The Great Art

It is only natural that whenever people are trying to learn and master a new skill, they look for a quick and easy guide. A series of boxes that they can check and say “Ok, I’ve done/am doing this, now I’m good at activity ABC.” This stems from a combination of human laziness and companies wanting to cash in on that tendency. I’m not going to drone on about how debating is, in reality, far too complex to master over a few training sessions or an overpriced weekend workshop. But I do want to highlight a common misconception many people have about debating.

That there is a singular truth. That there is a holy book or ancient manuscript that all experienced debaters have and you can gain access to it for $99.99 with sufficient practice. (Or maybe there is - look out for our next project “10001 ways to win at debating and at life” coming to a bookstore near you.)

This is a lie. There is no one way to construct a case or to organize your speech. There isn’t an exact science to it because it is a human sport. An exercise in persuasion, judged by people, who are all completely different, with different experiences, from different circuits, trained in different ways, and have different expectations of what a debate or a persuasive argument should look like. You get the picture. So there isn’t a formulaic approach that you can adopt which will guarantee victory 100% of the time. That’s one of the reasons why even the best of debaters don’t have a perfect win record.

But if there is no universal truth, is everything a lie? WHAT HAVE I BEEN TAUGHT? WHAT IS REAL? AM I IN THE MATRIX? Of course, there are broad guidelines that everyone follows, like having the most important arguments come out early in the debate so you have enough time to explain them and make the strongest impact. Or placing rebuttals before substantives in a speech because it’s best to respond to your opponent when the arguments are fresh in the adjudicator’s mind. Even that isn’t necessarily the most efficient if you’ve seen someone integrate rebuttals with their substantive (properly).

The problem is when debaters take the techniques they have learnt as indisputable fact, especially when they learn those techniques early on in their careers and then realise that the same methods don’t work as well in other/higher circuits. I’ve heard debaters say strange things like a debate case should have only three arguments between two speakers, when the reality is you can often run between 3-7 arguments, maybe more, depending on the length of the speeches and the format. I once remarked to a friend about a particular school’s tendency to have completely unremarkable second speaker speeches, and he explained it was because the coach would teach all his students to move on to substantives only in the last 1.30 of the speech. While there are definitely some situations where you can or should do that, following such ‘rules’ just becomes dogmatic, leaving no room for flexibility or evolution.

Hold on a second Reuben. Surely you prescribe certain methods over others to your students and on this site too?

Well yes…and no. What is really important to remember is that the techniques that I, Alfred, or any other debater advocates for, here or elsewhere, should never be taken as gospel truth. They are, however, approaches to debating that we have found more useful than others over long careers and countless tournaments. So odds are, they are likely to work and increase your win rate. The reason why you should never be dogmatic with your own approach is because any advice we give you, works for us and may not be the best for you. The same is true for any advice you’ve received elsewhere during your career. It’s probably perfectly good advice, but it was forged in the fire of a limited set of experiences.

This is why you may see two different accomplished whip speakers for example, approach their role in very different ways. Both breaking down the important clashes in the debate, but one opting to raze the earth and destroy everything in front of them, another choosing to be more surgical and focusing on what they perceive to be the more important parts of the debate. Both work really well, and if you were to ask them for advice, they would recommend quite different things.

How then can you decide what to do in order to improve? Instead of getting caught up in the replication of a technique, think about what it's meant to accomplish. A good example of this was when I was trying to improve my speaking style or manner. In order to sound smoother during my speeches, my notes would have to be organised well so I wouldn't get confused about where I was in the speech. The question was, how then should I organise my notes? Should I use cue cards? Or whole sheets of paper? How many should I use? How much of my speech should be written down? When thinking about these things, I realised that the real goals were to 1. Sound confident and smooth, 2. Look down at my notes and instantly know what to say next. So I opted to write out my speeches almost entirely, provided I had the time. Yes, even in the British Parliamentary format where I would often go PM and would only have 15 minutes to prepare. I figured if every part of my speech was scripted, I could often fine tune the way it sounds and then just focus on the delivery during the debate. People are often surprised to find out that most of my jokes during speeches are scripted word for word too. As long as I made sufficient eye contact, nobody would even know. So I fulfill the goals of sounding persuasive but I went the complete opposite direction in terms of how most people tend to organise their notes.

The moral of the story is this: Evaluate everything that you have been told about what is persuasive. Ask as many people you can about what is good debating. Try out as many different methods, tricks, styles as you can. Develop your own theories and challenge them rigorously. Don't question how you should do something, but why are you doing it. Then recognise that there is a range of options available that serve that intended purpose. Don’t shy away from unorthodox approaches. Because debating is an art, not a science.

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