November 8, 2016
During the prelim rounds of any given national debate tournament, you can find hundreds of public forum debaters scurrying around a high school cafeteria, chatting, prepping, and arguing. There's a nervous yet industrious energy that pervades the air, like a fast food restaurant at rush hour. Tensions are high, and debaters do whatever they can to release stress: listen to music, talk to teammates and friends, and perhaps most commonly, bash on whatever judge they had in the last round.
There is no complaint more common in PF than "that judge sucked." But never does whining about judging actually help in the next prelim or out round when another parent or inexperienced judge is across the table. Don't get me wrong: at many points in my high school career, I definitely bashed judges myself. Do I think it ever helped me to do so? Absolutely not. At the time, I could never understand any of these judges' decisions. But reflecting on the end of my high school career, judging public forum rounds myself, and coaching has given me perspective. Now I see that there was a big picture that I and many other debaters with the same problem were missing in trying to appeal to lay judges.
It's some elusive concept thrown around by debaters and coaches alike. In the summer, debaters will write in their camp evaluations that they need to "improve lay appeal" without any idea of what that entails. It's become embedded with other abstract jargon that debaters use, among the likes of "extending through ink" and "fiat." In this way, the use of the term "lay appeal" itself reflects the exact problem that debaters face in trying to win lay rounds: its vagueness and abstraction from reality reflects the same barrier of misunderstanding that prevents parent judges from figuring things out in a debate round.
Technical debaters, including myself, tend to think of debate in a very logic puzzle-like way. You win a round by defending and extending an offensive link into summary and final focus, extending the impact of that link, and weighing that impact over your opponents' impacts. It's methodical, it's calculated, and it's clean. But this isn't the way lay judges view things, and frankly, this isn't always a productive way to think about debate.
No matter what kind of judge you have, nobody wants to just see your arguments move across the flow. The judge wants to understand your arguments and the way they function. For people without debate experience to understand your arguments, they need to be able to picture them and see them play out in the real world. In other words, to win a lay ballot is about treating an argument as more than just an argument: it's making that argument into a story.
This isn't a radically new concept in Public Forum debate. Coaches drill into their debaters the importance of establishing a "narrative." But unfortunately, like "lay appeal," the term "narrative" has also become abstracted and compartmentalized into debate jargon that's disconnected from reality. Its usage follows the same robotic line of thinking that treats debate solely as a game.
The art of storytelling distinguishes good public forum debaters from great ones. A debate I'll never forget is Tim Perevozchikov's performance in NCFL finals my sophomore year. The NCFL tournament is widely considered a "lay" tournament; a convincing message and appeal to inexperienced judges is critical to picking up ballots. Tim P. was arguing against the existence of minimum wage laws, something that seemed pretty counterintuitive to me. Yet even I found myself awed as Tim spun his tale about creating more opportunities to climb the economic ladder.
It wasn't about using simple metaphors or simplifying things for an average person to understand. Tim P. provided his audience with a vision, a worldview for how to make society a better place. He did the same thing when he won NSDA Nationals that year, urging the judges to "give peace a chance" in Ukraine. That year, I learned the best debaters are the ones who transcend the round itself and make it about something more.
Two years later, I found myself in CFL finals trying to do the exact same thing in final focus. Arguing against a ban on human genetic engineering, I went hard for our argument that a ban would form a black market, shifting the practice underground and increasing its danger. I framed this analysis with an argument that a ban would discourage the private sector research necessary to make this technology safer. All of this served to get across one simple idea to the judges: all the harms of genetic engineering would be even worse under a ban.
The team we were facing did a really good job and the round was very close. They knew a lot more about medical science than me or my partner did, which led to some embarrassing crossfire moments. But I think what ultimately gave us the edge is that even when outmatched in terms of background knowledge we stuck to our story, right until the very end. Plus we had a very lucky series of coin flips.
Anyways, now that we've gotten all of my anecdotal experiences out of the way, lets go into what really matters: how do you actually go about doing all of this? It sounds nice in concept, but what about real execution? I'll let you in on a little secret. The best way to win lay judges is to focus on what's also the best way to win flow judges:
Why is this true? There's no better opportunity for compelling rhetoric and true connection with a judge than in explaining why your impact is so critical to society that it matters far more than anything your opponents are talking about. The fact that weighing is so flexible in both appealing to lay judges and winning on the flow explains why some of the most compelling debaters in PF history were also excellent from a strategic point of view. The time to weigh is your chance to really craft a story, to talk about impacts that truly matter and that judges can really see for themselves.
Take impacts on the September/October topic, for example: incarceration, school violence, and structural racism, to name a few, are all serious and compelling issues that many debaters throw around and talk about in vague terms, but never go the extra mile to give the big picture analysis. This is a wasted opportunity. Exploit the time to weigh not only to win strategically on the flow, but to break through the barrier between the debate and the judge.
Cutting out unnecessary jargon, slowing down speech, and making eye contact are common suggestions for "going lay." There's nothing wrong with any of these things, and in fact they're often very effective. But little explored is the question of why those things make us more appealing speakers. This is where the key is to figuring out lay judges. Cutting out jargon and looking the judge in the eye aren't their own virtues; we do these things because they make us clearer and more effective communicators.
When a team wins on the flow but still loses, that means that there was a communication problem. If you have objectively won a debate round, the basic logic of why that's true should be able to convince any person, no matter their background. All it takes is being able to convey that logic in a persuasive way that everyone can understand. The best way to accomplish this is through painting a clear picture of the round in the arc of your story.
Yes, cases exist where judges have impenetrable biases or other intervening factors that debaters can do nothing about. These are judges that debaters love to complain about the most. But situations where a debater had no possibility to win based on a judge's peculiar preferences or qualities are largely fringe experiences.
Even if one found these rounds to be incredibly common or consequential, they're still not worth focusing on from a debater's perspective. You'll never be able to meet every idiosyncratic preference of a random judge. Being your best self is the highest standard you can meet; don't try to be something else for a judge, even in the process of "adapting." The best thing you can do for yourself after this kind of round is to move on.
From someone who wasted plenty of time complaining about petty nonsense, don't ever let one round own you. Focus on honing your unique voice. Use that voice to say something that matters. That's how you can get across to both flow and lay judges. After all, everybody loves a good story.