How To Never Clip Cards: A Guide For Debaters

Evidence misrepresentation has become a major issue in high school and college policy debate over the last few seasons. “Card clipping” — the act of misrepresenting the text of evidence that a debater orally presents during a speech — is a particularly pernicious form of academic dishonesty that has drawn the attention of state and national governing organizations. With new guidelines in the process of being implemented, it will be important for students to understand how to protect themselves from accusations of evidence misrepresentation. To that end, this article seeks to provide students with straightforward, actionable advice about how to avoid clipping cards.

Before delving into the particulars, it is important to note two things:

1. Without taking proper care, all students are vulnerable to accusations of evidence misrepresentation. Many of the norms that have evolved over time regarding speaking delivery and clarity invite careless mistakes. Judges have tolerated unclear speakers and students have learned that the best path to victory is to fly through speech documents with reckless abandon. When I have experimented with reading along with speech documents, every student has done something that someone would classify as clipping: they’ve skipped a few words, slurred through a few lines, stumbled over text badly enough that what was eventually verbalized wasn’t what was written down, failed to verbally and textually mark a card they didn’t finish, etc. The speaking habits that judges have tolerated are so bad that many students “clip” their analytical arguments and blocks, not just their evidence. These issues are widespread: all students, not just those that are “doing it on purpose,” are vulnerable to accusations of misconduct.

2. Fortunately, students have near-complete control over whether they will be accused of evidence misrepresentation in a debate. With the exception of bad faith accusations motivated by personal malice, students have the power to alter their deliveries so that others will not have any reason to accuse them of clipping. This can be hard for students to understand and accept because it requires prioritizing clarity above speed and academic integrity above competitive success. When confronted with this reality, several responses are common:

  • “I don’t want to get caught clipping cards — but I don’t want to make the necessary changes to my delivery that would prevent that from happening. If I made those changes, I might lose more debates.”
  • “I don’t want to get caught clipping cards — but I know I’m not clipping on purpose and so therefore I’m not clipping. It would be an injustice if I was accused of doing so.”
  • “I don’t want to get caught clipping cards — but most of my judges tolerate what I do. It would be an injustice if a particular team or judge accused me of wrongdoing.”
  • “I don’t want to get caught clipping cards — but I’m not a naturally fast or clear speaker. It’s unfair that I need to slow down and read less cards than my competitor who is naturally faster and clearer than I am.”
  • “I don’t want to get caught clipping cards — but it is unlikely to happen to me. I’ll roll the dice and hope for the best. If I do get accused of clipping, I’ll be devastated and complain about the unfairness and injustice of it.”

If they’re being honest, most students will identify with one or more of these reactions. It is incumbent upon coaches and judges to help students work through those initial reactions until they arrive at a more mature conclusion: “I don’t want to get caught clipping cards — so I’m going to do what it takes to make sure it doesn’t happen. I care more about academic integrity and preserving my reputation as an ethical debater than I do about reading a few extra cards in my speeches.”

The rest of this article begins from that starting point. It is written to help students who have made the decision to do what it takes to make sure they aren’t accused of evidence misrepresentation accomplish that goal.

1. Don’t do it on purpose.

This should be obvious, but this list wouldn’t be complete if it did not acknowledge this unfortunate reality. In an attempt to gain a competitive advantage, some students will knowingly misrepresent the evidence they introduced in a speech. By speaking too quickly and too unclearly to be followed, students get away with strategically skipping or slurring through parts of evidence so that they can pack more of it into their speeches. This is an understandable impulse in a time-pressured game, but it is cheating. Even if a student believes that “everyone does it” or “it’s not a big deal,” judges or opponents are likely to notice — and they will think it’s a big deal.

If a student never purposefully takes this shortcut, their odds of being accused of clipping significantly decrease.

2. Slow down.

Students often feel pressured to go as fast as possible even if it means that their speeches are incomprehensible. Too many judges tolerate this behavior because they are afraid to be the “bad cop” or admit that they aren’t capable of understanding and flowing “fast” debates. Being fast doesn’t require being unclear; with hard work and diligent practice, everyone can become a better speaker. The problem arises when students seek the end — being faster so that they can read more cards — without accepting the means of getting there — working hard to improve. Fast, clear debate speaking can’t be faked; a student either can do it or s/he can’t. When students that can’t do it pretend that they can do it, the result is an incomprehensible delivery. The standard that all students should hold themselves to is that the judge should be able to clearly understand every word of the speech — including the text of evidence. “Be clear on the tags and then spew through the evidence” is a technique that only “works” until a student is (rightfully) accused of clipping cards.

This lesson — “slow down” — is hard for many students to accept because they see so many of their peers succeeding despite incomprehensible deliveries. This is unfortunate — and it does not speak well of the adult coaches that have allowed it to happen. But it gets back to a fundamental question: is it more important to keep up with one’s (incomprehensible) peers or to ensure that one is never accused of evidence misrepresentation? Students that choose not to slow down are making a dangerous decision. If and when they are accused of clipping, they should understand that this was their own doing. They made the choice to take the risk — and now they have to deal with the consequences. Excuses at that point ring hollow.

3. Eliminate awkward and distracting delivery tendencies.

In addition to pure “speed,” debaters tend to use a variety of delivery techniques that make their speeches harder to understand. In particular, the max-effort speaking style — characterized by a loud and monotonous drone punctuated by aggressive double breathing — makes it very easy for students to miss words or entire sentences in their written speech documents. Attempting to “speak through” one’s breaths is another common tendency; debaters think the words they breathed through “count” because they intended to say them, but the reality is that these words are being entirely skipped. Herky-jerky deliveries also lead to omissions from the text as students stutter and stumble through their cards in an effort to “get through” as much as possible. And some students “hum” during their deliveries such that everything they say is muddled or muddy, making it difficult for judges to understand distinctions between words and phrases.

What all of these delivery techniques have in common is that they misunderstand the role of oral presentation in a debate. Contest rounds are oral communication activities, not exchanges of written texts. The research component is certainly a big part of each debate — and an incredibly valuable one. But the role of the speaker is not to “get through” as much written text as possible or to “check off” as many cards as possible by “getting through” them. The role of the speaker is to communicate with the judge. Part of this communication involves the direct quotation of published works, but the obligation remains with the student to present this material in a comprehensible and clear manner. Yes, the judge might choose to review the written text of the evidence during the post-round deliberation period. But the possibility of this review does not obviate the need for persuasive communication during the “oral arguments” component of the round.

Again, this lesson can be a hard one for students to accept. They will rightfully point to debates in which the judge’s decision was primarily grounded in a post-round review of the text of the evidence and wonder whether “getting through” an additional card or two could have tipped the balance in their favor. But this model of evidence delivery — get through it as fast as possible, even if it means doing so in an awkward and distracting way — leaves debaters extremely vulnerable to accusations of misconduct.

Students should strive to speak naturally — at a comfortable volume, using normal breathing patterns, and with appropriate pauses and vocal variations. When asked to read something aloud in an English class, few debaters will “clip” a poem or essay. Every student has a wealth of experience using typical human communication techniques. The more that a debater’s in-round speaking resembles this everyday speaking, the less likely they will be accused of evidence misrepresentation. This doesn’t mean that debaters must speak at a conversational speed, but it does mean that their deliveries should always be clear and comprehensible — even if that means “getting through” fewer arguments.

4. Speak from a consistent podium height.

Card clipping often occurs when a debater misses a sentence or chunk of text as they visually scan through a card while reading it. While speaking speed and style often play a role in these mistakes, there is often also a visual component. Reading debate cards aloud can be hard. Computer screens are relatively small and glare is a frequent problem. Students must constantly switch between looking at paper flows, looking at the judge, and reading from their laptop. This process is further complicated by the inconsistent setups that debaters speak from. Impromptu podiums of various heights force debaters to re-train their eyes in every debate. Many students make matters worse by varying their physical postures and standing varying distances from their laptops. All of this makes it harder to clearly see — and therefore read — one’s written speech document.

To remedy this, students should strive to create the best possible podium in every debate. This requires purchasing and responsibly maintaining a laptop stand and varying the length of its legs from round to round to create a consistent height. The laptop should be positioned so that it is a comfortable distance from the speaker’s eyes and so that it does not obstruct the speaker’s direct line of sight to the judge. Especially for students with glasses or contacts, it is very important to experiment with different heights and viewing depths so that a student can find the best fit for their eyesight. It is much easier to miss a few words or blur through a few sentences when one is struggling to see the speech document.

5. Underline and highlight complete sentences.

At the same time that they have sought to speak faster and faster, students have attempted to highlight fewer and fewer words in the text of their evidence so that they can include more cards in their speeches. As highlighting has become sparser, conventions have also become less strict. Instead of highlighting complete sentences, students often settle for sentence fragments. Instead of highlighting complete words, students often highlight abbreviations and acronyms — “civil-military relations” is highlighted down to “c m r” and “proliferation” is highlighted down to “prolif.” And in the most extreme cases, words are highlighted without regard to sentence structure; instead of highlighting a subject, verb, and object, debaters will highlight a series of words that they believe are sufficient to establish a “warrant” — even though those words do not form sentences.

While the academic value of these highlighting strategies can certainly be objected to on other grounds — I think it is embarrassing — it has particularly harmful effects on clarity of delivery. Humans are used to reading complete sentences, not fragments. They are also used to reading full blocks of text, not a series of disconnected words. As students read a card, they visually scan through it to find the highlighted text. As they do so, their brains can’t help but try to make sense of what they’re reading. When that happens, they frequently change, add, or omit words from their highlighted script because their brains can’t follow the fragments. This same phenomenon occurs when students read poorly-written analytical arguments: they “clip” the script because their brains can’t process it without making meaning-giving adaptations.

It should not be surprising that very long cards with very sparse highlighting are the most likely to be clipped. When scanning through large swaths of unhighlighted text in search of the next fragment to utter, students often miss a few words here or a few words there. Even when their brains register that there is something highlighted that they need to say, they often don’t say exactly what is highlighted — instead adding, subtracting, or modifying words. Similar problems arise from evidence that is highlighted in an ungrammatical way.

Students will again object that reading more of their evidence comes at an unacceptable cost. But as with speaking delivery and style, there is an inherent risk associated with brevity of highlighting: it raises the probability that a debater will be accused of evidence misrepresentation. Under-highlighted evidence also poses separate strategic costs; judges do commonly criticize these highlighting practices and factor the shallowness of highlighted evidence into their decisions. But even if that wasn’t the case, students will find it easier to clearly deliver their speeches if their cards are highlighted in complete sentences.

This is something that students can easily practice: after highlighting a card, read it aloud. If the way it is highlighted made it difficult to read, change the highlighting and try again. The latest version of Verbatim includes a feature called “Invisibility Mode” that makes this process even easier. After preparing a speech document, students can click the “toggle invisibility mode” button to hide all unhighlighted card text. If the resulting speech document is difficult to read, one’s highlighting needs to be modified.

Too much highlighting occurs with only one goal in mind: make the card shorter. When cards are shortened in ways that make them harder to read, students become increasingly vulnerable to accusations of misconduct.

6. Highlight in only one color.

When debaters used printed materials in their speeches, it made sense to highlight cards in different colors. The first iteration of highlighting was usually done in yellow, but sometimes a second iteration of highlighting was needed. By highlighting over the yellow with a darker color, students could differentiate the second version of highlighting that they would be using for the debate. This process made sense because it avoided the need to re-print or re-copy a card that one wanted to re-highlight.

Paperless file production has obviated the need for this kind of multi-color highlighting. If a card is being highlighted a second time, students should simply re-highlight the card. If they want the flexibility to read either version of the highlighting, they can simply copy-and-paste the card (calling one “Smith Card — more highlighted” and the other “Smith Card — less highlighted”).

For a variety of reasons, students insist on continuing to highlight their evidence in multiple colors. Some students are trying to trick their judges into reading more of their evidence after debates than they verbalized during debates. Other students are using the second color of highlighting to flag useful sentences that they might want to reference in later speeches. But regardless of one’s motivation, speech documents with multiple colors of highlighting invite confusion and misunderstandings. In an environment where these misunderstandings can quickly escalate to ethics challenges, it simply isn’t worth the risk. If students wish to remind themselves of important tidbits from the evidence, they can add those notes between the card’s tag and citation. If students want the judge to read more of their evidence, they can highlight it and read it during their speech.

7. Carefully construct speech documents.

Poorly organized and formatted speech documents are difficult to read. If styles are used inconsistently and individual cards are formatted differently from other cards, it is easy for a student to miss something while parsing through it. Each “level” of a speech document should be consistently formatted:

  • Pockets, hats, and block titles should always be used in the same way. Having some blocks formatted as pockets, some as hats, some as block titles, and some without headings invites confusion and scrolling mistakes.
  • Tags for evidence should always be formatted in the same way. If a card is tagged in a different format from other cards, it is easy to unknowingly skip it. Forcing oneself to scan and identify tags also needlessly exhausts a speaker’s mental energy, raising the risk of mistakes.
  • Citations for evidence should be consistently formatted for the same reasons. The more that each card looks like every other card, the less likely one will be accidentally skipped.
  • Underlining and highlighting should be consistent. This was discussed previously, but it bears repeating: consistency makes it much easier to ensure that a speaker verbalizes all highlighted text.
  • Analytical arguments should be uniformly formatted. Some debaters prefer to format analytical arguments as tags. Others prefer to leave them unformatted (“Normal”). While there are advantages and disadvantages to each system, the important thing is to be consistent.

Speech documents should be organized to reflect the debaters’ roadmap for the speech. Skipping back and forth during the speech adds another element of confusion and opens debaters up to more mistakes. Debaters should also be realistic about how much content they are likely to need for a given speech. Adding extraneous cards and blocks to a document requires more scrolling and selectivity during the speech, raising the risk that a mistake will be made. To help deter overoptimistic assessments, the newest version of Verbatim includes a “Stats” function that allows students to quickly estimate how much material they have included in a document. This makes it easy to gauge whether a document’s length is realistic.

A better organized speech document facilitates a better organized speech. It also helps debaters eliminate many mistakes that could become grounds for an accusation of evidence misrepresentation. Cutting corners with speech document construction isn’t worth it.

8. Consistently mark evidence.

As much as possible, students should strive to orally deliver the full highlighted text of each card they read in a speech. The point of pre-tournament and pre-round highlighting is to decide precisely what parts of each card need to be verbalized; extemporaneous alterations during speeches should rarely be necessary. Realistically, though, debaters will occasionally need to mark cards before they have completed them. If this becomes necessary, it is important that students follow the emerging community norm: first, students should say “marked at lastwordspoken;” second, students should insert a “mark” in their speech document; third, students should offer to share the marked version of the speech document after the speech.

The first element of this process — “marked at lastwordspoken” — is easy. Students should not just say “marked” or “cut the card there” — specifying the last word that was spoken gives the judge and the other team a chance to make a note of it to avoid later confusion.

The second element of the process — marking the speech document — is also very easy (at least if a student is using Verbatim). In “Read Mode,” debaters need only press the tilde key and a mark is added with an automatic timestamp. In draft or web layout (or for students not using Verbatim), a manual mark is needed; the most accepted method is to press enter/return several times after the last word the debater verbalized. After the speech, the student should put “marked at lastwordspoken” in between the part of the card that was read and the part of the card after the returns.

The final element of the process — offering to share the marked document — is important. As soon as a speech ends in which a student has marked cards, the student should say “would anyone like the marked version of the document before cross-ex/prep time?”. If the answer is yes, the student should share the document before cross-examination or prep time begins. If the answer is no, the student should still save the document and make sure that the unmarked version is not shared with the judge for the purposes of post-round deliberation. Another good habit to get into if one’s goal is to prevent accusations of evidence misrepresentation is to “clean up” speech documents after the speech by deleting cards that weren’t read. Again, this eliminates another potential source of confusion.

All three steps are required. Students that only say “cut the card there” and don’t mark the speech document or offer a marked speech document to the other participants in the debate are inviting accusations of misconduct. So are students that only mark the speech document but don’t verbalize that they are doing so. And so are students that aren’t careful about ensuring that their opponents and judges are provided with the marked version of the speech document.

Given the stakes, students should never take shortcuts when marking cards.

9. Honestly answer questions about a speech’s content.

Sometimes students that are otherwise diligent about accurately representing the evidence they have included in a speech get into trouble because they aren’t careful when responding to questions from their opponents or judges. Many disputes about card clipping begin with a misunderstanding rooted in a question like “Did you read all of the cards under ‘Answers To: Winner’s Win’?” or “Did you read all of the yellow highlighting?”. There is often a difference of opinion about the scope of the question being asked. Students who are asked questions like this should be careful not to unintentionally mislead the audience. Before saying “yes” to the question about whether you’ve read all of the cards under a particular block, make sure you did so. Before saying “yes” to the question about whether you’ve read all of the yellow highlighting, make sure that’s the case.

If there is any doubt, admit that you aren’t certain. “I intended to do so, yes” is a more accurate answer than “yes” in many circumstances. If a question seems loaded, make sure to ask for clarification. It is also okay to ask your partner for confirmation if there is a question about whether a particular card was included in a speech. While it should be rare that a student forgets something like that, it is reasonable to expect occasional confusion. Preventing these mistakes from escalating into full-blown ethics challenges requires that students be honest when answering others’ questions.

This should not be interpreted as an excuse to flagrantly misrepresent the evidence one reads in a speech. “I intended to” is not an absolute defense. But if a student does accidentally miss a few words from a card in an otherwise clear speech, it is better to be honest than to aggressively assert otherwise. This kind of mistake should be very rare for a student that takes seriously the rest of the advice in this article. But if it does happen, be honest.

10. Practice delivering realistic speeches.

As with anything, practice can make a big difference. When many students practice their debate speaking, they do “speed drills;” the goal is to read as much as possible in a given amount of time. While these drills can be helpful, they hone only one facet of a debater’s speaking repertoire. In addition to speed, debaters need to practice clarity, task-switching, and judge connections.

The task-switching component is particularly important in the context of evidence misrepresentation. In contest round speeches, only the first affirmative constructive is comprised solely of cards. In all subsequent speeches, debaters are challenged to switch between analytical arguments and cards, between scripted content and extemporaneous content, and between their flows and their laptops — all while maintaining a connection with their judge. As discussed previously, this can be very difficult. In order to do it effectively, students must practice the whole process. In addition to (or instead of) “speed drills,” debaters should do “speaking drills” — or better yet, “speech rehearsals.”

The goal of a speech rehearsal is to hone the full spectrum of skills needed to deliver an effective debate speech. This requires that students create realistic speech setups that simulate the conditions they are likely to face at a tournament. Students that only practice their “speed” are setting themselves up for accusations of misconduct because they will be more likely to make the kinds of mistakes that result in card clipping.

11. Record and test yourself frequently.

Given the ubiquity of digital recording technology, it is easier than ever to critique one’s debate speeches. One aspect of this review should involve careful scrutiny of the evidence presented in a speech. Was the delivery clear? Were all of the highlighted words verbalized? Were any words or sentences omitted? Were all of the cards clearly understandable?

Students should save their speech documents and recordings of their speeches so that they can check themselves after every tournament. The newest version of Verbatim again makes this easy: the “Record” feature allows students to record the audio of their speeches without opening an external program. Even without this feature, it is relatively easy to record audio on almost every modern laptop and operating system.

When listening to a speech, it is important for students to be critical of themselves. Don’t settle for “good enough” or “this is probably fine.” Demand excellent clarity and comprehensibility.

It is also helpful to involve others in this process. Students should provide a speech document and recording to a teammate or coach and ask them to assess their clarity. Be open about the goal: “I don’t want to get caught clipping cards — is that likely given this recording? What can I do to improve?”. Too many debaters are afraid to broach the subject of evidence misrepresentation with others because they fear the ramifications and don’t want to draw attention to the inadequacies of their delivery. It is much smarter to raise these issues at home than to hope for the best and deal with the consequences after an accusation is made at a tournament.

If students take the steps outlined in this article, their chances of being accused of evidence misrepresentation fall to nearly zero. Unfortunately, many students will be hesitant to take this advice. In an environment of hyper-vigilance by governing organizations and judges, many of these students who were unwilling to make needed changes will be accused of misconduct. When such an accusation is levied, those students will be devastated. While some of the accused students will undoubtedly have been clipping cards intentionally, many others will be doing so recklessly. These students aren’t bad people. They didn’t intend to cheat, but they did cheat. And in the same way that “I didn’t mean to do it” and “I didn’t know that what I was doing is wrong” are not acceptable defenses against accusations of plagiarism in an English class, “I didn’t mean to do it” and “I didn’t know that what I was doing is wrong” will not be acceptable defenses against accusations of evidence misrepresentation in debate. Students need to take responsibility for their academic conduct. By taking the steps described in this article, they will go a long way toward doing so.

5 thoughts on “How To Never Clip Cards: A Guide For Debaters

  1. Bill Batterman Post author

    I turned the comments on. I’m not sure if they will work properly — the site is still a work in progress.

  2. Lefar

    Great article; it’s got lots of detail, covers every facet, etc. But, one question… I’ve never had an accusation of card clipping leveled against anyone, in any debate I’ve been in, seen, or heard of. Additionally, I’ve gone up against a lot of debaters who rely extensively on that hum or slurring that you mentioned, with no ramification.

    That raises two questions for me: First, should I call foul myself if I think it’s too unclear for words to be understood, or if words were clipped? In about three fourths of the debates I’m in where the speaker seems unclear, the judge makes no mention that it was hard to understand someone that I couldn’t even begin to comprehend, so I think I might just need to practice listening, but after reading that article, it makes me doubt again.

    Second, if the idea of clipping through speeding through unclearly is so widespread, then how can we hope to abolish the practice? Because, while it does decrease academic excellence and tarnishes the activity, the fact remains that, yes, it acts as a risky way to give an edge to faster speakers. I’m not trying to defend the practice—far from it, I agree with everything you’re saying—but how can we convince the general debate populace that the point of the sport is learning, not winning? Even if there’s a conscious-minded acceptance that it’s wrong, It’s a pretty hard instinct to overcome, the instinct to give yourself every advantage possible.

    1. Bill Batterman Post author

      1. Whether students ought to issue formal challenges against opponents is a question that every squad needs to carefully consider. I think this is something that should be handled at the team level; coaches should determine what the team’s policy will be and how students should respond to situations in which opponents are likely clipping. In my opinion, policing is better left to judges — but I understand that others disagree. My advice to debaters is to leave the police work to judges and to make sure that you are never the subject of an accusation. Other coaches will have different advice.

      2. The tide is already turning against misrepresentation. State and national organizations are adopting strict guidelines and many judges are now following speech documents and scrutinizing students’ deliveries. Things will change because students will lose debates — and lose them in a particularly impactful way. I think students should think about what it would be like to be accused of clipping cards and/or voted against for clipping cards. No one wants to go through that. If students seriously consider the risk that they are taking by continuing to speak recklessly, my hope is that they will change their behavior. Those students that don’t do so will be accused of misconduct. Either way, the message will eventually sink in. I think the plagiarism example is apt; very few debaters submit plagiarized papers to their English teachers because they know that the risk of being caught is so high. Debaters need to understand that they are more likely than ever to be caught clipping in debates because the mood of the community has shifted. “But I used to get away with this — c’mon!” won’t be a viable excuse.

      My hope is that the majority of students heed my advice and take the necessary steps to avoid ever being accused. This is in everyone’s best interest. No one wants to be involved in ethics challenges; they hurt people’s feelings and tarnish debate’s image as an academically rigorous activity. But the only way to prevent them from happening is for students to change their behavior. I hope they do so.

  3. Adam Symonds

    I would also add that Read Mode is important for the debaters to use to avoid scrolling mistakes. Having to scroll down during the middle of a card is asking for reading errors.

  4. pablo

    #1 issue is quite obviously speed. it’s easy to get away with when no one can understand you.

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