Thursday, October 23, 2008

Debate flow

This is not about atheism, but I thought people with an interest in debating would like to see it. In response to my discussion of the Australia atheism debate, Crucifinch asked:

you mentioned debate flowing which I am unfamiliar with. Do you know of any good resources for introduction debate flowing? I found a few online about how to make a flow -better- but nothing that could serve as a good base.

I can't find what appears to be a definitive guide to Flow online -- this Wikipedia article looks like it has some good links, but it is about Policy debate. Alan and Mike did something that is a lot more similar to Lincoln/Douglas debate, which is what I did in high school. It's centered around the notion of philosophy and values, the style is looser, and there is no specific "plan" that is being critiqued.

I'll outline what I know about LD flowing, although it's been quite a few years. Here's what you do. Take a plain yellow legal pad open to a blank page. Tilt it 90 degrees counterclockwise, so that the binding is by your left hand. Draw a horizontal line across the page to divide it in half. Then, draw enough vertical lines to divide the page into as many horizontal boxes as there will be speeches. For example, in a typical LD debate, there are five separate speeches, with the first debater (arguing the "affirmative" position) speaking in the first, third, and fifth segments; and the second debater (arguing the "negative" position) getting a slightly longer amount of time in the second and fourth segments. In Alan's debate, there were only four long sections.

So assuming we talk about Alan's debate, you will have four sections across the page, divided into top (for Mike's arguments) and bottom (for Alan's). Label the upper boxes across, "1A" (first affirmative speech), "1N" (first negative), then 2A and 2N.

Now, in the first round, you will write down an outline of Mike's speech. There isn't a ton of room, so make sure you just write the most important Big Picture points and they fit on one or two lines each. You won't write anything on the bottom, because Alan hasn't spoken yet. You won't be writing any case information in the lower left corner, but if there is a cross-examination period then feel free to write down possible questions to the other person in that space.

In the second round, you will start out writing in the bottom box under "1N". Alan presents his own case first, so he makes original arguments. But after he has finished this, he will want to respond to Mike's arguments at some level of detail. Draw a horizontal arrow leading from Mike's 1A on top to Alan's 1N on top. During preparation time, you should jot down how you plan to respond to these arguments, in the second box. Then you hit each point in turn and sit down.

On Mike's next turn, 2A, he will respond to your original points from 1N bottom, AND attempt to counter your arguments to his 1A case. So you write more arrows, showing a continuous horizontal flow for each argument as the round goes on. If Mike fails to respond to Alan's point, go ahead and put a big "X" next to the argument because it's over. Remember to call attention to it later! You want everyone in the room to be aware that you made an argument which was so good that Mike tried to get away without answering it. Repeat the argument too, to remind people of what you said when you scored this hit. This process will continue all the way to the last round.

Since you already know your own case in advance, you should prepare a flow sheet ahead of time and fill in the "1A top" box or the "1N bottom" box, so that you don't have to waste time writing your own case during the debate. Planning this outline will also help you write your case to begin with, because it focuses your attention on creating a broad structure to your argument which is easy to follow. I like to write presentations in outline format so that you make large points I, II, and III; and then you make subpoints IA, IB, IIA, IIB, and so on. Rule of thumb, if you break it down effectively then you should be writing maybe 7-15 lines per box. If your opponent's case is well structured, then you should be able to format his box in about the same style. If not, count your blessings and prepare to take him to task for throwing out a mishmash of disorganized thoughts. :)


  1. Thanks for responding to my comment, Kazim!
    The only debates I have practice with are more of the informal breed, but this seems like the type of skill that could come in handy in the long run.
    It's another tool to add to the mental tool belt, I suppose.

    Anyway, I'll give the technique a whirl the next time I'm listening to a debate (or listening to the AE!!) so thanks a bunch!

  2. Thanks for the post Kazim.

    Layout out the 'Road Map' of a debate looks like a great idea, and I can see where it's useful to make sure all points are addressed.

    By the way, are you still in a dialog with Chuck Colson?

  3. Gav,

    I've been working on a reply to Chuck, even though it's been two months since the last correspondence. Keep an eye out, I hope it will show up next week.


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