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What is policy debate?

Policy debate is strategic argument between two teams on a given topic. Each team contains two people. The team in affirmation must come up with a plan, a way to support the topic, in the form of a government policy. (Read: "The United States Federal Government should do blah blah blah.") The team in negation tries to convince the judge that the plan is a bad idea. The rest of the debate centers around whether or not the plan should be enacted.

That sounds pretty boring.

I know, I wasn't crazed at first either. But you'll be happy to find that policy debate is a healthy combination of politics, philosophy, ethics, performance, and basically whatever you want it to be. This event will prepare you for every other speech and debate event. Policy is a space where you can do whatever you want. Technically, you could go into round singing with a ukulele and read stories the entire time. You should probably give it a chance.

Here's the speech layout of a debate round:

1 = first       2 = second       C = constructive       R = rebuttal       N = negative       A = affirmative       ...Yeah, that's confusing. Let's split it up:

You can think of policy debate rounds as being split into 2 sections: the first four are constructive speeches and the last four are rebuttal speeches. Each debater will give one of each type of speech. Constructive speeches are 8 minutes, whereas rebuttal speeches are only 5. (Don't be scared if you think that's way too much time to speak. Trust me, it's often times not enough.)

With constructive speeches:

  • You make ALL of your arguments. By the end of the constructive speeches, your arguments should be completely developed.
  • You have to respond to new arguments that your opponents make.
  • There is a cross examination period after every constructive speech.

With rebuttal speeches:

  • You have to respond to arguments that your opponents make.
  • You need to compare your evidence with theirs.
  • You need to explain why the arguments you're winning are important to the round.
  • You cannot make new arguments.

Think of it like a cake baking contest:

The constructive speeches are when you actually bake your cake. Every argument made by both teams is like an ingredient that goes into their own cake. By the time the constructive speeches are done, the cake should be completely baked and ready, like well-developed and packaged debate cases.

The rebuttal speeches are when you actually taste your opponent's cake and try to convince everyone that yours is WAY better. You do this by comparing the cakes. "Becky put too much chocolate in hers. Barbara didn't put enough butter in. Pam's cake is so dry, her cake should be called the Sahara Dessert." Since the cakes are already done, you can't just add a forgotten egg or a pinch of baking powder to your own cake, in the same way that you can't make new points in a rebuttal speech.

Why are the speeches set up like this?

The Affirmative's Advantage: Notice how the affirmative gets the first and last speech; they decide what the debate is going to be about and they have the last say in the round, which means they have the opportunity to attack what their opponents say in the negative's last rebuttal. This last speech is incredibly important, because the negative reveals why the judge should vote for them in their last rebuttal. If the affirmative team can prove that their voters are wrong, then the negative team doesn't have reasons to win.

The Negative's Advantage: Notice how the negative team gets the last constructive speech and the first rebuttal speech. You might be confused -- isn't is kinda silly for the negative team to have two speeches in a row? This is called the neg block. This gives the negative team has 13 minutes to make well-developed arguments, and the affirmative team only has 5 minutes to respond to all of that! If the affirmative team forgets to answer anything that the negative team makes in the block, the argument is conceded to the negative team.

Explaining Each Speech

1AC - A person decides to casually take a scenic drive. So far, they've been having a great day. They probably got an ice cream cone or something. Right now, they're extremely positive and optimistic. The job of this speech is to make sure that this person's drive is as smooth as possible.

This is the first affirmative constructive speech. As this is the only completely pre-written speech, this should be the best and most prepared speech in the entire round. Your 1AC should be practiced; you shouldn't be stumbling on words or taking huge pauses. This is your opportunity to put out as much information as you can about why the resolution is a good idea and why your plan is the best thing on the planet.

1NC - Little does this person know that their perfect day is going to be completely ruined. They're the target of a murder plot. The job of this speech is to crash into the target's car and cause as much damage as possible.

This is the first negative constructive speech. Ultimately, you want to open up as many strategies to win as you can. This can be done through attacks on the affirmative's actual case, as well as arguments we call "off-case" arguments. These include topicality, counterplans, disadvantages.

2AC - One little car crash couldn't have done too much, right? The job of this speech is to investigate the damage and point out how little damage was actually done (or at least pretend that it wasn't a lot).

This is the second affirmative constructive speech. This speech really aims to put bandaids on everything that the negative speech just attacked, and then stand up to restate their arguments said in the first speech and elaborate on them to make them stronger.

THE NEG BLOCK (2NC/1NR) - This is where things get REAL. The block is equivalent to 5 car crashes, jet planes flying over with bullets, a sudden life-threatening wildfire, an army of dogs ready to eat off someone's face, and a single sneaky coupon thief. Basically, 2NC and 1NR's job is to really just kill this man.

The block contains the second negative constructive and the first negative rebuttal speeches, only to be interrupted by a cross-examination period. These two speeches are treated as just one, long speech. The negative team should split the block so that arguments aren't repeated in both speeches. This will allow the negative side to generate more attacks on the affirmative team. With so much time, you should be able to adequately cover all of your best arguments and finish building them up.

1AR - Okay, so things are looking pretty bad right now. The person is unconscious, their left arm is probably broken, they might have some bruises on their legs and their ice cream coupons are missing. The job of this speech to successfully get the person to the hospital.

This is the first affirmative rebuttal. This is arguably the toughest speech in the entire round. Here, the affirmative has to address everything that the negative team said with incredible efficiency, because the affirmative only has a fraction of the time that the negative team had. This can be done by packaging similar arguments together, so you can answer more than one argument at once. You should also go down your flow so can answer all of their arguments in the order that they made them.

2NR - This speech is one last attempt to crash into the ambulance carrying the person to the hospital.

This is the second negative rebuttal. Here, the negative team chooses their strongest argument and then emphasize that argument. Usually, the negative team only needs to win one of their arguments to win the debate. The negative team will also give voters in this speech. Voters are stating what arguments they won, why those arguments are important, and reasons why they won the round. (Click here to access a copy of notes I took at camp during a lecture about the 2NR.)

2AR - This speech is trying to convince everyone that you DID make it to the hospital, and your person is very much still alive.

This is the second affirmative rebuttal, the last speech in the entire round. (I know. Finally, we're done.) The affirmative needs to attack the arguments they went for in the last speech and then give their own voters.


I just discovered this amazing video series created by Callie Chappell, a college debater at University of Michigan, on YouTube aimed for novices in policy debate. Below I've linked her videos that go over what has been said above, however I do recommend going to her channel and exploring everything for yourself.

Policy Debate 101 -- Introduction to Debate
The Format of Debate

John R. Prager wrote this as a result of needing to answer students' questions while he was coaching. You don't need to read all of it, but it has potential to be extremely helpful.

Our pal, Hailey Dennis, put together this handy dandy little handbook to demystify policy debate. (Warning, I'd say the language is PG-13.) You can also enjoy this super huge file that nobody really reads here.