A Lost Art: The Issue Summary Speech in PF Debate By Abe Fraifeld

The average summary speech is not a summary; it is a brazen attempt to cover 18-20 minutes of content in two minutes while adding extra analysis. Under the average PF judge’s current expectations, the first summary speech is the hardest to deliver in all of debate. In fact, as I’ve written elsewhere, the natural limit on speed in PF means first speakers meeting expectations on the flow have to cut corners. They can either choose to fulfill flow-related responsibilities, or they can speak eloquently and remain academically honest. This dilemma is illustrated by some basic math: Let’s say a PF round consists of five main contention level arguments (two on the Pro, three on the Con), and each one has been taken out in two ways. Judges expect the Pro first speaker to

  • Extend defensive arguments against each Con argument. [3]
  • Answer responses to their arguments. [4]
  • Extend their arguments [2]
  • Weigh [1]

3a + 4b + 2c + d = 120.

Let’s say it takes 30 seconds to weigh arguments and close a speech. That leaves 90 seconds, which means the first speaker has an average of 10 seconds per task per argument.

Developing a PF argument can take longer than the time allotted to the whole summary speech. Summaries reduce arguments to sound-bytes, causing them to lose their nuance and sometimes their persuasive power.

On the other hand, simplifying arguments often means stripping evidence of its original intent. A time-efficiency-driven trend I find disturbing: summary speakers boost the power of their evidence by claiming the resolution is the independent variable in the cause-effect relationship the evidence identifies. “The probability of war increases by 147% when moving from an adolescent stage rivalry without an arms race to one with an arms race; a similar change from a mature rivalry without an arms race to one with an arms race increases the probability of war by 331%.” In the summary becomes “Anti-missile systems increase the probability of war by three times.” Another – asserting causal relationships when the evidence does not. “States that passed Universal Background Checks have lower rates of gun violence” becomes “UBCs save thousands of lives.” It is possible that the arguments that justify these claims may have been made earlier in the round, but dropping the nuanced argument in favor of the repackaged, super-charged argument is dishonest and bad for debate.

Summary speakers don’t want to be dishonest; they are just extremely rushed. Changing the time limits is an option, but in the meantime, I propose that we rethink the standards for the summary speech. In a truly public forum, debaters would be rewarded for marrying storytelling with technical arguments. They’d be rewarded for recombining arguments in ways that make sense instead of truncating them. This is what PF debaters used to do. Before the summary speech was just a rebuttal speech with more responsibilities, it was a true summary that, even at the highest levels of debate, began with the words “This round boils down to two (or three) main issues.” I am not nostalgic for 2007 PF. I think the event is much more research-oriented and argumentatively creative than it was. But I am nostalgic for some of the conventions. I’m curious if an issue-summary would work in a modern PF round. It would take a case optimized for the strategy, significant pre-round planning, and a grouping-guru as a first speaker. The teams that pulls it off will dramatically improve their lay appeal. The teams that master it will make the summary speech much easier and more efficient. And if judges start to prefer this type of speech, the event will become much more accessible and respectable.

How to give an “Issue Summary”

An issue summary is one that puts arguments into two to three broad categories instead of going in flow order. It synthesizes the round rather than reviewing it. I cannot give a precise template for the speech, but I can provide some important principles to live by.

  1. Stop caring about the order of the flow. There are a few reasons a reordered late-round speech may be better. First, teams deliberately design cases to cover different aspects of the topic in each contention. This means that going in order kills the narrative of the summary speech. Second, opposite sides almost always impact very similarly. For example, on the South Korea topic, most teams discussed China and North Korea on both sides. An AFF-NEG summary speech would go China, North Korea China, North Korea, where an issue summary would deal with all arguments about China’s reaction to anti-missile systems first, and North Korea’s second. Debaters miss out on opportunities to highlight clash if they go strictly line by line, which is a problem because judges often get confused about argument interaction when clash isn’t explicitly identified. Even experienced judges get frustrated when the clash isn’t resolved in one cohesive block of the speech, though they often misdiagnose the strategic misstep as a lack of weighing. Third, debaters who go in order repeat themselves a whole lot. I write “double covered the argument about x” on an enormous percentage of my ballots. Essentially, flow-style summary speakers have a tendency to repeat arguments everywhere they apply on the flow. A classic example: the summary speaker extends an overview, extends their case, and then re-applies the overview to their opponent’s case when they reach it. This is an inefficient use of time.

  2. Do your best to ensure the issues unambiguously divide the arguments made in the round. You don’t want to categorize arguments in ways that are easy to misconstrue or confuse the judge. Your best bet is to pre-determine category options before you walk into the round and try to fit the arguments into your categories as best you can.

  3. Weigh between the issues. Argument-to-argument weighing is dangerous because it either leaves out arguments or becomes so time consuming that the quality of the rest of the speech suffers. Issue-to-issue weighing is much more time-efficient, it is often much more intuitive, and the judge will appreciate that your weighing encapsulates the whole round.

I hope this article inspires some to try out the strategy. Here is a video of Harker JJ using the strategy in 2010.

Abraham Fraifeld the former VBI Director of Public Forum Debate. Over the past four years, he has coached Trinity Prep and Walt Whitman’s Public Forum teams. Abraham’s students won Yale, the New York City Round Robin, the New York City Invitational, Glenbrooks, the Florida Novice State tournament, and closed out the Tournament of Champions. In 2016, Abraham’s students were in semi-finals of the NDCA National Tournament, finished 7th at the NSDA National Tournament, and reached quarterfinals or later at Grapevine, Yale, Blue Key, and Minneapple. In high school, Abraham reached six final rounds and accumulated twelve bids to the Tournament of Champions.