We’ve all dealt with it. Whether you were working on dropping your mile time, increasing your vertical, or improving your speaking skills, you’ve probably faced the unfortunate reality of the “Law of Diminishing Returns”. Contrary to what we may think, people do not make progress in a linear fashion. Rather, after a period of rapid growth, that development slows and slows and slows, until a person reaches a plateau.
Needless to say, it’s not fun. Hours and hours of work, and a only a bit of progress is eked out.
When a debater is so focused on and motivated by his or her results (i.e. placing identity, worth, and virtue in one’s wins or losses), it will lead to emptiness and burnout, because you will never be satisfied with yourself, and you can never please others enough. When you fall, so will your identity. Noah rightly argues in this article how it is necessary to focus on the process and development, and understand that you debate for a higher purpose.
But there are others who may be burning out for multiple reasons. They will honestly say that they have transitioned from a result-centered to a process-centered mindset, but still feel discouraged, like the progress isn’t coming as it should.
“Yes,” they say, “we seek to glorify God in our efforts. But we don’t feel as if we’re getting anywhere. Part of the reason is because we debate to improve our rhetorical, emotional, and speaking skills via the process. But it’s not coming.”
I know how you feel.
When you first join debate, or when you transition from a novice to an intermediate or even advanced debater, you progress quickly. Two-minute “speeches” become eight-minute constructives within a few months. After you learn four-point refutation, you begin to smooth out your argumentation. But then things slow down. The plateau hits, and you feel like you’re trying to walk up the ‘down’ escalator.
How can you not be discouraged? How can you continue to progress and grow as a person?
Again, as Noah points out, realize that you’re not doing speech and debate for yourself, but for the Lord. Reorient your focus towards what is lasting.
In addition, there are ways to break down goals, which you can isolate and work on slowly, to realize you are progressing as a debater, you are growing as an orator, and you are maturing as a person. These tools and goals can be applied to limited-prep Parliamentary Debate as well as prepared formats such as Policy, Lincoln-Douglas, and Public Forum.
Knowledge is the prerequisite to any quality argumentation. Focusing on improving that knowledge via these measurable standards can help you to move past your plateau.
Note how knowledge differs from topic to topic. In Policy or Public Forum, this may refer to topic knowledge, or knowledge of cases and specific policies. In Lincoln-Douglas, this may refer to philosophical frameworks or concepts, as well as applications. In Parliamentary, this refers to a mashup of the above, along with keeping up to date on economics, current domestic events, and international relations. I suggest that as you research, read, and compile information, that you broaden your knowledge in the following ways:
SUPERFICIAL → DEEP
Perhaps you’re looking to improve on parli topics dealing with international relations. Understand you can move from a superficial or surface-level analysis of a topic (e.g. North Korea wants to build nukes and potentially attack) to a deeper one (e.g. the time it will take to accrue necessary artillery, the range of missiles, supporting countries of NK, etc.). By understanding where your knowledge lies, you can improve it, and see your progress grow. This applies to grasping Locke’s Contract Theory, Rawls’ Theory of Justice, the current happenings with the Jones Act, or any other debate-related issue.
CONTEMPORARY → HISTORICAL
It’s not only important to know what is happening now (e.g. a Catalonian pursuit for independence), but the reasons why and the fundamental nature of the conflict. This comes by understanding not just the present, but the historical context as well. When studying any issue, seek to gain a broader reason of the “why” and the principles behind an action that are reactionary to a chain of past events.
ISOLATED → NETWORKED
It’s also necessary to move from knowledge specific to one issue, to understanding how that plays into the bigger picture. In today’s increasingly globalized and connected world, it’s necessary to understand how one conflict relates to other conflicts. It’s important to know how one’s philosophy is interwoven into the treatises of three others.
Put simply, preparation is taking that knowledge and focusing on the pragmatic use of it. In prepared debate, this involves writing case shells, building briefs, and brainstorming responses to common arguments. In Parliamentary Debate, this especially refers to organizing knowledge and understanding how you can deploy a certain viewpoint or line of argumentation. Your prep may be 15 or 20 minutes, but in actuality, that prep begins before the tournament, and ends at topic draw.
So how can you improve at preparation? When you read and when you research, think critically. When might this come up in a debate? How can I use this information or argumentation in a round? Summarize, condense, and apply. Progress is most easily seen in limited-prep debate. How did you feel after preparing, walking into the round? Did you focus on the strongest arguments, and did you best utilize your knowledge to forward your ends?
By speaking, I refer to both delivery (which I covered in this previous article), as well as content. Progress in improving speaking style and clarity can be easily tracked through drills and taping speeches. But how, you may ask, can I improve my content and subject matter?
The main areas to focus on would be improving the quality of your substantive responses (i.e. offensive reasons to vote for your side) and framing (e.g. impact calculus, value debate, weighing mechanisms). Often, when debating in British Parliamentary, my coach will tell me that I picked the wrong arguments, or used weak responses. Have a friend or a coach analyze your arguments, and honestly consider if they were as strong as they could be. Refine your arguments so that regardless of the responses thrown at you, you can remain cool.
Of the four main areas, this is often the most neglected by debaters, myself included. Questioning (or Cross Examination) is just a three-minute session for prepared debaters. In Parliamentary, you get 2-4 questions if you’re lucky. Whichever style you participate in, make your questions count. (I know first hand how not to do this; I’ve asked loads of terrible questions.) Now, you might be a little wary of this, but especially, especially for limited-prep debaters: write down your questions.
Yes, write them down. Then read them. Then think, “Is there a better, more powerful question I can ask?” This is not to say that you will have your questions prepared before the round and you must stick to them. Rather, when a question comes to you, write it down. Then analyze. This allows you to assess the quality of questions during and after the round. The more you practice, the more effective a questioner you will be.
After reading this, you may seem overwhelmed. “I can’t do all of this!”
If you want to improve, you should take it step-by-step. One or two at a time. These tools are merely here to help you get to the next level when that progress feels like it isn’t coming. Secondly, understand the bigger context. You’re not just trying to “get better at debate”. There’s always a higher purpose to all of these skills you can develop. So continue to speak and debate to the glory of God. Continue on through the rapid growth and the plateau. You’ll be glad you did.
Author’s Note: Much of this advice I credit to an excellent lecture by an outstanding debater and now coach, Sterling Higa.