While we know debating isn’t all about winning awards and beating competitors, you shouldn’t underestimate the importance of competitions. In fact, taking part in debating competitions is probably the quickest way to develop your public speaking skills.
Recently, two teams of students competed in the Hong Kong regional round of the International Competition for Young Debaters, organised by the Hong Kong Schools Debating and Public Speaking Community, the University of Hong Kong, and the Oxford Union, a debating society at the University of Oxford.
Helen Chau and Jenna Hong from German Swiss International School (GSIS) and Ngan Sze-yuen and Lee Cheuk-lam from Diocesan Girls’ School qualified to represent the city at the finals in Oxford, Britain, where GSIS went on to win the Grand Final.
However, these students have only been doing debate competitively for one year; how did they get from beginners to award-winning competitive debaters? Young Post asked them for their top tips.
One of the hardest things about debating is the preparation phase. This is especially true if the motion is not revealed until the competition itself; debaters will have to work under time pressure to come up with relevant and effective arguments for whichever side they end up being on.
Unfortunately, one of the side effects of the time pressure is that arguments end up being too generic, and detached from the specifics of the motion. Your instinct may be to create your arguments as quickly as possible, but it’s worth using a little extra time to come up with points that are tailor-made for the debate.
“I usually construct arguments based on experience and previous motions,” says Helen. “But students around the world can ... think of unique and special [arguments] which are exclusive to the context of the motion.”
In most forms of debate, speaking times are usually no longer than 10 minutes. With all the information and arguments you have to include in your speech, those 10 minutes can pass quickly, so prioritise the points you want to make. You will come up with many arguments during debate preparation but the key is the identify which are more important, and put them first. Don’t get too attached to your arguments; if they aren’t vital, cut them from your speech.
“I should have prioritised more important [points]... less important arguments may not have such a big impact in the debate and may take up quite a lot of my [speaking] time,” says Helen.
Another way of balancing a speech is to divide time between expressing your team’s points and rebutting opponents’ points.
As Ngan Sze-yuen, 14, explains, “you have to make use of every moment to actively [break] down the case of your opponents; if you’re too preoccupied with explaining your own points ... the points from the other side will still stand.”
If you want to become a more confident debater, you need to be aware of what’s happening in the world around you. This will help you understand the arguments and evidence presented during debates, says Cheuk-lam, 14. “Debaters should read up on a wide range of societal issues through books or magazines such as The Economist.”
You can also learn a lot by simply observing debate competitions, either in person or on YouTube.
“Watching debate ... provides the opportunity to see debates as a judge [does] and be exposed to different techniques,” says Jenna, 15.
“It is important to actively listen and take notes during the debates, to look for what strategies the teams are using.”