Street-wise advice on preceding and following your opponents

Gordon Mitchell

1991 - Addressing Homelessness : Social Services in the 1990's



In academic debate, adapting to the opponent is at least, if not more important, than adapting to the judge. The dexterity one has in tailoring an attack to fit a particular opponent is often the key skill which swings the balance in close, hotly contested rounds. On one level, adaptation to the opponent is helpful in a general, attitudinal sense-if they're bullies, be nice, if they're shy, be firm. However, on a more specific and technical level, the concept of opponent adaptation assumes a more concrete form that might be called the challenge of following and preceding. If you're the 1AR, how do you most effectively follow a scattershot, turbo-spew negative block? If you're the 2NR, how do you best precede a slow-as molasses but powerfully persuasive 2AR? This article will provide insight on these questions by exploring the essence of the art of opponent adaptation, the skill of making and responding to speeches that might be called "hard acts to follow."

It is useful to think of a debate as being composed of a series of key matchups--the negative block versus the 1AR, the 1AR versus the 2NR, and the 2NR versus the 2AR. In my experience, the outcome of these matchups is often the key basis for a decision. It is common for a judge's oral explanation to begin not with an assessment of the issues, but a general statement that one side had the advantage in a critical tactical matchup. Well, I voted affirmative because the 2AR told a better story than the 2NR," or "I voted negative, the block just outspread the 1AR." The trick to winning these matchups is not necessarily brute talent or intelligence, but situational finesse, the ability to rebound from a powerfully persuasive speech, for example, or a knack for throwing your opponents out of their regular rhythm. These skills can be best refined if one has an acute sensitivity to the rhetorical dynamics of preceding and following your opponents. I will proceed by exploring the dynamics of these late-in-the-debate matchups, bracketing the issue of the early, table-setting constructives (1AC, INC, 2AC) for another project.


Preceding the 1AR - Senor Smoke Spewtron

Senor Smoke Spewtron is the 1AR that strikes fear in to the hearts of all negatives. Legend has it he averages 300 words per minute, and some say he has never dropped an argument. Putting together a winning negative block against this kind of 1AR requires the utmost care in strategic planning. First, emphasize vertical instead of horizontal argument development. Horizontal development attempts to pressure the 1AR by extending a large number of different major issues (for example, if the 2NC extends four disadvantages for two minutes each). Vertical development features the extension of a large number of arguments, but on a small number of major issue sometimes this strategy is called "ballooning" a disadvantage (e.g. 2NC spends all nine minutes on a single disad). Senor Smoke Spewtron is much more vulnerable to vertical than horizontal development. Because horizontal argument development allows him to blip through many unrelated arguments and rely heavily on 2AC positions, Senor Smoke feasts on this kind of negative block. Dump all your time into a few major issues, though, and watch Senor Smoke's engine sputter as he is forced away from the 2AC structure and breaks his rhythm trying to come up with extemporaneous analytical arguments. Second, slow the tempo. Many times, the speed of the negative block will dictate the pace of the rest of the round. Attempting to outrace Senor Smoke plays to his strength; slowing down and explaining in die block makes him look foolish if he begins the 1AR with the jets on at full speed. When you face a fastball hitter, throw him changeups. extend some safety valve arguments that you can kick out in the rebuttal. Try disads that are difficult to turn yet consistently attract fire from the 1AR, like a presidential popularity disad. This flexibility will allow the 2NR to avoid racing to cover every argument advanced in the full-tilt 1AR.

Preceding the 1AR: The Surfer

You know this guys tan is too good for him to have ever spent any time in the library- He's clueless about the case in cross-ex of I AC. He avoids discussing the case in his cross-ex of 2NC, instead asking for cards or what the threshold is on the DAs. He's a pretty good debater, but just not on top of the intricacies of his affirmative (his partner probably wrote it). A negative block that precedes the surfer can do the most damage if it fully develops its winning case arguments. Scattered case extension by the block lets this kind of IA off the hook, because he can get away with extending a few 2AC tags and some cards from the 1AC, relying on sophisticated explanation from the 2AR should the 2NR highlight a particular case position in his speech. However, if the negative begins the case extension with sophisticated and intricate argumentation in the negative block, chances are the surfer will look very unsettled in the 1AR- Then, the negative is in a fine position to close out the arguments and begin fencing in the 2AR. Realize, however, that this strategy assumes that the negative has some compelling case Positions. Even the surfer can manage to neutralize a horde of badly evidenced case presses.

Preceding the 1AR: Mr. Molasses

Mr. Molasses is smart, but slow as a slug. Fast negatives drool at the prospect of making Mr. Molasses run out of gas and drop a whole disad in 1AR. If you're the negative block preceding Mr. Molasses, though, be careful not to bite off more than you can chew--emphasize horizontal development with partial issue consolidation. Obviously horizontal argument development can be a big weapon against Mr. Molasses--forcing him to cover a wide range of disparate issues flusters him and reduces the margin of error on his time allocation decisions. However, be sure to realize that horizontal argument development is in some sense a gamble, a wager that the 1AR won't cover. If Mr. Molasses does cover, you may find yourself in a position where you have no real winning arguments to extend Therefore, take out some insurance on your wager and aim for partial issue consolidation-that means isolating two or three winning arguments in the block and developing them thoroughly. Breeze through the rest of the issues with minimal extension to put pressure on Mr. Molasses, but if you've partially consolidated on some other issues, you'll be safe in case he manages to cover adequately.

Following the negative block: The One Man Show

The features of the one-man show are obvious and telling- the 2NC extends all the important arguments and doesn't flow the 1NR. The IN serves as the 2Ns evidence lackey. The IN requires assistance from the 2N to straighten his tie. A 1AR following this type of negative block can seize the advantage by doing one of two things. First, make it a two-on-one gang up by spending virtually no time on the 1NR arguments and dumping the brunt of the attack on arguments the 2NC extended This is likely to complicate the negative attack, because in one-man shows, the 2NC arguments are almost always the ones that are extended as winners in the 2NR. Perhaps even more potent is the second alternative: Make the 1NR arguments nondisposable. This means straight turning a lame 1NR disad, or claiming that a lukewarm 1NR inherency press takes out one of the 2N's big positions. These types of arguments cannot be disposed of by the 2NR easily- addressing them requires precious time that would rather be spent by extending the big-ticket. winning positions.


Preceding the 2NR: The Topicality Monster

When the resolution comes out at the beginning of the year, the T monster jumps for the dictionaries. Although not as well versed as others on the general topic area, he possesses a vast arsenal of eclectic definitions and violations. There's dogers only on the topicality section of his DRG. One of the topicality monster's favorite tactics is to distort 1AR time allocation by tossing out a mˆ©lange of arguments in the negative block in an attempt to draw attention away from topicality. Then, when the 1AR undercovers T, the monster pounces on the opportunity by kicking out all other arguments and devoting all of his 2NR time to topicality.

The 1AR may have a rough time preceding this type of 2NR because of difficulty in discerning if the negative is using topicality as a time-waster or as a potential winning argument, but several things can help you see through the smoke and mirrors. First, anticipate the 2NR choice-making process. After the negative block, most second negative debaters begin to mentally classify issues as either potential winners to be extended or time wasters to be kicked out in the 2NR. Look for clues of what this classification might be-if the block runs out of things to say and reads a new disadvantage with no real link, it's probably a time-waster. Alternatively, if the 2NC, after running out of time extending an issue, spends valuable prep time to assist the 1NR in finishing the job, it is probably an indication that the 2N views the issue as a potential winning argument and has an itch to extend it in 2NR. Second. complicate the 2NR's choice making process, by tempting him to extend arguments he was planning to kick out, and by making it drudgery to extend arguments he was planning to go for. For 1ARs who precede the topicality monster, this means extending only one or two good takeouts on each disadvantage and cursorily extending the case, while dumping an avalanche of answers on topicality. It's generally been my experience that in this circumstance, if the topicality monster takes your bait and tries to win on substantive arguments, a good 2AR can usually pull things back together and win the round.

Preceding the 2NR who is short on prep time.

A negative team that uses the bulk of their prep time for constructives is vulnerable going into rebuttals. There are several things the 1 AR can do to compound the problem for the 2NR. First, minimize prep time used for your speech. 1AR prep time often rescues disorganized second negatives, giving them precious time to get things in order for the 2NR. A prime recipe for a 2NR meltdown is the following scenario: 1) the 2NC uses all but one minute of negative prep time, 2) the affirmative, seeing that the IN is not yet prepared to speak, waives cross-ex of the 2NC, 3) before speaking, the INR exhausts the remaining supply of negative prep time, 4) the 1AR begins his roadmap immediately after the conclusion of the 1NR. In this scenario, the second negative speaker has virtually no time to reflect on strategy for the 2NR or organize his blocks, since a mere eight minutes in solid speech time separates the 2NC from the 2NR. Second. throw new twists or wrinkles at the 2NR. The 1AR who mostly repeats 2AC arguments lets the prep-time poor 2NR off the hook, because he can mechanically repeat his 2NC arguments to answer the bulk of the 1AR. However, if the 1AR is chocked full of multifaceted, complex and tough to handle explanations, the 2NR's shortage of prep time may turn out to be fatal.

Following the 1AR: The Unintelligible Volcano

When the volcano erupts in speech, the jumbled spew of lava that spurts out his mouth causes people to squint their eyes, look at each other and shake their heads. Flowing confusion gives rise to a wave of frenetic paper turning in the room. Through it all, he keeps his head down in a heated bull rush to the final buzzer. Often, 2NRs are thrown off by the volcano--they succumb to fits of frustration and indignancy, in the process leaving the door open for 2AR to waltz away with the debate. However, crafty 2NRs who follow the volcano can make him pay by doing several things. First, tie down the 2AR. Matter of factly, state that many of the volcano's words were incomprehensible. Suggest that because of this, the burden of proof should be on the 2AR to demonstrate that his arguments stem from a coherent idea presented in the 1AR. Don't belabor the point the judge's sympathy is usually won with just a simple statement at the beginning of the2NR. Second, dismiss out of hand clearly incomprehensible arguments. Debaters often feel uncomfortable doing this for fear that the judge might have caught something that they missed. This fear can be solved by having the 1N watch the judge very carefully during the 1AR to compile a list of arguments that the judge clearly thought were incomprehensible (indication-judge looks up quizzically and doesn't flow argument). Armed with this list, the 2NR can confidently ignore big chunks of the I AR's speech. Third. do not spend prep time huddling with the affirmative team to decipher the volcano's mysterious utterances. Not only does this waste the most precious prep time of the debate, it also covers up for the volcano by increasing the legitimacy of his arguments. If you treat them as legitimate, the judge is likely to follow suit, even if the 1AR really was incomprehensible. Fourth, resist the temptation to try and follow the line-by-line argument structure of the volcano. Listen for the essence of his positions and answer them holistically, don't get buried under a mountain of numbered taglines.

Following the 1AR: Disco

The best defense against the affirmative disco is prevention, to constantly be on the lookout for inconsistencies in your argumentation, stamping them out before they become an issue. However, should an affirmative disco actually occur, it is most likely to happen in the 1AR, and the 2NR who follows can bounce back by, first, closely scrutinizing the evidence that the disco is based on. You can often pun the rug out from under a disco by pointing out a critical phrase or damaging qualification in the key pieces of evidence. If you're short on prep time, the 1N should take on the job of acquiring and combing through the evidence in question. Second. minimize the stridency of your initial claim which inspired the disco. In extreme form, this is waffling- a debater tries to make a wholesale withdrawal of a damaging argument, or even worse, reads evidence refuting his own previous position. Overt waffling won't get you very far, but more subtle forms of retreat can be useful. For example, don't shy away from comparatively assessing the impact of a double turn.. Sometimes affirmatives who are overcome with excitement grant a double turn even though the impact half of the double turn is very weak. The 2NR can't retract the impact card, but he can point out that the risk it represents pales in comparison to other issues in the debate.


Preceding the 2AR: The Senator

This is the guy who gives constructives that sound like polished campaign speeches and rebuttals that sound like cock-sure victory addresses. He projects the image of the reasonable compromiser, and judges love to listen to his oratory. No matter how dire the situation, the Senator always seems to be able to pull it out in the last speech. How can the 2NR possibly neutralize such a potent speaker? First emphasize the flow. Wan the judge that the Senator's lofty rhetoric may not be supported by the arguments on paper. Where the affirmative has made technical errors, h,ighlight them and add that 2AR is too late to recover. Second, provide a roadmap for the judge's 3NR. After hearing one of the Senator's 2ARs, the first instinct of the judge is to agree. But the second instinct is to shift focus back to the negative arguments to see if they provide refutation of the story just woven-- this process might be likened to a "judge 3NR." By extending arguments carefully, the 2NR can largely dictate the form and substance of this 3NR by clearly highlighting the key negative arguments on the flow and by asking the judge to read a few critical cards after the round. Don't barrage the judge with card references (this tactic yields sharply diminishing returns), instead try to anticipate the substance of the Senator's 2AR story and refer to cards that refute it. If you anticipate correctly, you can get the judge to read evidence that immediately discredits the Senator's seemingly airtight rhetorical flourish.

Following the 2NR: The Classic Error 2NR

The classic error in the 2NR is overcovering your disad and undercovering the case. In high school debate, my judging instincts tell me it happens at least 50% of the time. How the 2AR can take advantage: First, flag the error. Remind the judge, quickly and professionally, that the 2NR has committed a tactical blunder-2'they don't have enough cover-age on the case to win," is enough. Second, don't spin your wheels by devoting unnecessary time to the frenetic, desperate case arguments issued in the dying seconds of the 2NR. Go through these arguments quickly and efficiently, dismissing at face those that are incoherent. Then cash in the time bonus and spend the large remainder of time whittling away at their disads. Third urge the judge to pay more attention to certainty of risk rather than magnitude of risk. Hammer home the argument that the risk on the case is a given, while the risk of the disad is hotly contested. Contend that the disadvantage is a dubious debate concoction, while the case harm is concrete and real world.

Following the 2NR: The Complainer

This is the 2NR who constantly asserts that the 1AR was incomprehensible, asks for leeway, and insists that the judge "drop his pen" if the 2AR should make any new arguments. After a barrage by the complainer, some are cowed into submission, but several tactics will enable the 2AR to effectively follow and even get away with borderline new arguments. First, point to the 1AC as the origin of your arguments. Even if the 1AR said nothing about the subject, many judges are lenient when the 2AR can trace their arguments back to the first speech of the debate. Second, most judges excuse new 2AR arguments if they are advertised as "impact assessments" or "attempts to weigh the issues." After his partner had dropped rights Malthus in 1AR, I remember one 2AR from Kansas who got away with ten impact answers on the disadvantage simply by disguising them as ways of "weighing the impacts" in the round!

A general understanding of the function and responsibility of each speaker is one of the first skills to be mastered in debate. The ability to adapt the speech on the fly and effectively follow or precede your opponent is one of the last skills to be mastered. By thinking of the debate as a series of key rhetorical matchups and understanding that the quality of a particular speech is judged within the context of the surrounding speeches, one can develop the basic sensitivity required to put together and bounce back from "hard acts to follow."

Gordon Mitchell was top speaker at the 1989 NDT for Northwestern.