Learning from Lay Judges

The use of non-debate judges is one very visible means by which the National Educational Debate Association demonstrates its dedication to audience-centered debate. By using non-debate judges, the Association encourages, and even demands, that the participants develop logic, reasoning, and communication skills that will benefit them in the world beyond the debate round.

Lay judges have expectations when they enter a debate round:

• Judges expect arguments to be understandable.

When one goes to hear a debate it is reasonable to expect that the participants will articulate their points so that everyone can understand their position. Clear, well-explained, and logically presented arguments are the ones that are best understood. If a judge does not understand your argument, rather than automatically blame your audience, consider the possibility that you may not have explained yourself clearly.

• Judges expect to be talked to as intelligent people, and to learn something.

Simply because a judge is not part of the debate community does not mean that he / she does not understand rational argument. Explain your arguments, argue persuasively, and realize that the person at the back of the room is thinking critically about what you are saying. Don’t patronize them by assuming ignorance, but do teach them something about the topic. Non-debate judges are more prone to function as learners and thinkers than storekeepers.

• Judges expect to hear the resolution discussed.

When judges are invited in this semester to listen about the issue of legalizing suicide, they will expect to hear arguments dealing with that issue. Even when the affirmative brings a non-topical case to the round, the judge will most likely still expect that someone will address the topic of suicide. Non-topical affirmatives, and negatives that argue only topicality may be leaving themselves open for a double-loss–due to the fact that nobody ever discussed the topic of suicide. You may find some debate judges with this same expectation.

Tips on Appealing to Lay Judges:

• Lay Judges’ notes will not look like your flow sheet.

Some judges will not even take notes. Comments such as “pull it across your flow” won’t work. Neither will “Contention I subpoint A little 3” as a guide to your arguments. Find other ways to refer to your arguments such as “In the discussion of physician assisted suicide. . . ” or “Let me address our opponents’ response to our point about . . . ” Organize with care and assume that this is an oral, not a visual, activity.

• Eliminate Jargon.

 Very few people outside the activity know what “Hasty G,” “T,” “flips,” or “turns” are. Don’t expect them to learn–just explain what you mean and forget that you ever learned those terms.

• Explain Theory Arguments.

What is a hasty generalization and why should the judge consider it important? Tell the judge why it is unfair for an affirmative to bring a non-topical case. Don’t assume that key “magic words”–absent a clear explanation of what they mean–will result in a judge perceiving your argument as compelling .

• Don’t Assume Argument Familiarity.

As the semester progresses, inevitably there are arguments that will become so common that virtually everyone on the circuit will know the points that they make. Lay judges do not have the benefit of having heard this argument repeatedly. Don’t short-cut the reasoning and explanation process simply because the participants understand. It is equally as important that the judge understands.

• Re-think Standard Debate Practices.

Some standard practices may be up for interpretation by the lay judges. Creativity in case formats, what constitutes good evidence, and argument construction are a few things that might be open for negotiation. The key here is finding what is compelling to a general audience!

• Call for a Topicality Ruling Carefully.

If you are a negative in a round arguing topicality, explain the theory argument well, and tell the judge that after the constructive speeches that you will be requesting them to decide whether the case is topical or not. Be patient, not demanding. If you have explained your topicality argument with care, the judge will understand their responsibility.

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