HOW TO WIN DEBATE ROUNDS: Is Debate an Art or a Science
Scott Segal, Emory University
George Santayanna once wrote that those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it. This philosophy has its application in debate as well. Recently, issues we thought long resolved, such as the existence of negative fiat, have once again become fertile grounds for debate. The on-going discussion of topicality standards establishes yet another link to our debate forefathers. However, one link we all thought long-severed is again reemerging: persuasion as a tool of strategy. Although we all realize that debate is that fruitful combination of analytical skills AND persuasive speaking, it has long been in vogue to overkill the former while denigrating the latter. This is a mistake, and recent trends in debate underscore the gravity of this error. On one level, administrators would probably suffer a coronary arrest should they have the pleasure of witnessing a "top-speed" debate round. So, for both political and strategic reasons, it seems clear that a more studied approach to speaking skills is necessary and desirable.
As further proof of my contention that debate is an art more so than it is a highly technical science, please consider the following thesis to describe the judging of debate.
"SEGAL'S THESIS FOR THE ADJUDICATION OF DEBATE ROUNDS'
Any debate round, no matter how complex, is actually decided within twenty seconds after the completion of the round. with the possible exceptions of certain hyperconscientious short. bearded fellows, the remainder of the time spent pouring over debate flow sheets or carefully collecting evidence is a mad attempt to justify decisions already made. What's more, this is really how it should be! One of the unfortunate side effects of the growing reliance on technique in modern debate is the potential for "reconstruction." Reconstruction means the progressive forgetting of the actual round and progressive intervention of the judge's own perspectives in the round's place. It follows in this manner. First, the judge sees the actual round. Then, the reconstructivist sees the round, is unimpressed by presentation and extension, and decides what a more appealing presentation of his/her favorite arguments from among those presented would look like. Then, the reconstructivist ultimately wonders what if different debaters had used different tactics, and that is how the round is decided. However, if I am right about the time frame for decision-making, reconstructivism can be actively combatted if the debaters can seize the moment and actually make an impression upon the critic, rather than the usual indentation.
Some would dispute this thesis for judging by arguing that a more thoughtful post-debate period exists. To those critics, I would ask them to attempt to recall the actual time when the decision was made. This could easily be confused with the time at which the last issue was decided. But these components are different, and the decision IS MADE FIRST. It colors the virtually limitless permutations of issues that could flow from the round and would be, without a strong predisposition, impossible to resolve individually.
Without sounding a bit like Debate for Boys (1917), I would suggest that there are several things any debater could incorporate into their presentation in order to maximize their persuasive appeal. We will take as a given that all judges like to hear a good deal of preparation and this implies a hefty research burden. My point here is that evidence served a dual role: it is an analytical device that can be used to actually defeat arguments AND it is a persuasive tool which can convince the judge that you are prepared even if you are not. Among other universals of persuasion could be the overwhelming necessity of clarity. This implies clarity in presentation and thought. If indeed decisions are made with the rapidity that I have suggested, then the necessity of establishing clear reasons for victory are essential in the last two rebuttals. it is critical to maintain a strong sense of the comparative at all times. Other articles may endeavor to explain techniques for comparison, but suffice it to say that keeping in mind magnitude of harm, time frame of scenario, and moral superiority of positions are among the many ways of maintaining a comparative sense in rebuttals. Why is this a strong persuasive technique? The answer is simple: when a round becomes confusing, unanswered or mishandled decision criteria are gunwales to grab onto in oceans of taglines.
As further proof that debate is indeed an art, I offer some strong aesthetic guidelines as well. Civility is definitely a virtue and never (well, hardly ever) a vice. With over 750,000 words in an average vocabulary, surely one can find an interesting set of words to communicate points which do not utilize profanity. I'm not trying to sound like the flying nun here, but remember that profane words got their reputation because of their capacity to shock and incite. Neither of these responses are particularly desirable ones in the mind of a judge. Also, one would be surprised at the range of judges which find this behavior distasteful. It is not the classic "lay" judge who is turned off alone; it includes almost everyone, including college debaters and coaches.
The single most helpful technique for improving speaking styles is really the repetition of and reflection upon your own speeches. The use of the tape recorder and the mirror can help even a student ostensively working on his/her own. Repetition of commonly used speeches, while carefully observing gesticulations (hand and body movements) and distracting verbal mannerisms ("in terms of" and "turn to," among others), can improve speaking style. This graphic display often can shock the average debater into changing styles. if not, the mere fact that you are beginning to concern yourself with these matters can perform a vital consciousness-raising function that will lead to greater emphasis upon dormant presentation skills.
The lack of this introspection leads to imbalance in public speaking skills. By this I mean that weird conglomerations of different affections are synthesized into a package that may not be a pleasing final product. While not naming any names, I would like to review at least a few of the more common stylized approaches to debate presentation. Consider first the WILD-EYED ACTIVIST. This person makes unreasoned commitments to any argument and will froth at the mouth if given the opportunity to defend the matter. The actual significance of the claim might range from a matter of great importance to the lowliest tenet of quantum physics. In any event, the point is made with great intensity and anxiety. The benefits of this approach include convincing judges based upon sheer force of conviction, whereas the disadvantages include the possibility of offending the more easy-going critic. However, the debater with a flair for the emotional and a great deal of confidence can be quite successful using this approach and still maintaining a good deal of credibility.
A debater with an exceptional capacity for the turn of the phrase would be needed to emulate the USED-CAR SALESMAN model. The used-car salesman in real life does not have the best inventory but still attempts to make the sale as if he possessed every make of auto. In debate, the used-car salesman may only have a few arguments, such as some topicality briefs or a single counterplan, but, with some careful planning, these issues can be manipulated into a well-seasoned position. The advantages of this approach include gaining a real familiarity with the particular issues and hence a degree of fluency seldom achieved on the negative. The vice of this approach is one of repetition. If a debater becomes too reliant on the same presentational format, he may lose his maximal persuasive appeal.
Persuasive appeal is the number one objective of the COUNTRY PREACHER, however. The country preacher is an expert at using regional affectations. Perhaps a drawl, if southern (as this type usually is), will serve to shore up credibility where analysis may be lacking. The advantages of the country preacher mode can be found in the achievement of new heights of persuasion, some receiving the highest accolades conceivable in the category of individual speaker awards. The negative aspects of this style can be found in modus operandi it employs. For the country preacher, each statement is permeated with his/her unique blend of style. To some judges, this seems to be persuasive overkill. Indeed, some critics of a particularly suspicious bent might believe the country preacher is actually hiding some evidential or analytical inadequacy. Whether that is true or not is obviously dependent upon the dynamics of the individual round.
The BARBARIAN approach is virtually the reverse of the country preacher model. Here, the use of persuasive technique overtly is avoided in order to establish a contrast with opponents and in order to emphasize research, of which the barbarian is quite confident. The barbarian will pound tables and shout, and refer constantly to his "ev," seeming just as at home on the ice hockey rink as in the debate round. Among this approaches advantages are the redirection of emphasis back to evidence issues and, on rare occasions, the creation of a paradigm for the round which actually questions the overt persuasion of the other models. The disadvantages are obvious. The barbarian, while brimming with good intensions, can often offend judges. While sometimes succeeding at "the dirty work" of winning rounds, rewards in speaker points are usually quite minimal.
The INTELLECTUAL actually combines aspects of all of these models, for he envisions himself as the "issues" speaker of the barbarian coupled with occasional zeal of either the activist or the salesman. When confronted with the "spread," the intellectual is determined to let no man get the better of him. on the other hand, the intellectual will often choose arguments designed to emphasize his perceived intellectual advantage over his opponents (large philosophical constructs are a good bet). When the intellectual pulls this off, he is masterful. When however the type of argument becomes ill-suited to the debate format, he may be hoisted on his own petard, as it were, and hasten his own demise.
Obviously the speakers described here are purely fictional. Indeed, although some people may resemble them, they do so only on a superficial level, since each debate speech is an incredibly complex amalgam of styles and objectives. My initial title and thesis for this article revolved around the question of "how to win a debate round." The conclusion is clear: the examined debater is the successful one. Do not become stereotyped and do not become stylized. Once you begin to seriously watch yourself, half the battle is won. Look to the examples of these models, and incorporate those aspects of their styles which suit you best. That incorporation is not copying, but rather is the critical development of a speaking style. Once such a style is developed, it will serve you as a tool both for winning debate rounds and beyond that as a life skill, if artfully conceived and executed.