Clarity: The Stranger Test

The best communicators are the clearest communicators. Your judge can’t vote on what they don’t know, so improving your explanatory skills is always worthwhile. Here’s a tip:

Barriers to Comprehension

Let’s take a look at how the Peterson Institute for International Economics explains the concept of smart sanctions.

"Targeted sanctions" or "smart sanctions", like "smart bombs", are meant to focus their impact on leaders, political elites and segments of society believed responsible for objectionable behavior, while reducing collateral damage to the general population and third countries.” 

Imagine hearing this as a judge, who’s only vaguely familiar with the concept of sanctions, let alone smart sanctions. What does this judge hear?

Society, focus impact, more words. Collateral damage? [I’m lost.]”

Can you blame them? The judge has never interacted with smart sanctions.

The sad thing is, many debaters leave explanations like this, assuming the judge should just make the jump to understanding smart sanctions. But you haven’t given them the tools to do so.

In debate, we have to choose what we devote time to explaining. So how do we decide?

The Stranger Test

It’s difficult to explain ideas that the judge doesn’t interact with on a regular basis. For example, let’s try explaining the minimum wage.

“The minimum wage is the lowest amount of money that an employer can pay an employee.”

There’s a decent chance the judge has interacted with an employer before, so minimum wage will probably be within their territory of knowledge. But what if you aren’t sure?

Here’s a quick way to test if you need a deeper explanation: “If you read off a definition of this term to a stranger, would he know what you were talking about?” If the answer is no, the position deserves some time.

Make it Personal

Let’s try the smart sanctions explanation again. But this time, let’s provide a simple example.

Smart sanctions are just sanctions that target the bad people instead of a whole region. For example, let’s say you want to punish Dave the terrorist in Bangladesh. Instead of just sanctioning the entire nation of Bangladesh, which ends up hurting the people who live there, through taking away their ability to trade with the US, you prohibit Dave from doing business with US companies. They punish the bad guys and protect the innocents.”

Note what we’re doing here. We’ve taken a complex idea and illustrating it using human details. The more personal the explanation, the easier it is to bring the concept out of the esoteric and into the concrete.

Let’s try it with an even more complex idea, blockchain. Investopedia defines blockchain as follows:

“A blockchain is a digitized, decentralized, public ledger of all cryptocurrency transactions.”

No one has any idea what that means. Let’s go for take 2.

"A blockchain is like an automatic, permanent spreadsheet that keeps track of everywhere your money goes. Every time two people make a transaction, that transaction is recorded on the spreadsheet and cannot be changed.”

Granted, there’s a lot more to blockchain than this simple illustration. But this example gets the ball rolling, and allows us to move into more complex subjects with ease.

Ever had an idea that was really hard to explain? Let us know in the comments below!