Chapter 10. Make a Case for Something

Alright – you are ready to persuade. How exactly should you go about that? You will “make the case” for your argument. Finally!

Debaters inherited a Latin phrase from lawyer-land: “prima facie.” It means “on its face,” which really just means “on initial appearance, there seems to be a case here that is worth addressing.”

For example, there is a process for serious crimes in our country where a grand jury will issue an indictment (a formal accusation of a crime). The legal standard used is “prima facie” – is there sufficient evidence available for a case against the accused. In a grand jury indictment hearing, there is no defense to present counter-evidence and say “no, they’re wrong!” Only the evidence for the crime is presented. That’s because the indictment is determining whether an accusation has strong enough support to demand a trial. Later, at trial, the defense will have an opportunity to answer the claims (perhaps proving innocence), and the prosecution will go much further than the initial case, in cross-examining, analyzing, and persuading.

So a “prima facie case” means enough of a case for something that, without opposition, we could in good conscience make the decision it recommends. So it’s a debate starter.

One may argue that “their case is not even prima facie” when on the opposing team. It’s usually a fruitless argument, since answering claims of a case may certainly defeat the case, but does not mean that the initial case lacked the merits to even consider it for a moment. Occasionally, however, you will need to articulate that a case lacked the basic components of prima facie consideration. Here are two examples:

  • Example A: On the topic “the U.S. should reduce barriers to immigration,” let’s suppose an affirmative team demonstrates the top 3 problems in immigration today and sits down. The negative could successfully argue: “There is no case for a reduction in barriers, since the affirmative never articulated which barriers ought to be reduced, and did not attempt to demonstrate such a plan would work. Your consideration at this point would be premature, because no actual proposal has been articulated.”
  • Example B: On the topic “in Western Democracies, privacy ought to be valued over national security,” let’s suppose the first affirmative speech articulates the three key benefits of privacy, and the three worst things about national security. A savvy negative speaker could successfully argue: “There is no prima facie case for the resolution here, because no comparison was made. Simply pointing out benefits of privacy and detriments of national security does not directly compare the benefits of each to the other, or the downsides of each to the other, or really even analyze at all the comparison between the two. Isolated true statements about each term in the resolution fail to address the ‘ought to be valued over’ phrase in the resolution.”

So what if in the next affirmative speech the speaker in Example A provides a plan, or in Example B provides a comparison? Negative should capitalize on this activity and say “by doing so, my opponents revealed that the initial case was not prima facie, and they intended to go much deeper than initially thought. This means the first speech of mine was a waste, and the debate is only now beginning, because the initial case wasn’t made. In the restricted format of a debate round, there are too few remaining speeches for sufficient back-and-forth on the real case. This key admission that the initial case was not prima facie for the resolution should be the reason you vote against them. You should insist on voting on well-tested cases by the end of a debate round, which absolutely necessitates the case’s existence in the first affirmative speech.”

Some in debaterland will say that presentation of a prima facie case is required by the rules of debate. I disagree, but believe it is easy to articulate that a prima facie case is required by the laws of reasonability. If a team may shift their position throughout the round, then it is not reasonable to consider the position – you’re still determining what the position even is!

The Goal of a Case: Structure the Entire Conversation

Here’s the key point: in most of life, a “case” for something is merely a conversation starter. It’s enough chips and salsa to know what’s for dinner, but it’s not the whole enchilada.

Only occasionally do you give a speech of some kind with zero interruption and zero followup conversation.

  • In a business meeting: you’ll make a case for something, usually called “pitching” a concept. Then folks in the room will ask questions, give alternate presentations, and you’ll discuss the various points. You may still “succeed” at persuasion, but should not expect your exact original case to be adopted. Other minds and viewpoints will modify your original position. You’re okay with that, because you wanted to start a reasonable movement towards the shared goal everyone has of helping customers, being profitable, or whatever is the goal.
  • In a debate round: you’ll make a case for something, but that is just the first of several speeches, and there is typically a cross-examination or other means of interaction. Over the course of the hour or so, you will hone down the reasons for your original position, perhaps modify the reasons for it slightly, and hopefully drive towards adoption of the overall resolution. Key note: in formal competitive debate, “shifting” your original position is a big no-no. But that doesn’t mean you can’t modify the reasons for and weight of analysis given for that original position.
  • In a conversation: you’ll make a case for something and get interrupted pretty quickly with counter-cases, opinions, questions, varying information, and so on. To persuade, you want to reach the conclusion, but it’s best if your fellow conversants find their way to that conclusion on their own.
  • In most sermons: the preacher just talks for 15–45 minutes and nobody questions the position. (This is a travesty.) It illustrates an important distinction to the young person choosing between speech and debate: in a single speech, your audience may doubt you, but it’s easy to convince yourself everything went great and you know what you’re talking about; in a debate, it’s someone’s JOB to argue against you for an hour, and you will learn to be far more disciplined in your reasoning and research and learn to adapt and think on your feet. Why? Because the conclusion you had in mind is shaped through the round. This is healthy. Preaching is one of the only forms of rhetoric besides keynote speaking where audiences get no meaningful interaction, and speakers have no way of knowing the real doubts of the audience members. How can you achieve stasis? How can you find the crux and work from it? In these formats, there is a wall of separation between the presenter and the shared assumptions of the audience.

So don’t think of your “case” as your end point; it’s just the beginning. Most presenters that I have worked with struggle to properly prioritize here, spending 90% of their time crafting and honing their case (or elevator pitch, slide deck, or script), neglecting to think through how they will manage and participate in the back-and-forth that happens after the case.

In reality, the case is usually less than 15% of the round. It needs to be good, but don’t over-invest as if you have just one shot to persuade. You can plant seeds that don’t sprout for an hour! So unlike delivery of a single speech, a case need not be perfect – it just should provide an organized structure for the conversation, with the key headlines under which the conversation will occur, and introduce the primary substance that proves the major claims.

Some Classic Case Structures

Here are a few easy structures to learn. I have committed these and a few more to memory and use them as outlines for business presentations and written documents. Note that the introduction (hook, thesis, roadmap) is common to all speeches, whether debates or presentations.


I. Introduction – Hook, thesis, roadmap
II. Key Trends – Whatever foundational facts are needed (note: no analysis of them yet… think charts and graphs)
III. The Problem – Analysis showing how the key trends are dangerous, qualitatively or quantitatively
IV. A Proposal – Key proposal details
V. Problem Solved – Why the proposal solves the problem

Problem-Solution is the classic sales pitch: people are more easily persuaded by solutions if they feel you understand their problem well. Technically speaking, Problem-Solution is strong for gaining momentum by sharing assumptions up until point IV. Theoretically, anyone could insert a new IV and V to solve the problem you’ve illustrated in points II and III.

The reason so much political speech is empty rhetoric is that it consists of pointing out problems, and audiences loudly agreeing, with few workable solutions. “U.S. Immigration is a completely broken system,” I say, and you nod your head. But what to do about it? Well, a politician here inserts a super vague statement that can mean anything to anyone, like “secure the border,” or (my personal favorite) “we need common-sense solutions.”

Don’t get swindled by Problem-Solution rhetoric. It’s a valuable way of thinking, but requires more time in the solutions area than many people give it. That’s the weakness of this case: problem stealing. A savvy opponent may attempt to steal your momentum on the problem by contributing points to how the problem is even worse, and then present an improved alternative proposal. This is my default tactic when responding to truly important problems.

Comparative Advantage

I. Introduction – Hook, thesis, roadmap
II. Key Trends – Whatever foundational facts are needed (note: no analysis of them yet… think charts and graphs)
III. A Proposal – Key proposal details
IV. Compare/Contrast for Advantage – Demonstrate the proposal’s advantage over the current course (for each point, usually there’s an A. What we’re getting now, and B. What the proposal gets for us)

The Comparative Advantage is straightforward. You get to the point real quick, then spend most of your time analyzing its differences.

Use this case structure for most internal matters. If you use the Problem-Solution case when telling a potential customer about how you solve their pain, well and good. If you use Problem-Solution to pitch a new internal employee wellness initiative to your CEO, she may laser in on the problem part and feel you are discrediting her ability to lead. The solution may be great, but you’ll never get there because of resistance to the problem.

It takes a certain amount of rhetorical selflessness to pitch a proposal that solves a major problem, without discussing the problem solved. Yet when it will be perceived as rubbing a problem in the face of your audience, you will alienate yourself from them and create an uphill battle. People don’t have to publicly admit “I was wrong” to change, and the comparative advantage structure is a good way to give them an easy path out while saving face.

The obvious weakness of the case is that it does not build from shared assumptions. Here’s this proposal, it’s good. Without agreeing on the problem you’re setting out to solve (we’re not even mentioning problems!), your audience needs a little more help getting interested and seeing the importance of your proposal. You may need to articulate the shared assumption of how decisions are made, or gain audience identification with the concerns of your advantages.

Shared Goals

I. Introduction – Hook, thesis, roadmap
II. Existing Goals – The previously established goals of the audience, status quo, or leadership (such as a quote from the annual strategy, a law when it was passed, or a famous leader)
III. Trends Against the Goal – Foundational facts that show “we are doing something opposite of our own goals”
III. A Proposal – Key proposal details
IV. Goal Achieved – How the proposal will put things back on track to achieve the original goal

Shared Goals (sometimes called “Goals-Criteria”) is my personal favorite case structure, because it works from shared assumptions in a deeper way. In Problem-Solution, we build up the Problem and hope we got it right and that the audience agrees. Our opponents (if there are any), will likely argue against the problem’s significance. In Shared Goals, by identifying a real goal that already exists we work from assured common ground. There’s no denying a previous goal.

Never underestimate the power of hypocrisy. If the fact pattern is trending against the goal, then hypocrisy is the result. What’s beautiful is you usually do not have to say the word “hypocrisy,” and can stay really positive as a presenter, but your entire audience is already thinking it: these facts appear to prove that the opposite of our goal is what we’re doing. Oh no!

And then the solution, just as in Problem-Solution, is weighed for its merits in how well it achieves the goal.

To take down a Shared Goals case, most likely you will have to jettison the goal (“perhaps we should reconsider what we set out to do in the first place… times have changed”), or demonstrate that there is a higher shared goal at work here and the proposal violates that higher goal. Of course, you may argue against any weaknesses in the proof and arrangement of the case, but never underestimate the power of hypocrisy – audiences are persuaded when you put into words their logical thoughts about an issue.

Other Cases

Other case structures are usually derivatives of these three. For example, if your case is not for a proposal but merely weighing the importance of two things, you might choose comparative advantage minus a proposal. If your case is to cast blame on some idea, or show one thing unimportant, you might use the Problem-Solution structure up until the Solution part.

So can you rearrange these structures?

Of course! The structures are guidelines, and their structure may or may not be apparent to your audience during presentation. You may want to begin with the proposal, save the problem for the end, propose a new goal you think everyone really believes in despite the stated one, and so on.

My only advice is to make conscious decisions to rearrange proven patterns; don’t just slop together some crazy outline because it was easier.

Should you Point Out Weaknesses in Your Own Case?

I think so. It’s more reasonable. When someone acts like there are only pros to a decision and no cons, the person who says “there are both pros and cons” tends to appear more reasonable.

Admitting that your case is the conclusion you’ve reached after considering the pros and the cons actually serves to strengthen your case, not weaken it, in the eyes of most audiences. Otherwise it appears like perhaps you’re paid to reach your conclusion and ignore anything else (and often, in sales, think tanks, lawyering, marketing, and analysis – you are!).

Avoiding overstatement is a key strategic lesson from debate. We’ll dive into that and other strategy lessons much deeper in section two. For now, just think of this: would you rather have a discussion with an open-minded person or a close-minded person? Oh right, it’s not really a discussion when there is unwillingness to consider alternative points of view. So the most persuasive people present using language that demonstrates their similarity to the audience: it was a tough choice and the other side’s arguments are good, but here’s why it seems to weigh out my way when all is considered.

Available Sources of Material: Think Like a District Attorney

The prosecution only uses some small percentage of available arguments and evidence. When you’re preparing a case, don’t think of it as “every reason I can possibly think of.” A list of points is not an argument, is not a case, and shouldn’t even be considered arguing. It’s barely thinking…

The district attorney is going to spend forever assembling all of the research, then identifying the points of stasis, then choosing to tell a story that only includes the crucial support needed to believe the story points that lead to a verdict. Everything else is cast aside. Perhaps you will need it depending on what the opposition says, but that’s not what you’ll use to make the case.

A district attorney will also obsess over understanding the jury, thinking through audience backgrounds to body language, and tailor the case to that audience. A huge mistake many debaters make is to have just “one version” of their case, which is presented to every audience regardless of what they learn about the audience before the round. In college, my partner and I developed a modular case that would change every round based on the makeup of our audience – we had around eight total versions of the same core idea.

Ready to Try It?

Let’s make a case! Pick an idea that you’d like to make persuasive. Now pick an audience that you’d like to persuade. Without choosing your audience first, you will inevitably fail to see things through their eyes as you construct your case.

Now get a piece of paper and a writing utensil.

Step 1: Build Logical Chain from Shared Assumption to Conclusion

Use the diagram in “shared assumptions” above for help. You’ll have to identify a starting point and an end point, then build a chain between.

Step 2: Discover All Warrants for Each Logical Step (your claims)

Now write down as bullet points a simple list of every warrant you have to sway your audience at each decision point in your diagram. Remember, you can use:

  • Statistics
  • Laws / Precedents
  • Quotations
  • Maxims / Proverbs
  • Personal examples
  • Historical examples
  • Expert testimony
  • Rumors
  • Logic

If an area is weak for warrants, then you may need to do some research.

Step 3: Choose Which Warrants to Feature

For each step in your logical progression, circle or highlight the one or two best warrants that will sway an audience down your path on the logical progression.

Step 4: Outline Actual Presentation (flow)

Now transfer what you’ve built into one of the case structures provided. While what you’ve built is just the argument, your full case will include introductory material, certain facts, and so on.

Step 5: Delivery

Find someone to talk to. Patiently deliver your case, watching audience cues. Avoid defensiveness, rudeness, alienation, or any other forms of “how could you possibly think otherwise?” If your audience is skeptical, do not judge their perspective – as a generally reasonable human being, their perspective is their perspective and you need to unlock how to get them to change their conclusions of their own accord.

Try varying your tone and rate of speech as you deliver.

Step 6: Listen

Get feedback and improve. Ask what your audience found least persuasive and most compelling. Do not argue with the feedback: they heard what they heard, even if it’s not what you meant.

Step 7: Rewrite

Revisit your shared assumptions diagram. Did you get it right? Did your audience surprise you? Adjust accordingly and prepare your case again. Then find a new audience, and lather, rinse, repeat.


Upside Down Debate Copyright © 2016 by Ethos Publications LLC. All Rights Reserved.


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