Debate is life: how to leverage your skills from the debating floor to excel in other areas too

By Carissa Ma Ming-yan

Debating skills can help you in other areas, too, from writing essays and speaking in public, and even understanding global conflicts

By Carissa Ma Ming-yan |

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Ryan Chan Chun-hei of Ho Fung College speaks at the New Territories Senior Finals Debate.

It is fair to say that my days of cut-and-thrust debating are behind me. Back in secondary school, I was part of my school’s English debating team and took part in debating tournaments, such as the Sing Tao Inter-School Debating Competition and the Hong Kong Secondary Schools Debating Competition (HKSSDC).

Since starting university, I have stopped taking part in competitions. For a while, I thought I’d truly lost touch with it. But more and more, it seems as if my connection hasn’t eroded at all. Now, even while studying my masters in English literature, I find myself tapping into the skills I picked up through debating.

One obvious advantage for a university student is the ability to speak clearly and confidently in public. Debating competitions taught me that public speaking is not an ordeal to be endured but a skill to be polished. This has helped me succeed at class presentations as well as scholarship and job interviews.

Debating skills can also translate into essay-writing. A clear sense of argument is essential to all forms of academic writing. It must be written in a way that others can follow and respond to. After all, academia is simply a form of discourse within a community, where new insights and discoveries can be added all the time.

Debate, like academia, is a form of conversation. In an attempt to make our conversations more orderly and structured, we have invented debate, meaning “to beat down” in Latin. Because I was used to this disciplined form of conversing, I picked up the format of essay-writing easily.

To write good essays, you need to develop a thesis and support it with evidence, while being aware of counter-arguments. Similarly, a good debater ought to be capable of offering clear arguments while knowing how to break apart those very arguments.

To be aware of the flaws in your own arguments requires a level of humility. According to German philosopher and poet, Friedrich Nietzsche, “Those who cannot understand how to put their thoughts on ice should not enter into the heat of debate”.

Freedom to argue and freedom to be challenged are intrinsic to debating. In formal debates, you aren’t likely to see a speaker enter the floor angry and ready to tear into members of the opposing side. But outside the rules and codes of formal debates, I find that people are more likely to see ideas as something personal.

In everyday arguments, when we are attacked for our ideas, we feel we are being attacked personally. We therefore respond in the same way, and as a result, help to create two extremely polarised “sides”.

In a way, many conflicts in the world today follow this pattern; opposing camps increasingly stay in their own bubbles, consuming different news, and talking only to those who share their views.

To keep conversations alive and thriving so that we don’t become locked in a “cold war” of segregated arguments, I think it is worth taking note of debate etiquette, which stresses a healthy balance between assertion and respect.

To find out more about debating, visit the Hong Kong Secondary Schools Debating Competition website or contact Hong Kong Secondary Schools Debating Competition Coordinator Stan Dyer at [email protected].

Debating bio: Carissa Ma is a former Ying Wa Girls’ School debater. She is currently studying a masters in 20th Century English Literature at Somerville College, Oxford University, in Britain. 

Edited by Charlotte Ames-Ettridge