Rules and Advice

Some tips and advice on World Style debating by Laurent Leconte

This text isn’t meant to be an exhaustive compendium of the subtleties nor a complete guide of the rules, dos and don’ts of Word Style Debating. Rather, it’s a list of tips, tricks and advices to avoid the most common mistakes and (hopefully) improve your debating style..

Overview of the rules


Structure of the debate

At the heart of every World Style debate (any debate, for that matter) is an issue or motion. In World Style Debating, the motions usually have to do with current events, so a good knowledge of what’s going on in the world is a prerequisite. The motion is given 15 minutes before the beginning of the debate, which means that there isn’t much time to prepare. Debaters are in teams of two and there are two teams to each side. The sides are called Proposition (or Government) and Opposition. There are therefore 4 “positions” for lack of a better word: 1st Proposition, 1st Opposition, 2nd Proposition, and 2nd Opposition. The position of each team is chosen at random right after the motion is disclosed.

The detailed order of the speakers is as follows:

Team /Speaker:

  • 1st Proposition - Prime Minister
  • 1st Opposition - Leader of the Opposition
  • 1st Proposition - Deputy Prime Minister
  • 1st Opposition - Deputy Leader
  • 2nd Proposition - 3rd Proposition Speaker (apparently there are no specific names)
  • 2nd Opposition - 3rd Opposition Speaker
  • 2nd Proposition - Government Whip
  • 2nd Opposition - Opposition Whip

Note that all positions are not equal and that some are deemed more challenging than others. However, the jury usually takes this fact into account when judging the teams


How to win ?

Each speaker has 5 (or 7, depending on the rules) minutes to rebut the arguments of the other side and put her own arguments forward. Moreover, any debater is free to ask Points of Information during the speech of a member from one of the opposing teams (more on POIs later). A panel of adjudicators led by a Chairperson judges each speaker according to content and style and ranks the teams at the end of the debate. The object of World Style Debating is therefore not only to beat the other side, but also to best the other team on your side; the issue of whether the motion should be carried or not is actually unimportant to the debate.

At the end of the debate, the jury retires (or asks the debaters to leave the room) and ranks the 4 teams, who earn a certain number of points according to their performance. For instance, in the European Universities Debating Championship the ratings were as follows:

  • 1st team : 3 points
  • 2nd team: 2 points
  • 3rd team: 1 point
  • 4th team: no points

Teamwork and role of the speaker


Basic Teamwork

When all’s said and done, the adjudicators judge and rank teams. That means that while the performances of the individual speakers are important, teamwork is essential. You should therefore behave as a team, and perhaps more importantly be seen to behave as a team. A good way to do that is to present or summarize the arguments of your teammate during your own speech (e.g. “I will talk about YOUR ARGUMENTS, then my teammate will move on to YOUR PARTNER'S ARGUMENTS” or “My teammate has shown you that the motion must be rejected because of YOUR PARTNER'S ARGUMENTS and, as she has told you, I will address the following points: YOUR ARGUMENTS”).

Furthermore, you should keep in mind that you and your teammate’s arguments work together; in particular, you should never ever contradict your partner, either explicitly or (and this is more tricky) implicitly in your arguments. Your opponents will be quick to pick up on discrepancies and turn them to their advantage. The following (fictitious) example, where the faulty team is 1st Opp, illustrates this risk:

1st speaker for the Opposition: “We should oppose the motion because such a law would accomplish nothing.”

2nd speaker for the Proposition: …

2nd speaker for the Opposition: “We should reject the motion because the law wouldn’t have the expected results; rather, it would encourage other, vastly more destructive behavior…”

Point of Information from a speaker in the Proposition: “Sir, your teammate alleged that the law would be useless yet you seem to think it would have far reaching results. So which is it, sir?”

Once again, summarizing the arguments of your teammate is a good way to remember what he or she has said and avoid this kind of mistake.

This is basic teamwork, and you should apply it regardless of your role in the debate; but there are also specific tasks that each team must perform depending on their position in the debate.


Role of each Team
1st Proposition

1st Prop is expected to define the motion and present arguments in favor of it. Once again, this should be structured: the first speaker begins by giving the motion and explaining it, then moves on to give reasons why the motion should be carried. Then his or her teammate will put other arguments forward or eventually focus on one or two important (but not necessarily new) arguments and develop those.

1st Opposition

1st Opp has to rebut the arguments of the 1st Prop and introduce arguments against the motion. Within the team, the first speaker has to acknowledge the definition given by the Proposition and eventually (though this is very rare) reject it if he or she deems it too narrow or a truism (see the official rules for a complete discussion on what constitutes a “bad” definition). If the definition is rejected, the speaker should give a detailed explanation of the reason and put forward a new definition. 1st Opposition is usually regarded as a difficult position, because the speakers (especially the Leader of the Opposition) have to react immediately to the definition and the arguments of the Proposition (which you may guess but can never be completely sure of).

2nd Proposition

1st Opp has to rebut the arguments of the 1st Prop and introduce arguments against the motion. Within the team, the first speaker has to acknowledge the definition given by the Proposition and eventually (though this is very rare) reject it if he or she deems it too narrow or a truism (see the official rules for a complete discussion on what constitutes a “bad” definition). If the definition is rejected, the speaker should give a detailed explanation of the reason and put forward a new definition. 1st Opposition is usually regarded as a difficult position, because the speakers (especially the Leader of the Opposition) have to react immediately to the definition and the arguments of the Proposition (which you may guess but can never be completely sure of).

The second speaker for the 2nd Prop can (although she doesn’t have to) add more arguments to the expansion introduced by the first speaker. But his or her main role is to summarize the debate (more on summaries in the tips and advice section); in order to do this the speaker must list all the arguments in favor of or against the motion and do so in such a way that the pros seem to outweigh the cons.

2nd Opposition

The role of 2nd Opp is more or less similar to the role of 1st Opp with the added task of summarizing the debate. The first speaker should put forward more arguments against the motion and specifically rebut the expansion introduced by 2nd Prop. The second speaker for the team, who is also the last speaker for the Opposition, has to summarize the debate (note that unlike the last speaker for the Proposition, the Opposition whip should not introduce any new arguments). Obviously, in this summary the arguments against the motion must seem stronger than the arguments in favor of it.


Role of each speaker within a team

As the preceding section has shown, each team has specific tasks to fulfill and within each team the roles of the speakers are usually different. It is therefore important to decide very early on (usually as soon as you know the motion and the position of your team) who will speak when. This decision comes naturally after a few debates, when you know your teammate’s and your own strengths, weaknesses and affinities. Two general points to keep in mind:

“Outside” positions (i.e. Prime Minister or Leader of the Opposition, Government or Opposition Whip) are generally more demanding. The first speaker for the proposition has to define the motion and get the debate going. The Leader of the Opposition has to think on his feet and immediately react to the Proposition’s arguments (and definition). The Whips must summarize the debate and give the overall impression that their side has the stronger arguments.

If one of the teammates is calmer and has more poise, whereas the other teammate is more aggressive, you should consider having the calmer speaker go first. Why? According to one judge, having the calmer person speak first gives the impression that the team is reasonable and in control. The aggressive speaker then gives more energy and intensity to the debate; furthermore, this intensity is perceived as a reaction to the attacks of the opposing teams, and not just a case of bad anger management. If on the other hand the first speaker of the team appears to be a raving maniac, the judges will dismiss him or her and tend to dismiss the other speaker as well.

The Speech

This section focuses on the bread-and-butter of debating, the speeches. It’s a quick outline of how to structure, prepare, and present one.


Structure of a speech

There are three elements to a good speech: structure, structure, and more structure. Not only does a structured speech help you organize your arguments and rebuttals, it also makes it much easier for your audience to follow your line of logic and appreciate your arguments.

The following is a generic outline of a debate speech:

  • Introduction and outline of your arguments (don’t forget to mention your teammate’s arguments!)
  • Rebuttal of previous speaker
  • Argument 1
  • … Last argument
  • Summary of your arguments and conclusion

This is of course only a suggestion, and you can organize your speech as you see fit. However, keep in mind that overly complex speech structures (jumping between different arguments, going into lengthy asides, etc.), even if they seem clear to you when you prepare or deliver your speech, might confuse your listeners or distract them from the ideas you’re trying to get across.

In short: your speech structure should focus on clarity and ease of understanding.


Preparation of the speech

You have 15 minutes to prepare a 5 (or even 7) minute speech. Obviously, in such a short time you can’t possibly write a full-fleshed speech, rehearse it, and learn it by heart. The best you can usually do is figure out what arguments you will use, roughly organize your speech, jolt down a few ideas and examples for each argument and pray to the Gods of Debating that everything goes well.

Let’s look at the preparation of a speech chronologically. Once you know the motion as well as your team’s position you must decide on each speaker’s role during the debate. If one of you has to define the motion, make sure you agree on what definition you’re going to give before choosing your arguments; if you have to expand the motion, decide how you’re going to expand it now (this is less critical, since the member not expanding the motion will be summarizing the debate and those two tasks are more or less independent).

Once this is done, you know when you’re speaking and what you have to do; now is the time to start thinking about what arguments you will use. The best way to do this is probably to brainstorm with your partner and, once you have enough ideas, divide them between the two of you. Speaking of which, three main arguments are usually enough for a 7 minute speech (don’t forget you’ll also have an introduction, rebuttal, summary and points of information to deal with during your speech). And, to quote Churchill: “there's no use having more than three points because nobody will ever remember the fourth.”


Speaking

I assume that you have already participated in or at least seen a few debates so I will not give you the usual advice on speaking (be clear, articulate, vary your tone and tempo, look at your audience, etc.).

One of the most important points i would like to stress in this section is that you have to make the structure of your speech clear to the judges. After all, what is the point in having a clear and organized draft with well thought -out and pertinent arguments if the jury cannot distinguish your introduction from your rebuttal from your arguments ?

Well, how do you make the judges understand the structure of your speech ? As we saw with teamwork, the least subtle way of doing things is usually the best. During your introduction you need to state clearly what your arguments are going to be. Between each major section of your speech you must point out that you are moving on to a new section. And when you conclude, you must recap the main points of your speech. Perhaps an example will make this clearer. Let us say you are the second speaker for your team and that your 3 arguments are the ones we gave before (economic, social, moral). Your speech would go more or less like this:

"madam Chairman, adjudicators (usual introductory niceties). My teammate has shown you that we should reject the motion because SUMMARIZE YOUR PARTNER'S ARGUMENTS and I will drive the final nails in this motion's coffin by addressing the following points. First, we’ll take a look at the economical aspects of such a motion; secondly, I’ll talk about the social consequences of the motion, and my final point will address some of the moral issues surrounding this debate. But before I do that, I’d like to come back to some of the points made by the last speaker…”

  • “Now I’ll move on to my first argument, which is the economic aspect.”

    First argument

  • “My second argument is…”

    Second argument

  • “My final argument is…”

    Third argument

  • “To conclude, what have we shown you today, ladies and gentlemen? My partner has shown you that and I have shown you that for economical, social, and moral reasons we cannot support this motion. I beg to reject.”

Though this may seem like a redundant and clumsy way to get your point across, it works. And more importantly, subtler methods aren’t guaranteed to. Don’t get me wrong: the judges aren’t stupid, far from it. But it’s much easier to follow and take notes on a speech when all its different parts are clearly separated and this in turn makes the adjudicators’ work easier. If your speech is unclear and ill-structured, the judges aren’t required to (and usually won’t) slave over it to understand its internal logic (or lack thereof). In other words: “say what you’re going to say, say it, then say what you just said.” (a somewhat cryptic quote from an ex-debater and adjudicator).

Another useful habit to get into is to time yourself when you’re speaking. You can use a stopwatch, a simple watch or even your mobile phone (most of them have a nifty “timer” mode). Although one of the judges will be timing you and will give you signals (the first signal is after one minute, the second one is one minute before the end, and the last one is when your time is up), those won’t do you much good if you run out of things to say before the final-minute mark or (as happens more often) if you have to rush through the last minute of the speech to put all your insightful arguments forward.

You should of course aim to finish your speech within seconds of the final gong; going on for too long afterwards is bad, but finishing too soon is even worse (there’s nothing more unnatural than a silent debater).

Finally, when you’re not speaking, take notes on what the other debaters say (i.e. their arguments). This is especially important right before your speech because you’ll have to rebut the arguments of the previous speaker, or if you have to summarize the debate (more on summarizing in the next section). Taking notes also helps to follow the evolution of the debate and eventually detect faulty teamwork, which you can then point out with glee and malice.


Other tips and advice

Read!

This is very generic advice. Read the official rules for fine points which I may have missed, to get a feel for the philosophy of World Style Debating, and because you’re expected to know the rules. You are also encouraged to read other debating guides and how-to’s, they’re probably more complete and more accurate than this one.

Read periodicals to keep abreast of the current events. If you’re going to participate in any “serious” debates, you’ll be expected to be able to talk about foreign affairs or general society topics. You can also read debate summaries on common topics, with arguments for and against them (see www.debatabase.com). Note that you can use documents to prepare your debate; a few selected periodicals or a small reference book, such as Pear’s Cyclopedia, can come in handy to find facts and figures. However, since you have very little time to prepare you should know what is in your documents to avoid groping through them blindly, so this doesn’t dispense you from reading.

Summarizing a debate

So far I’ve talked about the need for debate summaries without going into specifics. In this section I’ll give a few pointers concerning such summaries.

Obviously the first step is to take careful notes on what each speaker says. These should include :

  • The definition of the motion as given by the first speaker;
  • The expansion of the motion as given by the third speaker for the Proposition;
  • Each speaker’s arguments (at least their general theme and sub-issues, and perhaps a few details or figures);
  • The rebuttals: these are almost as important as the arguments because they explicitly counter the previous speaker’s points;
  • Successful POIs (i.e. points of information that were not answered satisfactorily);
  • The eventual blunders of individual speakers.

In short, you need to understand the content of the debate. Once you’ve done that, summarizing the debate is “simply” a matter of presenting all that information in a clear and consive way while making it seem that your side has the stronger arguments. There are two possible ways to do that. You can summarize the debate chronologically, giving a speaker by speaker account. Alternatively, you can organize your summary thematically, by distinguishing the main ideas of the debate and retracing their evolution, using a argument / counter-argument style. This is more elegant but also more difficult to accomplish since you basically have to prepare your summary just before your speech, once you have all the arguments from all the debaters.

Finally, keep in mind that the summary must come at the very end of the debates. In particular, you do not want to switch the roles of the last two speakers for your side. I’ve witnessed a debate in which the 3rd speaker for the Opposition summarized the debate, and the Opposition whip said: “since my teammate summarized for the opposition, I’m going to introduce new arguments…” Needless to say, they ranked fourth. Avoid at all cost!

Points of Information

This is another very important part of debating which I haven’t touched on yet. A point of information (or POI) is a short question asked to the current speaker; a POI that is left unanswered or is dealt with evasively can have devastating effects for the speaker. I witnessed, during a very high-level debate, just such a POI. The speaker –a member of the Governement– was arguing that parents should be legally responsible for the misdemeanors of their children, and went on to say that if parents couldn’t account for their children’s conduct they should stay at home to supervise them. To which he got the following point of information : “How does a single parent stay at home to watch her children when she has to work 8 hours a day to keep them fed?” The speaker had nothing to answer to that. Afterwards every other speaker from the Opposition made a reference to the POI to make it clear that the Proposition didn’t know what it was talking about.

Just how do POIs work? You can ask a POI to any speaker from the opposite side, after the 1-minute bell and before the final-minute bell. Actually, what you do is that you request permission to ask a point of information by standing up, extending your hand towards the speaker and saying loudly and clearly “Point of Information, sir/madam”. The speaker will then either accept or refuse the POI, but she must do so promptly (i.e. not leave you standing for 2 minutes before finally declining). It is customary to accept two points of information (or one, for shorter speeches) during your speech. Accepting fewer would make the jury think you’re avoiding POIs; accepting more just eats up valuable debating time (of course, if you’re running short on things to say you can always accept more POIs). A POI must be stated in the form of a short question: no lenghty discourses are allowed, just get your point across.

A few specific points about POIs. Firstly, you can try to “force” your point of information across even if the speaker won’t let you ask it. If you want to react to something the speaker just said and your point of information revolves around one strong statement, e.g. “Human rights in Turkey”, you can use that statement instead of saying “Point of Information” when you stand up. For example: “Sir, on human rights in Turkey?” The theory behind this is that even if the speaker turns you down you’ve made your point and raised a problem which he’ll have to deal with. However, you should be careful when using this trick because it demands a certain sense of timing.

Secondly, choose when and how to accept POIs. If you’re in the middle of an argument, don’t stop to take a Point of Information; you would just lose your train of thought and so would the judges. It’s far better to accept a POI during a break in your speech, e.g. between arguments; if someone requests a POI and you’re willing to take it, but not at the moment, you can ask them to wait for a little while (which is better than ignoring them). I’d also like to point out a common practice when accepting POIs. When you’re nearing the end of your argument and you’re about to accept a POI, you can do so by saying “Sir/Madam, what do you have to say about that?” (“that” being, of course, your brillant argument) instead of the traditional “You may speak.” I don’t really understand the logic behind it; perhaps it’s meant to throw the opponent asking the POI off course. It’s cute, and it can happen. Just thought you’d like to know.

Finally, choose when to answer POIs. If you’re asked a question that you intended to answer later on in one of your arguments, you could just say “This is an interesting question, which I will answer later on while talking about the moral aspects of the matter” or some such. Just be sure to answer the question afterwards! And it doesn’t hurt to mention the POI just before answering it: “and now, to get back to the question you asked earlier…”

Miscellaneous

We’ve seen that you should rebutt the previous speaker’s arguments before presenting your own. However, if you and the previous speaker are speaking about similar themes your rebuttal may use arguments you had planned to give during your speech. In that case, it’s easier and more elegant to rebutt those points during your arguments.