Debate Tip of the Week – Choose Now: Shortcuts or Genuine Improvement

The easy solution is always tempting, but sometimes taking it can set you back in the long run. I believe this is largely true of debate, where people seek out straightforward tactics to cut through the complexity of the activity. Unfortunately, in doing so they sacrifice understanding and leave themselves vulnerable to counter-attack and ignorant in the long run.

Here are five areas where you can choose to invest in improving your skills over the easy shortcut.

1. Real preparation instead of sourcebooks

Sourcebooks can be a great way to get a jumpstart on the year, but they easily become a crutch. Too many debaters treat them as an end product; something to print out and use as-is. In doing so, they enter into rounds with very little idea of what arguments they’re going to run and what evidence they’re going to read.

Instead, treat sourcebooks as simply a pile of evidence, unusable without attention and care. Force yourself to not use any of it until you have examined, sorted, and restructured it into your OWN arguments. And keep researching throughout the year! Even the best sourcebook is going to be severely incomplete. By not learning how to research, you’re missing out on a competitive edge, and you’re robbing yourself of a valuable skill.

2. Plan arguments instead of merely reading evidence

A piece of evidence is not an argument, and yet many debaters treat it as such. Evidence supports your argument, which means that you need to contribute something to make the evidence work for you. The most common routine in an NCFCA debate is for the speaker to read a piece of evidence and then simply restate it in their own words. That isn’t argumentation, it’s mimicry.

Instead, plan out your arguments ahead of time, understanding that an argument is an actual argument: claim, warrant, and impact, which may include multiple pieces of evidence or none at all.

3. Actually prepare for cross-x

An impromptu cross-examination is unlikely to yield much fruit. Sure, it can help clarify the round, which is important, but to get more from your cross-examinations you should prepare them ahead of time. Figure out what kind of answers you want to get from your opponent and work backwards to develop your cross-x trees. Find the key value assumptions for your position and work on guiding the other team to agreeing to them. Hone how your phrase your questions through practice and iteration.

4. Ask yourself “why” instead of blindly following trends

As I traveled around the country teaching at debate camps this summer, everywhere I went people were surprised to learn that certain debate norms are optional or even sub-optimal. For instance, you don’t have to have both harms and advantages in your 1AC. Many debaters see both appear in the 1ACs they’re introduced to and assume that you must structure the speech that way.

But if you stop to think about it and ask “why?” you’ll realize that there’s no good reason why you’d have to have both, and indeed that harms and advantages are the same concept expressed from different perspectives. So play around, and question what people accept as given. Many ideas have excellent reasons for persisting, but some are merely fads.

5. Understand debate theory instead of chasing silver bullets

I see it all the time: a debater learns a new bit of debate theory and they think it’s the answer to all of their round-losing problems. I was that debater once upon a time. It doesn’t work. It never works. Debate theory is a wonderful tool we use to collectively guide what kind of argumentation is acceptable. Understanding theory is important both as an intellectual exercise and as a way to ward off bad argumentation. But too many debaters see these shiny new arguments, perhaps taught by mysterious college debaters, and see an easy path to victory. All they do is create confusion. Understand theory so you know when to use it and when not to.

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