by Lawrence Zhou.

What does it mean to be sick with the lay? It means mastering the difficult concept of judge adaptation. It means making arguments accessible to a wide range of audiences. It means mastering a balance of technical proficiency, perceptual dominance, and rhetorical persuasiveness.

In my mind, there are two broad categories of “lay” judges. The first is “flay” judges, which broadly refers to lay judges that are experienced, such as coaches of lay programs or previous lay debaters. The second type of judges are broadly categorized as parent judges, like those who are simply judging

This article is divided into three parts. The first will cover general tips on being lay; the second will focus more on adapting to “flay” judges; the final part will focus more on adapting to parent judges.

3 General Tips for Being Lay

You need to drop jargon, progressive strategies, and speed.

This is easy to say, but hard to do. Without realizing it, debaters have allowed the debate world become their real world. Debate terminology shows up everywhere. In a debate round, debaters have trouble dropping speed, and strategies such as kicking arguments are just considered normal. However, to effectively persuade lay judges, debaters have to learn that these strategies and practices have to go. This is probably the most obvious part about adapting to lay judges, but it’s also one of the hardest to do simply because it’s been so engrained within the way that people debate.

This is not to say that all jargon and progressive strategies need to go. Some jargon is acceptable, such as “turn”, but the trick is using it sparingly. Some jargon is fine because it conveys to the judges that you understand the arguments better, which is a part of being perceptually dominant. However, too much jargon or the overuse of progressive strategies will result in judges being biased against you. They key is to use your more advanced knowledge as a way to become more perceptually dominant, not in a way to alienate judges, especially judges who believe that any form of policy argumentation should stay out of LD debate.

However, the worst part about this is that it is NOT sufficient to merely drop jargon, progressive strategies, and speed. Merely doing this will not guarantee consistent wins across lay judges because debaters who primarily debate traditionally also don’t have jargon and progressive strategies, but have more experience with lay judges. It is, however, extremely important that these practices go away.

You need to focus more on the big picture and crystallization than on the line-by-line. A story is the most important thing in the round.

There’s a reason it’s called the ballot story. Lay debate is about showing the judges the big picture, the whole story. This does NOT mean that the line-by-line goes away. Too often debaters spend too much time on the line-by-line and fail to see the big picture. The key thing to remember is that the line-by-line is important because it constructs the big picture. The line-by-line does not detract from the big picture; rather, the line-by-line compliments the big picture.

To effectively debate the big picture is to integrate the line-by-line into a compelling thesis for voting for your side. To do this means doing lots of weighing and explaining argument interaction. Instead of having multiple independent arguments, it means integrating those arguments into an overall position that explains why the judge should vote for you. It doesn’t really matter if your opponent dropped the Smith 14 evidence. What matters is that the Smith 14 evidence is part of the larger picture that explains why affirming/negating leads to unacceptable moral harms. Focus on constructing a consistent and compelling ballot story that provides a larger overall reason to affirm/negate. Debaters who don’t have a larger round view are going to lose rounds because they just can’t explain to the judge the main two or three reasons why the judge should sign the ballot for their side.

Perceptual dominance is much more important because it tips close rounds in your favor and because the judge begins looking for reasons to vote for you.

It means that perceptual dominance matters. You have to impose your will on the round. Many lay debates will make it seem like you’re talking past each other. If you force your will on the round and explain everything from your side, you’re much more likely to win because judges are more likely to see things from your perspective if you sound like you’re winning. Perceptual dominance matters because judges want to vote for the debate who looks like they’re winning. If they don’t look like they’re winning, then the judge has very little reason to vote for you.

Perceptual dominance is very difficult to explain. It is an unspoken skill, and one that people can only pick up with practice. It is a delicate combination of confidence, intelligence, and sounding persuasive. It shows is cross-examination, where debaters clearly establish that they are controlling cross examination, it shows when debaters don’t act flustered and maintain poise, and it shows when debaters speak articulately, fluently, elegantly, and concisely. There is no definite definition of what it means to be perceptually dominant, but you’ll know it when you see it and you’ll see the results when you’ve mastered it.

“Flay” Judges

“Flay”, or flow lay, judges are judges that are either coaches or former competitors with a fair amount of debate experience, but only with traditional debate. They usually flow debates, understand argumentation, but have biases against certain debate arguments and practices. Here are a couple of tips to adapting in front of “flay” judges.

Don’t assume flay judges are below you

One key thing to remember is that flay judges are extremely intelligent debate coaches or former competitors that understand how arguments work and how debate works. They probably have been part of the activity of debate for longer than you have and have lots of experience with debate. The difference is merely in their preference of arguments. Flay judges should not be treated as judges that don’t understand logic, argumentation, or as inferior. Too many debaters make the mistake of “over-adapting” to flay judges and assume that they just need to “talk pretty” and they will win over flay judges. This is patently false. These judges like arguments, they like smart arguments, and they shouldn’t be treated as inferior judges. Don’t make the mistake of “talking down” to these judges. You should be running a lot of the same arguments that you would run otherwise, just in a manner that is more accessible to them, i.e. in a way that avoids jargon, progressive techniques and emphasizes crystallization.

Be technically proficient

One thing that really impresses lay judges is to demonstrate technical proficiency. Sure, parents notice technical proficiency, but they don’t really appreciate it. Flay judges do. They notice the control you have in round, the advanced weighing that you can do, and the ability to understand arguments. Flay judges are highly impressed when you can explain exactly how arguments function in round and explain it in a manner that doesn’t require progressive techniques and jargon. If you can explain how to weigh between two utilitarian claims without resorting to buzzwords like magnitude and probability, but still explain the concepts behind the argument, you’ll likely impress many judges. If you can explain how Kant works in a way that the everyday person can understand, you’ll knock the socks off of many judges. Technical proficiency shouldn’t suffer because you’re debating in front of “flay” judges. It should just be presented in a different manner.

Don’t be risky

For some unknown reason, flay judges would prefer that you play it safe than to venture outside the established norms of lay debate. It’s better to play it cautious and not do anything that might be considered “deviant” from the norm of lay debate. For example, don’t kick cases, or go all in one turn at the expense of other arguments, or overinvest on framework. Play it safe if you’re unsure and just debate how they want you to. Even if you know you’re really far ahead of one layer of the debate, don’t just collapse solely on that. Judges still expect you to defend your arguments and your positions. Don’t do anything that you might even think that a flay judge will find illegitimate. If you want consistent wins, play it safe. Read a stock case and have a couple of stock turns and framework answers, but don’t do anything crazy. You should win these types of rounds because you are more technically proficient and because you know the stuff better than your opponent. Just play it safe, but play it smart.

Just as key note, flay judges are smart, but that doesn’t mean they hold strong paradigmatic preferences for and against certain arguments and that those preferences vary wildly among judges. They are sometimes dogmatic in their beliefs about debate and what one flay judge considers a good argument, another may not believe is good. The way to compensate is to play it safe. If you play it safe, there’s less of a chance that you will violate one of the myriad of beliefs that a flay judge might hold.

Parent Judges

Unfortunately, there is no way to really guarantee a win with a parent judge. You simply don’t know exactly what they are thinking, how they think, or how they see issues. There are, however, a couple of key tips to winning over parent judges.


No, this does not mean argue with your own parents. You will lose each and every one of those debates. What this means is to use your parents as a valuable resource. Ask them to listen to the arguments you are going to make and ask for feedback. Usually, it’s not a matter of what arguments you are reading. Rather, it’s an issue of how you are presenting arguments. You can make very complex arguments in debate rounds as long as you make the arguments in a way that parents can understand them, and this requires practicing with your parents. And don’t just ask parents. Ask anyone. Ask teachers, other adults, your parent’s coworkers, anyone. Just run your arguments past them and try and focus on explaining them in a way that they will understand it. Too many top debaters fail to adapt properly because they didn’t figure out how to explain those arguments to parents in a way that the parent judges understood.

See from their perspective

Another key issue with parent judges is that they see rounds differently. A lot of parent judges don’t evaluate the round like an experienced judge would. Most experienced judges look for reasons to vote for one side over another, however, parent judges will frequently disagree with a single argument a debater made and sometimes will drop the debater simply for making that argument that they disagree with. This is part of the practice point above, but it is still worth mentioning again: parents see from a different perspective. You have to remember this when in round.

One of the most important parts of seeing from their perspective is to find the gut level arguments that just are true. Each side of the topic usually has a couple of intuitive arguments that people just believe. For example, on the organ procurement topic, the intuitive affirmative argument was that we should save lives by increasing organ donation rates, and the intuitive negative argument is that you own your body and that we shouldn’t assume that people would give up their body. Both are highly intuitive and many people believed that both arguments were “true”. You have to exploit these intuitive arguments and make them strong reasons to vote for your side of the resolution.

One of the most effective ways to make the intuitive arguments stronger is to make them matter to the judge. Instead of making arguments in the abstract, you can make those intuitive arguments matter to the judge on a personal level. Using the organ procurement example again, one way to make those arguments impact to the judge is to say “if we can save lives at almost no cost, why wouldn’t we? People are dying right now and we can fix that if we affirm,” or, “I agree that saving lives is a good thing, but we shouldn’t do it at the cost of our autonomy” if you were negating. Both of these would be ways to appeal directly to the judge, and in close rounds, the emotional appeal that it has, coupled with the logical argumentation, will be enough to win.

Be perceptually dominant

I know this was mentioned above, but this cannot be stressed enough when it comes to parent judges. Most of the time, they won’t really know who won. They want to just pick the side they agree with most or disagree with less. To them, they just really aren’t sure exactly how to pick a winner. You need to resolve this problem. If parents aren’t sure how to pick a winner, then you probably are going to lose about half of your rounds. In order to secure consistent wins from parent judges, you need to convince them that you are on the right side of the issue, or at least sound like you are on the right side of the issue. Sometimes this means sacrificing some technical proficiency, but it’s usually an acceptable tradeoff since many parents don’t flow very well (or at all). 9 times out of 10, parent judges will vote for whoever sounds like they’re winning. So one way to consistently win is to sound like you’re winning. Make everything a big deal. Use rhetoric that makes it sound like you are winning.

One effective way to become perceptually dominant, especially with parent judges is to learn the customs of your local circuit. This means watching top local debaters and picking up on the rhetorical and strategic techniques they are employing to make it appear that they are winning rounds. Some top debaters may appear perceptually dominant because they are full of energy and passion, whereas some may appear perceptually dominant because they are so calm and collected. Each area differs and its worth watching top debaters to see what makes them perceptually dominant.


Being sick with the lay is not easy, but it’s very much doable. Just like with any debate skill, however, it’s not just enough to read about this. To truly become a master of judge adaptation requires practice. Simply eliminating the jargon and speed is hard enough, but to perfect the lost art of persuasion is a skill that is hard to come by. However, once the skill of persuasion is mastered, it will be invaluable in being sick with the lay.