“I remember from camp that you said to contact people who work in and around the Federal Court System when in search of cases. What’s the best way to go about doing this? Email, phone or letter? Also, how would I find this info? I want to make sure I do it right so I can have the best chance of getting a response.” –Debater via email

Great question! Particularly because about half the debater community gives the other half a terrible name when doing this. As we always teach at Ethos, there’s argument on the one hand, then there’s argumentative on the other.

Professors in class, experts on the other end of the phone, me, and your Mom all think argumentative people are annoying. So how do you get arguments without being argumentative? This post will help.

Principle 1: Keep Your Goals Realistic

Don’t Expect Unicorns – You may get a case idea, and then again, you may not. Environment year, I remember an office at the EPA ended up taking no more calls from debaters, because people were asking for strategies against a massive list of cases, monopolizing too much time.

Do Keep it Short – Expect to ask three-to-five questions and listen to the answers, whether on email or phone. If the answers weren’t phrased how you like, then (1) Your questions were poorly phrased, (2) The expert didn’t know some of the content, or (3) You may be expecting clarity that doesn’t exist in the world of ideas.

Principle 2: Listen

Don’t Expect to Agree – Please don’t be arrogant enough to think you’re going to change someone’s mind on the phone. Remember, this kind of interaction is all about learning and understanding, even if it’s understanding “the other side.”

Do Impress Us as a Listener – Help the rest of us debaters out by leaving a positive impression. You don’t have to agree with someone while thanking them, appreciating their time, and telling them the most helpful thing you learned. Let them feel they did a good deed by helping you.

In the 9 Steps to a Higher Order of Research blog post, see point 1: Discovery, not Shopping.

Principle 3: Always Ask for Homework

Don’t Expect Final Answers – In a surface conversation, you’re looking for a key example in the real world to research, some other expert to talk to, a great book or article, and other leads, not magic bullets.

Do Show Willingness to Learn – It’s far easier to invest time in someone that shows they will likely listen and do what you suggest (as I’m writing this post responding to an email right now… I think the person asking isn’t going to object to my answers, but think about them and take action he believes makes sense).

Principle 4: Identify your Starting Point (Name Drop)

Don’t Be a Complete Blank Slate – If you just say “here’s the resolution, what can you tell me?” you’re more likely to stay at the surface level all year. It’s like going to those expert talks on the Constitution where they tell you that there are three branches of government.

Do Reveal Existing Knowledge – Say “It seems XYZ is a key theme, and I’ve read up on the following ABC authors” in 1–2 sentences. Just let the person know your starting point, including someone else you may have contacted prior to this person. If someone suggested you talk to this person, make sure and say that!

Principle 5: Take EXHAUSTIVE Notes

Don’t Overfocus on What’s Relevant Now – Interview notes are huge when it comes to preparing for regionals or nationals. What may not have seemed relevant early in the year may be surprisingly relevant now that you know all the issues. Use Evernote to save a picture of handwritten notes or typed notes and emails.

Do Build a Mental Map – You should be establishing the key themes in the topic, and their sub-themes, and who is on both sides of these issues, and if there are creative third options, and so on. Do this in a systematic way, e.g. via a spreadsheet.

Note: You Cannot “Quote” In Round

NCFCA and Stoa league rules prohibit quotation of unpublished research. That doesn’t mean you can’t refer to it though! Rather than the word-for-word part of it, just explain your METHODOLOGY. As in, “I emailed this person, and they said X.” It naturally has lesser authority and persuasion in the round because it was just you, but you have been 100% honest about the information.

The primary purpose of these interviews is to learn what to look up. Don’t forget that!

PROs / CONs of Calls vs Emails


  • PROs: More likely to get long-winded explanations on unexpected tangents; expert will sense in your voice that you really are a young person, and not someone trying to scam them into a media disaster
  • CONs: Less likely to get highly specific questions answered, without being rude (remember, questions in a conversation are more a “prompt” than a literal question); you have to write super fast


  • PROs: Easier to craft your perfect note; written responses likely will be comprehensive in breadth of email, though each particular answer will be shorter because experts don’t like to put themselves out there in a way they can be embarrassed
  • CONs: Easier to just delete (pro tip: use Sidekick by Hubspot if you want to know that your email was read…); less likely to get an immediate response

Email Example to Rewrite

Hello [Dr. Walters],

I’m hoping for your expertise. My name is [Isaiah McPeak] and I am a high school speech and debate student researching a topic on [U.S. trade policy with China, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea]. I want to engage in the world of ideas, not just regurgitate articles, so I was hoping for some pointers… do you have 10 minutes to reply or call?

Here are my key questions that I think are relevant, but I’d love any helpful pointers you think matter, or links to other resources and people to call.

[* How do you think the Chinese average consumer is disproportionately affected by deals agreed to from the Government?

  • How relevant do you think the Most Favored Nation status really is?
  • Do you agree with those who think the TPP is a bad deal?
  • What would you think are the non-obvious implications of a U.S.-Taiwan free trade deal?]

Thank you SO MUCH for any help or pointers!

Isaiah McPeak

-###-#### (I’m in Eastern Time)

P.S. Here’s where I’ve gotten so far:

  • Key Themes I Know Of: Japan is the linchpin of the TPP, multi-national corporations have changed the role of trade agreements (e.g. car manufacture)
  • Key Authors I’ve Been Reading: [names]

Call Template

Hi Doctor Walters, I’m a student hoping to ask a few questions. Have you got five minutes?

  • No: could I email you?
  • Not right now: got it, when should I call again?
  • Yes: Thanks! I’m researching both sides of a topic on [the federal court system,] and hit a couple barriers, which is where [I found you had published / Dr. so-and-so gave me your name]

I’ve got three questions. The first one is

  • [First question.] (just listen, clarify, but don’t press the person too hard
  • [Second question.]

(At five minutes) Have you got time for one or two more?

  • No: Ok, thanks SO MUCH. Could I email you a followup?
  • Yes: [Third Question.]


Make it EASY to answer you.

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