For all the technical training and strategic planning to which we subject ourselves in the name of affirmation, judges are as inclined as ever to negate. No amount of spikes, tricks or presumption arguments have changed that. Nor have RVIs and kick-and-turn tactics. Nor the emergence of ever tinier plans.
Some of these techniques backfire. Some only work in front of certain judges. The notion that there’s a short-cut to affirmative ballots is as popular and misguided as it’s ever been. Trends ostensibly designed to change that have only proven that the more things change, the more they remain trends. There’s nothing especially revolutionary or novel about the truth, but like so many other games, debates are won with sound fundamentals. Examples to the contrary count less as evidence against those fundamentals, and more as evidence that the activity is increasingly captive to fundamentally unsound trends. When everyone’s doing it, some are bound to be successful. Someone has to win a few affirmative rounds.
More often than not, however, they aren’t winning those rounds. As someone who’s now watched or participated in well over a decade of LD debates, I can only say there’s been a small handful of truly exceptional affirmative debaters. They could have won debates in any era, in front of any judge and against even the most skilled negative tacticians. Here are some of the insights I’ve gleaned from observing the best of the best.
Don’t go so fast
Debate’s worst kept secret is that judges can’t flow what a great many of you are saying. Thanks to a combination of speed and general unintelligibility, judges are forced to partially reconstruct speech acts into incredibly fragmented “flows.” None of them wants to be known as a poor critic, but if you have frank conversations with them, most judges will admit to some significant degree of difficulty keeping up with some debaters.
Many of those debaters either accept that status quo as a badge of honor or are oblivious to its consequences. The worst part is that speed is rarely delivered with the niceties afforded by the best speakers: slowing down for tags and author names, slowing down for analysis that isn’t carded (and thus reviewable post-round), speaking with enough volume, and so on. Instead, debaters go as fast as they can come hell, high-water, slurred words and broken-up choppiness that would make Siri’s head explode. What’s worse, it’s often delivered directly into a lap-top absorbing sound like a shag carpet. The notion of projecting remotely decipherable speech directly at an audience has gone the way of opening quotes—a supposed remnant of past times.
But there’s nothing progressive about this departure from orthodoxy. We’d do well to remember that there’s a difference between orthodoxy for its own sake and the simple, tried-and-true effectiveness of fundamental communication skills. Ensuring your judges catch at least some of what you’re saying doesn’t mean you’re capitulating. Nor is it a sign of weakness. If anything, it’s proof that you’re word economy is good enough that you can slow down when needed. It’s proof you know the difference between blazing through complicated philosophy and reading a straight-forward heg card. The best debaters are judicious with their use of speed.
And—importantly— they remain somewhat clear. If you can’t do that, you need to be honest with yourself and slow down.
Don’t do all of the 1AR’s work
The 1AC has a world of forward-looking potential, but that’s not a reason to get ahead of ourselves. Too often arguments are preemptively weighed in the 1AC, theoretical justifications emerged before objections have even had a chance to be made. And there’s bound to be something about RVIs. There are a couple of problems with making so much of your 1AC preemptive defense.
1. Your 1AC arguments may or may not be appropriate. A savvy 1NC can simply differentiate their arguments from one you’re preempting. Things like spikes can only assume so much about the negative strategy, so they’ll be effective against some debaters, but not many. Wait until you know the 1NC’s strategy, then make your move in the 1AR. You don’t have to have it all figured out as of the 1AC.
2. You are less likely to directly engage the NC’s argumentation. Making extensions takes time, and the average 1AR’s time is largely committed to unresponsive extensions. Unless the 1AR does enough work linking those extensions to NC’s arguments, judges are left to compare the 1AR and NR extensions. If you want to be responsive, sometimes you’re better off reading new arguments. Your case should be a source of offense, not potentially responsive, preemptive defense.
There’s no reason to rush the debate as the affirmative debater and every reason to get out in front of your opponent by simply making the better arguments. Think offense when writing ACs.
Don’t encourage theory debates
Affirmative debaters are obsessed with provoking theory debates: tiny plans, controversially topical arguments, vague advocacies, philosophically dense frameworks, AFC spikes, and so on. And there’s almost always a strategic justification for adopting one of these no-no’s. It will be harder for the NC to respond. There won’t be as much evidence on the other side. The theory debates will be winnable ones.
Unfortunately, these are the kinds of things that only matter against second-best opponents. Debaters in elimination rounds will be as good or better than you on theory. They’ll have the six-minute NR to clean those debates up, and they’ll often have some “evidence” of abuse at their disposal by then. And if your original strategy was sketchy enough, they just might be on the right side of the issue.
What’s more, even the best theory debaters tend to stand only a coin-flip’s chance at winning against other good theory debaters. Theory debates are high-risk, high-reward endeavors wherein the 1AC’s resource-investment is lost to another, prior level of argumentation. These debates are often poorly flowed and/or understood by judges, leaving your fate in unpredictable hands.
While judges could have called for your 1AC’s exceptional evidence (the kind of evidence it should have), they’re far less likely to call for your theory shells in all their half-extemped grandeur. No matter how correct you are, and no matter how prepared you become, theory debates are easy to lose.
Don’t complicate the debate
There’s nothing wrong with spending 1AR time explaining things. But, ideally, that explanation to be advancing your cause rather than getting you back to square 1. If you find yourself having to explain complex arguments or positions just to have a chance in the debate, chances are you’ve overcomplicated it. It’s tempting to believe a little confusion will disorient an opponent into submission, but there are a lot of problems with this theory—namely that most opponents will figure out your position long before the judge does thanks to case flashing and pre-round preparation. Your opponent may have studied your disclosed evidence, but your judges are more likely to be scratching their heads and hoping your 1AR will clear things up before it’s too late.
It may do just that, but there’s an opportunity cost to spending your 1AR time explaining—namely that you’ll be spending less time extending, generating offense and comparing that offense. In short, you’ll spend less time winning the debate and more time catching up. There’s a difference between clarifying and advancing an argument, and time spent doing the former comes at the expense of the latter.
Read complete arguments
This is true for evidence and analytical arguments alike. No, it doesn’t mean you can’t line cards down and focus on the parts of evidence that matter. It just means you should be reading sufficient amounts of your evidence, presenting the full depth of your warrants. The trend toward ever shorter cards is nothing new, but it’s more than a disservice to debate as an activity. It shortchanges affirmative strategies of their ability to make their arguments do work for them.
One good piece of evidence can accomplish a lot. It gives 1AR’s the ability to leverage something substantial against what promises to be a flurry of half-formed, partially-responsive negative “turns.” It gives them the ability to articulate clear, warranted internal links while explaining that the negative offense doesn’t actually engage those links, the ability to defend impacts that can be persuasively weighed against the NC’s implications.
Get to the 1AC’s offense early and often in your 1AR
Unless you have to go all in on theory in the 1AR, you should be spending as much time talking about your own case as possible—and yet, this is increasingly rare. Debaters are seduced by negative strategies that seem to be so big and bad as to require 3 minutes or more of attention. Unless you have three minutes of very good, carded turns to read in your 1AR, you need your 1AC. If you can find a way to make the 1AR about the 1AC, you’re way ahead.
Answers to the 1NC should be grounded in the 1AC. Why doesn’t the counter plan solve for the plan’s advantages? How is the 1AC fundamentally compatible with a critical position’s alternative? How does the AC outweigh the disadvantage? The 1AR should be an exercise in leveraging offense, not a mad-dash attempt to reclaim access to that offense. There’s a basic philosophical difference in the two approaches, and the latter leaves you constantly behind on debates because it doesn’t take full advantage of the six-minute 1AC. A good 1AR is about why the 1AC’s evidence is better, why the plan solves better, why the impacts are bigger. A good 1AR is a lesson in extrapolation and comparison. It requires you to actually know what your evidence says and how it functions.
Being a great affirmative debater isn’t just about being clever. It’s about doing the hard work of knowing arguments inside and out.
Control the debate
At the end of the day, the 1AR is about controlling one or two issues so thoroughly that even the NR can’t catch up. Tricks will rarely allow you to do that. Good arguments will. It’s awfully difficult to have two or more minutes worth of things to say about something unless you are (a) on the right side of that ‘something’ and (b) have the evidence to prove it.
Controlling rounds in the 1AR doesn’t happen by accident—it obviously involves serious planning. But it’s the kind of planning you do that matters. You can’t allow worries about the 1NC to dictate your game plan. That kind of planning becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy—and self-sabotage.