How to judge: Unpacking persuasiveness

doorMascha Bloemer

How to judge: Unpacking persuasiveness

By Srdjan Miletic

Bad Coaching
By far the biggest part of judging a BP debate is evaluating the persuasiveness of the arguments teams bring. Yet, I found that when I used to teach judging I focused far more on teaching the rules of BP and practical tips such as how to take notes.
In fact, both I and previous coaches of my club limited our discussion of evaluating persuasiveness to generic advice such as taking the position of the average informed voter and negative advice such as not taking style or number of arguments made into account. What was always lacking, and what seriously slowed the rate at which our novices became good judges, was a decent positive explanation of what persuasiveness is as opposed to what it is not and I’d wager that a good proportion of clubs out there made the same mistake we did. Since September this year I’ve been teaching such a positive explanation with great success, four of our novices made the judge break in their first tournament*, and this article presents that explanation.

Unpacking Persuasiveness
The way I conceptualize of persuasiveness is simple:

An argument is persuasive to the extent to which the average informed voter would find it:
– True
– Important
– (2nd half teams)Original, compared to 1st half

More specifically, imagine we assign an argument a value from 0.0 to 1.0 for each of the above characteristics. (Don’t actually try and do this as it’s impossible to assign values so precisely) The overall persuasiveness of an argument would then be the result of all these values multiplied together. Also remember that truth, importance and originality aren’t binary, they’re a scale. A judge doesn’t have to buy an argument in it’s entirety or reject it completely, something which a lot of people do when starting out. Hence an argument which is unlikely to be true but is unbelievably important if true, say that there will be nuclear war if NATO sends troops to the Crimea, can still be very persuasive.  Finally, as always, any evaluations of the characteristics of an argument must be grounded in what the average voter would believe.

The Result
There are two benefits to unpacking persuasiveness in this manner. First, when an actual model is at hand it is easier to evaluate how persuasive arguments are in a more objective manner than when relying on gut feeling which invariably varies far more between judges and is influenced far more by the style, language proficiency and appearance of a speaker. Secondly, with such a model it becomes far easier to have productive discussions about how persuasive arguments are by talking about how far an average informed voter would believe them to be true or important. On the other hand when the concept remains fuzzy such discussions are necessarily less detailed making disagreements harder to resolve.

*Yes, I take all the credit for this and all other achievements of our novices inside or outside of debating.

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Mascha Bloemer contributor