CNDF Basics 2 - Guide to Generating Arguments
Updated: Apr 14, 2021
By Eli Lu
Through every discussion I’ve had with my coaches and fellow debaters on the subject of the Equal Proposition curriculum and on the issue of education in general, there seems to be mutual agreement that one of the hardest things to teach is knowledge itself. “That’s why university students learn debate so much faster than high schoolers. Everyone already knows so much, both in general knowledge and specialized knowledge*, and are eager to show that off. High school students, on the other hand, are still learning about the fundamentals of various subjects, or aren’t taught it at all.” By extension, this becomes one of the main problems when it comes to generating arguments for most high school debaters.
I distinctly remember this one class I had when I was first starting out in debate. As always, we were ending the class with an impromptu round. Our coach, being an international relations major, gave us the motion: This house as China would invade Taiwan. As a grade 7 student with absolutely no knowledge on China/Taiwan relations or invasions in general, I freaked out and couldn’t manage to finish my speech after getting stuck while trying to generate arguments.
Unfortunately, this is one of the aspects of debate that is going to rely on your own dedication and effort. Some debaters, including me, learn and collect information in some sort of knowledge/information/news bank (typically, a really really reaaaaaaally long google doc), others go so far as learning or self-teaching entire AP or other available online courses.
I would suggest the former, and suggest you start off with a few topics you feel you’re most vulnerable in. Google, wikipedia, whatever works: Just learn as much as you can or need about the subject. Of course, you don’t have to write it down if you feel you can remember it, but I highly suggest you do. Because as that document grows longer, chances are, you’re only going to be able to retain about 25% of that quickly in-round, or accurately during prep**.
But let’s assume you’re a new debater, who’s had no time to do any research on your motion, or it’s a topic that’s so niche that no one could’ve possibly thought to learn about beforehand, and you’re about to have an impromptu round. Don’t worry. That’s what this guide below is aiming to help with.
At least, I know it would’ve helped grade 7 me survive that Taiwan invasion round :)
Get this: Brainstorm.
One of my very first coaches-- and someone I look up to greatly-- taught us to write down everything we think of when we hear the motion. Doesn’t matter how stupid or unrelated it seems: Write it down. Take a few minutes to get every idea and thought down on the page. Better to have it and not use it, than to need it later and not have it. For reference, here are some past notes I’ve written:
“Similar to Gulabi Gang motion? Illegal but legitimate? → Example: Eichmann case → focus on principles? Frame with justice?”
“Diff. between virus and bacteria, possible ref/recon.”
“Writing writing writing I can’t think of any contentions. Wait, refer to stock arg. on economic disparity and class divide. Justice. Impact poverty. Aid to vulnerable should be prioritized. Outweigh on intensity.”
Rough and random, right? Exactly. The point of this is to write down EVERYTHING. Don’t bother with trying to make it organized, just throw up words.
If you’re just starting out in debate, you may want a guideline of what to think about when you brainstorm to help you get going, but once you start debating more and more, every debater typically branches off into their own method of approaching motions, either by instinct or by altering their original guideline. Here’s one that we’ve created to help you get started!
The PIES method:
1. Predict: Any arguments that immediately jump to mind when you see the motion?
Is it incredibly obvious that the Gov will probably go for social justice? Or that the Opp will go for economic repercussions?
This will help you in figuring out how the round is probably going to go, and by extension; how to prepare for it.
2. Impact: What is being affected?
Visualize the effects! What would this motion look like in the real world?
3. Examples: Any history, theories, studies, etc that relate to this motion?
Doesn’t matter which side these examples relate to for now, write them down for now!
4. Stakes: Who is being affected?
Is it minorities?
Is it big corporations?
Is it a movement or education system?
Color code while circling, drawing lines, connect the dots; however you want, figure out which notes fit together and group them. Then, take a look at your groups and see what you can make out of them. Arguments? Rebuttal to use later? POI questions? A counterplan, even?***
Choose and Weigh
You’re going to want around 2-3 contentions. 0-1 for your rebuttal speaker (your second speaker), and 1-2 for the first speaker. Typically, you should have 2 in the first speech and 1 in the second.
Sometimes, the second speaker may decide not to deliver an argument and spend 6 minutes on rebuttal/reconstruction/counter-modelling/weighing if the first speaker’s two contentions are strong enough on their own, or if the opponents’ arguments need a lot of time to refute. On the other hand, the first speaker may decide to only deliver one, big contention because it has strong impacts that need more time to prove, or has lots of individual subpoints and impacts.
I would not advise straying from the typical 2 arguments in the first speech and 1 in the second, until you’ve had more time to learn about and gain experience in the strategic aspect of your debates.
That being said, how should you choose which arguments to go for if you have too many?
Well, for that, you’re going to have to look at their impacts. Think of the effects of your argument. Why is this important and why should the judge care about it? (A more detailed explanation of impacting will be in our Building An Argument guide, which I suggest you read right after this one if you haven’t yet)
Now, you’re going to weigh them.
Weighing typically consists of five metrics.
Likelihood (How likely is it that this effect is going to happen?)
Severity (How intense is this effect?)
Breadth (How many does this effect?)
Duration (How long does this effect last?)
Reversibility (How easy is it to undo this effect?)
Let’s use an example of the motion: This House Would Legalize The Sale of Human Organs, and let’s say you’re Opp.
So far, you have the following ideas:
If people desperately need money, they’ll sell organs they need.
People could sell organs that aren’t healthy.
Forced organ harvesting increases
The poor are screwed over by this motion. First off, everyone can be susceptible to ailment. But second, with this motion, if you can sell your organs for money, you’re more likely to do that than donate. Third, human organs are most likely going to cost a LOT. Meaning that those relying on donations (the poor) aren’t getting able to get ANY transplants in this world.
Now let’s weigh them.
This has a high level of severity because if people are selling organs they need, that means their lives are at risk. However, is this likely? Probably not because people are going to value their lives before their money. By extension, are lots of people going to be affected by this? Not really. High severity. Low likelihood and breadth.
This, too, has a high level of severity because unhealthy organs can also threaten the patient’s life. However, is this likely? Probably not, because if these people are having a doctor transplant this organ, and having people check to see if it’s compatible with their bodies: They’re most likely going to notice if the organ is unhealthy. By extension, this also has low breadth. Again, high severity. Low likelihood and breadth.
Forced organ harvesting directly impacts death, which means that this contention, too, has high severity. What about breadth? Probably not too many people are going to be affected by this, however, it will still outweigh the amount affected in the status quo, so either way, it outweighs the Government team. However, the problem with this argument is the likelihood. Is it likely that this will increase because you’re allowed to legally sell organs? Most likely not if the reason you’re arguing that this will increase is because the sale is legal, because either way, forced harvesting is extremely illegal. High severity. Low breadth, but outweighs Gov. Very low likelihood.
Severity? High. Likelihood? Also high. Breadth? Again, very high. Duration? Probably going to last for as long as this motion does.
After weighing these arguments, we can gauge that the order of their strength is: 4, 3, 1, 2.
Using that ordering, you would then, ideally, give the strongest two contentions to the first speaker-- that being disproportionately harming the poor and forced organ harvesting-- and the third strongest to the second speaker-- selling vital organs.
And there you have it! That’s how you come up with arguments! Next stop, how to write them! You’re going to want to read over that document as well, even if you think you know how to write a persuasive speech, because trust me, debate arguments are quite a bit more nuanced than they look. For any questions, send us a DM @equalproposition on Instagram or an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Typically called ‘spec” in the debate community
**For many impromptu rounds, you’re probably not going to be allowed to have any notes during your prep, but writing it down still helps retain information and can help you lots during prepared rounds as well. I remember being in the middle of a round and having absolutely no idea how to reconstruct the argument that would win us the debate after the opponents argued to implement a motion through deficit spending instead of taxes. Suddenly, I remembered something from my knowledge bank doc, down to the exact position on the page. It was a piece of econ spec that specifically explained why Keynesian theory doesn’t work. I went on to use it to build up a piece of reconstruction that our opponents couldn’t refute, and we ended up winning the round on that argument.
***We’ll cover counterplans a bit later on, but I wouldn’t suggest going for them as a beginning debater. I know, I know! It’s so enticing! But trust me when I say: It’s incredibly easy to mess up. However, if you’re anything like me, you’re probably going to ignore my advice and try it anyways to learn from experience. In that case, I can only give you a few key reminders: a) Make sure it’s mutually exclusive with the motion, or the Gov can just say “yeah well we can do that, too.” b) Do not rely solely on the counterplan. You should have AT LEAST, one, strong contention that can help you stand your ground even if your counterplan falls.
Briana Lu is a co-founder of Equal Proposition.