There is no one right way to structure rebuttals, no special formula your speeches should follow so that the judge must vote for you. However, there are certain fundamental elements of great rebuttals. When well-developed, these elements will tremendously increase your ability to persuade audiences and help you develop some unappreciated skills of rhetoric and speaking.
Enter this Crash Course Guide to Better Rebuttals. Part 1 will deal with a few basic keys for successful rebuttals. After these general concepts are presented, Part 2 will give specific strategies and tips for each of the rebuttal speeches, in both Lincoln-Douglas and Policy formats.
In my opinion, giving excellent rebuttals is the single most important practice which separates good debaters from outstanding national-class debaters. There are two reasons.
Improving your Case is Simple
Now don’t get me wrong, case writing can be an extremely strenuous, lengthy process that impacts all of your debate rounds. But nearly every debater seeks to improve their case after every tournament. Most often, editing your case consists of patching holes, adding more justifications or warrants, including spikes to popular arguments, and using more powerful rhetoric and imagery. It’s simple. You are in control of your case, and work spent on bulking up your (1)AC or NC isn’t a difficult practice. It’s something you can knock out in a few hours with a friend after each tournament. Consequently, it’s a (necessary) skill that many debaters focus on. While debaters (myself included) are eager to work on cases, they are not so eager to work on improving their rebuttals, because…
Improving Rebuttals is Difficult
Unlike case-writing, you can never be completely in control of rebuttals. Changing from round to round based on differing arguments and frameworks, it’s not as formulaic as case writing. Frankly, it is messy, frustrating, and uncomfortable working on word economy, time management, and thinking up of responses on the fly. Debaters neglect true rebuttal improvement and technique, and unfortunately pick up bad habits from more experienced debaters, who have also picked up bad habits from older debaters.
Now, you may be thinking to yourself that, since rebuttals are so difficult to become truly good at, it may be hopeless. But it’s not. With a better understanding of what makes an excellent rebuttal, coupled with strategic practice, anyone can give great rebuttals.
Now, what I’m going to be suggesting in this article may or may not be different than what your coaches have taught you or what is normally seen in debates in your leagues. That’s fine, and I suggest you have discussions with your coaches and peers and try different things out. Everything in debate is debatable.
Keys to Successful Rebuttals
- Identifying the Crux, and Time Management
Time is everything in rebuttals, as you only have a few minutes to refute, defend, and crystallize. Great debaters understand the most important arguments (the crux—the argument(s) on which the debate will be won or lost) deserve the most time and quality refutation. At the same time, they enable themselves to also successfully cover arguments and extend offensive points on the line-by-line. They don’t get caught up spending a minute of their precious time detailing several responses to a resolutional analysis point, or definitions (unless they truly are the focal points of the debate).
Thus, good time management requires an evaluation of important arguments, being able to map out how much time should go to each argument or area, and utilizing responses that can fit within that allocation. (Also, understand that your AC or NC should be constructed in such a way that you know where you will end the debate, or where you want to drive the debate.)
Two drills that can help you improve are countdown rebuttal redoes and argument switch rebuttal redoes. (I’m making these names up). Countdown rebuttal redoes are rebuttal redoes with decreasing time limits. You can save your flows from a tournament and give yourself some prep time to redo a rebuttal from one of those rounds if you want. Give a 4:00 Lincoln-Douglas 1AR, then 3:40, then 3:20, etc. The key here is not to cut down time by speaking quicker, but by better allocating time to arguments. Have a teammate or coach note how long you spent on each argument and help you decide how you can improve.
Argument switch rebuttal redoes are when you specifically note a certain amount of time on certain arguments beforehand. (E.g. 0:45 to framework, 1:30 to neg case, 1:45 to aff case). As soon as you hit the limit on an argument, you must move on.
- Word Economy
Say less, but mean more. In rebuttals it is necessary to be able to respond efficiently to important points without unnecessary words. There’s no room for fluff—you must use powerful language decisively and intentionally. Such an approach is necessary to put pressure on your opponent’s rebuttals and to cover all the arguments you need to.
Practically, though, how can you improve your word economy? First, know your case and evidence. Be able to sum each card or argument in your AC or NC (and backup file too) in one sentence, utilizing all major parts of an argument. Know the claims, the warrants, and impacts, and be able to articulate them concisely. This will become very useful as I later introduce efficient extensions. Secondly, record your speeches to recognize how you waste words or how you can utilize rhetoric to say more with less. Finally, give yourself a set amount of time to signpost and respond to an argument (eg. 10 or 15 seconds).
- Argument Extensions and Hitting the Line-by-Line
Judges are more likely to vote on arguments that are conveyed in each speech, with some level of specificity. Judges also look for you to provide clash to your opponent’s points, as debates without clash are extremely difficult to judge. This is where efficient extension and line-by-line analysis come in. Being able to use both of these techniques handily will allow you to win on refutation and on arguments your opponents dropped.
Improving at line-by-line argumentation requires practice. First, you must ensure you are flowing properly. You have to be able to note not only your opponent’s tags, but also their warrants, evidence cards, principles, etc. Second, work on preparing quick responses to common arguments and know how to develop impromptu responses to any point. Finally, you must practice. Give yourself some prep time, and write down responses to a flow of a case. Try to hit all of the main points with responses in your time limit (word economy!). Now, you may not utilize this style in your round, but developing efficiency, target-like line-by-line skills (while grouping arguments) will help you tremendously as you perhaps need to win your value clash, or win the debate of the applications.
Flowing well can help you to track when arguments are dropped, and this is when efficient extensions are most effective. Unfortunately, many debaters do not take advantage of dropped arguments. Often, debaters will just say “they dropped my second contention.” That does nothing for the judge. Instead, point out the drop, efficiently extend and recap the point, and give the impact.
“The affirmative dropped contention two–economic downturn. Extend the Calder analysis, which notes a right to housing will lead to long-term economic downturn and decreased quality of life via decreased incentives to work, labor force, and innovation. The impact is that although there may be short-term economic benefit in the aff world, aff concedes long-term economic harm will occur, further exacerbating poverty, the main cause of homelessness.”
- Impact Calculus and the Framework Debate
Line-by-line, though extremely important, means nothing if you don’t focus on the crux, or win the overall framing of the debate. Excellent rebuttalists not only make arguments, but understand first and foremost they must utilize a framework that allows their points to win the round. Read this article on impact calculus, which will prepare you (via practice), to show how your arguments or impacts outweigh your opponent’s.
- Painting a Picture & Ending Memorably
Perhaps the most effective way to persuasively connect with your judge is by painting a visual picture. Not only is this a passionate connection with the judge, it increases the judge’s likelihood of accepting and remembering your points as they are being processed, both via auditory and visual senses. Most often, this comes in the form of showing the judge the “affirmative world” and the “negative world”, using descriptive and rhetorically significant language.
In rebuttals, this technique is most often used in openers and conclusions, in crystallization after you’ve covered the details, and refutation under the crux (whether that be the value debate, contention-level analysis, or applications). Practice this skill by taking 15-20 seconds to “paint a picture” on impromptu debate topics, on specific contentions, or on the values you run or encounter. You can prepare intros and closers, and then adapt them based on the round’s argumentation.
Improving at rebuttals is never going to be easy, but by developing your skills in these areas, and understanding powerful strategies of various rebuttal speeches (Part 2!), you will go a long way towards creating national class rebuttals.