Debate Tip Of The Week: Always Improve Your Flowing

I’ve coached over 50 different people in debate this year and all but a couple have had identifiable areas where they could improve that directly lead back to flowing.

Not tagging their arguments consistently? Did you have those tags written down before your speech?

Missing nuances in the evidence people are reading? Are you busy writing down something from 5 seconds ago during that time?

Time management problems? Perhaps you’re rambling too much at the beginning, still trying to figure out what to say next.

So many aspects of debate become easier once you’ve mastered flowing, and you should be constantly striving to improve this skill. Mike and Mary Winther (my high-school coaches) in their book Rhetoric Through Policy Debate outline four levels of flowing mastery:

  1. Flowing tags
  2. Flowing tags and evidence citations
  3. Flowing tags, evidence citations, and evidence content
  4. Flowing tags, evidence citations, evidence content, and your responses.

I believe reaching level 2 is more or less a matter of effort. Most people, with their writing speed and listening abilities, can flow those two things in every NCFCA speech with sufficient concentration (assuming the person speaking is halfway-organized). I’d argue that level 3 is a minimum if you want to be debating at nationals. Mastery of level 4 is legitimately difficult and will probably take years of practice and a lot of preparation. However, if you’re planning on debating in parliamentary-style debate in college (the most popular style of collegiate debate) it’s required as parliamentary debate has no prep time.

There’s a lot of space between levels 3 and 4, and I imagine most elite NCFCA debaters are somewhere in the middle–getting some of their speech ready during their opponent’s speech and relying on prep/partner speeches/cross-x for the rest of it. Regardless of where you are right now, dedicate yourself to measurable improvement. If you’re at level 1, focus on hitting level 2 as fast as possible. If you’re at level 3, do a couple of “no prep time” practice rounds to force your hand and see how you fare.

What you should never, never do is become complacent with your flowing. Here are some tips to improve.

  1. Find a good pen. The difference in speed and muscle strain between a cheap bic pen (or heaven forbid a pencil!) and a nice, smooth, thin-tipped rollerball or gel pen is night and day. Most of my club loved the Pilot V5, though I didn’t like that it would bleed if you accidentally let the tip rest on the paper. I preferred the Uniball Vision Elite, though now I use the cheaper Pilot G-2 (I wouldn’t use it in competition because I couldn’t trust myself not to absentmindedly click it over and over). In all cases 0.5mm is the sweet spot for accurate, consistent, smooth writing.
  2. Write small. The smaller your script the less movement you’re doing, and less movement means quicker writing. If your normal handwriting is large and flowy, train yourself away into something practical and consistent.
  3. Adopt abbreviations. There are a number of standard abbreviations (T, Sig, Sol, I for the stock issues; DA for disadvantage; Adv for advantage; Imp or MPX for impacts; V for value; C or cri for criterion; etc. etc.) but it doesn’t matter so much what abbreviations you use as it does that you use them. Find out how to relay ideas quickly and stick to it until it’s second hand.
  4. Stick to a system. I know some debaters who use different colored pens for each speech. I could never do that, but if it works for them, it works for them. I used one color of pen, stopped drawing lines between the speech columns, and was more or less minimalist in my system by the time I ended debate, but I never got lost. I’d recommend adopting a system of pen colors, sticky notes, space-utilization, etc that’s as simple as can be while being easy to navigate for you, and stick to it. Legibility, accuracy, and speed are the key factors.
  5. Breeze past mistakes. Missing something or making a writing mistake happens to the best of us, but the most efficient flow-takers don’t let that distract them. In such a case, simply move onto the next thing and don’t let your mind dwell on the error. Worst case scenario you can ask about what you missed in cross-examination.

What are your best flowing tips? What level are you at, and what are you doing to improve your flowing skills?

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