Flowing

Written by Josh Sandberg & Sihong Chan for Stanford CTL35SI

What is it?

Flowing is the debate term for the general technique used to keep track of what arguments are made (and when, and how they are responded to) during a debate. In order to answer arguments by your opponents, you must be able to write them down with some logical organization so that you can remember them and respond. Good flowing helps you out enormously when it is your turn to speak - you now have notes to work from and a meaningful structure to follow.

The basic concepts that you learn from flowing are widely applicable: you can use the same principles anytime you need to keep track of someone's arguments and any responses, whether it's in a meeting, a courtroom, or a presidential debate.

Take inventory:

Keeping track of the arguments people make as they speak naturally is hard enough, and the problem is even worse in a debate round, where people tend to talk faster and cram in as many ideas as possible. The only tried and true solution, really, is practice: everyone eventually develops their own style of shorthand that allows them to keep pace while remaining legible. However, some (embarrassingly basic) elements will give you the foundation you need to start:

Before the round starts:

Take your piece of paper and use lines to split it into five columns. You probably want to orient things horizontally ("landscape" style), because that gives you more room per section. You'll use the first section for the PMC speech, the second for the LOC, third for MGC, fourth for MOC, and the fifth to prepare a rebuttal speech (if you're making one). Eventually, if you are a member of government or opposition (i.e., you're not giving a rebuttal), you can stop flowing after your speech, but for now you really need all the practice you can get.

When the action begins:

Start writing down what the speaker is saying in the first column. Label every major point on a new line with a keyword that will remind you what they were saying. Any evidence or logical arguments used to support that general point go underneath, indented. A good speaker will be well organized (curiously enough, a strong speech uses just this outline-style structure), so this will be easy. A mediocre speaker may be all over the place, but it is your job to figure out what they're trying to say and put it in some semblance of order. Make sure to leave some vertical space between points, because you'll need it later.

If you're the first speaker, you obviously won't be able to do all this as you're giving your speech. The best solution to this problem is to take the time before the round to write down your own arguments in the first column. This is called pre-flowing, and allows you to sit down when you're done speaking and immediately be ready to flow the next speech. That, and it makes sure that you actually know what you're going to say.

The plot thickens:

The first part of the LOC speech should be independent points - things that bring up important negatives about the case, that aren't just responses to arguments that the PMC already made. These go somewhere new: either near the bottom of the second column (so that they're not across from any notes you've already taken in the first column), or on a second piece of paper altogether.

Once the LOC begins directly responding to the first speaker's arguments, write his or her points in the second column directly across from the argument being refuted. Some people like to draw arrows so that the relationship is even clearer. Voila! You can now see every argument that the first speaker made, and the second speaker's specific response to each one. One great thing about this technique is that it makes it obvious when a speaker fails to address an argument made in the previous speech (this is known as "dropping" an argument, and is widely considered a bad move, because you've just conceded that whatever your opponent said was right).

Keep doing the same thing for subsequent speeches - just write responses across from the point that they are addressing, and put new arguments near the bottom in a blank area.

Thinking ahead:

Once you've started to get the hang of flowing, you'll want to spend some of your time planning for your own speech. A little preparation ahead of time will make things a lot easier for you when the time comes! One useful method is to write any arguments you want to make into the appropriate place in your speech's column in the flow: that way you know exactly what your opponent said, and you have an idea of how you're going to respond.