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  • Writer's pictureBen Silvian

How To Deliver A Rebuttal Speech

For many young debaters, the rebuttal speech is the toughest speech. It is the longest speech that is not pre-written and you’ll have to get it right to put your partner in good shape to deliver a strong summary speech.

The goal of the rebuttal speech is to respond to your opponent’s arguments; it is not uncommon for a novice debater to start her rebuttal saying “In this speech I will respond to my opponent’s points and then if time permits I will return to my own.” This isn’t necessary and is probably not a good use of time, but it does provide the judge a roadmap of your speech so they can follow along.

If you are just starting to learn debate, your first priority will be to make sure you are filling the entire four-minute speech with relevant content. However, it takes much more than that to win rounds.

Follow these Ten Tips to improve your rebuttal speeches and destroy your opponent’s initial arguments.

Tip #1: Don’t Be Afraid to Read From Your Block File.

For novice debaters, one of the most challenging aspects of the activity is coming up with what to say on the spot. You will get better at this with time and practice, but if you can pre-write strong, concise, round-ready responses, you can limit the amount of brain power you have to expend on the simple stuff and free your mind to focus on advanced strategic considerations.

That said, you should not come off as monotone or dispassionate. The same way a good politician or late-night-show host will read from a teleprompter with passion, emotion, and humor, you should always deliver your speech like a human, not a robot. Your goal is to connect with the judge and make them want to vote for you.

Note that we do not recommend you exclusively read from your block file – you need to adapt your words to the specific ways they make their arguments and should incorporate logical responses that you think of in-round as well. But if you are struggling to fill your speeches or to phrase things well in-round, pre-writing can be very helpful.

Tip #2: Always tell the judge where you are on the flow.

If the judge does not know where you are on the flow (meaning what argument you are responding to and where they should write that response in their notes, also known as their “flow”) you might as well not deliver the response. The judge will spend their time trying to figure out what you are talking about

This means using very clear language. Using the UBI example from our case-writing post, “I am going to start on their first contention about Making Americans Smarter, where they argue a UBI would increase the intelligence of most Americans.”

If your opponent’s contention is not very clear and it is hard to really understand what they are saying, that is even more reason to clearly re-explain their argument. If you can explain your opponent’s article better and quicker than they can, the judge will appreciate it greatly and will want to vote for you

Tip #3: Always number your responses.

We at Debate Resource believe every response that you make to each contention should have a number. This allows the judge to take clear notes and to understand what you are doing much more easily. Remember that it’s not about what you say; it’s about what the judge hears and understands.

Even if one of your responses is short and has no evidence attached to it, give it a number. This starts to get a bit complicated when you’re responding to your opponent’s numbered links or impacts; you can start back at 1 for each subcomponent or just keep listing your responses and letting the numbers increase. The precise way you do it is up to you but remember that every response should be numbered for the best results.

Tip #4: Always tag your responses.

Tags are one of often overlooked but incredibly important aspects of responses. In the same way that the topic sentence of a paragraph in an essay succinctly summarizes the content of that paragraph, a tag succinctly summarizes your response. It is the “claim” of the response, which you will then substantiate with logic and evidence. In fact, you can view a strong response as a mini-contention that clearly states its intention in the topic sentence (the tag).

Tip #5: Empower your Turns

Rebuttal offense generated through turns is one of the best (and sneakiest) ways to win rounds. Your opponents have very little time to respond, and if they drop a turn in summary you may be able to win off that turn alone in final focus. However, this requires you to make it very clear that your turns are turns! Don’t read them just like any other response, clearly state to the judge that this is a turn and that it actually means the judge can vote for your side off your opponent’s argument. Give your turns the time and energy they deserve and they will give back in the form of W’s.

Tip #6: Quantity is Power

In the rebuttal speech, it is important to have a large quantity of responses. It makes it that much harder for your opponent to respond to your responses and you can highlight any response that they forget to address. Having 4-5 responses per contention makes for a strong rebuttal and sets you up well for the later speeches.

Tip #7: Quantity Without Clarity is Useless

There is an important caveat to Tip #6, which is that you must speak clearly. Any response that your judge doesn’t understand (you can often tell by the quizzical look on their face) might as well not have been read. So a balance must be struck – you are trying to maximize high quality responses.

A high-quality response must have clear logic. Ideally it will have evidence as well but the logic and explanation is the most important part. A response that consists of a claim and evidence with no logic/warrant is a bad response.

Tip #8: Do not go back to your case if you’re speaking first

It is common to see novice debaters return to their own case in the first rebuttal. This is by and large a bad idea. Your case should be designed to get everything you need into that 4-minute speech, so you shouldn’t be finishing the case in rebuttal.

You also shouldn’t rehash your points if you are giving the first rebuttal speech; spend all of your time on your opponent’s case. There may be certain exceptions to this, like if you need to clarify something that was discussed in crossfire, or if your case is directly relevant to the opponent’s arguments and can be “cross-applied.” But what you don’t want to do is summarize all of your contentions again in the rebuttal; it looks bad and is not a productive use of time. Instead, the first rebuttal should be spent entirely on responding to the opponent’s arguments.

If you want to tack on offense in the rebuttal, be smart about it by making them into turns on your opponent’s case. Future posts will go deeper into how to do this effectively, but for now just know

Tip #9: Do not attempt to respond to all their responses if you’re speaking second

The second-speaking team in debate has a substantial advantage: the last word. In rebuttal, this means you will get the opportunity not just to respond to your opponent’s case but also to your opponent’s responses to your case.

If you try to do it all – to respond to their whole case and also respond to all their responses on your case, you’ll end up doing nothing well. There’s just not enough time if you’re debating a good team. Instead, pick out the opponent’s most consequential / strongest responses (their turns, for example), and respond to those.

Another approach is to choose 1-2 contentions or subpoints that you know you will be going for later in the round and to worry only about responding to responses on those points. This is another great approach, and you can do this whichever way makes the most sense for you. But be cognizant of your limits, specifically the rebuttal speech’s 4-minute time limit.

Tip #10: Always Adapt to the Judge

If your judge is a flow judge – for example someone who just graduated high school after debating 4 years and is now in their first year of college – you can probably speak fast. This may mean you can read all 7 of the responses you pre-wrote to both of their contentions and still have time to get back to your own case.

If your judge is a lay judge, you are going to need to triage – prioritize only the important responses. You will have to speak much slower and to make eye contact whenever you can to keep yourself and the judge on the same page.

The difference between a good rebuttal for a flow judge and a good rebuttal for a lay judge is very large. But the best debaters always adapt and can weave through flow and lay debate seamlessly.


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