Debate Tip of the Week: Structure Intentionally

I’ve found that debaters often care a lot about the structure of their speeches, perhaps because their teachers rightly emphasized organization a lot, but debaters rarely seem to understand structure in any meaningful way.

Part of the blame lies with us debate coaches. There are so many topics to cover when introducing someone to debate that the structure of a speech tends to fall down our priorities. I’m here to try to resolve this oversight a bit. Here are some disparate thoughts on speech structure.

— There’s a reason the harm/plan/advantage order persists: it simply makes sense. Set up a problem; this creates tension. How will we resolve this problem? A solution (the plan)! After that you get additional benefits that wouldn’t make sense without knowing of the plan, so they go after.

— However, that doesn’t mean that harm/plan/advantage are the categories you should use each time. All that is required for a policy 1AC is a plan and a reason to change–that RFC can take the form of harms or advantages but both are not required. And they don’t need to be expressed with those terms. Many teams also use a criterion, value, or framework, and if you break those down they sort of reduce to the concepts of harms/advantages (the value is not being achieved/now it is achieved), but more specific terms and framing can be helpful to understanding the argument.

— If you’re giving the 1AR, make sure you cover new arguments from the 2NC first, so you don’t accidentally drop them.

— Also in the 1AR, it’s typically best to start with the strongest opposition to your case and end with the case itself. For policy folks, this means (given the tip above), you should probably cover DA’s first and end on your reasons for change (your case). For LDers, start with the neg case before returning to your own. This mirrors the bad thing/good thing rhythm I already talked about above with the 1AC.

— Always put your analysis before you read evidence. The evidence is supporting you. You’re not repeating the evidence. This has the added benefit of making your analysis more succinct because when you start running out of things to say you can just jump to reading the card rather than waffling.

— Maintain the relative order already established in the round unless you have a compelling reason not to. With large blocks of arguments you might be able to shift around (see addressing the 2N arguments before 1N in the rebuttals), but try not to mix it up too much.

— If you’re going to restructure the round into voting issues, think about what that really means. Ostensibly, the idea of a “voting issue” implies that it’s an issue that the judge ought to vote for you for, but hardly anyone actually uses the phrase that way. Instead, they just blindly lump their arguments into groups of three and call those three things voting issues. Make your voting issues voting issues.

— Speaking of threes, don’t force it. Groups of three are aesthetically pleasing but it’s not law. Don’t compromise your arguments for the sake of the number three.

— When ordering arguments within a set (like a set of DAs or responses to a contention), remember the order 1, 3, 4, 5, 2. That’s a good rule of thumb for ordering a set of arguments by strength. It keeps the best arguments at the start and end where they’re more likely to be remembered, and if you find that you’re running out of time you can excise the worst arguments and jump to the last one on the fly without worry.

— Start thinking about structure. Make it a conscious part of your debate preparation. I’ve found that students in the NCFCA tend to err on the side of splitting arguments up too much instead of using subpoints to construct multi-part larger arguments. Perhaps look at your case or your briefs and see if you’re making that mistake. Make each argument a complete idea, and don’t be afraid of, for instance, having multiple warrants or multiple impacts to a given argument.

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