discoveries from a dusty Drive folder

The Speech, by Scott Deatherage

Daniel Conrad
9 min readJan 26, 2021

High school debate made a great impact on my life. I spent a lot of time talking about debate with other students across the country on the Cross-X forums, which are unfortunately dead. One of the most useful things shared on that forum was Scott Deatherage’s lecture, The Speech.

I never knew Scott Deatherage, the legendary debate coach for Northwestern University who died before his time in 2009. But I knew his speech, and I revisited it before every tournament my senior year. You can watch the hourlong lecture on YouTube, but recently I found the notes I wrote when I watched the video myself. These notes are no substitute for the viewing experience, but they helped me remind myself of what’s strategically important in debate. I hope they can help today’s debaters too.

The Speech — Scott Deatherage

Your success isn’t on how many debate tournaments you win. Championship is based on four pillars of greatness: Character, Commitment, Teamwork, and Hard Work.

This is what distinguishes best debate teams from their competitors. There is a process of great rebutting — thirteen steps.

(1) Choose.

The first, most essential part of effective rebutting is to choose. Doesn’t matter if it’s the K, a Politics DA, case, CP — you must be able to choose which are the best and strongest point to make you the champion. Consider your alternatives — different ways of considering how you can win the debate in the 2NR. Choose, for the judge, the best road to conclude for the negative or the affirmative. Do not convince the judge of a lot of nothing, but of a little of a lot. Extending every position will not make you win.

(2) Offense, offense, offense.

Don’t ask — argue. Defensive argumentation, to “fend off” what the other side brings — there is no such thing. Anticipate your opponent’s warrants and undermine their credibility, before your opponent develops an explanation. This is key. Anticipate your opponent’s warrants. 1NCs are always full of brief cards, few internal links, generic Ks, bare counterplans — your 2AC must not only wonder what the relationships of these arguments are, but anticipate the negative block and undermine the arguments before the negative gets to develop in the first instance.

(On the high school healthcare topic): Against the politics DA, a typical 2AC would say “what is the link between health care and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty?” Instead, say “no link — CTBT will be decided on the bases of relations with India and China, and health care is completely irrelevant to the calculation of what the Senate thinks about nuclear testing.”

(3) Clash.

Clash lets the judge reach a conclusion when they set side-by-side two alternatives of what the world should be. You offer this for their consideration — but they consider the other side with similar credibility. By what measure must they decide which team is right when there’s a “close call?” Almost all calls in debate are close calls — tons of gray areas with no black & white. Argument resolution is successfully achieved by the team that best defines the essential difference on the nexus question — the tipping point of the debate, the singular question that comes before all other issues. That team is most likely to sway the panel.

Back to that Politics DA scenario — it sounds like the CTBT DA is now impossible to win right? Chinese-American relations aren’t relevant to healthcare. But the neg has no cards that say otherwise — what do they do about the nexus question here? How are the two related? A 2NC might say:

“In order to accomplish passage of the aff, Obama will have to face opposition from the Democrats even though they’re the majority in both the House & the Senate — that means he has to pull all the stops to get the plan to get through — voting on the aff means they give up all the political capital necessary in the short term for all future political movements the president desires — he’s used it all up and now he has zero capacity to accomplish the CTBT.”

(4) It’s all about the link.

The debate is first and foremost a fight for control of the ground of the debate — it’s about framework and offensive arguments. For the aff — case arguments are offensive, performance criteria are offensive, framework is offensive. For neg — competitive counterplans, disads, and kritiks are offensive. Strengthen the link to your offensive argumentation as much as possible.

Judges are paid to work in a state of disbelief — don’t preach as if you’re gospel & your opponents are nonsense; understand what you offer is something they seek to understand and know more about that they begin from a skeptical positioning. This goes for evidence or analytics, aff or neg. This skepticism typically starts at the first argument — the link. Cause & effect need to be strongly established to even craft advantages in the first place — it’s not the impacts that matter, but the way you access them — the link stories.

Remember the way you first reacted to hearing a K or a DA — then realize that that’s the same way the judge will react. “Calling them impoverished makes them impoverished? But they were impoverished already before I started calling them that!” etc. etc. You’re gonna need the link wall, esp. in the negative block — tell a big story that weave the speeches together.

What if the aff reads thumpers on your political capital disad? You’ve got to still explain to the judge that the plan is the critical breaking point to the impact. Read more link arguments in the negative block with your generic arguments (like politics), even if the links are NOT challenged in the 2AC. Of course, this doesn’t apply when all they do is impact turn your argument and read no defense. But in any other circumstance — when the aff barely challenges the link card — don’t pretend the judge believes you, they just won’t. Politics DAs are dumb arguments and the judge knows that, so you have to hammer it home. Use specific warrants precisely.

Scratch the phrase “the affirmative talks about” from your vocabulary. Say “the Smith evidence says,” then say exactly what the evidence says. Use exact phrases to beat back their cards and warrants. It’s not “our evidence says …” it’s “our Jones evidence says, and I quote, ‘_____.’” As the aff, never let the neg get away with characterizing the plan with generic link arguments. Don’t let them tell the judge what the link arguments in the aff are.

(5) Control the framework of the debate.

In football, there are thousands of inches covered, but very few make the difference. In debate, the outcome of a good debate comes down to a single strategic decision or a particular tactical argument. To prove the advantages outweigh the disads, you must convince the judge to look at the impacts in a way that make your disadvantages win. If you’re wanting the DA to win, you want to highlight the magnitude over the probability analysis. This is key to almost every K debate. Who controls the rules for which team should be the one that governs decision-making criteria for the debate?

(6) Cover smart.

Debate at first may seem easy — you’re pretty smart, you read and get all these cards from your older debaters or some online resources, and you read your blocks — and maybe your material is better than the other team, or you speak faster. But then the other jerks on the other side figure out how to get better too — they speak quicker and they figure out how to deal with the block and now you’re knocked back.

The outcome of the debate is about substantive questions, not technical ones. Technique will never trump substance in an ultimate sense. Learning how to do everything above means coverage will never hurt you. It’s okay to be slow against a fast team — you have to make argument choice and clash in a way that sheds light on the nexus question so that the judge can say “The aff won a lot of arguments, but the neg won the most important arguments,” or vice versa.

Form cannot substitute for substance — all your taglines can’t make up for a lack of meaning

(7) Make every argument count.

If you can’t visualize how any particular 1AC/1NC argument could be employed in the 2AR/2NR as a winning strategy, then don’t invest in it in the first place. Be aware that violating this limits your strategic arguments. The first speech isn’t a random collection of items and arguments. That’s not a strategy. In an effective strategy, all of your arguments are essential to the win. Every argument must end up being useful.

(8) Anticipate and know.

The best debaters know their opponent’s arguments better than their opponents do. Strategies are not generic at the top level. The more specific they are at the top level, the greater your odds of winning debates are. Defend what you have to say against what they want to say. Make specific references to exact phrases & evidence. Effective strategies demand specifics based not on tricks but rather on depth of literature and differences between the two sides and what they advocate.

Understand that the better off you know your arguments, the better off you are against your opponents. Success is measured by what we have done to prepare for a competition.

(9) Style and substance.

These are fundamentally inseparable. Aristotle said there is ethos, logos, and pathos: ethos is the credibility or believability of the argument, logos is the logic or reason of your argument and pathos is the evidence or support for your argument. Of these, Aristotle said ethos is most important.

The judge has to want to vote for you. They have to know, hear, feel, believe. The judge is a person with real experiences — not an information processor — with knowledge, with interaction, with experience. In that regard, they bring a willingness to hear and listen to any angle or approach to the issues in the debate. They have to want to believe you.

Confidence is born in demonstrability — you can not fabricate confidence or wish it, you have to accomplish it.

(10) Narrate and judge the debate.

Write the ballot for the judge. Understand the other side’s strengths. Here’s a good drill: consider the last speeches, and explain why your opponent has won the debate. That gets you into the judge’s mind, and lets you see the debate as they must have to. Take the first 30 seconds of your prep in the last rebuttal and ask — if we were to lose this debate, why? Then prepare your rebuttal around the answer to that question.

(11) Teamwork.

Michael Jordan said that talent wins games, and that teamwork wins championships. The past is only important insofar as it informs future strategy, argument choice, and debates. Your partner and your elders have reasons as to why they do what they do — it is ultimately their choice to do what they do. One person has to make a call, and it may be your partner.

Respect both your teammates and your opponents.

(12) Prepare to win.

Preparing to win is starting your topic research as soon as you know the topic. Preparing to win is using your prep time effectively. Preparing to win is practicing and researching regularly. Be detail-oriented. Know your strengths and weaknesses — take advantage of the one and correct for the other.

Prepare for each game as if it were your last.

(13) Focus and concentration.

These are the keys, and they unlock the secrets to the fundamentals: choice, offense, clash, controlling ground of the debate. These skills let you overcome the most demanding obstacles — together they let you arise to the most challenging situation you can imagine. Single-mindedness wins.

In conclusion:

Greatness is not defined by a topic, trophy, or tournament — it’s defined by those four characteristics at the top. Three closing thoughts:

  1. “When I try to single out from the long line of students one group who will stand out as intellectually the best, the best in college work, the best in promise of future intellectual achievement. As much as I would like to do so I cannot draw the line around my own favorite students of philosophy, nor those of mathematics, biology, or other fields. Nor could I fairly award the palm to the accomplished students of Phi Beta Kappa. It seems to me that stronger than any other group in intellectual fiber, keener in intellectual interest, better equipped to do battle with the coming challenges, are the debaters. Those who band together with friends from other schools searching for the solutions to great challenges.” —Alexander Mickleback.
  2. “Never be afraid of taking calculated risks in your own personal life. Be willing to work longer and harder at your craft than the next person. Never settle for being good at something when you can be great. Learn to be hard on yourself when you don’t quite give it your best, and easy on yourself when your best isn’t quite good enough. Know that feeling means only that you did not achieve your desired good, and the sooner as you take the word ‘can’t’ out of your vocabulary, the better.” — anonymous University of Northern Iowa graduate.
  3. “I would do it all again. Not for any particular tournament or trophy, not for specifics of any topic, not even for the intellectual benefits that debate bestows upon its participants critical thinking, and so forth. I would do it all again for the chance to work with hardworking, dedicated, and committed students like those assembled in this room.” — Scott Deatherage.



Daniel Conrad

Legal affairs reporter in San Antonio for and copy editor for the San Antonio Current. I’m told I have a “print personality.”