By Beth Skinner and Chris Brown

Knowing your judge and adapting to them can often make the difference between winning and losing. Debate involves persuasion. Different things are persuasive to different people. Often the team that knows a judge’s background, preferences, and past record on issues can tailor their arguments and style to help them get a critical edge. Below are several suggestions for ways adapt to your judge:

  • Learn your judges. Ask judges directly about what they like to see. Talk to teammates, teachers, and debate assistants about judges. Take notes when the judge discusses the round afterward. Ask questions so that you understand what kinds of things he or she likes, dislikes, understands, etc. Read the ballots after the tournament and try to think about what you could do to persuade the judge. Share information with teammates. Your school may want to compile a list of judges in the leagues and what they like/dislike. BE CAREFUL not to badmouth judges-they may judge you again!
  • Know types of judges. It is easy to overgeneralize, but there are probably a few categories of judges that can be useful. Teachers are great judges. They listen carefully to arguments and are very interested in giving everyone a fair shake. Many teachers in the BUDL have been involved with debate for one year. They know more about the content of arguments than debate theory, procedure, or jargon. Remember that you want to explain why your arguments are important. Demonstrate knowledge of your evidence and arguments. Delivery is also important-read at a reasonable pace and be as clear as possible. College debaters tend to be very focused on argument strategy and argument quality. They are usually not focused on delivery, tend not to mind faster delivery, and are familiar with most debate jargon. Coverage is very important. A dropped argument becomes a conceded argument. Reference where you are specifically on the flow in front of college judges. Lay judges are judges with limited exposure to debate, and little to no specific training. With lay judges, it is important to clearly explain your arguments using as little debate jargon as possible. Someone who has never heard a round before will not understand “Pull my cards on the DA because they dropped the turns.” Lay judges generally take fewer notes than experienced judges. Coverage of specific arguments is therefore less important than making it clear why your side should win. Delivery is very important for lay judges. It is important to remember that specific knowledge about a judge is always better than just knowing someone is “a teacher.” Not all judges fit neatly into one of the above categories. Still, some information is better than no information.
  • Watch judge reactions. Many judges will react to speeches during the debate. Look at your judge during your speech when you have a chance, but especially as you are flowing your parnter’s speeches and your opponents speeches. Be careful with nonverbal reactions. A judge may be yawning because a speech is boring, or it might be because they were up all night the night before. They might be frowning because they dislike what you just said, or it might be because they have a stomache ache.

Losing debates can be frustrating, especially when you think you won. Losses can work two ways, however. Losses can hold you down, allowing you to dwell on injustices in the past. Or, losses can be an opportunity to get better. Every round is an opportunity to learn more about how your judge thinks. It takes a strong debater to step back from the debate round and really learn about how their judge thinks. It takes a smart debater to apply this knowledge the next time they have that judge in the back of the room.