7 Ways to Win “Lay” Judges!

On many local circuits (and at times even nationally), you’ll run into “lay judges.” A “lay judge” is any judge with minimal to no debate experience.

Lay judges are an important part of what makes this activity work. They spend their weekends making debates happen and give generously of their time, even though in many cases they don’t have as much stake in the outcome as a coach would. Imagine: waking up for a debate tournament and staying late even though you know you’re not going to win anything.

Lately, we’ve gotten a lot of questions about how to adapt to lay judges and win more debates in front of them – and for good reason. Lay judges present a unique set of challenges and opportunities that many debaters find difficult. They often have less topic knowledge than a competitor or coach. They may have different ideas about what constitutes a “win” than some competitors or coaches do. They may not even know all of the speech times or order of speakers. Today, we’re sharing 7 helpful hints to turning these challenges into opportunities and those opportunities into wins!


1. Shift your mindset. Many debaters find debating in front of lay judges to be sub-optimal. This is understandable because we often have so much invested in our success that we feel a little short-changed when we don’t get our most highly-preferred critics. That said, these feelings are misplaced and will only get in your way.

Setting aside for a moment the obvious argument that you should appreciate what lay judges do for the activity, having an “attitude” about getting one will seriously dampen your prospects for winning the debate. Not only will you be agitated, but those feelings can be “read” by the judge. No one wants to feel that they’ve devoted their weekend to something and the competitors don’t even want them to be there. Moreover, if you’re preoccupied with disappointment, your debating suffers because you are no longer looking at the judge as someone to convince but rather as someone to deal with for an hour and a half.

You need to actively avoid this kind of thinking and to instead conceptualize lay judges as you should any other judge: as someone you need to persuade. This way, you’re shifting the focus away from what you perceive they don’t have (expert debate information) and back onto what you need to be doing (winning the debate). Now that you’re in the right frame of mind:

2. Avoid jargon. Debaters use a confusing language to speak with one another. These short-hands are useful in some ways. They allow us to use fewer words to refer to complex concepts that are primarily understood by debaters in a particular argumentative context. For instance, it’s easier to say “the disad is non-unique” than it is to say “the events that would cause something bad to happen as a result of the plan will happen regardless of whether or not the plan is endorsed in this debate.” You save time and words while efficiently communicating to your audience and opponents.

There are serious cons, however, when using this language in front of a lay judge. If debate is already unfamiliar to them, it can be frustrating when you expect them to understand terminology that they’ve never heard as well. Make sure to explain these concepts in ways that could be understood without any prior knowledge, even when you’re just talking to the other team. You want the judge to feel included, as though they understand what you’re saying and can engage with the concepts you’re discussing.

There’s an added benefit here as well – it forces you to articulate these complex concepts without the assistance of catch-all terms. This ensures you’re always mindful of what you’re really saying when you use jargon and challenges you to understand them well enough to explain them to someone else – a true sign of mastery.


3. Explain topic-related acronyms. This may seem redundant, but while you’re cutting down on jargon, make sure you also cut back on topic-related acronyms and abbreviations. You may know what HSR is, but your judge may have no idea and may get behind or frustrated trying to figure it out with no prompting. One of the great things about debate is that it makes you a specialized expert on one topic. In order to succeed, you need to become knowledgeable. In doing so, however, you’re acquiring knowledge that the average person doesn’t have. Make sure you explain any abbreviations or acronyms you use to your judge at least once.

For example, you may say something like “HSR, or high speed rail, is underfunded now.” Do that once or twice so the judge knows what it is and then continue.

4. Make sure to watch non-verbals. Everyone has different moments where something will make sense to them. Make sure you keep an eye on your judge. If they look confused, slow down, pull back, and re-explain.

If they appear frustrated, take a deep breath and adjust your explanation to be more basic, then build from there. It can be difficult to be so responsive when you’re dealing with time pressure, but it’s not good form to proceed as though nothing is happening when you’re clearly not communicating to your audience.

 5. Offer to help. The judge has many responsibilities during an average debate, from keeping track of speech time and prep time, to flowing, to rendering a decision. This is especially difficult if you’re still learning. Judges with less experience may feel intimidated by all of these tasks, wondering how they’re ever going to remember to do it all.

Make sure to help out if you can. Offer them some paper to flow on. Keep track of your own prep time so, if they forget to start their timer (or don’t have one), there’s not an awkward or embarrassing moment. Time your speeches so they don’t have to. They may turn down all of these gestures (and you should defer to them if your prep calculations differ), but many more will be relieved to receive a helping hand and you’ll benefit as well. The less time a lay judge spends wondering what comes next, the more time they’ll spend evaluating your arguments and thinking critically about what they mean for the debate.

 6. Don’t focus on “one-upping” your opponents. All debaters like to feel competent. We spend a lot of time learning the terminology of debate, learning how to speak more rapidly, researching the topic, etc. In adapting to a lay judge, we don’t get to “show off” as many of our debate skills because we’re focused on being inclusive and catering to different levels of familiarity with debate.

At times, your opponents may fail to adapt and engage in a lot of jargon and terminology, speak too quickly for a lay judge to comfortably understand, or behave in other ways to demonstrate their experience over their ability to adapt. Just because the judge may allow it does not mean you should feel you need to show them that you, too, can debate that way. Your opponents’ failure to adapt doesn’t mean you don’t know what you’re doing. It means they don’t know how to adapt to judges and be persuasive. Let them show off. More often than not, you’ll win the debate by slowing down and catering to the judge’s experience level. Even if you lose the battle (to sound smooth and experienced), you’ll win the war (to win the debate).

 6. Follow up. No matter if you win or lose, you should talk to the judge if that’s allowed on your circuit. Find out the things they did or didn’t like about the way you debated and discuss them. Don’t focus on whether they’re objectively “right” by some debate standard you’ve been taught and don’t feel the need to educate them. Just make sure you know why you didn’t persuade them.

That way, the next time you debate in front of them, you’ll know what works for them and what doesn’t. If there’s a lay judge on your circuit, you want them to know you as the team who works hard for their ballot, cares about how to persuade them, and helps them as they learn the complex process of judging debates (it’s not easy even for those of us with lots of experience).That’s not only worth more than a few wins; it shows that you’re learning the most important debate lesson of all: how to communicate.

In some ways, lay judges are the best kind of judges. They force us to shelve all of the debate conventions we’ve been relying on and get back to basics. It can be refreshing and helpful to remind ourselves what we’re really here for: to persuade. Make sure you show your lay judges appreciation and, as always, good luck this season!


About Lauren Sabino

Lauren Sabino is the Director of Youth Programs at the National Center for Policy Analysis. She currently administrates Debate Central, the largest free online debate resource.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to 7 Ways to Win “Lay” Judges!

  1. Hayden says:

    Hey, just thought I’d let you know that you have 2 #6’s up there. Great post though, it’s really helpful, thanks! 😛

  2. kunal says:

    I loved this post,
    However, I had adapted to the lay judge format, but whenever I did this, and my opponent would be aggressive, the judge would vote for my opponent.
    The judge thought that the opponent was more aggressive, therefore more knowledgable. Please let me know how I can deal with this type (I get a lot of this)
    Should I be aggressive, or stick with the lay debate tactic.

  3. Kunal A says:

    I loved this post,
    However, I had adapted to the lay judge format, but whenever I did this, and my opponent would be aggressive, the judge would vote for my opponent.
    The judge thought that the opponent was more aggressive, therefore more knowledgable. Please let me know how I can deal with this type (I get a lot of this)
    Should I be aggressive, or stick with the lay debate tactic.
    Thanks a lot!

    • Rachel Stevens says:

      Hi Kunal, thanks for your question. If it’s allowed in your circuit, I would highly recommend asking the judge as many questions as possible (politely! don’t interrogate them) and try to get a feel for what constitutes a “win” in their mind. You might start to see patterns.

      Overall, try to remain cordial, but be confident. When you say “aggressive,” I assume you don’t mean rude and angry. Inexperienced judges do tend to rely on cues like confidence when deciding debates. They are usually aware of their inexperience and want to try to avoid making a “bad” decision. One very obvious way to do this is to see who “seems” like they are winning, i.e. who appears the most confident and in control of the round. If you’re unfamiliar with debate, it is natural to assume the debater who seems to think he/she is winning actually is winning. So, always act like you are sure you are winning. You’d be surprised how much difference it makes! Don’t confuse confidence for just yelling stuff like “we’re way ahead here!” in your speeches, though.

      I hope that helps!

  4. Pingback: Judges’ Top Pet Peeves, and How to Avoid Them (Part 1/2) « Free Debate Resources | Debate Central

Comments are closed.