Anyone who has ever participated in a sport understands the meaning of the term “fundamentals.” Fundamentals refers to the most basic skills underlying an activity. Debate is no different! Just as basketball players must pay attention to their footwork and golfers must watch their posture and grip, debaters too can benefit from paying close attention to a few basic building blocks of argumentation. Today, we’ll be going over the fundamentals of debate and discussing how you can ensure you’re beginning every round from a solid foundation.
Unfortunately, many debaters forget to apply the fundamentals in close rounds. This is because debate is complex; it requires you to learn a large amount of new information and precise terminology, pay attention to many moving parts, and operate within a time limit. Often, debaters can get so caught up in trying to get the information right and cover their opponents’ arguments that the basics of argumentation get left behind. It is easy to understand why this slippage happens, but if you can prevent it, you’re well on your way to winning many more close debates.
So what are the fundamentals of debate? No matter whether you do PF, LD, CX, or congress, they are the same across every format. In fact, these skills are foundational to any attempt at persuasive communication. These basic steps to making an argument are referred to as CLAIM, WARRANT, and IMPACT.
CLAIM: As its name implies, a claim is a statement you are advancing as true. If you are reading evidence, your claim is usually summarized in the card’s tag (or it should be!). Even when you’re not reading evidence, a claim is any declarative statement that you are trying to establish as true within the debate.
So, if you are debating about immigration reform, and your strategy for the debate requires you to win that immigration reform is good because it improves the economy, your claim is simply “immigration reform is good because it improves the economy.”
Just creating and extending a claim is not enough to win a debate!
WARRANT: This is where the magic happens. Warrants are what you use to create legitimacy for your claims. They are the reasons why the claim is true. You should dedicate a substantial amount of your time to debating about warrants.
Warrants can be just about anything, as long as they’re arguments that support the accuracy of the claim. The more specific the explanation is, the better off you will be. For example, if you want to support the claim that “immigration reform is good for the economy,” you could say:
- Immigrants provide a necessary labor force to produce needed goods
- Immigrants pay taxes, resulting in more net revenue for the government
- Immigrants open businesses and make investments, increasing jobs
- Immigrants compensate for Baby Boomers leaving the workforce and keep entitlement programs solvent
- …or plenty of other reasons
Warrants are almost always better if they are supported by a piece of evidence. However, this does not mean that your explanation of the warrant should be just saying a phrase like “according to my evidence.” Instead, find out what your evidence says, and then expand upon those arguments in your speech! Your performance will improve dramatically if you make yourself a commitment to never reference your cards without explaining exactly what they say.
You should also answer your opponents’ warrants, and compare them to yours. Why should the judge prefer yours? Is your evidence newer, or from a more reliable source? Is it comparative—that is, does it directly answer questions raised by your opponents’ arguments? Does it make more sense contextually? There are a million reasons you could use to convince your judge to prefer your warrants over your opponents’. But you have to make these in your speeches! Again, the vast majority of a good debate will be about the warrants: why should we believe X is true instead of Y?
IMPACT: The impacts are why someone should care about your argument. Why is this point important? What does winning it get you in the context of the rest of the debate? How does it interact with other considerations that might also be important?
For example, in our hypothetical debate about immigration reform, you would say “immigration reform is good because it improves the economy,” articulate one or more reasons why we believe this is true, and then explain why having a strong, growing economy is important. CX debaters might say “economic downturn leads to nuclear war; that causes extinction.” LDers might say economic liberty is fundamental to respect for human rights. In PF, you might simply want to explain that economic growth prevents poverty and improves quality of life. Exactly why economic growth is important is up to you, but make sure you have a reason. That’s your impact. Don’t forget that your impacts themselves must also contain warrants (reasons why your description of the impact is believable).
Remember that most debates are somewhat close. You will not always be able to win every point. Instead, you have to carve out your path to victory by assuming you will be behind on some questions, but explaining why the things you are winning are more important than the things you are losing. Impacts are what allow you to do this. Like warrants, you should always be comparing yours to those of your opponent and explaining a decision calculus that would lead the judge to vote for you.
Impacts connect small pieces of the debate to the broader picture. They help us decide what decision is best. Failing to dedicate some energy to your impacts will often result in judges who say things like “I agree you won X, but I’m not sure what to do with that argument.” If you’re hearing phrases like that, you can correct the problem by always making an effort to explain why each individual argument matters, and why they outweigh those of your opponents.
Each of these three steps (CLAIM, WARRANT, IMPACT) should be included in every argument you make in a debate. Remember, nothing should escape your lips without you considering and articulating WHAT you are claiming, HOW we know it is true, and WHY the judge should care. This will make sure your arguments are always fully-developed, your judge understands them, and they earn you maximum clout in the debate. If you hold yourself to always going through all three steps when creating an argument, it will quickly become second nature. You won’t believe how much your win-loss record will improve once you master these basic fundamentals.
Consider this: you and a friend are arguing about what to have for lunch. You want salad, and she wants pizza. How would you approach this conversation? Chances are, you would not just stand there screaming “PIZZA!” “NO, SALAD!” back and forth for an hour. Instead, you would advance reasons for preferring one over the other. You might say “We should have salad, because salad is much healthier, and we will both feel better all day if we eat a healthy meal.” If you’ve been paying attention, you should see how that statement already contains a claim, warrant, and impact. Similarly, in a debate you should never answer an opponents’ argument by simply re-reading a tag or rearticulating a claim. When you do that, you aren’t really debating. You’re more like screaming. So make sure that every time you say something, that statement contains all three pieces of a well-developed argument: claim, warrant, and impact.
Now get out there, craft some arguments, and don’t forget to keep those fundamentals tight!
(And if you’re still not sure if you’ve got the hang out if, submit your cases for a FREE critique and we’ll help you find your weak points.)
Good luck, debaters!