How to Debate In Front Of Inexperienced Judges

By Rebecca Heller, Georgetown University ’16

Not every APDA tournament has enough experienced judges to adjudicate every round. This means that some tournaments use “campus judges,” or students of the host school who are rarely or never involved in APDA. These students are usually friends of someone on the debate team and will agree to come judge at the tournament as a favor to their friends (or because they’re promised free pizza). Campus judges are important because they allow tournaments to proceed when they otherwise wouldn’t be able to. However, it can be more difficult to debate in front of them because they aren’t familiar with APDA norms and judging standards. This guide explains how to successfully debate in front of a campus judge.

The first step to debating successfully in front of an inexperienced judge is to identify that the judge is actually inexperienced. There are a few telltale signs. If your judge asks you how long each speech is supposed to be or what the speaker/points scale is, it’s likely that they are new to APDA. Some other common signs that your judge is new are that they don’t use the regular wording to call each speaker up, that they don’t ask people to put their names on the board, or that they ask POCs along with the Opp team after case construct. Once you’ve established that your judge is inexperienced, you can do a few things to improve your chances of doing well in the round.

First, chat with your judge before the round if possible. Ask them if they did high school debate. If they did, and if you know a bit about high school debate, you can try to slightly tailor your strategy in the round to the specifics of the style they did.

Second, style is extremely important with an inexperienced judge. If the judge isn’t used to APDA arguments, they often vote as much on speaking style (or on who they perceive as being dominant in the round) as they are on the substance of your arguments. There are a few things you can do to help yourself here. Make eye contact with your judge. Make sure that you don’t speak too quickly- inexperienced judges sometimes see it as “bad form” or get frustrated if they can’t flow as quickly as you speak. Project your voice so that you’re speaking loudly enough. Number your arguments and group them clearly.

Third, you should limit your use of APDA jargon as much as possible. Your judge probably won’t understand how to “cross apply an argument,” what it means if you call the other team “squirrely,” or what a “burden” is. Make your arguments in plain English and clearly explain why you won the round. Using APDA slang and terminology won’t help you do that.

In that same vein, if you’re doing to tight call or countercase, you have to also explain to the judge what a tight call or countercase is. Don’t assume that they know. You should explain at the top of the LO speech what you are doing, and then you should explain exactly what each team now has to do in the round. As Opp, for example, you would explain that in a tight call, Gov needs to show not just arguments that could have been made in the round, but also how those arguments would actually win. As Gov, you would explain that you now only have two speeches in the round and Opp has four, so you just need to show one path to victory that Opp had. Debaters often say that you can’t tight call or make theory arguments in front of an inexperienced judge. This is not true. You certainly can make theory arguments. What you can’t do is just say the word “tight call” or “abusive” and expect the judge to know what it is. You need to clearly explain and clearly warrant everything you’re saying.

Fourth, run a case that’s straightforward and clear. Don’t choose one that requires a lot of caveats to be viable. This probably isn’t the time to run a very counterintuitive case about how murder is actually a good thing. Often, inexperienced judges vote on what sounds right to them, so make sure that your case has clear arguments.

Finally, in each of your speeches, be extremely clear about why you are winning. When you respond to the other team’s arguments, number your responses (“we have five responses to this”). Doing so makes it easier for the judge to write your responses down and differentiate between your arguments. It also makes it clear to the judge that you had lots of responses to each of the other team’s arguments, so the judge is less likely to drop you because of one silly argument that you did not respond to.

At the same time, don’t just respond to the other team’s arguments- also explain why the arguments that you are winning are more important than the ones that the other team is winning. This is just good debate strategy in general, but it’s particularly important to be explicit in front of inexperienced judges. In your rebuttal speeches especially, explain how you won each argument, and call out points that are reasons you should win. Explicitly label them as “reasons to vote for us” or “reasons we won the round.” Again, recall from above that just throwing the phrase “RFD” around is unlikely to help you, because the judge might not know what RFD stands for. Once you’ve laid out reasons you’ve won the round, explicitly explain why your arguments are more important than the other team’s. Try to predict which arguments the other team will collapse on, and explicitly say why those are NOT round-winning arguments for them.

Debating in front of an inexperienced judge is more challenging, because they’re not familiar with APDA norms and jargon. However, remember that your judge being inexperienced does not mean that your judge is unintelligent. Your judge is likely a very bright person. As long as you are clear about your arguments, there is no reason that you can’t have an enjoyable and successful round in front of an inexperienced judge.

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