With nationals approaching, I’d like to offer some tips for adapting to judges who are less experienced and have not had formal debate training. Despite what debaters think In my experience, these judges are very predictable in terms of how they will evaluate a debate to determine the winner.
The most significant thing to understand is that these judges will vote for the team that overall engages in the best speaking and debating, rather than trying to determine which side of the resolution they support. This is the largest difference between these judges and more experienced debate judges who will rely on the debaters to make arguments about which side of the resolution the judge should endorse.
Practically speaking, in my experience, lay judges will determine the winner based on the following —
Eye contact. “You had great eye contact,” “you should have more eye contact,” are the number one comments I hear from lay judges. It may be the most significant factor that determines a winner for a lay judges. If you have a lay/less experienced judge, do your best to maximize the amount of time you spend looking directly at the judge. You should feel free to use notes, but you may wish to print out your speech and read portions of it instead of keeping your face behind the computer screen. Looking directly at the judge could earn you one more win per tournament.
Strength in crossfire. Unlike experienced judges, lay judges pay close attention to crossfire. It is critical that you ask good questions and that you are prepared with strong answers. If you ask simple questions, fail to respond, and let the other team get away with monopolizing the time, lay judges may vote against you, regardless of anything else that is said in the debate. To win with a lay judge, prepare good questions, respond with good answers, and try to monopolize the time. Most importantly, take this part of the debate as seriously as you take any other part.
Act like you are going to win, that you are winning, and that you won. Simply put, lay judges will not vote for a team if they get the impression that that teams thinks they are losing. After all, if you are inexperienced and you are unsure who to vote for, why would you vote for a team that looks like they think they lost? So…
*Before the debate — Arrive on time, wait patiently for your opponent, speak cooperatively with your partner, act like you are prepared, but don’t be obnoxious.
*During the debate — Act like you are winning, speak cooperatively with your partner, exhibit confidence in your arguments, but don’t be obnoxious.
*After the debate — After the debate, you should simply shake your opponent’s hands, pack up your materials, and act like you enjoyed the experience. If the the judge offers comments, be sure to take notes on the comments. These comments will help you later, and you don’t want to offend the judge by not listening/writing.
Use of evidence. Inexperienced judges are unlikely to vote for you solely based on the strength of your evidence, but all judges like arguments that are will supported with both reasoning and evidence. When possible, use short, direct quotations to back up your arguments and, at the very least, reference evidence. Highlight arguments where you have read evidence and your opponent has not.
Focus on key arguments. Unlike experienced judges who will look for “dropped” arguments (arguments you didn’t respond to), lay judges will expect you to focus on the main arguments, especially later in the debate. After all, this is why the last speech in Public Forum is named the Final Focus.
*Be prepared/Organized. A critical part of being able to maintain eye contact, ask and answer questions, look like you are winning, and focus on key arguments, is to be well prepared and organized. You need to know where your critical arguments and evidence are in your papers and on your computers. You should be able to quickly produce evidence that the other team requests during cross-fire. You need to understand your arguments well.
Debaters who use strong eye contact, display strong skills in cross-fire, act confident, use evidence, focus on key arguments, and are prepared and organized will win in front of lay judges as long as their skills in these are superior to their opponent’s skills. In many ways, this makes lay judges those most predictable of all judges.
And beyond winning, debaters who develop skills in these areas will benefit from acquiring them throughout their entire lives. In many ways, the expectations the lay judge brings to the table will force you to develop some of the most important academic skills.