The Surprising Reasons You’re Not Winning Close Debates

Lately there’s been some stirrings in the Twitter-sphere about how difficult it can be to win in front of certain judges. At Debate Central, we absolutely understand that some judges may be more challenging to persuade than others and we’re here to help. Below the fold, we’re re-posting an older article from the forum days about how to debate so judges will want to vote for you. The strategies might surprise you!

Recently, I attended the 4 Star Leadership conference. When the students were at the Oklahoma state senate, speaking with Senator David Holt about success in leadership and persuasion, someone asked him:

“Is it better to be liked or respected?”

He paused for a moment, considering, then answered (I’m paraphrasing):

“It’s probably better to be respected. But you really should try to be liked.”

He explained that, while it’s important to sometimes do the less popular thing because it’s the right thing to do, it’s also important to understand and build relationships with people. That starts with making yourself likable – not in the popularity contest way, but in a way that shows people you respect their opinion and value their input.

That’s very true of your interaction with judges in debate. Let me be clear: You’ll win debates regardless of if you’re liked or not. Arguing well is still the most important factor. That said, you’ll be in a lot of close debates and in those, it certainly helps to have someone rooting for you instead of against you. How do you leverage that intangible to win a judge? Here’s 4 ways:

1. Read their philosophies. Judge philosophies can be found all over the place. Debate Mobile, the iPhone app, has a judge philosophy book. The NDCA wiki also has a really comprehensive one. You can find it here:


Judges publish philosophies for your benefit. These philosophies briefly detail the best advice for debating in front of them, according to them, which is a really incredible thing. How often do people tell you up-front exactly how to persuade them? Read philosophies, and don’t just read them in the harried minutes before the debate. Read philosophies of judges you see around your circuit before you go to tournaments. Check periodically to see if they’ve been updated. Think about what they’re saying and what it means for your favorite strategies. Trust us: Judges put a lot of thought into how they write their philosophy. They take the time to do that so that you can be informed. Asking a judge who has taken time to construct and post a philosophy to explain their “preferences” to you is fine in a pinch, but they appreciate students that have gone the extra mile to seek out the information they’ve put out there. As a bonus, they’ll often go into more detail in a philosophy than they will just answering your questions.

2. Once you’ve read them, don’t ignore them. Reading a philosophy is a great way to be informed about a judge, their background, and their perspective. Don’t stop there, though! There’s nothing more frustrating than putting your philosophy out into the world, after giving it a lot of thought, and having it totally ignored.

Give their philosophy serious consideration. You don’t have to hang on every word, but notice the things that sound like deal breakers. If a judge says she’s not a fan of process counterplans, maybe find an alternative. If a judge tells you he doesn’t like to vote on theory, try to find other ways to win. Even if that’s your main thing, it’s not the best thing in this situation (yet another reason why strategic flexibility is important.)

No other options? Don’t panic. Consider this a “yellow light.” It’s never a bad idea in that situation to ask:

“Hey, I noticed in your philosophy that you’re not a fan of process counterplans. Is it the counterplans themselves or just something about the way they’re debated?”

A question like this shows that you’ve taken the time to learn about them and also that you’re taking their feelings and preferences into account while developing a strategy. You may get an answer like,

“Well, it’s not the counterplans themselves so much as I just feel like the debate always becomes really generic and people never talk about the case.”

In that instance, you’ve learned that you can read your argument. You’ve also learned that you have to be careful about the specificity of your solvency.

In the event that they do say they just hate listening to the argument, don’t assume that you’ll be the one to change their mind. Don’t read it. You’ve encountered a “red light.” Don’t ignore two warnings.

This is especially true of stylistic things. If a judge mentions that they prefer a moderate rate of delivery, do that. They’ll be more impressed by your adaptation then they will your speed-reading skills.
Businesswoman Assisting Customers

3. You can never go wrong with being polite. Debate as an activity varies widely by circuit. In some circuits, casual language and jeans are common. In others, suits and formal language are expected. You know best what your circuit demands.

Here’s a tip: Even if your circuit is casual and your judge seems cool with a more relaxed vibe, you have the best shot at being liked if you’re respectful and polite. It can be tempting to get angry or mock the other team and some judges may even laugh when you do that. Some of the older, more experienced debaters that you look up to and win a lot may do that, too. You may have the desire to emulate that behavior. Don’t.

Here’s something I wish I’d learned earlier: No one is rooting for the kids who are jerks or who are demonstrating a lack of respect for the activity (wearing pajamas, yelling at the judge, making obnoxious jokes). Kids that are rude and don’t take the activity seriously are rarely as amusing as they think they are and can be down-right alienating. You want a judge to like you and want you to win. You risk losing that if they start feeling sorry for the other team because you are being mean.

This is not to say that mean debaters don’t win but rather that, in a close debate, it’s helpful to be likable. Your judge will want to go the extra mile to make absolutely certain they got the decision right. Your points will improve. They’ll want to work hard for you because you’re reminding them why they gave up their weekend to give back to an activity they love – because debaters like you work hard and respect debate.

It’s also a no-risk option. I’ve heard my friends mention a million times how irritating it was to judge debaters that were rude to their partner, the other team, or to them. I have never, in all my years of being in debate, heard anyone say something like, “Wow, those kids were so nice. I hated to vote for them because it just got on my nerves how polite they were being.” Not once.

Think something is borderline? Skip it. I’m retroactively embarrassed all the time when I see debaters do some of the things I used to think were funny or cute and now realize are just mean or annoying.

4. Learn from a judge, but don’t assume you have anything to teach them. Debate theory and practice change all the time. One of the coolest things about the activity is that the rules are constantly being negotiated and are always evolving.

As a result, two people can think two totally opposite things about debate and neither of them may technically be wrong. Are conditional counterplans okay? Maybe. Maybe not. Both views are valid. It generally depends on the reasons and a lot of other variables that change every debate.

Smiling Businesswoman

That said, some people may feel strongly about a certain theoretical question or norm and may feel differently than you do. That same person may end up being your judge. Their experience, predispositions, and perspective on a given debate may lead them to believe that you lost a debate you’re almost entirely certain that you won. Here’s the hard truth: The only opinion that will matter to the tournament is theirs.

View these situations as an opportunity to learn how to debate better in front of this person in the future. You may get them again and be able to use this knowledge to your advantage if you listen. You may even find your views challenged (in a good way). Arguing, yelling, or telling a judge that they’re wrong about something will likely lead to their actively rooting against you in the future. Think you can just strike them forever? Think again. They may be your best option sometime in the future, and striking everyone that’s ever disagreed with you is both impossible and unnecessary.

And just in case you need another reason for humility: When I first started at Wake Forest as an undergraduate, my debate coach was the late Ross Smith. He was an amazing coach, had coached several NDT elim participants and a few champions and was incredibly patient. Having had some limited success in high school, I thought I knew better than he did. Not only was I wrong, but I didn’t start winning big debates until I set aside my ego and started listening to him. Keep an open mind. It’ll be a winner.


Do you have difficulties with local or national judges? What issues do you face when trying to persuade? If you judge, do you agree or disagree with the themes in this post? Let us know! We want to hear your feedback!

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

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