How to Debate: The Fundamentals

The current state of high school debate is deplorable, and the national circuit is doing absolutely nothing to help it. I am sick and tired of seeing students using briefs, arguing

theory, and quibbling over definitions. Our instructors have forgotten what it means to debate well and the techniques which actually educate our students and help them grow into better speakers and thinkers. I want to use this post to give debaters an introduction to good debate practices which well help them develop into better debaters. I hope seasoned debaters who have fallen into the trap of being robots instead of actual debaters will also take the time to read this post and hopefully learn something. I will develop more in-depth guides for specific parts and categories of debate, but these general guidelines should provide a good foundation. Instructors need to start cultivating good debate practices again.

1. Do Your Own Research – Briefs are readily available these days. There are, however, numerous problems with these briefs. Excerpts from articles are taken out of context and misrepresent the actual point of the research. Excerpts do not include research methodology, nor do they include counter argument considerations. The biggest problem, however, is that they remove the incentive for students to conduct their own research, resulting in a much weaker understanding of the major issues concerning the resolution. If you read entire articles, and if you find information on your own, you are far more likely to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the resolution. This way, you actually know the reality, and you can articulate it more effectively for the judge. If your opponents come up with statistics you have never heard before, you will at least know whether or not they correspond to the actual situation in the real world because you have spent two weeks reading everything there is to read on the subject.

2. Control Cross Examination – Cross examination is one of the most crucial parts of any debate round. You must be able to control it in order to win. Control involves asking pointed questions. If you don’t know the answer to a question, you shouldn’t ask it in CX (aside from clarifications). You need to listen to what your opponent actually says when they deliver their case. Don’t just tune out after the tag line and pull out your pre-written rebuttal. Your opponent may say something completely different than what you expect, and you need to be ready to address what they’re actually talking about, not what you think they are talking about. Point out logical flaws in your opponent’s case to the judge using your questions.

3. Do Not Make Theory Arguments – Theory is stupid, end of story. It doesn’t matter, and a good stock debater will most often succeed over a good theory debater. Do not attempt to analyze the social situation of debate and pretend like it matters in the round. You are not in the round to debate about debate; you are there to debate the topic you have been given. Your opponent’s definition does not become invalid if it “hinders education which is the purpose of debating.” You know what hinders education? Theory arguments do, because the force us to talk about theory instead of talking about the actual topic.

4. Accept Your Burdens – Every resolution gives each side a particular burden. Do not try to modify your burden to make it easier to argue. Do not be afraid to argue difficult positions. In fact, if you do it well, judges will be more impressed despite their initial reservations.

5. Learn Things – Knowledge is power, and this is especially true in debate. If you just know more than your opponent, then you are already at an advantage. Do not focus so much on figuring out round techniques which will help you win. Rather, develop a knowledge base large enough that your opponent can’t throw anything at you which you cannot counter. You should know all the evidence which is in that giant folder of yours front and back because you should have read it all.

These are some basic characteristics which every debater should develop.

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