Debate Tip of the Week: What To Do With A “No-Flow” Judge

A couple of weeks ago I solicited ideas for these debate tips from my club, and someone asked for advice on what to do with a judge who seems to care more about the presentation of arguments than the arguments themselves. It’s hard to gauge if the judge is going to do that mid-round, but one thing you can recognize is if the judge is flowing the debate or not, so I’ll use that as the metric for when you should consider shaking things up.

Back when I was debating in high school I had a significantly worse record with community judges than I did with alumni or “varsity” parent judges. The biggest problem is that I didn’t speak well at all. I had decent arguments but I had no idea how to communicate those ideas. But even after my speaking skills improved in my final two years I still struggled with inexperienced judges. At the time I sort of blamed the judges for not evaluating the round “correctly,” thinking that I had done my part to win the round, but they hadn’t met me halfway.

And while I still believe that there’s more we could do to help train judges to evaluate the round well, debaters who rely on that as an excuse for why they’re losing rounds are being defeatist. For those who actually want to improve, here are 5 tips for how to adapt to a “no-flow” judge.

1. Prioritize

You’re not going to be able to throw out every argument you have and expect the judge to follow them all if they’re not flowing. Instead, you should prioritize by spending more time explaining and impacting your strongest arguments. Plan for 2-3 strong arguments or argument groupings by the final speech that have been strongly impacted and repeated throughout the round.

2. Know Your Arguments

A presentation-focused judge is probably going to care about credibility a lot. If you are clearly reading evidence for the first time and figuring out what the argument is on the fly, it’ll reflect poorly on you. Know your arguments forward and backward so you can deliver them confidently. This means, on the negative side, knowing all of your briefs well before the tournament begins (let’s hope I don’t have to tell you to know your aff well). Worst case, take a bit more prep before the 1NC to make sure you know what you’re about to read. Remember, if you’re splitting the negative there’s typically no good reason to ever take prep time before either the 2NC or 1NR.

3. Impact Thoroughly

If the arguments aren’t necessarily being written down in detail, you need to make sure the most important parts, the impacts, get repeated early and often. From the first speech on you should be telling the judge exactly why, at this point in the round, you are winning. Because you’ll be running fewer arguments (or, on aff, lumping and dumping arguments liberally), you should have the extra time to do this.

4. Be a Teacher

This is my advice primarily for cross-x, but in this situation, it’s even more important throughout the entire round. Take on the attitude of a teacher in every speech and cross-x. You’re not combatting the other team, you’re explaining to the judge these exciting arguments and why they result in you winning the round. This is exciting! It’s joyous! That’s the mindset you should have.

5. Command the Room

This advice often gets misinterpreted as “be aggressive”, but in fact commanding the room isn’t about aggression at all. The person who controls the room is the one with quiet confidence. They don’t hurry, they don’t panic, their papers are always in order, and they always begin their speeches knowing what they’re going to say first. It’s the person who knows they don’t have to be frantic who is the most in control.

You’ll notice that these tips apply to all debate rounds, not just rounds where you have a “no-flow” judge. The fundamentals are always true, you just shift the things you emphasize to accommodate the judge. Explain your arguments well, impact thoroughly, and don’t panic. You’re not compromising good debate, you’re just adjusting your priorities a bit.

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