A lot of debaters are sloppy with their flowing, and it’s causing them to lose rounds. Flowing is the foundation of debate. It’s how we understand what’s happening and how we organize our thoughts. If your flow is a mess, your speeches are going to be messes. I know everyone knows that one experienced debater that brags they never flow and still win. I’ve judged those debaters; they’re not as good as they think they are. I’m a coach who is quite flexible about different points of view and different styles. Sure, I’ll make arguments to defend my own point of view, but I know that some people simply think differently or have different priorities. I haven’t seen any argument to support not flowing. There’s a reason it’s baked into the activity.
Most debaters reach a point where their flow is minimally adequate and they settle. I’m seeing more and more debaters who don’t really flow at all but merely take notes with no understanding of the overall shape of the round. That’s like prepping for a sprint by smashing your knee with a hammer. A debater who is striving to compete at nationals should be flowing every speech, capturing tags, evidence citations, key evidence info, and their own next speech, complete with all tags written and evidence marked, with little to no prep time used. This leaves prep time to hone in arguments rather than think of or notate them. If you get to this point (which is possible, because I did it), prep time will feel like a bonus. Most rounds you might not even use it all.
But if you’re going to get to this point, you’ve got to start with the fundamentals and improve step by step. There are two fundamentals: 1. Each speech has its own column. 2. Responses are written horizontally from the arguments they respond to. From that foundation you can figure out a system you like best. I know some people use different colored pens or more or less sticky notes. There’s a lot of room to customize, but you can’t neglect the fundamentals.
Next, the path to improvement. The first phase is writing down tags. Whenever the speaker numbers something (if they’re organized), or emphasizes it, write it down. Additionally, by the time you go up to speak, every one of your tags for your arguments need to be written down. Figuring out tags on the fly is incredibly difficult to do consistently, and organizing a speech on the fly is nigh-impossible to do well. A few scribbled notes isn’t going to cut it; it’ll make your speech a mess. You must have all of your argument tags written down in their correct spot on the flow every time. If the order in which I was giving the arguments wasn’t perfectly “down the flow” I’d use large circled numbers to indicate my intended order.
The next step is getting evidence citations. I use a little half-rectangle to contain citation information (name and year) to make it stand out on my flow (a short vertical line and a long horizontal line below and to the right). Figure out a way to make it distinct so you can find it easily amongst the argument notes. I don’t think many debaters write down citations. How do I know? Because when they ask for evidence in cross-x they say, “can I see the card you read in harm 2?” even if there were multiple cards under harm 2. If they wrote down enough information, they could ask “can I see the Smith card in harm 2?” I can’t remember the last time the latter happened. I also see, all the time, debaters think that an argument included evidence when it didn’t, or vice versa.
The third step is getting additional details, particularly details about evidence. This is where you can catch instances where what’s said in the evidence sounds odd or doesn’t actually support your opponent’s argument. Once you get to this point you’ve mastered flowing the rest of it, so you’re actually able to listen to the evidence better.
Finally, you can start writing down your responses and prepping your speech during your opponent’s speech. This mostly serves to save prep time and doesn’t necessarily make you better at flowing, but trust me—it’s a nice luxury. Plus, as a bonus, it helps prep you for parli debate in college, where there is no prep time. I found the transition to be seamless.
There’s your goal. How do you achieve it? Plan and practice. Examine your method of flowing and see if it’s meeting the two fundamental principles. Then see if there’s anything you’re either wasting too much time doing or getting confused over. Figure out a way to make it more streamlined and efficient. Perhaps brainstorm some more abbreviations to use with commonly-occuring words. I notice that a lot of debaters have large, looping handwriting. This is not ideal, as you’re going to have to use more paper to fit everything without running out of space. Plus it’s slower to write larger. I forced myself to practice writing smaller and it only took a couple weeks before I had permanently altered my penmanship. Then practice by finding recordings of debate rounds and speeding them up to 1.5-2x. If, at that speed, you find yourself falling behind, just skip to the present moment and continue on. Getting stuck in a cycle of trying to remember what the speaker said before while continually falling further behind only makes things worse. Soon (very soon!) you’ll find it easier and easier to capture everything.
I have to admit I’m a bit heated about this topic, because I’m just now understanding just how poor many people’s flowing skills are. Take this as a challenge to upgrade your flowing this season. Or look at it this way: if most debaters aren’t flowing well you can get a decisive competitive edge with only a small amount of practice.
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