How to Explain Things - Part 1

There are two basic tools of explanation. This post covers the first one: Reference Points.

Reference Points

Reference points are things that two people already know, like a shared language. This post is written in English, because I know that’s what you speak. If it were written in Swahili, it may still contain useful information, but it would probably be useless to you.

Beyond language, reference points can be based on memory and experience. Teach chess to your 8-year-old brother, and you're going to need to walk through all of the basics, like what direction to move a bishop. But watch two chess experts talk with each other, and they won't bother explaining what words like "checkmate" or "en passant" mean.

Because everyone has different experiences, we all have different reference points. Communication is a skill, not a trait.

Reference Amnesia

Debaters put countless hours into researching a topic and writing cases and arguments for it. They debate it over and over, explaining the same argument so often that it becomes familiar and simple to them. Then comes the pitfall: they'll forget that the judge is hearing it for the first time. This is common in LD applications, where debaters will dive into a historical event without warning:

“Application: The Cold War

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, (the what?) the Soviet Union was on the verge of initiating preemptive warfare with the United States...” (back up!)

There is a place where all new information will cause confusion. One step behind it is the information the judge will recognize. To utilize reference points, find the last piece of common ground, and then take the judge the rest of the way.

Start with the Judge’s Knowledge

The goal isn't to baby your judge with obvious facts (Russia is a country!) but to create an accessible starting point for the rest of the argument.

You can make this happen in a sentence:

“Due to intense political differences, the United States and the Soviet Union came dangerously close to war in the 1960's.” (Oh yeah that.)

How you start an application matters. Don't try to impress the judge by rattling off historical details that no one has time to process. The best way to build credibility is through comprehension, not confusion.

Watch your Judge Closely

With practice, you can see what your judge’s reference points are as you deliver. If the judge seemed to be following your application until you brought up the name of "Archduke Ferdinand", pause your explanation and create the common ground:

"Archduke Ferdinand never anticipated his country going to war. In 1909 -- oh by the way, Archduke Ferdinand was the leader of Austria. He was assassinated in 1909 and that lead to World War I. It caught everyone by surprise. Especially Ferdinand…"

A reference point brings your judges up to speed. It ensures that their time will be spent listening to your content, not trying to remember their world history class in high school.

Master this, and it will be impossible for the judge to lose you.

For Coaches

You can help your students hone their mastery of reference points by assigning each of them a specific historical event in club meet. At the next meet, they have 15 seconds to describe that event. This means they can’t go in-depth; they have to use their weeks’ worth of research to find a reference point for the judge. Be very strict on the 15-second time limit.