What Judges Never Say

There is a line in the movie The Great Debaters, starring Denzel Washington, that speaks to the role of the judge in debate:

WHO IS THE JUDGE? The judge is God. WHY IS HE GOD? Because he decides who wins or loses, not my opponent.

Yes, pretty cheesy. But it does make a good point. At any given time, there are five meta-debates occurring in the round--one for each debater and one for the judge. Each participant has a unique conceptualization of the arguments that are tossed about. Of these meta-debates, exactly one of them matters, and it is the one that belongs to the judge. Let us make one thing clear from the outset. A debater’s opinion of who is winning the round is utterly irrelevant. It is worthless. The judge’s opinion is infinitely more consequential. Get used to that.

Expert debaters know that their judges are not robots. They are human beings, and like all human beings they possess desires, wants, and needs. Try that those things are fulfilled and a competitor will be rewarded. But these same judges also have their pet peeves. Ignore them and there will be punishment.

Why aren’t you making me feel good?

No, really. The best and worst thing about judging is that it is completely arbitrary. A debate is not like a game of football. There is no score kept that can objectively determine a winner. As such, ensure that the judge will not actively look for ways to vote against oneself. If choosing to be a jerk in the middle of the round, know that this behavior will look foolish, and the chances of winning will have been self-sabotaged. The moment a judge is made unhappy virtually all hope is lost. Judges will actively look for ways to justify voting against the cause of their irritation. This is true with all judges, not just impromptu volunteers who know little about debate. Make the judge feel good.

Why aren’t you capturing my interest?

Judges are not always as patient as one would like them to be. Nor are their collective memories necessarily complete. A good guideline to follow is to assume that there are just thirty seconds of the first speech to make oneself and the presentation sound interesting. To make a good impression on the judge (hint: probably a good idea), these are the thirty seconds that matter most. If the critic is bored by that mark, chances are they are not going to be paying full attention. Why should they? Judges want to be entertained. If a debater is not providing entertainment, they are not doing their job. Establish podium presence, and do not be afraid to get creative. Crack a joke if necessary and appropriate. Do something to get the judge involved in the content of the speech.

What am I thinking about you right now?

This is probably the most important thing about judging that is not commonly understood. Community judges generally do not flow. They do not care about each little individual argument. Instead, they form a subjective macro-vision of the debate in their head. This macro-vision incorporates the entire round; from the quality of arguments, to speaking style, to that hideous tie worn. It is constantly updated such that there is always a perception that one side is “winning” and the other side “losing.” This is true even of judges with prior debate experience.

If a debater is perceived to be behind, they need to recover. There is a smart debate coach on my circuit who likes to say that if he could mute a debate round, literally just remove all sound from it, he would be able to pick the winner simply by observing the body language of each team. When a person internally accepts or thinks they are behind their outer appearance mirrors this idea. Visual cues to self-doubt (such as expressions of being sour, flowing is half-hearted, and slouching over with elbows on the table) will not go unnoticed by the judge. Through perception, he or she will think that one competitor is behind--even if the arguments of the stressed/doubter are flat-out stronger. Always avoid sending negative signals. Sit up straight, look energetic, and never give away any hint of hesitation vocally.

Successful debaters understand how to get into the judge’s head. They know what the judge is thinking and understand how he or she is experiencing the round. Then they use that information to adjust accordingly.