A version of this guide, prepared by the same author, originally appeared on Debate Central.
It’s one of the most ubiquitous strategic dilemmas in debate: how do I decide which arguments to carry into my last speeches, and which to abandon or kick out of?
This choice is one of the most influential in determining whether you win or lose, but in the heat of the moment it can be extremely difficult to make up your mind. This guide help you face this decision and provide you with tips to make sure your late rebuttals contain everything you need, and nothing you don’t.
No matter what event you do, the speech structure tends to result in some serious time pressures towards the end of the debate. Coping with this shortage requires making tough choices. If you want to create deep, nuanced arguments instead of blippy claims (and you do!) you WILL need to abandon some issues.
In Policy debate, it is particularly critical on the Neg to remember to only go for one “piece” of the debate. If you go for Topicality, you should kick everything else. If you’re going for a CP, devote your time to that flow and its Net Benefit only. For Disads or Kritiks, the only other issues that should make it into the 2NR are case arguments.
Limiting yourself in this way ensures you set up a clean decision calculus, clear up any theoretical issues, and— most importantly— don’t stretch yourself too thin. I know how strong the pressure can be to go for lots of things (“I’m winning everything!”), but DON'T. You only need to win one to win the debate. Going for more is just diversifying ways your opponents can eke out offense and risking under-coverage.
In PF and LD, the lines aren’t so cut and dry. Nevertheless, the risk of spreading yourself out and failing to provide enough analysis on a crucial argument is equally present in every event. Following these guidelines will help you select which arguments need to make it into your final speeches and which can be cast aside.
So, here you are, headed into your last rebuttal in a close round. You know there isn’t time to extend everything, but how should you choose between your many excellent arguments?
Here are a few steps to making the best call:
1. Stop. Breathe. Think.
Before you start working on your flow, take a few seconds to center yourself and collect your thoughts. You need to be focused on the task at hand, rather than scattering your thoughts across a myriad of different issues. If you aren’t focused, you will probably make a mistake or waste time prepping arguments you don’t really need. You might be able to grab a couple of moments as your opponent finishes speaking and sits down. If not, devote a little prep time to just thinking. Use this time to consider the criteria below...
2. What Arguments Do You Need To Win? How Does The Debate Come Together?
This might seem obvious, but many debaters forget about it when facing a high-pressure rebuttal. You will not win many debates by scatter-shotting arguments around the flow. Instead, figure out which specific arguments paint your path to victory. Make sure your speech contains all of those, and deprioritizes arguments that aren’t absolutely critical.
For example, if you are doing Policy debate and going for a PIC, don’t waste time extending Solvency deficit case arguments that also Link to the CP. Those won’t get you anywhere.
An easy way to conceptualize this is to try to imagine how you would sum up why you win the round in one or two sentences. Then, devote your rebuttal time to fleshing out each "piece" of the logical chain within those statements. Part of this also means staying aware of what arguments you can lose without losing the entire round. For instance, you can sacrifice one impact as long as you are winning another more important impact.
The key takeaway here is to not spend time anywhere you don’t need to. Instead, dedicate every last second to ensuring you’re winning the most important arguments.
3. What Issues Are You Ahead On?
Generally, good advice is to take the “path of least resistance” to the win. This means going for the arguments where you’re the most ahead. If your opponent is knee-deep in strong arguments on one flow, but has shallow coverage on another, you ought to think about going for the less-covered argument.
However, amount of ink is not always a good determinant of what you’re winning. Be aware that a single argument can be devastating (such as a factually true “no link”), just as 100 terrible arguments can still lose. Consider quality, not just quantity.
This necessitates being realistic with yourself about what you’re winning and what you’re losing. This can be a difficult skill for some debaters to develop. Keep in mind that in an equally matched debate it is very rare for one side to be winning every issue. It’s ok to lose some things! Focus on what you’re winning, and explain why those points are most important/outweigh. This goes hand-in-hand with #2.
4. Are You Comfortable With What You're About To Say?
It can be very difficult to win a debate when you have to talk about issues you are unfamiliar with. Sometimes, this can be unavoidable. Maybe you are getting destroyed on every flow except the one that’s unfamiliar. Or maybe your opponent cold dropped a flow you originally intended to kick. In these situations, you have no choice. You’ll just have to do your best.
Other times, though, when you have a variety of options with relatively equal chances of success, you should prefer the arguments you are most comfortable and familiar with.
Debaters sound best when they’re talking about issues in which they are knowledgeable and well-versed. If you have to choose between your favorite argument and a new one that makes you a bit nervous, it is generally better to stay in your area of expertise, even if your opponents’ coverage on the other issue is slightly worse.
5. Is This Argument Dumb?
What I mean here is, think about whether the argument you’re about to go for is smart, based on facts, and makes sense on a gut level. Is it a silly cheap-shot or hidden voter? If so, think hard about going for something else. Quickly extend your dumb arguments if you must, but don’t squander all of your speech time here.
There are a number of reasons for this. One is that it damages your credibility, and your speaker points are likely to suffer.
Even more importantly, judges hate rendering ballots on bad, cheap arguments. Most will look for just about any reason to avoid it. No one wants to sit through an entire debate only to vote on a hidden “resolved” violation in ASPEC. If you can see any path to victory that involves substantive arguments, you will be much better off spending your time there. Only go for lame blips of nonsense if you’re sure you’re getting crushed everywhere else.
Although you’re probably more worried about the round at-hand, you should also consider your development as a debater. If you consistently rely on hiding cheap arguments or out-teching your opponents on arguments that lack substantive value, your skillset will not grow. Eventually, you will begin to face opponents who can’t be defeated so easily. Focus on going for good, smart arguments at every step, and you will avoid plateauing in your success.
6. How Much Time Do You Need?
Once you have decided which issues you want to advance, take a moment to consider roughly how much time you will need to devote to each sub-piece (such as Link, Impact, etc.). Then, mentally create an outline for your time allocation. As you speak, watch your timer, and force yourself to move on when needed. This will help you avoid under-covering or dropping the bottom of the flow. It will also help you stay organized.
For example, if you are doing Policy debate and giving a 2NR on a Disad, you may want to plan to dedicate 2 minutes to your opponents’ Impact Turns, 1 minute to Uniqueness, 1 minute to your Link and Internal Link story, and 1 minute to Impact calculus and meta-level round framing. Of course, that is hypothetical. How you allocate your time should always depend on the specifics of the individual round. Spend more time where you’re vulnerable, and less time where you’re uncontested.
Once you have completed this list, you should be ready to make smart choices about what to keep and what to kick.
Keep in mind that late rebuttal strategy is a balancing act. It is likely that you often won’t be able to be 100% sure of your choice until you hear the decision. Regardless, if you consider each of the factors discussed above, you should be able to feel confident with the choices you make.
How To Decide
What To Go For In Rebuttals