In order to understand how to do reply speeches well, we need to know what they are first.
So here’s a quick definition. In the Asian, Australasian and World Schools Debating Championship format, it’s a concluding speech, given by either the first or second speaker of the team. This is an additional speech that they have to give after the third speakers from both teams. No new material can be added to reply speeches. Replies are shorter than a regular speech, usually 4 minutes, but it’s 3 minutes at the Singapore Secondary School Debating Championship (SSSDC uses a modified WSDC format). These speeches are worth half a regular speech, so if an average speech would be given a score of 75, an average reply speech will be given 37.5. The role of a reply speaker is to provide an overview of the entire debate, explaining the merits of your case over the opponent’s, and why you deserve to win.
Sounds a bit strange doesn’t it? Isn’t it the job of adjudicators to decide who should win? Why should we have to explain why we won? No new material is allowed and the speeches are worth half a regular speech? Isn’t the debate effectively over before reply speeches start then? Doesn’t seem like there’s much anyone can do to influence the decision.
That’s probably why debaters tend to underestimate the power of a reply speech. At face value, there doesn’t seem to be much use, and people joke about how it should be removed from some formats. Nobody even really trains to give good reply speeches, and it’s the first thing we often cut from a debate when we are short on time during training.
While it’s true that reply speeches don’t have as much impact as a regular speech in a debate, there are specific scenarios that I’ll highlight where reply speeches do matter a great deal. So you probably don’t need to spend a disproportionate time training for reply, especially if you’re inexperienced, as it’s always better to understand the fundamentals. But you definitely shouldn’t neglect it either.
So do reply speeches matter? It depends how you value a reply speech. If they only ‘matter’ based on its ability to win a debate, then I’d say in about 90% (completely unscientific number but used to show the majority) of debates they don’t matter. Why? Because there’s nothing new you could possibly add to your case in reply. If any new matter is ignored in reply, and decisions have to be made based on the material that teams present in substantive speeches and how they interact with each other, reply speeches shouldn’t influence the decision. And the truth of the matter is, the vast majority of debates are decided by the time whip speeches are over. Either because there is a sizeable gap between teams, or judges are lazy and they make their decisions after the whip speech.
Can you win a debate in reply? That’s when the other 10% comes into play. Those are the debates between two very evenly matched teams. Those are the debates which are so close, that nobody can decide who is winning till the very last speech. Sometimes, not even then. Those are the debates where it comes down to a 0.5 difference in reply. This happens frequently in break rounds, and even more so in the final. That’s when debates are generally tighter and harder to call, and adjudicators will hesitate to make up their minds before the debate is over and when they have a chance to review their notes. It also helps that adjudicators aren’t pressed for time to make a decision in the break rounds because they don’t have to worry about holding up the tab. When debates are really close, and judges are willing to take the time to think about the decision, that’s when trying to frame the debate in a manner that’s favourable to your side will matter. In those moments, a brilliant reply is the difference between winning and losing the debate. It could just be me, but in a lot of the more memorable debates I’ve watched, there is always that one reply speech that sticks out as a highlight.
But I think valuing reply on its ability to win a debate isn’t the most strategic option. The real value of reply, is inflating your team’s speaker scores. Since,
A) Debates are often decided before the reply speech, and
B) Reply is supposed to be a ‘biased adjudication’ explaining why you won.
The point of reframing the debate in reply has to be so that the judge looks at your case more favourably, and will likely give higher scores. This means that your real objective in most reply speeches, is blowing the your opponents out of the water if you’re winning, or preventing a thrashing and making it as close as possible if you’re losing. This is really important in preliminary rounds, where it may come down to speaker scores if you don’t have enough wins for a clean break. Obviously it also has an impact on overall speaker rankings.
What if you’re clearly losing in a break round? Speaker scores don’t matter then right? Well yes, and no. Remember what I said earlier about debates being closer in break rounds? Even though you might be clearly losing, decisions in break rounds tend to split with larger panels. And because there are larger panels is that there will be some variance in judging. Which means that while you think you’re clearly losing, and some judges would agree, there may also be a couple of rogue judges that think you’ve won, or that the decision isn’t clear. And a reply speech could swing a couple of those judges and you might pull off a lucky win.
In summary, there are 2 goals with reply speeches
a) Winning close debates
b) Widening the margin when you’re winning, or narrowing the margin when you’re losing, by influencing the judge to view your team’s earlier speeches favourably, causing them to inflate your scores.
Given that these are the objectives with reply speeches, how do we deliver a good reply?
The most common explanation given to new debaters (especially during briefings by adjudication cores) is that a reply speech should be structured like a ‘biased oral adjudication’. That means whatever a decent judge usually explains as justification for a team to win, but heavily in favour of your side. However, if you watch really good debaters, particularly good reply speakers, they don’t always follow that standard structure of breaking down and explaining why their team won each issue.
The more useful explanation that I’ve gotten and used throughout my career is this: Do whatever it takes to win. There are no rules.
Like seriously. No rules, no real format or structure to learn. If you’ve seen enough debates, you’ll realise that debaters will pull any trick necessary in order to help their team win. You can open with a compelling story. You can tell jokes (I’ve done replies with nothing else but jokes because it was a final or there was absolutely nothing new or interesting I could say to explain why we won). Make your opponent’s case seem as ridiculous as possible, you can even concede to almost everything your opponent argued, but try to claim that the debate is decided on this one single issue that you clearly won. You can even try to sneak new analysis or responses in your reply if you have to (but obviously you would need to do it in a way that isn’t easily noticed, like using very similar language from your earlier speeches).
Because you have complete freedom, style is the most important in reply. A rhetorically powerful speech can make adjudicators forget or overlook logical flaws made earlier in the debate, especially since it’s the last thing that was said during the debate and adjudicators aren’t the best at keeping precise notes. Or even if they did, they still might not notice because there were so many things going on. If you would like a good example of powerful speeches outside of a debate setting, I highly recommend watching Boston Legal. The main character Alan Shore always delivers really compelling closing arguments on the most ridiculous of cases. While it’s highly dramaticized and structured to be entertaining for television audiences, the principles are actually really similar to reply speeches in debating. A speech doesn’t always have to function by appealing to our logical intuitions, but just developing a connection with that other person and making them feel something. The same way a song might not have the most amazing lyrics but the way it was constructed resonates with you on a deeper level. Speakers with good style are able to achieve that connection not through their words, but the way their words are presented, and this shows really clearly in reply.
The second reason why style is really important in reply, is because everyone thinks the debate is over before reply speeches begin, including judges. That is why a lot of adjudicators don’t actually listen very closely to the reply, particularly in the preliminary rounds because they are filling up scoresheets or drafting what they are going to say during their oral adjudication.
Don’t believe me? Just take a peek at what judges are doing when replies are going on. Are they actually writing down notes from the speech? What sort of facial expressions are they making? Check the scores for the reply speech afterwards. Do you notice how some judges tend to give very similar scores for speeches that were noticeably different in quality. And that they give those same scores for reply across multiple debates? You’ll be surprised by how often they’ve mentally checked out from the debate during the reply. So during your reply speech, you need to try extra hard to be engaging. Force judges to listen. If you’re entertaining, or deliver really compelling replies, it becomes a lot harder to ignore. If adjudicators pay attention to your reply, then your reply is suddenly worth something in the debate.
Ok but maybe you wanted more of a discussion of specific techniques/strategies in reply rather than these obtuse ‘wax on, wax off’ concepts I ramble on about.
Anyway, I did say do anything it takes to win, which should mean that your options in reply are really open, but there are a few things you should look out for or fall back on.
1. Reframe the debate
Going back to the earlier description of ‘biased oral adjudication’, you’ll realise that adjudicators don’t just give a rundown of who won what issue in a debate and base their decision off that. Otherwise all oral adjudications would literally be “There were 3 issues in this debate, Prop won 2 issues, Opp won 1 issue, therefore Prop wins”. Ok I guess bad adjudicators do that. Good adjudicators wouldn’t just explain who won which issue, but also explain how they weighed the various issues and determined the ones that were most important to winning the debate.
If good judges do that, good reply speakers should too. But you need to be smart about which issue you push in reply. The reason for that is, unless it was a thrashing, your team couldn’t have won all the issues discussed in the debate. All of us, even the best debaters, will make strategic (or not so strategic) calls to drop certain arguments as the debate progresses because there simply isn’t enough time to discuss everything in a single speech.
This means there will be some arguments that you have most definitely have lost to your opponents. It’s often far more efficient (and effective), to spend the time in reply speeches explaining why the issues you’ve already won, also won you the entire debate. Doesn’t matter if the opponents take a couple of arguments here and there. The goal is to make your opponent’s victories meaningless, and not try to win every battle at the last moment.
Even when you do focus on what you’ve done well as a team, don’t blow up smaller wins while losing sight of the larger issues in the debate. Remember, you’re condensing your entire team’s case into half a speech. No need for a blow-by-blow account. What’s most important is explaining why winning the issues you won matters in the context of winning the debate. Think about the biggest ideas that help support or take down the motion and focus on that.
2. Establish or push burdens
Everyone knows how to whine about their opponents failing to engage with this and that, their arguments lacked sufficient analysis, and therefore they should lost the debate. It’s easy to do that. Meta-debating, or debating about the debate and the roles that each team had to fulfil, is way more complex. I’ll explore this more in a later article, but basically each motion places expectations on each team that they have to fulfil in order for their side to stand at the end of the debate. By pointing out failures to fulfil those expectations or burdens, tweaking accepted burdens and then claiming that the opponent did not fulfil them, or inventing new burdens entirely to throw everyone off (the last one is a speciality of one of the circuits within Asia that shall remain unnamed), you can often guarantee the win. If your opponent did not fulfil their burden in the debate, it’s very difficult for a judge to be persuaded by their case, regardless of the sophistication of their arguments. The only real problem is that some teams take this to extremes by pushing the most ridiculous burdens onto their opponents instead of just debating straight up. Don’t do that. If I’m judging you and you push stupid burdens expecting the win, I’ll push you. Out the window.
3. Nuances between Prop and Opp reply
A) Who should give replies?
While either 1st or 2nd speakers can give the reply speech, it’s probably a bit easier if the 1st speaker on Opposition gives the reply. If you’re 2nd Opp, you only can really start working on your reply after you’ve done your speech, which means you have all of 3rd Prop and 3rd Opp (14-16 minutes depending on the format) to prepare before you have to speak again. If you’re 1st Opp, you have 4 speeches (28-32 minutes) before your reply speech. Of course, if you’re completely comfortable going 2nd Opp and Opp reply, go ahead, and there are some situations where I’ve done the same or instructed my students to do it because the matchup dictated it. This is not a problem on Proposition as you’ll always have 4 speeches before Prop reply so 2nd speaker doing replies is comfortable.
B) Opp Whip-Reply Dynamic
The fact that Opposition reply starts immediately after the whip speech creates a very powerful timing window that can be used to swing debates in your favour. In the Asians format for example, it’s 11 total minutes where you control the floor, the judges, and you cannot be interrupted by your opponents. The goal here isn’t to just repeat each other, with one speech less responsive than the other, but for both speeches to be in sync to serve a greater strategic purpose;
Key responses missing from your team? Whip provides them and reply throws a smokescreen to make it seem like they were hinted at in the earlier substantive speeches.
Proposition failing to engage with your material? Leave it to reply to bitch about it while whip devotes their attention to demolishing the Prop case.
There are just too many scenarios and options to list out, but the point is, think about what strategic goal you are trying to accomplish before the whip speech, and how the whip and reply plays with each other. Mess up the balance, and you sound repetitive and boring, or the effect is severely diminished because both speeches try to achieve very different objectives and fail. In a close debate, that window is where you aim to seal the win.
c) Last word in Prop reply
Title says it all really. You have the last word. You need to have the best comeback(s). If you make an impact here, it will stick with adjudicators when they are making their decision after the debate.