Three Things You Can Do to Clean Up Messy Rounds

Many factors can cause rounds to devolve into the dreaded “messy debate,” including unclear speaking, excessive speed, purposeful obfuscation by one or both debaters, and complicated or overly abstract argumentation. Whatever the cause, it is in your interest to clean up the mess. Relying on the judge to sort out the melee in your favor is a recipe for disappointment, or at least inconsistency. Here are some things you can do to help clean up messy rounds.

1. Clarify the advocacies.

One of the most important things you can do to clear up the round is to make sure that both your advocacy and your opponent’s advocacy are clear. Debate arguments are almost always normative – they tell us what choices we should make or what policies we should adopt. Narrowing the round to a choice between two competing courses of action clarifies the round in a number of ways.

First, it helps focus the judge’s attention on the crux of the debate. All arguments can be organized around a simple choice of competing advocacies, which should help the judge avoid a complicated reconstruction of myriad unclear layers of analysis.

Second, it helps you frame your arguments about the relative importance of different issues. Rather than dwelling in the abstract, you can say concretely what impacts are unique, what impacts are likely, indicate how precisely it is that you are generating the links into your impacts, etc. For example, a stunning number of negative cases are really just non-unique disadvantages. A bad impact might happen in the Aff world, but the status quo doesn’t solve the problem either. If you have clarified what your opponent is advocating (e.g. the status quo), identifying this type of problem is easy. If not, they are allowed to pontificate about big impacts that might ultimately be irrelevant to choosing a course of action.

Finally, knowing your own advocacy is critical to engaging in meaningful case debate. It is very difficult to think through the way link stories might interact if the top of the link chain – what it is you’re going to do – isn’t very clear. Even if your position is heavily philosophical, it is still important to have a clear sense of your advocacy as a sort of tent peg to reality. Can you control a critical link in your opponent’s disad? Is a counterplan actually competitive? To discern these things quickly and easily, you need to know what it is you propose to do.

2. Organize your strategy around the biggest impact.

When debaters are speaking at top speed and the ink is flowing like the Mighty Mississippi come springtime, it is hard to parse the most important issues from the minutia. One way to effectively narrow the debate is to focus on the most important impact in the round. That can be a whole host of things – e.g. on this topic you’ll see impacts about the rights of detainees, preventing terrorist attacks, checking executive power, etc. Whatever it is, you can usually tell the judge that whoever wins the strongest link to that impact wins the round. So, focus on how it is that you are winning that argument. Does terrorist backlash cause more violence than extreme interrogation practices prevents? Do detainees get a fairer trial in a military commission or an Article III court? Is balance of powers threatened more by weakening the judiciary’s ability to protect individual rights or by undermining the democratic authority of congress? When you can crystallize to these types of practical questions, messy rounds can clear up quickly.

3. Slow down.

It is an iron law of debate that you are clearer when you are speaking at a moderate pace than when you are going at breakneck speed. This does not mean that you have to go SUPER slow – some people actually do lose some clarity at that pace – but it does mean that if you want to be absolutely sure that the judge knows what you’re talking about, you’ve got to back off of your top speed. That may be counter-intuitive in a messy round because there are often lots of issues to deal with, but if you are serious about clarity you must commit to a slower speaking speed. This will require you to employ better issue selection and word economy, but that will also help to clean up the round. At the end of the day, going for two clear layers is better than four unclear layers, so the reduced speed is worth the tradeoff.

When the round is messy and you forgo the opportunity to clear it up, you’ll have an unhappy judge and an unreliable decision. Take control of your own fate and commit to clearing up messy rounds.