As expected, the transition from competitor to alumnus was a bit jarring. I managed to control the overpowering nostalgia, to overcome the sensation that I was trespassing into unauthorized areas (such as the much-vaunted judges’ hospitality), and to quell the “something-is-amiss” feeling engendered by my casual attire.
I anticipated all of these, but I hadn’t expected to get a glimpse into the minds of community judges. In judge orientation, I seated myself in front of an entire contingent of them. They talked, in nervous, hushed tones. Some seemed previously acquainted; others as if they bonded through the shared experience of attempting something new. A few appeared relaxed and casual; many more looked uptight and tentative.
As soon as the orientation video voiceover explained to the judges that “each and every one of you is qualified to judge speech and debate,” several of the community judges behind me snickered, whispering to one another about how they weren’t qualified, in the process missing the numerous list of ways in which people assess communication abilities on a daily basis. They offered their sometimes cynical, sometimes curious commentary the whole time. “I’m confused.” “What does that mean?” “Constructives and rebuttals? Can they explain that again?” “Why do they look at the judge on–whatever it’s called?” “HAHA rehabilitation vs. retribution? Well, that’s obvious.” My shock culminated in a conversation with a community judge immediately following orientation. After I had to keep raising my voice for him to hear me, he admitted that he’d left his hearing aids at home. “I’ll be fine,” he assured me, quite loudly.
Yes, it was terrifying. Terrifying to see the league unleashing these judges on the competitors, terrifying to observe people researching assiduously only to experience these woefully uninitiated judges, terrifying to reflect back on the intensity I poured my soul into high school debate while placing myself at the mercy of community judges. Yet, simultaneously, it was beautiful. Beautiful to watch debaters forced to impact their arguments in real life, beautiful to witness debaters wrenched from the ivory tower, beautiful to behold debaters trained to persuade real people.
Despite the tangible benefits, community judges present an almost insurmountable challenge to some debaters. How do we best communicate with an audience whose only exposure to debate was a brief inundation in rudimentary information ten minutes before the round? Before examining several strategies, we first need to understand how community judges think.
The Mindset of a Community Judge
Problem #1: Community Judges Feel Ill-Equipped
Whether or not “everyone is qualified to judge,” the reality is that community judges perceive themselves as ill-equipped. No matter how thorough and intuitive a league designs their orientation, community judges feel engulfed by the information overload.
Solution: Equip As You Debate
Having read this post, you shouldn’t assume that orientation has assuaged the community judges’ worries about their qualifications for judging debate. Instead, recognize that the task of equipping the judges for judging is incumbent upon you as the debater. Don’t just address your opponent’s arguments, but explain the “metadebate” to the judge–why the arguments matter, why your arguments outweigh your opponents’, what it means for the judge’s that the affirmative’s plan is insolvent, why the judge should vote for you when negative conceded your resolutional analysis. Better yet, ditch debate jargon and have a conversation with your judge (more on this below). Remember that you are the judge’s orientation. While you debate, help them understand how the arguments interact in the round.
Problem #2: Community Judges Feel Intimidated
Community judges are typically more nervous to judge than many debaters are to debate. They feel daunted and inferior by the imposing figure you cut. Bewildered by the glut of information during orientation, dizzied by the frenetic pace of the tournament, awed by the sheer number of teenagers wearing suits, and baffled at the expansiveness of your vocabulary, community judges usually trudge back to hospitality thoroughly intimidated by the tournament environment.
Solution: Be Relatable
Speak slowly. Don’t use big words or long sentences. Smile. Make them feel welcome. Ensure you’re genuine when you thank them for judging. Have fun. Inject humor into your speech. Be concrete. Care about your arguments. Convey that you’re a human too.
Over the course of last year, I learned this through trial and error, observing the expressions and reactions of community judges and reading their comments on ballots. I began to realize that they preferred one well-developed point to a myriad of rapidly-spoken justifications. They wanted to see me smiling and understand that I was enjoying myself. They connected when I related metadata to the postal service, illustrated search warrants by talking about the police raiding my friend’s basement or likened government overreach to Star Wars. I watched other debaters who were succinct, concrete, and likable win scores of community judges, judges whom other debaters complained were incorrigibly biased and downright unwinnable.
On a pertinent note, don’t ask the befuddled, intimidated community judge for their “judging philosophy.” Rather, inquire about their background, their occupation, or their experience. You’ll be more relatable if you don’t expect them to have a fully formulated paradigm for evaluating debate rounds (as NCFCA TP National Champion Rebecca Frazer acknowledges here).
Problem #3: Community Judges Crave Affirmation
The intimidation factor generates a craving for affirmation. Community judges are concerned that debaters will ridicule their ballots, and they desire to be appreciated. If they didn’t feel like they wanted to contribute something valuable to you, they wouldn’t attend the tournament.
Solution: Write Their Ballots for Them
Similar to the solution for the first problem, you need to focus on impacting ad nauseam. Never run an argument without explaining its function (what a value is), its overarching purpose in the round (how it affects the rest of your arguments and the ballot), and its application to the real world (what it means for things the judge actually cares about). If you habitually begin to incorporate phrases into your debate like “this matters because…” or “this is important because…” or “the main implication of this is…”, you’re impacting. Have the mentality that you are writing your judge’s ballot for them. Don’t just win the round, tell them why you’re winning as you’re winning. When phrases you use in debate rounds appear on your community judge’s ballot, you know you’ve executed this properly.
The first post in this series defended the necessity of community judges for ensuring a rhetoric-oriented speech and debate culture. In the forthcoming post, we’ll explore some effective tactics for persuasion and how to translate your sophisticated ideas into something accessible for all judges.