Thoughts from Nationals: Part 2

Judging PF at Nationals means I saw some excellent debate rounds… and some not so stellar ones too. Nonetheless, there is something to learn from any debate. I’ve carried a few lessons (Part 2) back from the great state of Kansas for you all, wherever you may be.


Offense and Defense

Many good and bad debates experienced the same flaw (most often for the losing team): the last speeches end up focusing on one side of the flow at the cost of the other. Effective teams will guide the round to center on their arguments, dragging their opponents away from their contentions to focusing on refutation. This means the dragged team loses a balance of offense and defense. Teams left with no offense, even if they have played excellent defense, are not giving the judge a reason to vote for them – only reasons to not vote for their opponent. While this may still result in a win, you are on shaky ground without affirmative reasons to vote for you.

It takes a very conscious effort to extend both offensive and defensive arguments into the Summary and Final Focus, but it is the best effort you can make when narrowing the round to voting issues.

Building a Comparative Second Half

One key to building a balance of offense and defense is to make sure the Second Half, or Summary and Final Focus, are comparative. This means that whenever you mention your own argument, you compare it to one of your opponents. This does not mean that every argument finds a direct refutation in your opponent’s case – this means you weigh impacts and the arguments made for the judge. This explicit comparison makes voting issues easier to select and creates an easier decision for the judge. As I discuss in the Beyond Resolved’s chapter on Impact Calculus, you have to instruct the judge how to compare and see the round or you risk the judge making their own determination of how to compare (risking a decision not in your favor).

It is not enough to make arguments in Summary and Final Focus, you must frame them in the Big Picture of the round which means doing comparative work to bring the PRO and CON together in clash.


Squirreling cases

One person who visited my Expo table explicitly asked, “How do you suggest dealing with squirreling cases?” (Which made me laugh to remember the debate brief called Squirrel Killers). A great question that first requires some definitons.

First, a squirrel in debate is a judge that votes the opposite of all the other judges (i.e. in a 2-1 decision for the PRO, it is the judge that voted for the CON). This is what the debate brief title “Squirrel Killers” refers to.

Squirreling cases, however, has nothing to do with the judge. Here is a great definition from World School debate:

“The Judging Schedule to the Rules notes that ‘squirreling is the distortion of the definition to enable a team to argue a pre- prepared argument that it wishes to debate regardless of the motion actually set’. Squirreling does not attempt to find a reasonable definition of the motion as a whole; it just asserts some sort of ‘link’ between the words of the motion and the case the Proposition wishes to run.”(Stockley, A. (2002, January 1). Defining Motions & Constructing Cases: Guidelines for Competitors and Adjudicators. . Retrieved June 24, 2014, from

For PF purposes, replace “motion” with “topic” and “Proposition” with “the team advocating some time of action.”

The key words here are “distortion of the definition.” You deal with squirreling cases by attacking the root problem – the definition that has been distorted. This may appear as a definition, as a framework, and assessment of burdens, or even occur in an argument. Do not give squirreling cases or arguments validity by arguing against the argument itself. You must attack the definition and if you think it necessary, refute the argument/case if you think the judge might buy it as a valid interpretation of the resolution. Do not fall into the trap of making the round about those arguments – that is what your opponent wants. Be the team to save the round by arguing the actual topic, not a distorted one.

Speed and Mini-Policy Debate

I was very happy to see that while some debaters spoke more quickly, there was no spreading in any round I watched. Speed is still a concern for many debaters and for those of us that want to halt the progression of PF into Policy in regards to speaking speed.
One word of caution I will offer is that when you speed up, you often undermine other aspects of your delivery. The fastest speakers often:
  • got increasingly loud, which was unnecessary and made them seem agitated and unprofessional
  • did not tag their argument or let the judge know where the argument went on the flow
  • would not provide a conclusion to their speech, but would sputter out in an unfinished argument
  • focused too much on reading lots of cards or making lots of responses and never gave a big picture or comparative analysis in the second half

Speed may gain you some things, but there are direct trade-offs when you begin to speak faster. I highly encourage you to practice debating both slowly and quickly – you’ll need to do both with the varied judges you’ll get in PF. But also I recommend this so you see what you are trading off and hopefully find a balance. Video-taping yourself will also show you the negative effects of speed (if you take an honest look).


Hope my thoughts on Nationals will help you prepare for the next debate season. Remember to email me your questions; I will reply online as soon as I can. Be on the lookout for more Best Practice posts as I gear up for the Stanford National Forensics Institute in July.



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