Debate Tip of the Week: Understand Your Arguments

Don’t run away because this tip sounds obvious! There’s a very good chance this applies to you. In fact, I’m willing to bet everyone reading this post will gain something from it, if only a healthy reminder.

After the first round of qualifying tournaments, what I’ve witnessed and what I’ve heard from others leads me to believe that while many of you might be good at convincingly presenting ideas, you don’t yet have a solid grasp of those ideas yourselves. You can be decently successful in your debate career sort of faking it along if you’re a charismatic enough speaker, but is that really where you want to settle?

Indeed, I think we should all flee from such shallow understanding. I try to help train judges to evaluate the round from an analytical perspective, looking at the strength of the arguments more or less separate from their presentation (assuming they are, in fact, presented). But debaters also have some responsibility to debate in, for lack of a better term, a good way.

Sophists were characterized by Plato as great, effective speakers and argument-makers, but when put under scrutiny they were revealed to be essentially charlatans. They were able to persuade, but they persuaded for hire, and didn’t care about the truth or veracity of their arguments.

Let’s not be sophists. Here’s what I want you to do between now and your next tournament:

Read through all of your evidence. Every single bit of it. If you’re an LD’er look through all of your…preparation? Whatever LD’ers have. But actually read through it and try to understand what it’s saying. As you read pretend you’re an opposing team and be critical towards your evidence. You may have questions about what’s really going on with the topic. Great! Note down those questions. After you’re done you’ll have a stack of notes that can guide further research and you’ll have a better understanding of what your evidence and your arguments actually say.

I guarantee that this exercise will be more valuable than just doing more research. Evidence is useless outside of you reading it in the round, and it has only minimal value if you only know it on a shallow level. Get out of the shallow end of the pool and plunge into the depths.

Bonus: read some or all of the evidence aloud to practice your speaking and articulation.

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