Sunday, February 5, 2012

How to get better at debating

Natural talent is, of course, a necessary condition for being an excellent debater.  But frequently the real bottleneck is getting serious about becoming a better debater.  This seems counter-intuitive; many moderately experienced debaters drive themselves to frustration, going to one competition after another without feeling any appreciable improvement.  They seem to exert great effort for little reward.

However, even though these debaters are trying hard at debating, they often aren't trying hard to improve.  Learning the initial steps of debating is easy; how the format works, how to structure a speech, the basics of speaking in public.  These are easy to teach.  Progress in these aspects is frequently swift and smooth.  But once that honeymoon phase is over, you need to take charge of your own development as a debater.  Improvement becomes much more difficult; it requires much more reflection and the ability to be self-critical.  Frequently one can plateau for a period of weeks or months, and any advancement comes in sudden, discontinuous jumps that accompany cracking the next step in an internal puzzle.

I'd like to give some advice to moderately experienced debaters who would like to try to become really good.  I'm not (in this post) going to give general recommendations about how to debate well; those will vary massively from case to case, and can be acquired from a rich variety of good sources.  To be precise, rather than advice, I'd like to give meta-advice; a set of directions for how to take charge of your own improvement.

  1. Analyse your performance with your partner after each debate.  What did you do well?  What did you do badly?  What specifically could you have done differently, either individually or as a team, in order to place higher?  What broader strategies for improvement can you abstract from this particular performance?
  2. Ask for advice on what you can do better.  It's especially important to ask experienced judges who gave debates against you; they will frequently have a better understanding of your weaknesses than the judges who gave debates for you.  If you disagree with the decision, you should make especial effort to listen carefully to the judges, without hostility or defensiveness.  You need to understand why the decision was made, so that you can win in future.
  3. Make a list of what it is you need to do to improve.  There are so many aspects to good debating that it is difficult to improve without knowing what it is that you're trying to do better.  Make a list; add to it after each debate, by reflecting on your performance.  Before each debate, choose one or two items on that list, and focus on doing those things well.  ('speak more slowly', 'illustrate arguments with examples', 'don't use jargon', etc.)  After each debate, ask yourself if you succeeded.  Gradually, more and more of the items will become instinctive, and you won't need a list to remind you to do them.  New items will take their place.
  4. Stop blaming the motion.  Or the judge.  Take responsibility for your own wins and losses.  Blaming the judge is frequently a way of disclaiming responsibility for your performance, and hinders the critical self-reflection you need to get really good.  Yes, there are unfair motions and bad judges.  But even if the motion is unfair, or the judge biased, your performance is still causally linked to the outcome.  Almost always, there is something you could have done that would have caused you to win.  Figure out what that is.  Unfair motions and bad judges are, unfortunately, always going to be part of debating.  You need to learn to win consistently, even when fighting uphill, if you want to be excellent.  If you only know how to win in front of an excellent judge, then you will throw away many points that better teams will scoop up.  (Of course, this is not an excuse for bad judging or unfair motions.) 
  5. Be intellectually curious.  Regularly read interesting non-fiction outside your own academic specialty, and do so with a critical eye.  This will do two things; most obviously, it will increase your general knowledge, which is helpful in itself.  Equally important, however, is that it will train you to think deeply about how arguments work.  You can reflect, with all the time in the world, on whether you agree with what you're reading. You can parse it carefully, and test it for subtle weaknesses or fallacies.  Debating requires you to make good arguments quickly.  But it is easier to do so if you have a wide experience of different forms of argument; different persuasive strategies, and their strengths and weaknesses.  Learn first to make arguments well.
I'd add as a final caution:  Be patient.  When you've a strong grasp of the basics of debating, progress ceases to become gradual.  Anecdotal experience suggests that most debaters find that they plateau for moderately long periods, and that improvements arrive quite suddenly and drastically.  Frequently, one missing skill from your debating skill-set prevents you from using other skills as effectively; for instance, finding it difficult to listen in the last minute of your opponent's speech makes your rebuttal connect less well, which in turn undermines your confidence and poise...  Realising what's holding you back can frequently lead to apparent improvements on many fronts.  (What I'm saying is that the production function for good debating is typically multiplicative rather than additive, so that different production inputs are complements.)

At the same time, the timing of these sudden improvements is, to a large extent, within your control.  You can affect whether your plateau period is counted in weeks, months or years.  Good teams are always striving to improve themselves; they learn quickly from their own mistakes, and frequently can reap greater dividends from a single competition than worse teams can from a whole season.  Improvement doesn't just happen by dint of the sheer number of debates you've done; it takes careful self-examination and critical thought to become excellent.


  1. Right, I have a question. I've been thinking of listening to the better debates out there (mainly the Worlds and Euros finals mainly) and trying to make notes, summarize the best arguments out there or perhaps even transcript verbatim some particularly impressive arguments and analyze them. Do you think that is a viable strategy? Have you ever done that?

    1. I've never tried that, but it might be a useful approach. I'd be very careful not to attempt to copy arguments wholesale, though, because frequently an argument is only powerful if deployed in a particular context. (Many arguments are also only good strategic moves if you know how to defend them in subsequent speeches against potential attacks; and obviously not all the potential attacks will have been made in the debate.)

      International semifinals are often better than finals, if you're looking for examples of good debating. Finals can be very variable.

    2. As someone who has tried that; it's only really useful to the degree to which you can abstract from them structurally or strategically interesting features. I agree with Shengwu that 'learning' the arguments themselves is not especially useful.

      One thing you might consider (though somewhat time consuming): where there are multiple rooms and especially outrounds from the same competition (e.g. Botswana Worlds on Vimeo) available, compare the way different teams in different rooms chose to approach the same motion from the same position (and compare this to the results which for outrounds you can get from Colm Flynn's blog and for inrounds you can get from the tab). You'd probably learn a lot more from that than, say, rewatching worlds finals (though that is useful for perfecting your Will Jones impersonation).

  2. Thanks, Shengwu, this is pretty much what I've been advocating for years in South Africa, although precious few seem to listen to reason. However, the guys that I have convinced to follow this method, all spoke in finals eventually. People sometimes discount the value of introspection and humility when it comes to debating. I applaud you.

  3. My question would be more on the category of Debaters who have more than enough credible experience but are not there yet to really get way better. would taking some time off (significant amount of time) from debate tournaments also be advisable? I've noticed that as experience also collects certain rounds become more a matter of using old material as oppose to creating really new ones or challenging the mind to be more expansive with your thoughts. or is my opinion on this wrong? would you advise certain seasons to simply stay away from debate for awhile?

  4. I'd like your view on this Shengwu. I have generally found it useful to keep cycling between speaking and judging, rather than being stuck to one for an extensive period of time. For me, this switch allows me to imbibe from one side and incorporate it to the other activity. For eg, speaking has helped me understand how a debaters view their case, and what I'd need to do as a judge to convince them about my view of the debate (especially when teams think they're 1st, but are probably in contention for a fourth). Even more crucially for me, judging experience has helped me understand the flow of a debate, how to respond to it better, understand the case and burdens that we would need to shoulder, as well as how to specifically tailor argumentation for slightly less experienced judges (this part especially, since many many debaters - myself included - crib about how a 'novice' judge just 'did not get it').

    I've also started video recording my debates to get a better idea of where the screw ups happened, and what to do better. I wonder if it wouldn't be a bad idea to start recording oral feedbacks as well - its extremely hard for judges to improve unless they can see excellent feedback, which is difficult for newer institutions in smaller towns and less active debating circuits. Do you think it'd be a good idea?

    Oh, and another idea I'd probably like to try more often - a few of us once debated by a lakeside garden, with evening walkers watching (and many more gawking). We ended up getting fairly interesting (unsolicited) feedback from a retired old man. Especially interesting were his views on our speeches and the things we said that made it sound alien to him. Being stuck in a closed environment with trained judges, I realized how very disconnected our speeches were from what normal people could understand and identify with.

  5. This is all very good advice!

    Something else that helped me a lot: learn more about the academic study of argumentation. It helped me develop a vocabulary to describe what's actually happening in a debate. Without that vocabulary, I was doomed to writing down 'good arguments' that other people made without being able to look strategically at what makes them good within that context.

  6. "4. Stop blaming the motion"

    Totally agree. When novices start whining I'm asking them:
    "How do you think - what would Will Jones/Sam Block/etc do?"

    They remain silent usually :)