Drillin’ Like a Villain: How to Get Better At Debate by Danny DeBois

Danny DeBois (Harvard ’18) debated for Harrison High School in New York for 4 years. He won the TOC, NCFL Grand Nationals, Glenbrooks, and the Harvard Invitational (twice). He is now an assistant coach at Harvard-Westlake in California. He attended VBI twice as a student and is now an instructor there.


Debaters don’t do enough drills. If you don’t believe me, just watch a round where the AC is so incomprehensible you have a better chance of understanding Swahili than the affirmative’s metaethical framework. Or watch a round where the aff spends so much time reading his super awesome T frontlines that he drops a counterplan. You could tally the amount of times someone stumbles over their words during their speech—the limit does not exist.

A wise man at debate camp once told me: “Everyone sucks. Suck less.” Here are some ways you can suck less.

I. Speaking Drills

One of the sad trends in Lincoln-Douglas debate is everyone’s speaking sounds the same—awful. Here are some things you can do to get better at different elements on speaking.

A. Fluency

Fluency is your ability to speak without stumbling over your words. To improve your fluency, try the following:

Distraction Drill: Give a redo of any speech that required a lot of non-scripted speaking (so most likely an NR or 2AR). However, during the speech, have one or more people try to distract you and trip you up. They could say something as simple as “chicken” or shout something as absurd as “your outfit looks like you were dressed by the Great Depression.” Any time you stumble, stop and restart the speech. Continue until you get through the entire speech without stumbling.

B. Word Economy

Word Economy refers to your ability to make a point in as few words as possible, saving time without having to speed up.

Partnership Drills: Have a partner listen to you give a speech (preferably one where you’re reading as little material as possible) and write down any inefficient uses of words (“like,” “is going to,” “insofar as,” “extend across the flow,” double-breathing, etc.). Then, decide what your worst three word economy problems are, and then give the speech again. Have your partner listen for your top three offenses, and any time you make those mistakes, your partner should point it out, and you should start over. Continue until you get through the entire speech. A fun variation of this drill is that instead of your partner just pointing out your mistakes, s/he can either throw a paper ball at you or squirt you with a water gun. 

C. Inflection Drills

Inflection refers to your ability to place emphasis on important words, and vary your tone, volume, speed, and pitch as you speak. Inflection is important both in terms of being persuasive to more traditional judges, and in terms of helping the judge distinguish the key parts of your arguments as you speak faster than 300 wpm.

Case Markup Drill: This isn’t so much a drill as opposed to something you should do all the time. Mark up you case with underlines/italics/highlighting etc. to indicate how to deliver each word. For example, highlighting might mean speak louder on a certain word while underlining might mean slow down for an important phrase. Create whatever key works for you, mark up a case with it, and then keep reading your case. See how fast you can go while adhering to the system you set up.

D. Speed Drills

Of all the drills in this article, these are definitely the least efficient and most boring use of your time. Not only is speed not necessarily a good thing (http://victorybriefs.com/vbd/2013/9/a-plea), but it’s not the best way to get more technical. Most debaters that try to go fast just end up becoming more inefficient because they lose control of their fluency and word economy. Killing your speech time and your speaker points probably isn’t a great idea. BUT, alas, if you want to go faster and you’ve mastered the skills above, here are drills you can do to improve your spreading (fun fact, “spreading” is short for speed reading. That should be obvious, but it took me a good 4 years to learn that.)

  1. Pen Drill: Read your case/blocks/a topical article while biting a pen. By creating an obstacle in your mouth, when you remove the pen it’ll be relatively easier to move your mouth more when you speak, improving clarity, enunciation, and speed.
  2. Insert a Word Drill: Read your case/blocks/a topical article and insert a word in between every word in the text your reading. For example, “I VBI affirm VBI the VBI resolution VBI and VBI value VBI morality VBI.”
  3. Backwards Drill: Read your case/blocks/a topical article backwards. This, along with the insert a word drill, helps you focus on just reading the words on the paper, and not getting tripped up when you’re thinking about something else. Both exercises will improve your ability to speed up while reading cases and blocks, since you’ll improve your ability to read written material without necessarily having practiced it.

You can also do any permutation of the above drills (e.g. a pen + insert a word drill, a backwards + insert a word drill, all three, etc.)

II. Efficiency Drills

These drills will improve your ability to cover and spend less time answering any given argument. Hopefully you’ll notice that it’s possible to do these drills without trying to go as fast as possible.

A. Hell 1ARs: Have a partner (or yourself) give a 10-14 minute NC refuting your aff. Try to introduce as many layers of the flow (Ks, Theory, Philosophical NCs, Case Turns etc.) as possible, and try to make the arguments as high-quality as possible. Then simply give a 4-minute 1AR that tries to cover the NC. Hint: 9 times out of 10, you won’t be able to cover everything. This drill tests your coverage, but it more importantly tests your ability to CHOOSE what to go for when drops are inevitable. You can also do themed variations of this drill (e.g. a 10-14 minute NC that accepts the aff framework and just links offense into it, a 10-14 minute NC that’s mostly theory, etc.). This drill will not only help your efficiency, but it’ll also force you to prepare frontlines (answers to common neg responses) for your aff.

B. Shortening 1ARs: Redo any 1AR from a practice round or tournament. Then give the same speech in 3:50. Then 3:40. Then 3:30, and so on until you get to 1:00. Like the Hell 1AR, this drill tests both efficiency and your ability to identify what the core of the debate is and just win that issue.

C. Compartmentalization: Take any 1AR where there was a lot going in the round (maybe there were multiple theory shells, multiple frameworks, etc.) Plan out how much time you want to spend on each part of the flow (maybe 45 seconds on the NC, a minute on theory, etc.), and then give short speeches redoing each part of the flow until you get it in time (so keep regiving your answers to the NC until you can make them in under 45 seconds.) Once you’ve done this for every part of the flow, give the full 1AR where you meet each time marker you set up for yourself. This helps improve general efficiency, and also instills a sense of discipline in your 1ARs where you don’t lose track of time.

D. Handling the Dump: Have a partner (or yourself) come up with as many quick, analytic answers to your framework and/or contention as possible. The focus should be on quantity over quality—put as much ink on the flow as possible. Then give a short speech (2 minutes or so) answering the responses and extending your case. Don’t try to match the responses blip-for-blip. It’s better to explain how they conceptually fail to take out your position and the key warrants of your argument.

III. Big Picture/Crystallization Drills

A. General Overviews: give a 1AR where you don’t engage in ANY line-by-line debate. Only give general overviews explaining why their arguments are conceptually flawed, and why your position still stands. This drill will force you to get better at seeing the big picture, so that when you’re in round, you can use an effective combination of big picture and line-by-line debate.

B. “Say, Say, Say”: Take out a 2AR flow and speak for 30-60 seconds about one part of the flow (e.g. the framework, the aff contention, theory, a CP, etc.). Use the following structure:

  1. Say what you’re going to say (1 sentence overview)
  2. Say it (Go through the normal speech)
  3. Say what you just said (1 sentence underview)

For example, “1. Counterplans aren’t competitive without a disad to the aff. 2. Extend the perm: we can presume consent for organ procurement and provide incentives for organ donation. Her arguments about incentives solving better doesn’t matter because the perm gets that solvency too, plus the net benefit about establishing a social norm of altruism by presuming consent. She didn’t give you a harm to presumed consent. 3. Don’t run a counterplan if you don’t know how it’s supposed to function.”

This drill helps you get better at framing the round. Instead of just extending arguments and rolling through the line-by-line, this drill helps ensure that you give the judge a preview and a closer for each section of the flow, improving clarity and your big-picture descriptions.

C. Writing the ballot for the judge: Take an aff round that you’re pretty confident you won. 1) Write an RFD explaining why you won. 2) Summarize your RFD into one sentence. 3) Regive the 2AR, but have your one sentence summary be your introduction to the speech, and your fully written RFD be your closer to the speech. This drill will help you get better at making your 2ARs sound like they’re evaluating the round, instead of just regiving the 1AR with one less minute.

D. Preemption: Pretend you’re at the last minute of your NR. Spend the entire minute preempting what the 2AR went for in that round.

E. Pure Crystal: Give a 2AR (or an NR) without signposting. Just explain the arguments that have been made and why you’re winning the round in a logical order.

Conclusion: How to Approach Drilling

My seventh grade band teacher used to tell me “Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” I was more of a fan of “fake to you make it” and “move your fingers without making any sounds during concerts.” But unfortunately for you, you can’t rely on other people in a debate round, and it’d just be weird if pretended to debate but didn’t actually say anything. ANYWAYS, here are ways to make sure your time spent drilling is time well spent:

  1. Set Goals: Before every drill, think about what you want to accomplish in the speech. Do you want to be more big picture? Cover more? Don’t just assume the original was perfect—set a goal for how to make the speech better.
  2. Evaluate: After giving the drill, evaluate how well you met the goal you set. This is also the best place to incorporate help from a teammate, friend, or coach.
  3. Repeat: Don’t just write down comments and forget about the drill—immediately after being given feedback (or criticizing yourself), give the drill again, implementing the feedback you received to the best of your ability.

Finally, remember that drills are a debater’s equivalent of an athlete’s training. Going to the gym 30 times in the summer won’t help you for a baseball game in April. Likewise, the drills you did at summer camp aren’t going to help you do well at the Glenbrooks. You need to consistently drill in order to maintain the skills you’ll gain in word economy and efficiency. But if you do these drills repeatedly, you’ll get much better at debate.