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Competitive Debating
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The Rules of Competitive Debating
There are a number of different systems of debating throughout the world. The most popular is British Parliamentary Debating. This style of debating is used as the basis for the World Debating Competition and for the World Schools Debating Competition. It is also the type that you are most likely to have met yourselves. At different competitions different variations of the rules will be used, although at the core they are the same. The biggest difference is that at the World Championships, and in university level debating in general, there are four teams of two competing against each other, whilst in school debating there are two teams of three competing against each other. The rules that will apply to this debate are closest to the schools system.

There are two teams of two people. One team will be the Proposers, (sometimes called ‘the Government’); the other team will be the Opposers, (sometimes called ‘the opposition’).

  • The Proposers will start and their first speaker, (‘sometimes called ‘the prime minister’) will open the debate, define the motion and lay out the Proposers’ case.
  • Then the first speaker from the Opposers (sometimes called ‘the leader of the opposition’) will speak, he will accept or decline the definition (if appropriate) and then lay out the Opposers’ positive case and begin the rebuttal of the Proposers.
  • Then the second speaker of the Proposers will speak, rebutting the Opposer and continuing the Proposers’ positive case.
  • Then the second speaker of the Opposers will speak, rebutting the Proposers and putting the rest of the Opposers’ positive case.
  • Then one of the two Proposers, (sometimes called ‘the government whip’), will give a summation. This speech must not contain any new material.
  • Then one of the two Opposers, (sometimes called ‘the opposition whip’) will give a summation. This speech must not contain any new material.

The main speeches will last five minutes. The summation speeches will last 3 minutes.

  • After the first minute of each of the main speeches the chairman will bang the gavel once. This is to indicate that the speakers have entered ‘unprotected’ time. At four minutes the chairman will bang the gavel once; this indicates that the speaker is now in ‘protected’ time again. At five minutes the chairman will bang the gavel twice; this indicates that the speaker should come to end. If the speaker goes on to 5 minutes and thirty seconds the chairman should bang his gavel continuously until they sit down and shut up.
  • All the time during the summation speeches is protected time.
  • During unprotected time ‘points of information’ may be offered by the other side. To offer a point of information the questioner should rise and state, ‘a point of information’. The current speaker may then accept or decline as he chooses.
  • If a point of information is declined the person trying to make it should sit down promptly. If it is accepted then he should ask his question quickly and then sit down - no follow on questions are allowed.
  • NO points of order or points from the audience will be accepted.
  • There must be no barracking, or heckling.
  • Breaches of the rules will lead to points being deducted.

There are a number of rules that are not about the conduct of the debate itself but which are nevertheless very important. These are the most important:

  • The position that each team will speak in, (either Proposer or Opposer) is determined randomly.
  • The motion to be debated is only shown to the teams 15 minutes before the debate starts.
  • The Proposers’ definition must not be a ‘squirrel’. By this I mean that the topic debated must be clearly related to the motion. An example of a squirrel would be if the motion were, ‘This house believes in freedom of speech’ and the debate topic was about debt relief in Africa. Not even if the Proposers tried to say that this was because the poverty in Africa was stifling the countries’ ability to make its voice heard on the world stage. This is to ensure that the Opposers have some chance of anticipating what the debate will be about.
  • The Proposers’ definition must be about something the other side could reasonably be expected to know about. An example of not doing this would be if the motion were again ‘This House believes in freedom of speech’ and the Prime Minister tried to define it as being about the time when he was 12 when he wasn’t allowed to watch Grange Hill and how this was an abuse of his right to free expression.
  • The Proposers’ definition must not be a tautology. That means that it must not be something that is obviously true. An example would be arguing that the sky was blue. If tautologies were allowed the Opposers would be left in an impossible position.


Judging a Debate
Some of the rules for this debate you will have used before when you have been debating in school. Some of them will be new to you.

Generally being a good debater is about persuading the audience that you are right and your opponents are wrong. This is obviously important in competitive debating too. However in competitive debating other things become very important, although they are in a way all part of being persuasive. I am going to try and explain what a judge will be looking for when deciding which team was the best. In doing that I will be explaining the skills that a good debater needs and this will be relevant whenever you are debating and indeed whenever you are trying to persuade someone that you are right.

I have divided the topics into three sections: style, structure and content. Although I have divided them up they all affect each other. These three are also the headings for the judging sheet at the end.

The most important thing to remember here is that everyone has their own style of debating and it is almost always best to try and work with that than against it. Some people are very aggressive and some people are very calm, some use a lot of facts and others use a lot of emotion. All can be good and you must decide what works for you best. What style works for you is up to you but some things are universal and it is these things that you must look for when judging a debate. However writing about them is not the same as spotting them in a debate. When you are judging it will be the overall feel that the speaker gives that you are looking for.

  • Speaking clearly: Don’t speak too fast. Most people don’t realize that they are doing this. Nerves make us gabble. I always write on the top of my notes ‘SLOW DOWN’, - even though I don’t realize it - I start to speed up because I have so much I want to say. There is nothing worse than having a killer argument that no-one hears because you are gabbling.
  • Standing still: As a general rule, there is nothing more distracting when you are watching someone speak than having them constantly moving about. It is a sign of nervousness and when people see it they don’t like it because they feel worried for the person. Plus they start to watch the movement and concentrate on that and not on what is being said. The same is true of hands - don’t wave them about. Don’t do anything to distract from your speech.
  • Breathe: Some debaters have not managed to master their breathing when they are speaking in public. They end up taking a lot of little breaths or pausing to suck in huge amounts of air. By practicing you will know how much you can say on one breath and then tailor your words to that.
  • Color: Everyone knows what it sounds like when someone speaks in a monotone. They put no emphasis on any of their words and just drone on as though reading a list. The secret to overcoming this is to believe in what you are saying. Adding color is about adding emotion - it is not about shouting and whispering. Let your emotions add color to the words. Even if you don’t really believe it try to infuse your speech with some passion – albeit acted.
  • Tricks: As you get more experienced you can start to incorporate tricks. One of the most famous of these is called the ‘Ciceronian Triad’. This is where you clump topics together in threes and use that as a flag to catch people’s attention. For example ‘Style, structure, content.’ Another trick is ‘alliteration’; this is where all the words begin with the same letter. You can combine these to greater effect. For example, ‘Mr. Clarke’s argument is bad, bogus and boring.’ There are hundreds of these tricks and only five minutes to speak in so don’t use too many.
  • Speak fluently: Don’t read your speeches. A debate is a living thing - you must be able to react to what is being said by the other debaters. This is particularly so in competitive debating where you will not know what the debate is about until 15 minutes beforehand (or less if you are the first speaker for the opposition.) If you are reading your speech and someone asks you a difficult point of information how can you respond as freely and effectively as you would like to?
  • Engage with the audience: A lot of the issues that I have mentioned above are about barriers to connecting with the audience. If you are reading your speech then you can’t maintain eye contact with the judges, gauge their response or adapt your speech according to their body language. Similarly if you are speaking in a monotone this prevents you from conveying your ‘belief’ in what you are saying to the audience.
  • Jokes: Always useful but not necessary. If you can’t do them don’t try. It is incredibly hard to get it right and if it goes wrong you look like an idiot. If you do use them try to be sensitive - no jokes during debates about the suffering caused by landmines for example. Don’t use too many - this is after all a serious discussion of the issues and should not be devalued by frivolity.

This is the most important thing to practice. A good debate should have a good clear structure so that the argument hangs together. A good structure will make it easier for the judges to understand what you are trying to say, because each point will follow the last in a logical order. Another aspect of good structure is good management of the debate, in particular managing your time and the points of information. Lastly, having a good structure lets you know where you are heading. This is an enormous boost to your confidence because it allows you to stay on track and helps you to ensure that you have said all that you need to say.

  • A good debate is like a good essay - there should be an introduction, then the main points, then a conclusion. Tell them what you are going to tell them; tell them; tell them what you have told them.
  • The points being made should be more than just assertions and not just statements of fact. So the point should be made and then the evidence given to back it up. Or, if you prefer, the evidence should be given and then the conclusion drawn from that evidence. For example: Horses are very useful to humans (point) because they are strong animals and very quick and this allows humans to ride them or use them to pull ploughs (evidence). Or: Fire is hot and burns flesh, this causes pain (evidence) therefore you should not put your arm in a fire (point).
  • The points being made should be relevant. (Obvious?)
  • The team should divide its points between the speakers so that they share the burden. So for example the first speaker could say: ‘There are political and economic reasons why this is a bad idea. I will talk about the political reasons and my colleague will take about the economics.’ Competitive debating is a team sport.
  • Notes: This is something that the judges are never likely to see but I mention it because it can cause a lot of difficulty to the inexperienced debater. Notes are crutches; they support us when we are feeling weak. Since we should be feeling strong there should be as few notes as possible. People with sheets of densely written scrawl are wasting their time. They won’t have the opportunity to find what they need in time and they will be tempted to read the notes. Stick to just your three main points and your main bits of evidence.
  • Flag it up: It’s no good having the world’s best structure if you don’t let it show. Feel free to state at the beginning of your speech any tag words that will indicate what is coming up. For example, ‘Mr. Clarke’s argument is wrong in both theory and practice. It is wrong in theory because… It is wrong in practice because…’
  • Time: Five minutes is not very long at all. At the bigger competitions speeches usually last seven minutes and those extra two minutes can make a world of difference. In five minutes you have barely enough time give an introduction and then make three points or sometimes only two. It is vital therefore that you order your speech so that the most important points come over first so that if you need to you can drop others. You can always try to make those others as points of information. People who try to cram their best points into the last minute are bad debaters.
  • Points of information: see the special note at the end.

I have left this until last, but in many ways it is the most important thing of all. In most non-competitive debates you will have plenty of time to prepare and find out facts. In competitive debates you have none at all. The way that a good debater can take his limited information and turn it into a winning speech is one of the great skills. There is not time enough to go into all the ways that you can work a debate in order to salvage it from your own ignorance so I will confine myself to these few points.

  • The topics for most debates will be obvious or fall within a small range of topics. The emphasis is then on you to prepare for these. You can also prepare by staying up to date with current affairs. You may feel like a bit of an idiot if someone starts chatting to you about something you know nothing about - this is nothing compared to the shame of having to speak for five minutes in front of an audience. Better yet if you have researched everything there is to know about a topic but it is slightly obscure then you will look like gods and your opponents will look like fools - very satisfying.
  • Evidence: No point is any good without the evidence to back it up. Always try to introduce as many facts as you can. Apart from anything else this will scare the other side witless and make them nervous about asserting anything if they think they are going to be found out on the facts.
  • If in doubt and totally ignorant about what the other side is talking about try attacking the theory of their case. This requires you to recognize and understand patterns of argument. This is easier than it sounds because the patterns of argument are actually rather limited and they come up time and again. Indeed, so well known are these patterns that they still have their Latin or Greek names – reductio ad absurdum, petitio principi and so forth. By learning to recognize these patterns of argument you will know where their weaknesses lie and be in a position to attack them when you spot them.

Points of information
Often at schools level there will be floor speeches after the main speakers have finished talking. This is replaced in competitive debating by the points of information. Only the debaters may make them and only make them to the other side during unprotected time. Learning how to make a good point of information is a very great skill and if it is done well, (as I have managed only once or twice), you can shock the other side so badly that they just shut up and sit down. Equally important is the ability to think on your feet when asked a point of information. In some ways this is the most exciting part of competitive debating. The key to doing both well is to be brief. This requires practice.

The only thing that I can say at this stage is that you should only take one or at the most two points during your speech - wave the rest away you don’t have time. Try not to take them all at the beginning and not all at the end. If you are offering the point make sure you sit down promptly if it is rejected. After you have had a point rejected - wait a bit. Do not keep popping up and down - this is barracking and should be penalized, (although as you will probably see you can pop up and down quite a lot). You must try to make at least one point of information because this shows that you are still involved in the debate. When you make it be brief, it is not really your turn to speak. If you go on for more than 15 seconds the debater can quite rightly tell you to sit down - if he doesn’t the chairman should.

Most of what I have been saying you will already know. The points I have made above are just a guide from my personal experience and yours may differ. The best way to get better is to practice. Even watching others debate can be valuable. The important point is to try and work out what works and what doesn’t. The sample judging sheet below will give you a chance to test your skills and decide who is the best team and who the best individual speaker.

First Speaker Style Structure Content Style Structure Content







P of 1    
Individual Total            
Second Speaker Style Structure Content Style Structure Content







P of 1    
Individual Total            
Team Total            

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