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15 Tips for Winning with a Lay Judge

The number one rule in debate is adapting to your judge. You could be the quickest, most organized, and technical debater in the round, but if the judge doesn’t like your style you will lose. Lay judge is simply another way of saying that someone is inexperienced. Most of the time they have zero debate experience and are volunteering out of the goodness of their hearts.

One of the most common phrases you’ll hear at tournaments is, “I got judge screwed.” Although judges will occasionally vote you down for some obscure reason, more often than not you just didn’t appeal to them. It may feel awesome going 350 words per minute while throwing in all the jargon you can, but not every round can be like that. Below you’ll find the tips I personally used to reduce my frustration and improve my record in front of lay judges.

***Word of Warning***

Not all lay judges are the same. There will be an exception to nearly every tip you read below. Keep in mind that you should adapt to the judge that’s in front of you.

Lay Judge Debate Tips

  1. Have Fun

    New judges are often scared. They don’t know what to expect and can be very intimidated. By telling a couple jokes, keeping things light and easy to understand, not getting too aggressive, smiling, and overall just being a charismatic likable person the judge will want to vote for you and will find reasons to do so.

  2. Look like you’re winning

    Act like you’ve done this before. If you watch the best debaters in the nation they don’t fidget, or fumble around with their papers, they look calm and collected. In short they look like they’ve won the round already. Emulating this trait can be very rewarding.

  3. Make your arguments stick

    Lay judges tend to vote on things they remember. Instead of pounding 20 arguments into their head try to focus on 2-3 and continue to bring them up in every speech.

  4. Pay attention to facial expressions

    A lot of inexperienced judges can be read like a book. If they start smiling or nodding when you get to an argument make a quick note on your flow, bring it up in crossfire, and add it into your final speech. Likewise if they shake their head or fold their arms try limiting the amount of time you spend on that point.

  5. Speak beautifully

    When those outside the forensics community picture debate they generally imagine young, intelligent politicians speaking eloquently and beaming with confidence, not spouting off 500 words of jargon a minute. Add pauses for dramatic effect, slow down on important parts, and vary your volume while speaking.

  6. Pull some heart strings and make it personal

    Most technical debaters prefer comprehensive statistics over emotional narratives. However a lot of lay judges may be swayed by those personal stories or showing how the resolution could impact them and their families. Test the waters and try to get a read on your judge.

  7. Use power words and phrases

    “Critical mistake,” “game changer,” and “completely unrefuted” are just a couple of phrases you can use to gain the judges attention, sound more confident, and show everyone that the opponent has lost.

  8. Analogies are your best friends

    Arguments may seem simple to you after researching them for hours, but a lot of the time the judge has never heard of these concepts before. Analogies are perfect to use in situations where the judge looks confused. They stick in the judge’s mind, create something they can relate to, and can even make light of an aggressive situation.

  9. Adapt to your judge not your opponents

    If your opponents start blazing through the case in their first speech without looking up as tempting as it may be don’t follow. Especially if you can tell the judge doesn’t like it. Stick to your guns, know the style you’re going for and own it.

  10. Make eye contact

    Eye contact draws people in and allows them to listen and understand the arguments you’re making rather than drifting off and thinking about other things. Believe me when you’re a judge it happens after a long day. It’s also important to note that staring is very different from eye contact. Allow your eyes to glance down at your paper for a second or two, then look up and make eye contact for five or six.

  11. Stand up and don’t hunch

    The trend of sitting during speeches and cross examination is on the rise. Although it may not matter much in front of certain experienced critics, lay judges are a completely different story. Standing brings the attention of the room to you. Once you have this attention use it to its full potential; don’t slouch or play with your papers, stand tall and look commanding.

  12. Flow the judge

    For the judges that will occasionally take notes make marks to indicate what and when they’re writing things down. In the final speech blow those things up; “Judge you can check your notes, we continually made this argument and they never had a solid response to it!”

  13. Play up that last speech

    The final speech in front of a non-flowing lay judge should be a performance. Make them think your opponents made giant mistakes and you performed like a champ. In front of a lay judge I usually recommend spending the first 45 seconds pointing out the flaws they made and why that causes them to lose the round. Use the remaining time going over the arguments you could tell the judge liked and reasons to vote for you.

  14. Be Courteously Commanding in Cross Examination

    There is a very fine line between being nice and getting stepped on. One of the largest distinguishing factors is the tone of your voice. You can usually sense aggression and frustration when someone is talking. If you notice that you or your partner are starting down this path stop it immediately.

  15. Don’t be Nervous Nellies before the round begins

    As you come into the room act calm and collected. If the judge asks for paper or a pen to flow with don’t scramble to get the supplies to them first. Gently acknowledge that you have what they need and in good time bring it up to them. Remember, looking and acting confident is your key to picking up lay judge ballots.


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