Don’t Give a Debate Without These Four Elements by: Catherine Alles

During my sophomore year, I was asked as apart of the advanced debate class to spend a round helping a novice team through their first round. Before the debate, I sent them this worksheet I had made, emphasizing that these four main sections were essential for each and every speech they give. Here is what it looked like:

First, the introduction is arguably the most important part of your speech. Don’t skip this. I can’t help but yawn and roll my eyes every time I hear a debater start with “In this speech I’d like to go over the points the other team brought up and respond to them.” Of course that’s what you’re going to do, you don’t need to use precious time explaining what a debate is to your judge. Instead, a better way to use those first few second is to tell a short story, quote, analogy, joke, or catchy saying that supports your points. For every affirmative case I ever ran, I would make a separate document with “openers” for that case. That way I never felt unprepared or panicked during prep time trying to think of what to say. Similarly, I would make a document of generic openers for going negative. Having an well thought out introduction is one of the things that separates good debaters from great ones. It is a chance to make a good first impression and draw your judge into your speech.

But how do you come up with a great introduction? A lot of my favorite introductions were personal analogies. For example, one that I used when going negative went like this:
“When I was younger and my mom told me to clean my room, I would go into my room and stuff all the clothes and trash on the floor under the bed, in my closet, or in the laundry hamper. I thought I had dealt with the mess, and that it was gone forever. But really, that was just a temporary solution, and didn’t really fix the root issue. The problem was still there, even though it was less obvious. So it is with the affirmative team’s plan, they have presented a band-aid solution, one that doesn’t address the root issue. Even if you pass their plan you won’t really be fixing the problem.”

I loved this analogy because it really applied to so many cases! Think to lessons you’ve learned in your life through experience and then tie those stories to public policy. It isn’t as hard as you might think.

Quotes and sayings are a great way to show your judge that you’ve done some research and that others agree with your point. If you’re a bit desperate, classic quotes like “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” “before you tear down the fence, examine why it was built in the first place,” or “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” These are great, but if you can do some work ahead of time to find a quote specifically tailored for the subject matter you are dealing with, that is even more impressive. For example:

“The UN boasts 193 members, and the U.S. provided economic assistance to 184 of them, or 96% of the countries in the world. To be sure, the amount of assistance drops significantly after the top 10 countries or so, but still.… Of course, State Department officials might claim that some of that money is to help the poor. But China has the second largest economy in the world—and is a major buyer of U.S. debt. So we borrow money from China in order to give them financial assistance?”

(Merrill Matthews, (Ph.D., is a resident scholar with the Institute for Policy Innovation, a research-based, public policy “think tank.” He is a health policy expert and weekly contributor at He also serves as Vice Chairman of the Texas Advisory Committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.), October 15th, 2014, The Institute for Policy Innovation, (a non-profit, non-partisan public policy “think tank” based in Irving, Texas and founded in 1987 to research, develop and promote innovative and non-partisan solutions to today’s public policy problems.), “U.S. Gives Financial Aid to 96% of All Countries”

Starting off by reading this quote from a piece of evidence is much more effective than starting by saying, “Why do we give aid to China anyways? I don’t think we should, and in this speech I’m going to tell you why.”

There are many more examples I could give, I have compiled dozens of pages of introduction material over the years, but I wouldn’t want to rob you of the learning process of finding them for yourself. It truly is rewarding to find the perfect quote, joke, piece of evidence, or think of the perfect personal story to tell to start off your speech.

Secondly, every speech must have a thesis. For the negative team, this is a negative philosophy. These are important because it shows the judge that instead of just attacking everything the other team says, you are actually standing for something. It gives the judge an alternative option of something to vote “for” instead of just something to vote “against.” Your Negative Philosophy can be generic, your best argument, or a statement that sums up all your arguments. Some examples of generic Negative Philosophies are: US Interests, The Current System is Innocent Until Proven Guilty, Justice, Peace through Strength, One Size Does Not Fit All, etc; An example of a narrowly tailored negative philosophy in a debate about the death penalty is “The Death Penalty Deters Crime.” Although we would run other arguments, this was the main one we wanted to focus on and for the judge to remember. For the affirmative team, they should have a goal. A good way to discover what your goal should be is to answer the question, “What are you trying to accomplish with your plan?” If you don’t want to be stuck arguing solvency you can run a comparative advantage case and stick the word “increased” or “better” in front of your goal. Some examples of affirmative goals are: Fiscal Responsibility, Consistent Justice, Electoral Integrity, Make America Rich Again, etc; A goal is important for the affirmative team because it gives the judge something to weigh the round by. The negative philosophy and affirmative goal are not just formalities to be brought up in the 1AC and 1NC and then forgotten for the rest of the round. Every single speech, you should be referring back to and reminding your judge of your thesis. Don’t just stick it into the beginning and end of the round, but it can give structure and purpose to the middle speeches of the round as well.

Next comes the most obvious part of the speech, the main points of argumentation. This is where you go down the flow point by point (or group arguments) and respond to them. This section is pretty self explanatory, and is the most important to master first. Once you feel confident with this part, then add the thesis, introduction, and conclusion.

Lastly, the conclusion is often forgotten because of a lack of time management. Many speeches trickle off with last bits of argumentation, which can allow you to finish making your last point, but is a missed opportunity for impact. If you’re desperate for time and feel that that last point is crucial to your argument, then go ahead and finish with it. But if you have enough time and organization to plan in a closer, that can really set apart your speech and leave a last thought in your judge’s mind. A closer can be a quote, impactful piece of evidence, repeating your negative philosophy, or other winsome saying. One that some of my friends and I shamelessly stole from another debater was to say “I wish I could tell you _____… but I can’t. I wish I could tell you _____… but I can’t. But what I can tell you is that ___________.” Figure out your own style, try different things, and most importantly have fun with it! Experimenting with openers and closers was one of my favorite things about debating.

They made every round different, unique, and fun! Of course, some debate rounds are harder than others. Maybe you’re hitting a squirrel case and don’t have the prep time or mental energy to brainstorm a cohesive and relevant introduction. Maybe you ran out of prep time scrambling to think of a response to a certain argument and give a speech without a closer. Of course, it’s not the end of the world. But these four elements can be seen as a checklist of goals for every speech. Try to plan ahead as much as possible, and don’t be afraid to use your prep time to craft the perfect speech. One of my pet peeves is to see debaters finish a round with minutes of unused prep time and messily organized speeches.

Each of these elements is important to have a well rounded and structured speech, and it will likely impress your judge and audience if you can nail all four elements! I have used this worksheet many times, and have found it to be a helpful reminder and place to fill in the blanks and have everything on one page. Feel free to screenshot and print this worksheet, or modify it for your own use!