Monash Association of Debaters

Andrew Gaulke

Building the Narrative

We all like to think that we’re immune from being manipulated. We all think we’re too smart for advertisers, or we are too smart for people who play reverse psychology on us, or whatever it might be. Actually those things exist for a reason, and we are, to a greater or lesser extent, influenced by them.

Debaters and adjudicators like to think that the formal logic of the argumentation is what will win debates for them. However, there remains an element of persuasiveness that is just as powerful, yet much harder to grasp. Every debater knows the experience of adjudicators who seem to totally misrepresent the arguments they made. Every adjudicator knows the experience of finding one team more persuasive without quite knowing what argument made them win. This article explores one element of that additional realm of persuasiveness, the construction of a narrative out of argumentation.

Much of what this article explores is intuitive, and much of its advice is already in practice in high level debates. My aim here is to provide some theoretical ideas as to why we debate the way we do, as well as providing some clarity to help new debaters understand case construction and persuasiveness on that level.

I want to begin by nailing down exactly what it is I’m talking about in this article. A speech in a debate can be understood two ways. The first is a philosophical understanding of how the speech functions. In this type of analysis you can extract a set of logical ideas from the speech, and those ideas tell you what the speech was trying to say. You can change the order of the parts, you can change the specific wording in a lot of places, but the logic will remain the same. A philosophical understanding of the speech that focuses on formal logic wouldn’t change its assessment of how that speech worked based on structural or cosmetic changes that do not substantially change the logic that is presented.

That is not the complete story of how human beings respond to a speech, however. I intend to introduce a second, literary understanding of how a speech operates. The structure of our argumentation is important, and should be analyzable. The words and rhetoric we use are important, and should be analyzable. A literary understanding of how a speech operates incorporates those intangible elements of persuasion. It understands the total effect of a speech on those who hear it instead of breaking the speech down into its individual logical components. It understands how each element contributes to the whole.

It takes a lot more than just good arguments. You can see that with a lot of ESL teams, where they basically make the same arguments that everybody else makes, but sometimes it’s a language issue, or sometimes it’s just about the way they package and present their arguments, that let them down. People take a lot of subtle cues from the way people present, in a manner sense, that hold them down. Or just the way they position themselves in a kind of rhetorical sense that can leave them out. It’s not so much that they don’t have the words for it, but it’s that they miss the chance to build momentum and persuasion in what they’re saying and just kind of jump to ploughing through the arguments.

This is why the idea of a narrative is so important. A narrative, at its simplest definition, is the way we understand how two pieces of information relate to each other. When we read a novel we understand that the events of the story are connected to each other, not only on a causal level, but also thematically and conceptually. The events can build up into a broader understanding of what a particular novel is trying to communicate.

The same thing is happening when we construct a speech in debating. When an adjudicator hearsa speech they are trying to construct a coherent meaning out of it. They want to know what the speech is about. They are trying to understand what core idea is at the heart of a particular speech because that is how we unconsciously code information. Understanding this process provides a powerful way for debaters to craft their speech for the most persuasive effect.

One of the best articulations of this comes from Tim Sonnreich’s “First Principles” approach to debating. This is the idea that the most persuasive cases are constructed based on particular political ideologies that can form a core principle in the case. In other words, the persuasiveness of a case comes when the individual arguments add up to something more. They are connected by the ideology behind them, even when that ideology is unspoken.

For example, a common set of arguments in debating relate to how far the government should be allowed to control the choices of its citizens. When debaters argue that a particular policy unjustifiably infringes on people’s lives they do not deploy that one argument in isolation against one policy idea in isolation. They are instead trying to construct a particular understanding about how the world works and show that, based on that understanding, we ought to set broad criteria on government intervention.

That broad understanding of the world is the narrative that unifies the meaning of the separate pieces of logic. A typical antigovernment intervention case might run as follows: first, there is an inherent value in individual freedom; second, governments are bad at making decisions for individuals; third, cultural and economic problems are solved best in unregulated environments. All of that material builds into a picture of what the world looks like. It is connected by that image of the world (in this example, a libertarian image of the world) even when those connections are not explicitly drawn by the debaters. Often those connections are not explicitly drawn, as the three themes of this broad superstructure are usually labeled based on the individual character of the topic at hand.

And when I talk about the narrative, it’s about being able to give a compelling story about what the world looks like in your mind that’s different than the world we live in today. And whether that’s a small change or a big change, and what the reason is for that change, and how that fits with the way we currently think now, and all of that helps. Because ultimately in a debate – you know we talk about whether we proved such and such a thing in the debate. You never actually prove anything, or very very rarely do you prove anything in a debate. What you do is provide enough justification for the proposition you’re making that an average reasonable person has a willingness to believe that it’s probably right, without having gone to do any more thinking about it.

The reason this idea is important is because all the logical argumentation of a speech is understood based on how it relates to the core idea that the adjudicator understands the speech to be about.
One of the simplest ways to understand this is in how an opening government team constructs the problem they are trying to solve. When a PM’s introduction focuses on a particular problem an expectation is created in the mind of the adjudicator that the material that follows is intended to address that problem. When debaters flag their main themes it similarly creates expectations as to how the case being presented will understand the world. The structural signaling is something all debaters intuitively know to be important, and the reason it has grown to be so common in debating is because it provides the broad idea of the case so that adjudicators can link each individual element of logic back to that understanding.
And the reality is, particularly in a high level debate, you actually prove a lot less than you think you do, because you end up covering a lot of ground. There are a lot of arguments, and a lot of complexity to them, and just being able to explain your opponents argument, before then going on to deconstruct it takes a lot of time. So what you’re really doing with the narrative is, you’re giving the adjudicator the broad brushstrokes of what the final goal looks like because that helps them join the dots for you. They can see where the starting point is because you described that at the start, and they can see the end point, and then your arguments helped them to see that there’s a path between them and if you do enough to show where those paths are then you win.
What often separates top level debaters is the clarity with which they communicate this hidden core idea of their case. They will use their introductions and conclusions carefully in order to make their position clear.

Understanding that this core narrative exists behind the logical argumentation is especially helpful in organizing rebuttal to a case, and in particular the strategic selection of rebuttal. Effective rebuttal is not only trying to attack a particular logical point, but also trying to break up the coherence of the world view the opposition is attempting to create, while at the same time re-enforcing the debater’s own broader narrative of the world. It is impossible to effectively rebut an argument without understanding the role that argument plays in the debate. When, at a high level, arguments are well constructed and will be persuasive to a certain extent no matter how they are rebutted, it is important to see the way that the argument connects to the broader persuasive narrative the team is building. That is how you can know the extent to which you need to attack the argument in order to overcome it.
You don’t really have to worry about what the logical fallacy is in the argument because again well-constructed arguments don’t have logical fallacies, but no matter how well constructed the argument is, there are philosophical alternatives to that argument because it is a debate.
This is why First Principles analysis can be particularly persuasive. When a case is constructed based on a First Principles position that case will have an internal consistency and clarity that allows for a coherent narrative. Additionally, the case will be based on often familiar narratives that the adjudicator already knows and understands. An adjudicator is likely to already understand the idea of a libertarian world view, and as a result that idea will be particularly clear to them in its construction. The type of world, and how that world functions, will be that much easier to imagine.

When a team tries to describe a libertarian world they are able to do it more efficiently because the thread of meaning that connects the individual pieces of information are easier to imagine. All cases have gaps as a simple necessity of limited speaking time, those gaps are filled in the adjudicators mind based on the narrative the speech constructs about the world, the meaning that connects the information. An argument is harder to attack when the adjudicator is doing the work for you by filling in those gaps themselves. A strong, coherent narrative encourages them to do that.

Debaters need to understand that their use of language, introductions, conclusions, and the choice of focus in their speech contributes to how the adjudicator will understand all of their material. When done well a strong internal narrative can be an excellent tool for debaters, when done poorly that can be exploited by the opposing teams whose narrative of the world is stronger.

So when I talk about narrative in a first principles sense what I’m really saying is, you can give people the image that you are trying to create, even before you get to describing the arguments for why that’s a good image, so that you can then rely on and lean on that throughout the debate, to join the dots, make more cohesive what is really a bunch of singular arguments which you have chosen because given the amount of time and space you have, they’re the best choices you’ve got to explain them, whereas in a different format you might chose a totally different way of explaining something.

When both sides of the debate are able to effectively communicate their narrative about how the world works then the clash in the debate becomes, at least in part, about the strategic choice of narrative from each side.

Both teams are trying to position themselves strategically in relation to the overall clash of the debate. I have so far talked about building a narrative within individual speeches, but it is important to remember that the debate itself will also have an overarching narrative. When an individual makes a speech they are creating the narrative of their own case, while at the same time contributing to the narrative of the debate as a whole.

For example, an individual speech may have the core narrative “individual liberty maximizes happiness and utility”, and their opposition responds with “this problem is too complex to be solved individually”. What that contributes to is a story of the debate that revolves around a small government versus big government clash. That is the central issue the adjudicator wants resolved because it seems like the most important issue in the debate. Even if a logical analysis of the debate shows that issue to be only one equal part of the debate, the sense of its importance places it in the forefront of the mind of the adjudicator. That adjudicator is likely to preference the resolution of that issue over the resolution of other issues in the debate.
I think certainly the advantage of being the government team is you set the structure for the debate in a logical architecture kind of sense. The most common thing for every team to do is for their rebuttal points to just graft on to the method structure of the government team. Their first point was role of government so our first point of rebuttal is. Then their second point was how this affects women so that will be our second point of rebuttal and whatever. So you do get a huge advantage because most teams are too lazy or too time poor to change the frame, and so they’ve all just mapped themselves onto you where that seems like a reasonable option.
There are a number of important implications of this. Firstly, the relevance of a team to the debate is directly tied to how they are perceived in relation to that core narrative of the debate. This is because when we try to remember and understand information we are trying to give that information a coherent meaning in relation to other pieces of information we have received. When an adjudicator has already established the relationship between other pieces of information in the debate any new piece of information is automatically judged in relation to that older narrative. For an opening half team this can help them dominate the closing half by making sure that the narrative of the debate focuses on their own material. By showing that the core thread of the debate is about their arguments then closing half teams seem less relevant to the way the debate progresses. By creating a powerful and coherent narrative of the debate, the opening half has engineered an expectation from the adjudicator that that narrative will be addressed and resolved in each new speech, making it difficult for closing half teams to move away from that material.
Secondly, closing half teams need to be able to understand that that expectation is on them. If they do not feel they are able to extend adequately within that narrative of the debate they will need to be able to move the debate onto a different narrative. Introductions and points of information are particularly useful in doing this, as they serve as structural signaling points. If a team wishes to move the debate away from a clash on big government versus small government and move into a debate about , for example, consent, they need to understand how that will be understood in relation to the first clash in the debate. They need to spend more time justifying those new arguments in the debate than is strictly logical. In their rebuttal they need to show why the arguments form the opening half should be judged in relation to the issue of consent, rather than simply attacking their truth.

In narratology this is the difference between primary and supplementary events. A primary event is something that is considered core to the narrative, whereas a supplementary event is something that is tangential to the narrative. A supplementary event can have a relevance to the narrative, but it is not one of the key ideas the narrative turns on. The way we remember the events of a narrative, and assign importance to them, deprioritizes supplementary events in favor of primary events. Closing half teams in particular need to find ways of subtly placing their openings material into the position of supplementary events. People naturally do not like unresolved stories, and portraying the opening half clash as irresolvable is often a good strategy for moving the debate into another narrative that the adjudicator will inherently favor. Another tactic can be to play up a deficiency in the opening, making the adjudicators instinct for narrative resolution desire the filling of that gap. The point of this is that closing teams need to start manipulating the expectations of their adjudicator into wanting the particular contribution to the narrative of the debate that the closing team wants.

The third implication of a narratological reading of debates is that when the narrative coming from one team does not fit well with the narrative of the debate as a whole then that weakness should be exploited. If the core issue of the debate is clearly still about big versus small government while one team is talking about consent, their opposition can paint them as being irrelevant to the debate. They can use their language and how they focus their rebuttal to try and portray that team as being entirely focused on the issue of consent, even if they did address other issues in the debate. Similarly, if a team can successfully move the debate onto consent, they can re-enforce their opening as having a narrative entirely about small government. By doing that, even if opening had material on consent, it will feel like a supplementary event from that team, and so the importance of that material is attached to closing.

Finally, when a speaker is constructing the narrative of their own case they should be doing so knowing that their opposition sill be attempting to control the narrative of the debate, and should attempt to predict what sort of clash is likely to become central to the debate. When the debate is intuitively about a big versus small government clash a team will find it easier to make that material central to the debate than arguments about consent. More pertinently, when constructing a nuanced narrative of their case they should do so in a way that engages with what is likely to be the core clash of the debate.

An un-nuanced case based on small government might be “Freedom is good”, but that only barely glances at the clash of the debate. An opposition is likely to be able to overcome that with a case constructed around the idea “freedom is good, but less important than social harm”. That more nuanced narrative doesn’t simply state a position, it also places that position in relation to the narrative of the debate. If the adjudicator leaves the room thinking that those are the ideas that sit at the heart of the two teams it is immediately obvious which one they would preference. Even before they analyze the logic of the arguments they are put in a position where they would need to be persuaded out of giving the win to the opposition. A better narrative for the small government side might be “This particular freedom is so important it can never be compromised on”, or “freedom creates the conditions for solving social harms, not government intervention”. These cases engage with the clash of the debate from the very first speech, and don’t give the opposition the advantage.

The process of understanding this in prep time is often very difficult, and is likely to be unique for each speaker. One way that can be effective is through simply acknowledging that this is a tool that is available to use for persuasion, and pushing yourself in prep time to have a larger coherence to the case that can be a strong narrative. Simply aiming for that conceptual clarity of narrative when writing and delivering arguments can give debaters the instincts to push for that narrative in their speech. A second technique is to imagine how you want the debate to end, instead of simply how you want it to begin. In three on three styles of debating, it can be helpful to imagine how you think the third speaker is going to approach the debate when they have to incorporate both sides of the case into a holistic speech. Doing this in prep time allows you to create material that deals with particular arguments in a strategic manner, instead of simply as units of logic.
Effective case construction is about understanding the status quo as a world view and understanding your vision of the world you want to live in, and then creating arguments that connect those two and give people a reasonable belief that we can and should transition in that direction, and I don’t think logic alone gets you there.
The key difference between the simplistic and the nuanced versions of those narratives is that one incorporates an actual strategy to win the debate. It requires the team to understand what is at the heart of the debate and what is at the heart of their opposition’s position. From there the team can think of a way to tailor their case so that they have an advantage when choosing and explaining their individual arguments.

Being able to position a case strategically requires understanding that a case builds into something greater than its logical components. Finding and exploiting that level of the debate is a crucial step in using prep time and speaking time most effectively for winning debates.

 Written by Andrew Gaulke
With excerpts from an interview with Tim Sonnreich

Narratological references

Abbot, H. P. (2008). Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Prince, G. D. (2004). Revisiting Narrativity. In M. Bal, Narrative Theory. Routledge
White, H. (1989). The Content of the Form. Johns Hopkins University Press
Gaulke, A. D. (2014) The Use of Narrative in Intervarsity Debate

Debating references

Sonnreich, T. (n.d.). First Principles. Retrieved from MAD Youtube:
Sonnreich, T. (n.d.). First Principles of International Development. Retrieved from MAD Youtube:
Sonnriech, T. (2014, October 13). (A. Gaulke, Interviewer)