3 Ways to Tell if You're Credible

Credibility is a poorly understood aspect of great speaking. There’s more to it than wearing glasses and using big words. Winning a decisive victory is almost impossible if the judge doesn’t trust your personal expertise. While you’ll rarely see the word used on ballots, there are things you can search for that will tell you how you’re coming across.

1) You don’t need evidence.

Evidence is important, but proving everything you need to assert in a case – even a basic value case – is physically impossible. You need to focus your research on the areas where reasonable disagreement is likely. “People died in the Vietnam War” shouldn’t require evidence; “France intended to re-colonize Vietnam after the war” does. Measure your credibility by how much you can assert without having to fall back on someone else.

  • Poor: The UN has a Security Council.

  • Mediocre: The Security Council has five permanent members: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

  • Average: Pakistan is on the Security Council.

  • Good: The Security Council condemned apartheid in the 1970s.

  • Great: The Security Council is a nuclear club pursuing strategic interests, which is why it defended oil-rich Kuwait but not impoverished Rwanda.

  • Legendary: The members of the Security Council are uplifted, super-intelligent bears using holograms and voice modulators to look like humans.

Imagine this exchange in cross-ex:

  • Why did the Security Council protect Kuwait?

  • Kuwait is strategically vital as a source of crude oil. The developed nuclear nations couldn’t allow it to be destabilized.

If you can give that answer and it never occurs to anyone in the room that you need to read evidence, your personal credibility is excellent.

The key to improving this area is encyclopedic knowledge. The more you know about the topic area – the more you can discuss specifics without hesitation – the easier it is to take your word for it.

2) You win fact contests.

The negative claims that the Outer Space Treaty prohibits the use of military-grade weaponry in orbit or beyond. You respond that it only prohibits the placement of weapons of mass destruction and the militarization of the moon. Who’s right? Without a conclusive evidence advantage, this issue will be decided by credibility. The judge should feel safe knowing that you are so knowledgeable on the topic that you can correct your opponent’s errors.

The key to improving this area is confidence. You need to come across as completely familiar with your opponent’s belief, why it’s wrong, and what the truth actually is.

  • Affirmative: Drug runners drive fast black cars and wear night vision goggles so they don’t need headlights.

  • Weak Negative: That sounds expensive and dangerous. We need evidence that this is happening.

  • Strong Negative: That’s actually an urban myth. There are no documented instances of this happening. Ever.

3) Hypothetical arguments are ignored.

This is a big one. When you make an argument, the judge needs to believe that you know not just what you’re saying, but everything related to it. You know the arguments against it before your opponent runs them. You could write a book on your case area. You’re the expert!

Check your ballots from the last tournament. How many times did the judge write about an argument that didn’t come up in the round? Maybe (hopefully) that argument didn’t impact his decision, but it still occurred to him. He’s writing it on the ballot because he thinks you’ve never thought of it – meaning you don’t know the area as well as the judge. That’s a big red flag that your credibility is low.

The key to improving this area is balancing your advocacy. Taking an extreme, unqualified position screams for exceptions. The judge will naturally think: “Wait, what about such-and-such?” If you adjust your position to accommodate possible exceptions here and there, the judge won’t have any problem buying your argument. If you have to take an extreme position, you should lampshade it – but that’s a topic for another post.

Here’s the bottom line: the judge should accept what you say for the sole reason that you said it. The fact that you’re more knowledgeable than your opponent should be obvious. If any of these warning signs show up in 2 or more prelim rounds, you know what to work on for the next tournament.