Three Things You Can Do To Improve Your Theory Debating

For better or for worse, competence in progressive LD requires some measure of proficiency at theory debate. Below are three things you can do to bolster your skill set in this area.

1. Deploy theory judiciously.

One of the most common strategy errors I see from debaters is overestimating the strategic value of introducing a theory debate. While layering is advantageous as a general principle, not all layering strategies are created equal.

First, theory debate is notoriously unclear and difficult to resolve. This doesn’t have to be the case, but at the moment it is. That means that initiating a theory debate introduces a degree of randomness that is difficult to control, especially with a judge whose theory sensibilities are unfamiliar. More basically, theory debate is often executed via a lot of fast, analytical arguments that simply become difficult to follow.

Second, theory debate can unnecessarily level the playing field. By introducing a layer above the rest of the flow that both debaters can at least plausibly win on, a debater can often nullify her own layering strategy. If you feel like you can outclass your opponent on the substantive debate, don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can similarly dominate on theory. Because these debates are much harder to predict, you are making the arguments on which you are most vulnerable the most important in the round. Even if your opponent is “just asking for it,” sometimes discretion is the better part of valor.

My advice is not that you abandon theory altogether, but rather that you realistically assess its strategic viability in comparison to other possible strategies you might adopt. Sometimes your judge or your opponent make theory the best bet, and sometimes you encounter a strategy that is sufficiently abusive that you have little choice. However, you should critically assess your judgment to initiate a theory debate, because debaters simply get it wrong a lot of the time.

2. Carefully construct interpretations and counter-interpretations.

More theory debates than you expect are resolved by someone’s failure to think carefully about how to word his interpretation, and frankly a lot of poorly worded interpretations are given a free pass.

Your interp in theory debate is no different than your advocacy on the substantive debate – it is the position from which all link and impact chains must ultimately derive. Stunningly often debaters will claim an advantage in the theory standards that their interpretation cannot plausibly justify. Furthermore, overly broad and imprecise interpretations create much more substantial link-turn ground. As you would expect, creating a sweeping rule for debate is generally going to produce more disadvantages than a narrowly tailored rule.

Moreover, it is often the case that debaters will run interpretations which their opponents simply meet. That happens either because the would-be violator has nuanced her position so as to avoid this particular theory objection, or because debaters are so anxious to find a theory violation that they try to jury-rig a pre-written shell into a round where it is simply inapposite.

Two concrete takeaways: First, make sure you always write down your theory interpretations and insist that opponents do the same. Absent this concrete articulation of the rule you propose, the theory debate can quickly get out of hand. Second, construct interpretations as narrowly and precisely as possible. Doing a better job of tailoring your position to the particular situation will pay dividends on the theory standards debate.

3. Emphasize quality over quantity.

I feel like a broken record on this point, but it is especially important in the theory debate. Because most of your theory arguments are analytical, it is easy to get very blippy. Without meaningful argument development, it is exceptionally difficult to assess the strength of any individual link on the theory flow, let alone sort out the relevant weight of each argument in relation to all the others.

So, deploy your best case-debating skills here. Winning the theory flow is no different in principle than winning the substantive flow. Start with strong, well developed links to the voters. Isolate the most plausible links on the theory flow and try to control them. Articulate well-developed argument comparison so that you don’t have to count on the judge to “reconstruct” the theory debate when the round is over. These may sound like fundamentals, but they are often neglected by even very experienced debaters.

Happy hunting!