The job of a reply is to frame, and crystalize the debate to show how you have won. A mistake that some debaters make, is to just say what has happened in the round. It is true that in replies you should be summarizing the debate, but the most important part of that summary is showing how you have won.
As a judge, it is difficult to determine who has won if a debater presents you every argument in order and summarizes them. It is much clearer when a reply speaker organizes the round by questions or themes. A “reply question”, is ideally a main idea from the debate that you can use to frame the major arguments on both sides.
Examples of questions/themes
- What gets the best outcome for society?
- Is forced change, or natural change better?
- Theme by actor: individuals, society, women, judges, etc.
- Theme by concept: security, rights
- Should we focus on long term or short term impacts
Steps to building your reply questions
- Go over your notes from the speeches. This should include what you and your partner have both said, what your opponents said, what you said in response… so on and so forth.
- Find patterns in what was said, or similar themes that were discussed over and over. These ideas should ideally be the most important ideas in the debate. You can often turn these key ideas into the themes of your debate.
- Prioritization! Now that you have themes, you need to sort the material from the round into them. If it has been a really good debate, there should be too much material for you to cover it all in 3 or 4 minutes. This means that you must choose what to talk about. In a debate round, your time is limited with what you can, and should discuss in your replies. A judge never wants to see an exact re-hashing of the entire round again, because it gets boring for them. Remember that the judge was there for the debate, so although it is good to remind them of what happened and what was said, there are some things that are more crucial to discuss than others.
How to tell what to include in your reply
I should include it if…
- It was consistently brought up in the round and both sides have had to refute it and rebuild it. If an idea has been discussed multiple times, it is good to clarify how the point developed, what the responses were, and why you won.
- It has the largest impacts in the round. If it is something that has really serious consequences (positive or negative), then it is worth discussing. This is because it is probably an important point. If the argument truly has the largest impacts in the round and you won the point, you chances of wining the round significantly increase.
- The big arguments on both sides, which should be roughly 3 points. (Pick the more difficult and important ones to spend the most time on).
- Critical contradictions or assumption. These are important ideas to discuss because they could potentially undermine critical material. You need to both discuss your opponents’ contradictions and assumptions, but if they have also accused you of the same thing, you need to clarify why it is not true (so they cannot undermine your arguments in the same way).
I shouldn’t bring up
- Silly contradictions. If at one point your opponents said 55%, and then they said 54%, it doesn’t make a serious difference in the round. Judges will get easily annoyed if you and the other team argue about one percentage point.
- Insignificant points. If there is a side point that was made that doesn’t fit under the questions, wasn’t discussed, and isn’t a contradiction or assumption, then at best it can be mentioned briefly, but if you’re short for time you can cut it out.
- Examples that were discussed too much during the round. Sometimes an example will get argued about constantly, and won’t get the debate anywhere interesting. In a reply it is valuable to let those things go, and not focus on them unless it will decide the debate (which it shouldn’t).
If you’ve mastered this part of the prioritization, the next part is prioritizing things that will make you win. This is a critical piece to winning close rounds. There are two different strategies you can use for your prioritization:
The area you are winning on.
- Find the most important issue to the debate that you and your side are winning on.
- Re-frame the debate around that main issue. (You can do this by making it a big question, or by placing all of the other side’s material under it). Strategically you do this because then it appears as if you have beat them on all of those other issues you frame it under, even if you haven’t.
- Explain how you have won that issue, and why that means you have won the debate.
The area you are losing.
- Find the area you are losing on to your opponents. This will likely be what they focus on in their reply.
- Compare that issue, against the one you are winning on. This is called comparative.
- Then, explain why even if they win the one issue, yours is more important.
This strategy is more difficult and advanced, but it is also more potentially rewarding.