What should you look for when reviewing a case? We want debaters to process for themselves and make intentional choices. If they know why they did it a certain way, then it’s probably defensible. But even if they did a good thing without knowing why, challenge them, so that we don’t train broken copy machines but train critical thinkers instead.
(P.S. Remember, if you’re a coach or reviewer, your job is to bring out the potential in the debater whose case it is – not to make them perfect, copy you, or do what you would’ve done.)
Judges used to being overwhelmed regularly breathe a sigh of relief and thank debaters who keep it simple. For some reason –– actually I know the exact reasons… trickle-down 1980s debate theory + college debating tactics designed for inbred debaterland audiences instead of normal people –– debaters have intuited that more points = better. Actually it’s the guts to be simple that makes persuasion magical.
You can set up a glorious, slow 1AR far easier when using fewer points.
Lately I’ve been recommending all debaters divide their case into just two sections: 1. A Test of the Resolution – How to Decide (weighing mechanism, definitions). 2. Test Met – Why the Resolution is Justified on That Basis. The idea is changing from three harms to one harm with three subpoints, from three value contentions (that actually don’t stand alone) to just one contention – your thesis.
Your audiences should walk out of the round with a simple statement they either agree with or don’t for the ballot. For example, “rehabilitation is better because it is positive, while retribution is vengeful – answering harm with harm.”
Substructure (Depth vs. Breadth)
Points (“claims”) are developed (“proven”) with warrants (“proof”). The more proof to a claim, the more likely it is to hold up. By reducing the number of claims, one can increase the number of proofs for the claims on the table.
As long as the claim “being proved” still stands by the end of the round, the resolution is supported. Hooray. So try and put subpoints inside of an argument to develop that argument. Really we’re just asking for debate theory to be applied.
For example, if someone had a case with three advantages – prices for consumers, food safety, and easier on businesses – I’d suggest changing almost nothing, other than saying THE advantage is “improves lives of consumers.” It happens in three ways. But now you just need to end the round with benefit to consumer, even if one of the ways is weakened, yet all three are related now on a common plane. This makes it simple to understand.
Sensible Ordering of Points
The idea of making a case is building a progression of information and analysis that leads the audience to arrive at a conclusion before it is spoken. Focus on intentionality, not a particular form.
For example, I tend to recommend that the plan come earlier in a case. That helps the audience do some compare/contrast in their own minds, in addition to words you’re saying, as they naturally skip ahead. When just discussing a problem with the status quo in contrast to no solution, it can be difficult to fully buy into the emotional impact of the problem.
Yet… if your plan is likely to be viewed with some skepticism on first blush, it’s probably better to demonstrate the problem fully before producing a solution – so your audience is in the right state of mind to hear that solution.
Look to case structures (for example, in the cases chapter from Upside Down Debate) to help make these decisions, but debaters should feel free to reorder points. I encourage such behavior not just for independent thinking, but because it strategically puts in-a-box 1980s students off balance because they expected a certain rote form, while a general audience will never know because “plan-meet-need” case structures aren’t something you memorize in 9th grade or see in ever business meeting in the exact same form. We’re freeing the mind here 🙂
Debaters often ignore speaking 101 and end up just listing their arguments instead of giving a speech. Coach the debater to ask rhetorical questions between points, so the audience understands why the next point is a needed exploration. Rather than feeling like a form (do you like filling out tax forms or healthcare forms?), try and make listening to a case more like hearing a… speech.
Make sure the plan isn’t using vague words like “increase,” “start,” “reduce,” and so on, unless there’s an exact quantified amount going along with. One of the easiest ways to lose a great case is to have grey areas in the plan. Try and think of every permutation of how someone might interpret the words of the plan, and help the debater through those.
Also don’t have confusing blocky statements like agency, enforcement, and funding. Make it interesting or cut these typical time wasters. And reserving the right to clarify? Who says there wasn’t such a right in the first place? It’s not in any rules that I know of… silly silly, confusing, and alienating to the judge who as a general audience member is made to feel like they’re participating in a “thing” with rules to which they are not privy.
Are you getting flow mileage from every unique warrant?
Would it be better for the audience to know your solution up front, or do you first need to put them in the right frame of mind to hear it?
If you lose Point A (terrorism) and win Point B (costs), will you win the round? Vice versa? Then which is the clincher? Ahhh it’s Point A – shouldn’t you focus on developing that one?
Is there any relationship between these two points, so we could make it into one?
How would the audience know WHY you’re saying what you’re saying at this moment?
Absent any unforeseen top or inh arguments, if you win the WM, do you win the round?
Do your harms/justifications contribute to each other, or are they stand alone points without relation?
Can you prove your case should be passed with the proof of one main idea?
If you explained your case to a 10 year old, would they pass it?
Does your next door neighbor understand your case?
Does your case have a theme?
Here are some tiny things that have a mean bite.
Ensure Enough White Space
Debaters often use too narrow margins and squish all their info together. Usually that’s not a good idea with a case.
Printing paper should have plenty of white space for writing notes, rearranging points, striking words and putting in new ones, and so on – for all the repair work that should go on during a tournament. Especially at the plan level.
Ensure Page Numbers and Headers
Nothing worse than getting your materials out of order. I’ve seen debaters take step 1 and add page numbers, but then their AFF backup brief and their 1AC both have a page number 3. That’s why debaters should always use X of Y pagination and unique document headings, so cleanup is always straightforward and sets up for success next round.
Check Underlining and Context
It’s easy for debaters to miscommunicate about which words to read or not read from a quotation. I try and insist on quotation marks to separate quote from debater language and check over the underlining in a card to ensure its ethical, while making sure the better parts of the quotes (always the WARRANTS) are underlined.
Last week I helped debaters with a case who had all the wrong parts of quotations underlined for quoting in the round: the conclusions were what they quoted, but the warrants for those conclusions were left out! Far easier for the debater and audience to draw their own conclusion; what we need is the reasoning!
Where will you take notes if you decide to adapt your case mid-tournament?
Do you and your partner both agree one what’s being quoted and what is not?
Quotes and Sources
Proper Source Introduction
For your general audience, letting us know WHY we should listen to that author is usually beneficial. Instead of just a name and date, I recommend helping the debater add the credentials, emphasize the article title, and so on. You’re also looking for any issues here, like a “some say” quotation where the author doesn’t even hold the position.
Emphasizing Quotes / Parenthetical Statements
Help debaters identify the key lines. Every second of the speech should be valuable time, but debaters often treat the quotation like an annoyance. Is it a wonder that the audience does?
I had a partner in 2004 who was a killer speaker and would interrupt quotations to add parenthetical statements, even as simple as “and this is the really important part.”
Variety of Sources
Help debaters reach to statisticians, PHDs, news, founding fathers, and ancient philosophers.
Avoid Squandering Best Quotes
Often, after research, debaters will identify their strongest piece of proof and put that as the number 1 thing in the case: the intro. Unfortunately, nobody knows why it’s relevant yet except the debater, who only got there after miles of research. Best to view the case as a debate starter, not a debate finisher. Hook the audience and draw them along.
What is the maximum impact you can get from this quote?
Do you think there are any historical figures who might have thoughts on your case? Perhaps you could quote them!
What are the most boring sections of your case?
Intentionality of arrangement of proof for a thesis, rather than rote production of a list of arguments, is the skill we’re attempting to cultivate via case making. As you coach, try and focus on the elements of that skill: intentionality, arrangement, proof.
Isaiah McPeak is the Head Coach at Ethos Debate, and Co-Founder at sports tech company statUP.com. He has over 10 years experience in speech and debate, coaching 5 national champions and placing top 5 in multiple leagues himself. Outside of the debate world, he’s had years experience as an intelligence analyst, writer, rhetoric teacher, and communications coach. He is also the CEO of the new startup, statUP.
Isaiah is also author of Upside Down Debate, a 5-star rated book that teaches debate from a life-transference and Classical Rhetoric perspective.