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When I teach at debate camps, I used to poll the crowd ahead of time, asking them what they would most like to improve on in debate. Most, if not all, answers are incredibly vague—something like “improve my speaking” or “argue better”. I’ve mostly stopped doing this because these answers provide no information at all. It reveals a more serious problem: not being able to self-analyze and figure out one’s weaknesses.
Last year I wrote about how you should focus on one skill at a time when practicing. Understanding what you need to focus on is a prerequisite to doing that effectively. I think a lot of people don’t want to do the hard work of truly self-analyzing their abilities because it’s a humbling exercise; it’s easier to blame things outside of ourselves. However, we ought to have an abundance of humility. This is not only a practical exercise, but a moral one.
The first step is to think back to the feedback you’ve gotten from others and try to find the core of the criticism. I’ve found that judges are good at understanding when something has gone wrong, but they can be somewhat hit and miss with diagnosing the real problem. For instance, I’ve seen debaters run a very strong argument, one they believe is great, and receive either no mention or a dismissal of the argument on their ballots, and assume that the argument is flawed. But if there’s a big flaw in the argument, wouldn’t it be more likely that the judge would mention the flaw rather than ignore it? More likely that the judge didn’t understand the argument or why it was important. The problem then isn’t with the argument itself but either your clarity or impacting.
Another common misinterpretation I see is when the judge focuses on the persuasiveness of the winning team, and the losing team believes that they need to start sacrificing their argumentation to match the more colloquial speaking style of the winning team. Good argumentation, presented clearly, is persuasive. Ignoring the strength of the argumentation in pursuit of persuasiveness is self-defeating. Instead, you should focus on how to explain your arguments more clearly, testing your explanations on relatives and friends (“lay” judges).
Debaters often don’t understand how they appear in the middle of an intense debate. Sometimes they can appear aggressive when that’s not actually indicative of their internal mental state. The only way to truly understand this disconnect is to record yourself and view the recording. It’s uncomfortable, I know, but it’s a great tool.
These are all methods to discover our true weaknesses, but be careful with overemphasizing a small sample size. If one judge has a pointed comment, but other judges don’t mention it, that might be more indicative of that judge’s particular preferences than something in need of repair. Test your feedback against fundamentals for good debate to discern what you should focus on. I’m convinced that, for the vast majority of high school debaters, the most urgent practice needs are organization, clarity, and/or impacting. Too much self-analysis focuses on small, picky items, ignoring these fundamentals. Ask yourself: is the judge writing down my arguments as I want them to be written down? If you’re not sure, work on 4-point refutation. Does the judge seem to understand my arguments? Do they understand the importance of them? Those questions focus on clarity and impacts.
So get some humility, try to dispassionately analyze your own weaknesses, and then develop a plan to improve upon those skills. Focus on them one at a time, figure out a way to measure progress, and don’t be afraid to ask for help!
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