Tuesday 21 August 2018

Advice on attending a major international tournament


A marathon not a sprint

For example the World Universities Debating Championship contains 9 preliminary rounds over 3 days, plus the various elimination rounds, and other international tournaments are similar. This makes for a notably difference strategic game and competitive experience than a normal shorter tournament.


The toll that continuous stress and concentration takes on the body and mind should not be underestimated. Doing three days of debating is comparable to the experience of doing several days of exams in a row.  And you add to this the stresses of travelling, 

While it makes me feel old to say this, remember to look after yourself. As a human you need regular sleep, nutrition, and so on. Caffeine and sugar may substitute for a day or two, but for three days they reach diminishing returns quickly.

Most of these tournaments have nightly social events which are an amazing opportunity to meet new friends and unwind after the days debates. But remember this is not obligatory. Partying every night takes its toll, on top of the effects of the competition itself. So taking an evening off to recharge is often a good idea, especially if you are drinking at the socials.

On a similar note, it is very easy for people to take out their stress and exhaustion on their teammates or debate partners. So taking some time apart can be a good idea. Even if you are the best of friends, spending all of your time together will invariably lead to getting on one another’s nerves. 

Within the debate

In terms of the effect this has on debating success, it changes the dynamic of success away from individual exceptional performances and towards consistency.

One piece of advice that has stuck with me came from Douglas Cochran*, who once told me that  the teams who do well at major international competitions are not doing anything particularly unique or special, but are managing to get the basics right every single time.

It’s amazing how many champion debaters, when under high stress, forget the first things they teach their novices like: having a clear structure; responding to your opponents arguments; explaining why what you are saying is important; and so on.

*With characteristic modesty Doug reminded me to treat his advice with scepticism, as he never won Worlds or Euros. But you will have to be content with the advice of a mere multiple finalist and chief adjudicator.   


The international aspect

So far I’ve mainly been talking about the impact of the size and scale of a tournament. But the international nature of the event also changes things.

Common knowledge

When debating in your own home territory you will probably have a pretty good idea of what is and isn’t  common knowledge and of what the status quo in a particular policy is.

For example when debating in the USA you could likely reference the second amendment without further explanation, in the knowledge that most debaters in the room would now it referred to the right to bear arms, as it is a frequently discussed political topic and a basic part of high school civics education.

Also, if a debate about gun control does come up, the fact that different countries have radically different status quo policies can make a massive difference. It is easy to assume that your own country is the default case, but there are huge variations in policy even between superficially similar countries.  Even seemingly obvious things like the definition of “High School” can vary wildly from country to country. As a result, being precise and clear in your definitions is even more important than normal.

When arguing form a specific example in a specific country it is not enough to merely show it applies in that particular case, but to show why that example is representative of the general case.

Note that this is not just about adapting to your judge. The fact that I as a random individual happen to know a lot about the US supreme court, or the political situation in Zimbabwe, doesn’t mean that when judging a debate I should treat that knowledge as assumed. You still need to explain it.

Topics at international competitions should be assumed to take place in all applicable countries, unless specified otherwise, and should be accessible to an intelligent individual from anywhere in the world.

Common Values

This is related but distinct to the notion of common knowledge. All human beings have slightly different moral values, and care about slightly different things. But, in broad strokes, you can assume that people from certain countries have similar values. Which means that if you make an argument premised on the assumption that a certain value (e.g. Free Speech, Social Stability, Individual Liberty, Constitutionality) is an obvious and inherent good, but the judges in your room do not agree, you are going to have a bad time.

Thankfully the solution to this is to do what you really should be doing even in your own country in front of an audience of similar values, and explaining why certain values are important and impacting your points. Adding a single sentence to the end of a point can make the difference between winning and losing. E.g. “This will promote individual liberty, which is good because it allows people to make the choices that will result in the greatest happiness for them.”

Debating norms

Even within the same format the norms and trends for how to debate can vary quite substantially, and you need to be aware of those differences.

For example in British Parliamentary/Worlds style: In some countries it is standard to have layers of structure, with explicitly labelled sub points in every speech, in others that would be considered bizarre; In some places not responding to a point is tantamount to conceding it, so people respond to every argument explicitly in turn, in others it is common to ignore all but the most important points of an opponent’s speech; and there are many more subtle variations such as what counts as a sufficiently new extension. 

To a large extent there is little you can do about this, as there will always be variation in what judges prefer outside your control. But remember whatever their preferences they are still fundamentally judging on the same standards. The best way to cope is always to remember to be clear, impact your points and so on.  I definitely wouldn’t advise trying to substantially alter your own speeches, as you are unlikely to beat someone else at their own game, and will likely lose out on what you are best at.

The main way you can cope with this is in how you react to other teams. Very often when people encounter a team making an argument in an unfamiliar way they dismiss it as a bad argument, and are then blindsided by the clever things that the other team was doing because it didn’t match their mental model of what a good speech should sound like.

Sadly this is very often a particular problem for first language teams debating against second language teams. As they may equate language ability with debating ability or intelligence. Though in such cases one could justifiably say that losing was a suitable punishment for their arrogance.

The personal

Finally and most importantly, when you are attending an event such as this it is very important that you know what you want out of the experience.

To put it bluntly, most of the people reading this blog are not going to be world champions. And that is totally okay. There are many other valuable things you can get out of a competition than the trophy or scores.

Debaters as a group tend towards the competitive and perfectionistic, which is a positive trait in many ways, but can lead to unrealistic expectations of yourself and resultant psychological problems. To a large degree your success will be determined by factors beyond your control, and being able to cope with that is important.

It is worth remembering that the mere act of being able to give a speech puts you ahead of 99% of the population, and add on to that the difficulties of the topics, short preparation time, language, etc. To say that participation is what is important does have the ring of a children’s book, but in this case it is statistically true. (There is also a larger argument to be made about how unhealthy and counterproductive it is to base your self-worth on external validation, but that is beyond the scope of this column. If this sounds like you I would suggest looking at cognitive behavioural therapy resources on perfectionism.)

Your goal for the competition makes a big difference to how you will approach things and the decisions you will make. For example, if I have decided the most important thing to me about attending this competition is that I enjoy myself and try to make new friends from around the world, then I might be more willing to stay up late partying, than if I am solely focussed on my results. Or I might prioritise different things in a debate if I am approaching it as a development and training exercise than if I am solely focused on winning.

It’s important to make sure you and your speaking partner are on the same page with regards to your goals. The most common arguments and fights I’ve seen at competitions come from one partner thinking they are taking things more seriously than the other.


Thursday 18 December 2014

On (the) Comparative

"The comparative in this debate is..." "On the comparative...." "You need to be more comparative..."

What is comparative? It is "comparing" two or more different things and saying which is better. Simple enough right? But it's a surprisingly important part of debating. 

It is very easy to give the judges simply a long list of good things and bad things without saying which I should care about more. On very simple things (e.g. there will be more dead people) it is okay to let the judges do this themselves, but the more complex arguments you make the more you need to say what is important and why. 

This is also where impacting comes in, translating a harm into obvious real world terms. Random example, if you tell me X will result in disillusionment with state institutions, that sounds vaguely bad. But I'm not very sure how much I care, but if you tell me that because people are disillusioned with the state they won't report crimes to the police, they will turn to vigilante justice, and that will cause bad things, I now know why I care.

Comparative then is taking the impacts of two different points, or of the opposing sides of the debate and saying which is more important. Example: "Even if we buy their analysis, their only harm is that a small number of people will be upset because of an abstract violation of their bodily autonomy, compare that to the harms we bring you of mass death if people are not vaccinated." 

CC - Flickr user Infobunny
Things vary in importance depending on the framework you judge them in, which will depend on the debate. If you ask me which is better, chalk or cheese I can't answer (and may think you are crazy), but if you tell me that we are trying to make pizza, the answer is obvious. Similarly you may sometimes need to put things in more of a context or framing than just our default assumptions about what things are bad. For example, if you can make me believe that the most important thing in this debate is the impact on the poor, (for reasons a, b, and c) then I will judge the arguments in the debate based on their effect on that.

Another way in which a point can be "non-comparative" is if it is true, but it is true on both sides of the debate, so it doesn't matter. Example: "They say that our policy will economically coerce people, but people aren't making a free choice in the status quo anyway so that point is non-comparative." If you explain why the form of coercion on their side is more harmful, or affects more people, or whatever it is then comparative. 

Comparative is essential in a summary speech, where you are explicitly telling the judges why point X beats point Y and why. But it is also important to do in every speech. Its also an element of judging, deciding what is important in the debate, but if you do that yourself you can ensure that the judges think your stuff is the most important. 

Thursday 4 December 2014

Roles on the table in British Parliamentary Debating

This post list the very basic requirements for each role on the table, more advanced articles are on the way but I thought it would be useful to have this to start with as a reference/index.

With thanks to Mark Haughton for the pretty diagram

Saturday 29 November 2014

Debating Glossary

Picture unrelated but adorable.
This is a list of terms commonly used in competitive debating based on my crowd-sourced Debating Glossary google doc, but edited to be more concise and less libelous. I am grateful to (almost) all of the contributors.

I suggest using CTRL+F to find particular terms as the list is fairly long.

Please comment below with any additions, requests for clarification, etc.

Term Definition
Ad hominem Arguments that attack the character of a person, not their arguments. Considered very bad form in competitive debating. 
Adjudication team A team of senior judges who set the motions for a competition and decide who judges which debate. (Also called 'CA Team' or "Adjudication Team")
Analysis Explaining why a thing you say is true. See previous post for more details.
Analysis motion/debate A motion/debate about proving a statement is true/false e.g. “This house believes violence is never the answer” is about the truth of that statement, not proposing that a particular action (e.g. “going to war”) is good.
Announce Room The room, generally a large lecture theatre, in which the tab rolls and the CA team and Convening team announce things to the competition.
Assertion When you make a statement but provide no analysis as to why it is true.

Tuesday 4 November 2014

Judging Competitive Debating - Part 3 - Chairing

This is part of my series of introductory articles, which explain the basics of competitive debating and follows on from "Judging competitive debating - Part 1 - A general framework" and "Judging Competitive Debating - Part 2 - The process of judging."

Pictures chairs when discussing how to chair?
Wow. So hilarious. Very original.
CC Wikimedia commons

Chairing is one of the odder roles in competitive debating, on good days it takes practically no work, but it can also be incredibly difficult.

In theory, the chair is responsible for keeping the debate running smoothly, dealing with any issues that arise and running the judging discussion in such a way that the correct call is made. In practice the actual chairing of the debate is a fairly minor part at an actual competition, as speakers know what order to go up in, and issues of keeping order rarely happen.

Conducting the judging discussion is more difficult, not everyone who is an amazing judge is an equally good chair as it requires not just coming to the correct call and understanding the debate, but requires interpersonal skills for managing the discussion and dealing with disagreements. 

Chairing is a difficult and responsible role, so its perfectly natural to be nervous when doing it for the first time, just like when speaking. Just remember to work through the substance of the decision and not be intimidated.

This is harder to make strict rules on than some of the other stuff I've written about, as it varies from debate to debate, but I've tried to give some general guidelines. If you want to learn to chair in more detail the best way is to watch and imitate experienced chairs in how they run the discussion and ask them questions.