The Thing Competitive Debate Teaches

Nathanael Yellis By Nathanael Yellis • Last Updated May 18, 2021

I judged a debate tournament on Saturday. I enjoy debate because of the creativity bred by its constraints.

While talking with other judges, I tried to explain what motivated my decisions. What kind of arguments typically won? What debaters tended to make those arguments? Those conversations and thoughts yielded this insight: debate teaches something really important, and winning debaters get it.

My definition of this essential skill needs some work, but here it is: the ability to consider a mess of facts and ideas, identify the ones that matter most, and clearly articulate them in a way that presents a compelling framework for viewing the whole mess.

See the mess: debate research, cases, and rounds all involve putting facts and explanations up for consideration. Each side presents both a collection of facts and integrating ideas. In a good round, fights will break out on both. Good debaters learn to quickly digest all of it.

Identify importances: some of the stuff is inconsequential. Thus good debaters recognize and let the unnecessary stuff slide. Conversely, they also tease out the key relationships. In a round this is usually the one essential issue the sides disagree on. Upon that issue most of their argumentation rests. Instead of assuming the judge agrees with them, good debaters explain the merit of their assumptions.

Clear articulation: the last part is paramount. It's the ability to take an argument from the sensical confines of your brain and give it to idiosyncratic people. Good debaters outline their view in a compelling way, making the judge want to agree.

As a judge, I kept listening for a bumper sticker length phrase that provided the lynchpin of the argument. Those phrases let me into the debaters' heads, seeing the mess of facts from their side. That persuasive skill carries over into the real world, and it's a good reason to practice debate.



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