It’s frustrating when you keep seeing that 73, 74 number beside your name in competitions. When your debating results are stagnant, especially if you’re already months and months into debating, it’s hard to stay motivated.
You hear your coaches and adjudicators tell you that you need to give more context. That you’re too simplistic or jargonistic. That you need to make stronger rebuttals. But you don’t know what all of these mean, because every time, you just don’t seem to get the case right.
For some people, they may even have a friend who scores easy 75-76s and receives compliments so effortlessly.
Sound familiar? Well, I’ve been there, you know.
It was scary to think that I would only be able to achieve once in my whole debating career, because after claiming the Best Speaker trophy in my second competition ever, I kept making noticeable flaws in my debate and missed chances to get another trophy.
I lost in semifinals, did worse and worse in training, and nearly became a mere one-hit-wonder.
But let me get this straight: this is not about luck or talent.
After one whole year of training and evaluation, that mistake I’ve been making became clear. There was something off with the way I started case building, that caused the mistakes in the rest of my case time and time again.
What followed made me understand what I’m actually talking about in my own speeches, gave birth to powerful rebuttals, and finally earned me three more Best Speaker awards.
Now, let’s not make the pain long-lasting for you, shall we?
The common mistake in approaching motions
A lot of debaters jump into motions and arguments without a clear mindset. Coaches and adjudicators teach you how to make a good setup or follow the AREL structure, but when you don’t even understand the motion, how is this of any help? A good indication is if you often feel like you don’t know what you want to do as a side of the house.
What’s our goal? What do we have to do as Government/Opposition?
Then because it’s hard to figure, you use your intuition, and a lot of times it doesn’t work. You end up taking your case to the wrong direction.
Hint: it’s all about the direction.
The wrong direction means a disadvantageous setup. It means irrelevant or unimportant assertions. It means baseless reasoning. It means unsubstantial examples. It means weak linkbacks.
Notice how the setup and the AREL structure don’t matter if the direction is wrong?
Not to worry though. You really just have to find the right direction. You need a trusty compass.
Your trusty compass in a debate is called the Burden of Proof.
If your coach has told you about this essential tool for sailing the vast debating ocean, then bless them. The thing is, not all coaches are patient enough to repeat the same explanation.
Listen carefully this time. I ensure that when you get this right and have the right mindset, the hours you put into practice will start to bear fruit.
All you need to do is fulfill the Burden of Proof. In most cases, you don’t have to show why you will stop global warming or why women will finally be equal with men.
Let’s just be practical and see this work in a motion.
Take the example of This House believes that the feminist movement should actively recruit conservative women.
It’s easy to focus on the conservative women. But they’re against the feminist movement! And then you think of arguments like, “Conservative women are oppressed a lot. As the feminist movement, we have to help them”.
However, your opponent could easily respond: “This hampers the progress of the feminist movement”.
They would then go on to explain how a lot of people who are already in the movement would be uncomfortable working with the newly recruited members. If the feminist movement works together with women who are fine with being housewives — oftentimes insistingly fine with moderate patriarchy — that doesn’t help promote gender equality.
Exactly. The question you should’ve been asking from the start is, why is this good for the feminist movement? When you’re saying the feminist movement should do something, the question is precisely why they should do that.
The Burden of Proof, therefore, is to prove why this is good for the feminist movement.
You should’ve analyzed the whole case from the perspective of the feminist movement.
What’s their agenda? How does this motion help it? If you asked these questions, you could’ve come up with arguments that say, “The feminist movement needs to cater to all types of women indiscriminately”. You explain intersectionality. It stands for the case better than, like, an altruistic sacrifice for the conservative women. Not convinced yet?
Another practical example
This will probably seem more obvious in the motion This House believes that LGBT groups should actively recruit Side B Christians (people who have same-sex attraction, but think it’s a sin, and remain celibate).
It’s easy to think “Side B Christians are trapped in self-doubt” and as the LGBT movement, you have to help them.
Your opponent will happily respond the same way they did above. This doesn’t help validate LGBT. The Side B Christians would probably cause even more doubt and distress in the questioning, vulnerable members of the LGBT groups.
Again, you really could’ve said from the beginning that the LGBT groups have to cater to all LGBT people indiscriminately, not just the ones who can proclaim themselves as LGBT.
How you can find the Burden of Proof
There’s a list of questions you can ask when trying to figure out the Burden of Proof of a motion.
- What is the verb of the motion? (What kind of action)
- What is the object in the motion?
- What is the subject in the motion?
Let’s just take the LGBT motion for this demo.
The verb of the motion would be recruit, the object would be Side B Christians, and the subject would be LGBT groups.
The action is recruitment, so the question is, why should we recruit? What are LGBT groups capable of doing?
The object is Side B Christians, so you could ask how it impacts the subject. How do Side B Christians impact LGBT groups?
The most important actor is the subject, which executes the action. You could then ask, is this good for LGBT groups?
But good is so vague, and your bright mind starts to ask, what’s the LGBT groups’ agenda? How is this motion good for that? Why are Side B Christians part of it?
Congratulations, you’re on your way to 75 speeches.
Some debaters also have notes on motion-specific BoPs to help them find the Burden of Proof, which is a great way to assist you if you’re not familiar with this.
The takeaway is, the Burden of Proofs are the first questions you should ask before asking all the other questions.
What this means for you
When you know the Burden of Proof you need to fulfill in a motion, you’re set to go on the right course. You’ll analyze the most vital actors, have the right goal, and make the correct arguments. Even when you don’t really understand the motion.
It’s a guarantee that, at your worst performance, you’d probably still score higher than 73. Depending on how much experience you have, you’d score 74 or 75.
That’s your average.
You’d do much better when you’re in prime condition.
Mastering the Burden of Proof will make you deliver much stronger cases than your opponent’s.