Three Ways to Improve Your Efficiency in Rebuttals by Adam Torson

Many debaters fight the clock in every rebuttal. Often speed is used as a crutch to compensate for inefficiency, but at the cost of clarity and perceptual dominance. The best debaters, on the other hand, often seem to sail through the flow effortlessly, as if they always have ample time to execute their strategy. Efficiency in rebuttals is the product of a confluence of skills, including word economy, issue selection, prep time management, etc. Here are a few simple things you can do to improve your rebuttal efficiency.

1. Positional Casing

A “positional” case is characterized by a single underlying thesis on the topic around which the position as a whole coheres. Rather than a grab bag of arguments on the topic or a long, convoluted link story, the case can typically be summarized in terms of one simple advocacy.

Deploying this type of position can substantially improve your efficiency in rebuttals. Because the underlying thesis is typically simple, there are a small number of arguments that you MUST extend to advance a coherent story. When that is true your choice of which arguments to go for can be based primarily on their strategic utility rather than the need to get through them, which in turn makes you even more efficient. Finally, positional casing allows you to do more effective strategic preparation for the positions you are going to meet, which means you are less likely to have to come up with a strategy on the fly during prep time. Better planning leads to better efficiency.

2. Focus on depth rather than breadth.

There are certain arguments that you obviously must go for in a given rebuttal. However, there are opportunity costs each time you let that number expand. Each argument you extend requires a brief re-explanation of the argument, and perhaps another mention when summarizing the decision calculus. It also trades off with clearer and deeper explanation of other arguments, including most importantly argument interaction.

Argument interaction is your best friend when it comes to rebuttal efficiency. Rather than trying to piecemeal a ballot story by organizing many disparate parts of the flow, explaining why your argument controls the internal link to your opponent’s biggest impact or why the impact of your argument substantially outweighs most or all competing offense is both a cleaner and faster story to tell.

The compulsive need to give yourself more “outs” can be the enemy here. In the abstract it is of course better to have more and more diverse offensive arguments on which the judge can pull the trigger. But, quantity trades off with quality.  Going blazing fast to get through five layers of offense is a pyric victory if the judge is going to intervene in a futile attempt to reconstruct an ‘objective’ ballot story. Instead, go deep on the winning argument. Put the onus on your opponent to prove an obviously true claim false.

3. Start on Offense.

An argument is “offense” if it is a reason to adopt your advocacy (as opposed to “defense,” an argument problematizing a claim made by your opponent). Surprisingly often, however, debaters will begin their rebuttals by articulating layers of defense against their opponents’ positions. From an efficiency perspective that is usually a mistake.

First, if you wait until the end of the rebuttal to extend an offensive link story, you may fail to get there altogether. All the defense in the world isn’t going to do you any good if you don’t extend a reason to vote for your position. As silly as it sounds, I bet just about everyone has at one time or another had that sinking feeling as the timer goes off and you’ve neglected to extend the winning argument.

Second, offense tends to give you better opportunities for argument interaction. Weighing and internal link comparison can only derive from offense linking to your advocacy. You should aspire to have a link story sufficient to affirm before you ever get to address the opposing position directly. Starting on defense makes it seem like you must win those arguments for your advocacy to be preferable, which is obviously a perception you want to avoid.

Start your rebuttal by extending an offensive link story. You will be more efficient, and have the additional benefit of framing the debate on your terms.