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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
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
leader of the opposition’) will speak, he will accept or
decline the definition (if appropriate) and then lay out the
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
- Then one of the two Proposers, (sometimes
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
speakers have entered ‘unprotected’ time. At four minutes
the chairman will bang the gavel once; this indicates that the
is now in ‘protected’ time again. At five minutes
the chairman will bang the gavel twice; this indicates that the
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
questioner should rise and state, ‘a point of information’.
The current speaker may then accept or decline as he chooses.
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.
points of order or points from the audience will be accepted.
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.
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
to make its voice heard on the world stage. This is to ensure
that the Opposers have some chance of anticipating what the
- The Proposers’ definition must be about something
the other side could reasonably be expected to know about.
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
allowed to watch Grange Hill and how this was an abuse of
his right to free
- The Proposers’ definition must not be
a tautology. That means that it must not be something that
is obviously true.
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
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
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
These three are also the headings for the judging sheet at
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
than having a killer argument that no-one hears because you are
- Standing still: As a general rule, there is
nothing more distracting when you are watching someone speak
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
- Tricks: As you get more experienced you can
start to incorporate tricks. One of the most famous of these
Triad’. This is where you clump topics together in threes
and use that as a flag to catch people’s attention. For
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.
is bad, bogus and boring.’ There are hundreds of these
tricks and only five minutes to speak in so don’t use
- 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
are reading your speech and someone asks you a difficult point
of information how can you respond as freely and effectively
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
This is the most important thing to practice.
A good debate should have a good clear structure so that the argument
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
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
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
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
animals and very quick and this allows humans to ride them
or use them to pull ploughs (evidence). Or: Fire is hot and burns
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
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
- 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
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
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
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
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
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.
Often at schools level there will be floor
speeches after the main speakers have finished talking. This
is replaced in competitive
by the points of information. Only the debaters may make them
and only make them to the other side during unprotected time.
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),
shock the other side so badly that they just shut up and sit
down. Equally important is the ability to think on your feet
a point of information. In some ways this is the most exciting
part of competitive debating. The key to doing both well is to
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 -
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
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
- this is barracking and should be penalized, (although as you
will probably see you can pop up and down quite a lot). You must
make at least one point of information because this shows that
you are still involved in the debate. When you make it be brief,
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.
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
and decide who is the best team and who the best individual
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