ran sig T”, and your eyes widened as they “impacted their DA to nuclear war”. And along the way, you picked up habits that don’t make that much sense when you really think about it. Take, for example, how most people write their first Affirmative speech.
The ritual of the first Affirmative speech
What is one of the first things that debaters do, almost without fail, in their 1AC? They come up with an intro, then say “and that is why my partner and I stand resolved that [insert resolution]” or some variation of that sentence.
Now, try to forget what you know about debate. Go back to when you were a novice. Did you instinctively know what a resolution was? No, you likely were confused what the all-important “resolution” word had to do with anything.
Okay, now imagine judging a debate tournament for the first time with no knowledge of what debate is like. All you have to guide you is a 30-minute judge orientation. If you’ve ever sat in a class and listened to a lecture of completely new concepts, you know that those community judges are not retaining much of the judge orientation.
Okay, back to the sentence every debater says. Do you think it makes much sense to the judge? Sure, they can probably figure out what you mean, but why make it hard for them? Just say something like “… and that’s why [x] should be significantly reformed”. You don’t even have to say the resolution word for word. If the Negative team runs Topicality, you can always pull out the proper wording of the resolution to argue over.
One of my least favorite rituals of the first Affirmative speech is the “Definitions” section. These definitions are almost always a waste of time, and the way they are presented isn’t beneficial to a community judge.
I think these persist because of sourcebooks like Blue Book that pad their 1ACs with definitions. (I don’t know if this still happens, but when I competed, most sourcebook cases had multiple unnecessary definitions). I pulled up a random case from Blue Book 2013 and it defined “Election Law”, “Significant”, and “Reform”.
Again, put on the shoes of a community judge. They must be wondering “Why is this kid defining these words? When is he going to explain what he is talking about? Wait… does he think I don’t know the meaning of these words?”
Realistically, most judges probably do not notice or care. But all the time you spend defining common words could be used to actually persuade the judge of your case.
If you have to actually explain a concept/term:
Don’t say this: “but before we get into this case, let’s define a word. Merriam Webster defines [word] as [definition].”
Say this: “We’re going to be talking about [word] quite a bit in this debate round. [Word] means [explanation].”
Don’t even use a dictionary definition. Those are incredibly bland and it makes it look like you can’t explain things with your own words.
Only pull out a dictionary definition if you have an argument about the definition with the Negative team (because they ran Topicality).
Another thing that gets passed down generations of debaters is the naming conventions for points in your 1AC. Some people use “observations”, others use “harms”, and some even have the audacity to use “inherency” as a point label. Gross.
None of these make sense to an external audience. “Harms” make intuitive grammatical sense, except that debaters use the word in an eccentric way. A phrase you hear often is “We have two harms. The first harm is [tag]”. What does it mean to “have a harm”? That only makes sense in the debate world.
If you want to use labels to categorize the different types of points, I recommend the following substitutes:
There’s no easy substitute for solvency. I recommend simply saying “Here’s why it will work.” If you have multiple solvency points, then say “Here are [x] reasons why it will work.” Then just call them “reasons”.
Justifications vs. Reasons can go either way. The word justification at least makes intuitive sense in the context. However, it’s easy to use this word much like debaters use “harm” because it’s debate lingo. Plus, “reasons” are simply easier to say and simpler to process for judges. In everyday use, no one gives justifications for their ideas, they give reasons.
Presentation of plans
It seems that everyone presents their plan in the same dry manner.
“For these reasons, we propose the following plan. Mandate 1. [Bla] Mandate 2. [Bla] Timeline: As soon as it’s passed. Funding: No funding required, as this is merely a legislative action. Agency/Execution: This plan will be passed by the House and Senate and signed by the President.”
It almost makes me a bit angry to type, because it’s so pointless. Why mention funding if it’s not required? Why mention agency/execution if it’s clearly something that would be passed by Congress? Why mention timeline when any normal human being would assume it’ll pass immediately?
Even if you do need to specify some of these details, don’t do it that way. Say it naturally. “This plan will take effect [explain timeline]” or “This will be paid for by [explain funding].
Also, why do debaters always say “Mandates”? That’s not a common word for average people. It’s useful to say “mandate” among other debaters because you know what you’re referring to, but it shouldn’t be public facing. It’s like using marketing lingo in an advertisement. Depending on the mandate, substitute that word for “Step”, “Action”, or “Rule”.
The final 1AC tradition that has passed down through generations is the basic case structures.
You’ve got Harms/Solvency, Justifications, and Comparative Advantage (I’ve heard more than those 3 but those are the main ones).
It’s only somewhat helpful to understand the difference between these. Many novices get so caught up in these case structures, that they end up wasting time arguing against an Affirmative case because it doesn’t neatly fit into the case structure.
I remember running a case where we didn’t talk about problems, we just talked about benefits to our plan. We had solid benefits and solid reasons to believe our plan would achieve these benefits. But at least one team per tournament would spend a few minutes explaining to the judge that we don’t have “harms”, so our case is invalid. Or something.
That’s the kind of thing that happens when you teach novices that there are three case structures and that anything else doesn’t work.
Introducing a new paradigm for writing 1ACs: write it like a persuasive speech. The only difference is that you are suggesting policy changes, so you have to lay out a very specific plan. But other than that, a 1AC is just a persuasive speech.
This gives you creative freedom.
You could write a case that explains all the problems with something, explain the advantages to fixing that thing, then lay out a plan in the last minute of the speech and explain why it would work.
Or you could say your plan in the first minute of the speech, then explain why it should be done.
Or you could leave the plan in the middle of the speech, sandwiched between problems and advantages.
You can do almost whatever you want, so long as it makes sense to the average person. I’m confident that you’ll write a better speech if you pretend it’s a persuasive speech, then adapt it slightly to make sure there’s evidence and a plan with clear mandates/details included.
I want to briefly call out some of the traditional openers and closers that debaters use, because those also need a lot of help.
How many of you have heard some of these phrases:
- “Facts are stubborn things…” quote
- Any quote by Ronald Reagan
- “In this speech I’ll be just be going down the flow and addressing some of the issues brought up by the Negative team, and really just showing you how at the end of the day an Affirmative ballot is justified.” (Literally pointless).
- “For all these reasons I urge you to vote for the [Negative/Affirmative] team.” (I think the judge knows who you want them to vote for already.)
These phrases are heard countless times in debate circles simply because they’re easy and apply to basically everything. They are crutches that help shorten your needed prep time.
Do yourself and your judge a favor—break out of the mold. Here are some ideas for better introductions.
Do you still stand up, walk up to your opponent, and say “Hey, how are you? [Pause for answer] I have a few questions for you.”
Or how about the ol’ “Congratulations on making it to the [insert octa/quarter/semi/final] round!”
I bet you do. If not, pat yourself on the back I guess.
These fake pleasantries are cute, but meaningless. Most judges see right through it, or at least they will after they see it more than once.
Save yourself some time, and just jump straight into the first question.
What’s the other thing debaters almost always do in cross-examination? They ask for a copy of the first affirmative speech, and then they proceed to ask if they can pass it back to their partner. It’s almost as if they expect that one day, the answer might be “no”.
This practice doesn’t waste much time, and it really doesn’t matter at the end of the day. But why not stand out? Why not stop doing things that don’t make sense?
I’ve listed a lot of debate traditions that I think you can discard. But that’s not all I want you to get out of this post. I want you to spend some time really reflecting on yourself as a debater.
What things do you do because you’ve always done them that way? Does it make sense to continue doing things that way?
I’m not saying that these traditions are all that bad for a novice to take up. For novices, these crutches are helpful to get started. My point is that you need to drop the crutches when you’re good enough to move on.
And always, always approach debate from your judge’s point of view.
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