Advanced Substructure Part 1: A Quick Refresher

In this article, we’ll take a deep dive into substructure and the art of structuring arguments, demystifying the dreaded term. There are two more parts along the way that should be out soon!

There are few–if any–activities in speech & debate that require the mental fortitude that extemporaneous speaking does. Asking high school students to analyze some of the most complicated subjects in the world today? Not exactly a cakewalk. And when you add in the time constraints of this activity, extemp becomes a truly Herculean event.

As Omar Qureshi, the 2008 IX National Runner-Up, put it “unlike a debater an extemporaneous speaker doesn’t have the option to speed up to include all of his/her information.  This brings up an overbearing burden on the modern speaker: how to most efficiently include arguments while not increasing the rate of delivery.”

Indeed, conquering extemp speaking requires mastery (or something near that) of the 3 C’s: concision, communication, and clarity. Look to any extemper you admire and you’ll see their arguments–clearly-organized, concise, and understandable–pass the 3 C’s litmus test. And more often than not, that mastery of the 3 C’s can be attributed to clear substructure.

A dreaded word in most extemp circles, substructure refers to the way an extemper organizes their arguments. In Jimmy Gao’s substructure lecture (linked in our “Camp Resources” tab), he establishes the strategic importance of substructure in answering the following prompts:

  • The way you design your three points to answer the question
  • How do you introduce new information (sources) in an easy way for judges to follow and understand?
  • How do you demonstrate your knowledge of a topic and connect it to your question?

And while most extempers are solely taught one type of substructure, there are lots of creative ways to organize your arguments that can add a persuasive kick to your speeches we hope to teach you on extempers.org.

But before we can get to those cool types of substructure, we have to start with the basics and the ABC format. And this should go without saying, but there are no hard and fast rules to substructure; the type I offer below is a guiding principle to help you put you in the right frame of mind for future articles about substructure.

So what is the ABC format? Put simply, most (not all) specific types of substructure follow a format in which each of your points is divided into three sections: an “a” section, a “b” section, and a “c” section. So what does each section do?

In your “a” section, you should establish the status quo (the existing state of affairs). Referencing Jimmy’s substructure presentation, this would mean answering some of the following questions:

  • What is happening right now?
  • What background do I need to understand your point?
  • What event/place/person/idea is essential to this argument?

In your “b” section, you should establish the change that’s happened/is happening/will happen (or maybe won’t) in the status quo.

  • What recent event/information changed the status quo that helps me answer my question?
  • What piece of current information helps develop the previously-introduced explanation or theory and helps me answer my question?

This should be where the majority of your time on a point is spent too.

And finally you have the “c” point which explains why what you said matters and clearly link back to the question. Just as there is the Three C’s rule there is also the Three P’s rule. During the “c” point, you could mention people, prosperity, or power (hence the Three P’s) and how those are impacted by your aforementioned analysis. This is a great time to drop some rhetoric, although it is frequently neglected by most extempers.

Are you still confused? Let’s take a look at some specific examples by answering the question, “Should the United States withdraw its troops from Afghanistan?”

Point 1: Critical to halting Taliban operations

a) Foreign Policy Magazine, 11/22/17:

  • 60% of Taliban revenue comes from the opioid trade.

b) Military Times, 04/10/18:

  • The US military presence has been critical to stopping the Afghan opioid trade.
  • Specifically, American efforts have deprived the Taliban of 200 million in annual revenue from the opioid trade.
  • If the US withdraws its troops, that would allow the Taliban to regain that revenue, allowing them to afford more sophisticated military technology.

c) No source

  • Pulling out would shift the power dynamic in Afghanistan allowing the Taliban to take over greater portions of the country.
  • 3 P’s Impact (People): Human rights–particularly women’s–would be largely repressed under such rule.

Still confused? Don’t worry, we understand that substructure is confusing. I’d recommend checking out Jimmy’s substructure lecture (linked in the camp resources page) and reading the next couple articles we’ll publish about substructure.

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