• Ben Silvian

How Should I Decide Which Debate Contentions to Use?

Alright, so you have learned about the structure of a debate and what you should be aiming to do in each speech. But one major questions remains: how do you decide what arguments to actually put into your case? This article will provide a 5-step process to determining which arguments you should actually use in your case.


Step 1: Write as many contentions as you can


At the beginning, your goal is quantity. In the same way that a scientist starts with a hypothesis and then puts it to the test, debaters start with their own hypotheses of what arguments will work, and then test them out in practice rounds.


Allow yourself to explore each idea you think of to its fullest extent, and when you run into roadblocks don’t scrap your work. Every argument has holes; the question is how you patch them. So when you hear a good response to your awesome new argument that you can’t think of how to get around, don’t scrap the argument. Move on to something else and come back to that argument later.


You will be amazed how many times an argument you thought of at the beginning of your brainstorm ends up winning a tournament for another team. You return home in awe that such a bad argument – an argument you thought of weeks ago – could win the whole tournament. This goes to show that there is no such thing as an innately bad argument, only arguments that are well and poorly presented.


Step 2: Filter based on “strength of nuance”


The best arguments are your personal nuanced take on a stock argument. Stock arguments (commonly-run arguments) are stock because they reflect some element of real-world truth. The issue with running stock arguments, however, is that everyone is prepared for them and will have strong responses prepared.


The perfect scenario is one where you read your nuanced take on a stock argument and your opponent reads straight from their block file, jumping right over your specific nuance. If this happens, don’t let the judge forget it! Just make sure your nuance is clear to the judge by reading their body language as you and your partner explain the argument.


When choosing which 1-3 contentions to include in your final case, you will want arguments that aren’t the same as what everyone else is saying, but also aren’t too detached from the truth. If you find yourself arguing that the United States and Russia will experience nuclear war in the arctic (also known as a really cold war), you likely have ventured too far from the realm of truth and will pay for it with lay judges, no matter how strong your evidence is. But honestly an argument like that is probably worth pursuing over saying the same thing as everyone else, and if you don’t win rounds at least you will have lots of fun.


Step 3: Adapt based on practice rounds


Trusting your gut doesn’t mean ignoring all advice. It also doesn’t mean barrelling through with an argument that clearly doesn’t work. The only way to learn what works and what doesn’t is to experiment: to do practice rounds and see how your argument fares. If you and your partner can find 3 more people (two to debate against and one to judge), that is ideal. Alternatively, if you can only find 1 other person, you can take the full PRO side and your partner can take the full CON side, with your friend or family member judging.


When doing practice rounds, listen carefully to the judge’s feedback. Just because they don’t like one of your arguments doesn’t mean you must drop it, although it might mean you want to rethink it. Either your explanation was not clear enough, or as it turns out you should choose a different argument.


Test out lots of arguments through lots of practice rounds before settling on a final case that you will be reading in tournaments.


Step 4: Consider how you can implement narrative structure


Narrative structure is a way to structure your case such that all of the content is related. Maybe you read a piece of evidence as your framework at the top saying that America’s #1 goal must be to prevent poverty, and all of your arguments relate back to poverty as their important impact. Or maybe that important impact is safety and lives, and you impact everything to lives.

A strong narrative can be very compelling to judges, especially lay judges, who don’t have a good background on the topic and generally finds themselves confused mid-round. It also can be very compelling to a flow judge who will be impressed with your ability to stay on topic and weigh your major impact above every other impact in the round.


If you choose to use a narrative structure, do it because you really believe that point is important, not merely in order to make all of your points relate to each other. In other words, don’t force it. But if you spend enough time researching, any case can be brought into narrative structure based on the impacts that really matter.


(And if you use narrative structure, don’t shy away from a uniting framework which explains why you care so much about that impact and why the judge should too. In other words, you are starting your weighing analysis in your first speech, right up front for everyone to see.)


Step 5: Trust your gut


The same arguments do not work for everyone. If you identify with a certain argument (maybe you are willing to go as far as to say you think it is truth, although truth is not something many debaters concern themselves with), you are likely to be able to deliver it well. In the end, that is what it all comes down to: demonstrating to the judge that you believe what you are saying and are willing to get passionate in your defense of that argument.


If you cave to peer pressure and end up using arguments you don’t really believe in (or even worse you read arguments that you and your partner didn’t write yourselves), it will be hard to convince the judge you are worth voting for. Remember: it is not about the raw quality of your arguments; it is about your ability to persuade the judge your side is ultimately more deserving of a win than your opponent through personable and passionate argumentation.


Bonus Tip: Know The Purpose Of Your Arguments


To finish off this article, we want to highlight the importance of understanding the purpose of each of your arguments. Not all arguments exist to be extended in summary / final focus, and if you are running any arguments that have a different purpose you need to know that and to be doing so purposefully.


Sometimes, it can be strategically fruitful to include arguments that exist solely to scare your opponent into performing worse, or to waste your opponent’s time in the


That said, the vast majority of the arguments you are using should be able to win you the round on their own. The logic, evidence, and impacting should be strong and clear enough to convince the judge your side should win, even if you lose all of your other arguments. These are the diamonds you are truly searching for, and if you find one, force your opponent to either spend a lot of time responding, or lose the round as a result. If you have three of these independently powerful arguments in your case, you will be a force to be reckoned with. If those arguments relate to each other to form a narrative, then you’re golden.