Winning the hearts of others

Timothy Chui
Timothy Chui |

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Good debaters need to think on the spot and get their facts right, writes Timothy Chui

Whether you're negotiating with your parents about your next night out or trying to knock off 40 per cent on a Temple Street purchase, arguments and debates abound in free, democratic societies like Hong Kong.

According to three adjudicators who have supervised more than 800 debates between them, the key to winning a debate is a good grasp of the facts, delivering your arguments strongly and being able to deal with unexpected difficulties that come up.

This is true whether you're on the street or in front of a panel of judges, they said.

For Calvin Foo, debate adjudicator and native English teacher at SKH Lam Kau Mow Secondary, getting your facts wrong will destroy your credibility.

'Good debaters do their research and aren't careless with facts and numbers because this could work against them,' Foo said.

Some debaters cite Wikipedia as a credible source, he said. This is a common mistake because the website could be edited by people who are not experts in their field.

Debaters need to go one step further to get to the source, which could be a person or an organisation. 'This strengthens your argument, but if you toss out some figures without any attribution, why should anyone believe you?' Foo asked.

While it's tempting to store your research in flashcards, good debaters think on the spot and take a more spontaneous approach to their task, he said.

'It's not a verse-speaking competition and you need to respond to information the other team may toss at you.'

According to CCC Ming Kei College's native English teacher Perry Bayer, relying on a prepared speech was dangerous because it was not flexible and could hamper the flow of an argument. Bayer has been an adjudicator at the Nesta-SCMP Inter-School Debating Competition finals for the past three years.

'[There was] one debate which came to a halt because a student lost one of her cue cards and couldn't continue. Students should be able to think on their feet,' he said.

Local students are naturals when it comes to research but they also have to focus on their showmanship.

'Students need to practise things such as pausing, emphasis and ways to get the audience to relax. Using anecdotes, analogies and keeping the language simple also helps,' Bayer said.

Even if aspiring debaters don't have the time to practise with their coaches, they can try it on their friends or parents as long as they understand it is more about conveying emotions and ideas rather than perfect pronunciation, he said.

If all else fails, talk to yourself in the mirror.

'When I was a student, I practised in front of the mirror, and I found my hand would go up too quickly, like I was having a heart attack instead of making a point,' he said.

'It's about [being] sincere and making emotional appeals. You can be friendly and amusing but don't hit them over the head with too many statistics.'

Having adjudicated more than 500 debates, Michael Evershed, manager of the Hong Kong Schools World Debating Team, said he was keen to see how teams dealt with the clashes of ideas and the twists and turns of debates.

When manner and delivery were even on both sides, it is how one group reacts to another and how they can turn an attack into a selling point that really set good debaters apart, Evershed said.

'I would look at how a team raises their points and how they rebut their opponents. It's all about a debater grabbing hold of the conflict, turning things to their advantage by listening and responding, not just through prepared notes,' he said.