Judge adaptation

Judge adaptation is one of the most important skills for debate. Not only is it crucial to succeeding in the debate space, since every judge thinks differently and nobody is truly tab, but adaptation carries on to real life as well, teaching you how to modify your approach to different people you'll meet. Additionally, with almost every type of "flow" judge, these strategies can help you, even if they're not voting off persuasion. Being more convincing helps you win every type of round, not just lay ones.

Unfortunately, in online discussions and forums, people looking to "how to adapt" are almost always met with the same superficial ideas, which while helpful, don't tell the full story of how to truly adapt. My hope is that this page will help with that.


There are some changes you can immediately make to adapt better. While these are great to start, you can't only do the surface-level actions and wonder why they aren't working. Regardless, don't neglect these strategies.

Your judge is not a debater

The one point that's continually repeated is "don't use jargon!" While it may get repetitive, it's true - judges don't know what a "turn" is, and apart from not comprehending the idea you're trying to tell them, your use of jargon may make them feel alienated from the debate, pushing them towards the other, simpler team. Think about the concept behind what a "turn" is and explain it to the judge. In a flow debate as well as a lay debate, the same arguments should come into play, but with lay judges, you can't use jargon as shorthand for the concepts you're used to.

Speak slowly

Should be obvious, but should be repeated anyway. For some unknown reason, teams still speak quickly in front of lay judges. This is almost never a good idea. Not only do the judges usually not understand what you're arguing, but they may feel your speech is "rushed" or "breathless," dropping your speaks as well. For lay judges, I like to keep my speeches around 180 WPM max, which is around 720 words in a 4-minute speech, such as your case or rebuttal.

As you speak slower, you'll notice you can't make as many arguments. This is a good thing! The judge can easily get overwhelmed if you try to cram too many arguments into one speech, as is common in bad rebuttals. If you feel you can't adequately address arguments when speaking slowly, you should work on word efficiency and cutting out speech tics. To practice this, try giving a rebuttal to a case in 4 minutes, then cutting out 30 seconds at a time from the speech while making the same arguments, but more efficiently.

Eye contact

Making eye contact helps in several ways. First, it makes you more persuasive to the judge, who feels like you're talking to them directly. Second, it makes you seem "smarter" in the sense that you're not just reading stuff off a computer, but you're making arguments yourself. (This is also why I recommend not reading off your computer, at all, in lay rounds.) Looking at the judge as you speak will at least help your speaks, if not win you more rounds. (In my freshmen year I was explicitly dropped for reading off my computer.) Finally, eye contact makes you seem more trustworthy, meeting the judge's eyes instead of seeming to avert it.

The best way to have good eye contact is to be familiar with what you're saying, to minimize having to look down at your paper. This is easier for first speakers, as you can practice your case repeatedly until you're so familiar with the exact wording that you only need to take momentary glances down at your paper or laptop. For second speakers in rebuttal and both partners in second-half speeches, I recommend doing many practice rounds and speech redos, to help familiarize yourself with the wording and the rhetoric you'll need to talk about common arguments. By the end of a topic especially, you should be able to give speeches while maintaining complete eye contact for the entire speech, with your flow just there as a backup.


The way to truly appeal to lays past a surface level concerns the substance of your arguments and the way you explain them.

Simple arguments

You should not be running complicated arguments. This doesn't just mean complicated concepts or terms (most lay judges should get those, they're adults and aren't stupid), but the structure of the arguments you're making. You should make your arguments straightforward - no "this is true for six reasons" or internal subpoints of your subpoints - but also make your arguments intuitive. Look at the topic - if a judge with no experience, no research thought about the main arguments on that topic, what would they come up with? The intuitive nature of good arguments is a reason judges will more readily accept your cases, and prioritize them over arguments your opponent tries against them.

This isn't to say that you shouldn't add nuance to arguments, or you should only copy and paste arguments straight out of briefs. However, you should make sure that the relationships you're drawing in your arguments are intuitive. Maybe green paradox arguments or war good aren't the types of arguments you should run in front of a lay judge, and establishing causal relationships that intuitively sound like "a reach" to a judge are a pretty sure way to lose more ballots. Don't just complain about judges bringing in external experiences into the round, actively adapt to them.

Good implication

This is an extension of "the judge is not a debater." While you may know that your second response to their third contention takes out their internal link, preventing your opponents from accessing their impacts, the judge doesn't. Every argument you make in the round, whether it's a case argument you're extending in summary or a turn you're making in rebuttal, must have a clear explanation as to what this means for the round, and more importantly, what this means for the ballot.

This ties into another important principle - remember that arguments that make sense in your head don't necessarily make sense in the judge's. Reading an answer that makes sense on the flow, without explaining what the response means for the round, is meaningless. More implication does mean that you'll have less time to read more arguments, which is a good thing.

Time allocation

Your time allocation, especially in later speeches, is an underappreciated factor in a judge's weighting of different arguments. If your argument is round-ending, extremely important, the first place the judge looks, just asserting those things isn't enough for the judge to really believe them. The more time you spend on the argument, effectively refuting your opponent's responses on that argument and fleshing out the warrants, impacts, and implications, the more likely the judge will think it's important. I've had judges that, despite both sides doing weighing for a specific argument, they ended up spending more time on another, which is what the judge evaluated instead.

When planning your second-half speeches, think about what your most likely path to the ballot is. If the judge is evaluating this round right now, what would be the most likely place they vote? Think critically about the other arguments on your flow. Will they seriously affect the judge's decision about the main paths to the ballot? If not, they probably don't need to be extended in this case; if they're not going to affect it often, why are you reading it in the first place?

If you don't know what your main voting issues are, you shouldn't expect the judge to either. And if you're making arguments that are extraneous to your main voting issues, you're just distracting the judge's attention from the places that really matter. It's your job to focus the judge on what's most important in the round, and not just saying "this is most important," but proving it by spending a lot of time on it.