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  • Writer's pictureBen Silvian

How to Structure a Summary

Whoever named this speech the summary speech provided us a bit of a misnomer; your goal in the summary speech is not to summarize. Rather, it is an opportunity to synthesize what matters in the round and to present a narrative that favors your side.

The first big question is: how will you approach synthesizing 16 minutes of speeches and 6 minutes of crossfire into one 3-minute speech? The summary speech is often called the most challenging speech in the round, and for good reason.

Debate Resource recommends two approaches to summary. Each is perfectly valid and will be effective, but each works better for different people. Some debaters even alternate between the approaches depending on circumstance, although that is not necessary. We recommend you practice both approaches to learn what will be best for you.

Approach #1: Defense/Offense (D/O)

This approach is the simpler one, as you don’t have to create any new categories or “voting issues” for the judge. Rather, you start on your opponent’s case and just go point by point, responding to your opponent’s arguments. Then you return to your case and respond to your opponent’s responses, extending and emphasizing the arguments that should win you the round.

For a template regarding how to approach a Defense/Offense summary, we’ve provided a screenshot of a simple summary structure document.

In the sample structure above, the debater picks 2 points on each side to discuss. This is just a template; which points you pick will depend on what is going on in that specific round, and which points you need to address.

However, we strongly recommend you do not try to cover everything that has been said in your 3-minute speech - you run the risk of spreading yourself too thin and presenting the judge a poor narrative. Don’t go for every single one of your contentions. A good rule of thumb to follow is you should have at least three independent pieces of offense extended in summary – these can be contentions, sub-contentions, or turns. The big lesson though is: be strategic with what you try to cover and hammer home the points you are clearly winning instead of trying to touch on everything, but emphasizing nothing.

This formulaic approach to summary is very helpful if you are a beginner who is still learning how to organize their arguments. It also can be very helpful if you are an experienced debater who knows her judge is a flow judge. It is very easy for the judge to follow along with this structure and to know where you are on the flow. We suggest more time on Offense than on Defense, but the exact timing breakdown is, of course, up to you.

(Note that you can also go Offense first, Defense second. This may be a good approach if you are having trouble fitting all of your arguments into the limited time. The issue is you are ending the speech on your opponent’s points which is not an especially powerful way to end a speech.)

The pitfall with the Defense/Offense approach (and the Offense/Defense approach as well) is that you are passing up an opportunity to shape the image of the round in the mind of the judge. What you DON’T want is for you to finish the speech and for the judge to think to herself huh, they said a lot of things and covered a lot of the flow but I’m still not exactly sure why I should be voting for them.

Approach #2: Voting Issues

Using the Voting Issues approach solves the aforementioned problem. In this approach, you pick 3 main categories (“Voting Issues” or “voters” for short) that this round has boiled down to and incorporate relevant arguments from both sides into those voters.

It is very likely that your case and your opponent’s case will “clash” meaning you will both be using arguments that are directly relevant to each other; to use an analogy you on the PRO side are arguing for Heads and your opponent on the Con side is arguing for Tails. When clash like this exists, it may be wasteful to spend time discussing each argument separately.

The biggest advantage of the Voting Issue Summary, however, is that you are telling the judge which points actually matters and making it clear why you have won those points. Another way to describe a Voting Issue Summary is you are “writing the judge’s ballot for her.” If you do this successfully the judge will be very grateful, as you limit the amount of thinking she has to do in order to arrive at a decision. Instead of forcing the judge to figure out which points on the messy flow are important, you are providing that information for free.

A good way to begin your Voting Issue Summary is with an “off-time roadmap” (some judges allow this before you start your timer as long as you keep it short and concise) that sounds like “In this speech I will be presenting the 3 major voting issues in this round and explaining why we have won each of them.”

There are two major risks involved with a Voting Issue (VI) Summary.

First, your judge may not know where you are on the flow. If you confuse the judge and they don’t understand which argument you’re discussing or don’t understand where they should physically be taking their notes on the paper, they will have trouble focusing on your content. That is why we at Debate Resource recommend that you explicitly say which contentions you are incorporating into each specific voter – something like “The first Voting Issue is Entrepreneurship, which is a synthesis of our contention 3 and their contention 2.”

Second, you may accidentally drop (debate-speak for ignore) important responses or pieces of evidence. If you are going straight down the flow, using a D/O approach, you can see all the arguments that have been made laid out in order, making it easy to respond to each. If you are using the VI approach, you need to be vigilant and ensure you are hitting all the important points over the course of your synthesis.

We will provide one helpful tip to finish off this post. Once you have gotten used to both of these approaches, try combining them and messing with them until you find an approach that works for you. Remember that these are just templates.

For example, what do you do when you have 3 voting issues you want to cover (that provide you offense and you think you’re winning clearly), but you still need to address some of your opponent’s offense that falls outside the scope of those voter? You may want to combine these templates into something of a “Defense-Voter” (call it DV) approach, where you spend your first 30 seconds addressing your opponent’s points before jumping into the voting issues.

The language you use here is important, and you can adapt your phrasing to empower your points and present your opponent’s points as insignificant. Don’t make a point your opponent is clearly winning into a “voter.” Instead, you can say something like “I will touch on a couple of my opponent’s points before getting to the real, important Voting Issues of this round” to downplay their major offense. But remember: you still need to respond to the point in full.


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