Finishing 1st Is Overrated

A wise man once told me in the back of a dingy bus on the way to a tournament that all you need to win a tournament in the British Parliamentary(BP) format is to get 1st once. In the finals. For everything else a 2nd is sufficient. That same wise man also told someone else who asked him how to improve to just “Be better” so I may have some doubts about the extent of his wisdom. Anyway, that advice still holds true as in most tournaments you need to average a 2nd to break, and then to be in the winning half to avoid elimination in the break rounds all the way to the finals. It seems pretty obvious now, but at the time it blew my mind and changed my perspective on BP debating completely (it may have also contributed to losing like 10 finals. Got a bit too good at getting a 2nd). But hey, if you’re struggling to do well consistently in BP and winning finals isn’t even on your radar yet, this will be the guide for you.

Of course this assumes a minimum level of competency in debating. That you know how to breakdown a motion, construct a case, analyse arguments, rebut. And to do it well and consistently. You also need to know how the BP format works and you can watch our quick video guide on that here. If you don’t, it’s always better to just focus on the basics but keep this at the back of your mind.

At this point you’re wondering, why don’t we aim to get a 1st in every round? Well you most definitely should, but it is difficult to do consistently, and you will drop points more often than not. Why? Getting 1st requires being significantly better than all 3 other teams in the room, every round, on every motion, in every position. It’s hard to do that consistently and harder to teach debaters how to do that consistently, because there needs to be considerable skill gap between you and other teams.

The reason why that skill gap is important is because judges may give you a lower ranking even if you were the best team in the room as BP judging isn’t the most reliable thing in the world. Even in 3v3 formats with only 2 teams, some judges will split in the clearest of debates (lol UADC 2017 finals 8-1 split). But really, BP judging is actually challenging to get right and it’s important to realise that adjudicators are always looking for reasons to knock you down rather than give you the 1st. This happens because a consensus is required amongst the adjudicators and in the event of differing results (which happens almost always) during deliberation, it’s often much easier to justify giving a lower ranking to other teams rather than explaining why a particular team performed better.

That’s why a common strategy amongst judges is to try and get a consensus on who got the 4th and work their way up from there. This also means mistakes in BP cost debaters a lot more than the advantages from performing well. As for why judges are rarely in agreement? Different circuits have different judging metrics along with subjective evaluations of contribution and substantive material. For example, some judges don’t believe vertical extensions (where you provide additional analysis using your opening team’s arguments as a base) are a thing. Or that rebuttals count as contribution/extensions. More importantly, even though one or two judges may give you the 1st, if other members in the panel that disagree are especially persuasive and forceful during the discussion, they can easily alter the results drastically. A combination of all of these things are reasons why even really good teams seldom get 1st all the time or break on perfect points after the preliminary rounds.

That being said, if everyone agrees you come in the top half, i.e., at least a 2nd, it becomes easier to justify giving you a 1st at the end of the day. I’m sure we’ve all heard stories of how all the judges agreed on a 2nd place team but had wildly different results for the 1st, and then they somehow just end the discussion with that particular team placing 1st because they couldn’t agree on the rest. Tends to happen quite a bit in the finals actually. So guaranteeing that 2nd ranking in the minds of all judges works pretty well and is more doable.

The last reason why trying to guarantee the 2nd is a good strategy is that there are some debates where is it just ridiculously difficult to get the 1st, and trying to do so may hurt your ability to even finish in the winning half of the debate. Maybe Opening Government(OG) ran a brilliant case, both Opening Opposition(OO) and Closing Opposition(CO) imploded, and you’re Closing Government(CG) with very little you can do to trump OG because their entire case is standing. Trying to crush opposition bench is like beating a dead horse, and because OG’s case never came under sustained attack, it’s harder to come up with good, fresh arguments as extension that sound more important. Might as well just work towards securing the bench win, even if you end up with the 2nd. You could take a risk and run something crazy as extension to stand out, but you may end up losing because the judge doesn’t buy it at all. Maybe the motion wasn’t that deep, or your opening team decided to concede certain ideas and make the debate really narrow, so you’re kinda stuffed in terms of what you can run as closing. Maybe you have no idea what the motion is about in opening, and instead of finding the best possible case, it might be easier to run something simple and clean even though it might not net you that 1st.

Some debaters reading this might disagree and say these are still winnable positions, and maybe they are, but definitely not consistently, and definitely not unless you’re really really good (and if you are, why are you here anyway haha). The point of all of this is that in certain scenarios, guaranteeing a 2nd might be better than gunning all out for the 1st, especially if you’re not one of the best teams in the tournament.

But that’s easier said than done right? How do I actually secure 2nd? First we need to understand what are the biggest struggles with the format.

The biggest problem that teams have in BP is that they are overwhelmed trying to control everything that goes on in the debate. Fighting every battle on every front and trying to win everything. You need to first realise that there’s only so much you can do within the 14 minute speeches you’re given as a team. There are too many moving parts, the type of motion, the allocation of certain judges, which opponents you draw, which position you’re in, which position your opponents, and you can’t influence everything.

The second reason why debaters struggle because they don’t realise that strategy is everything in BP. You have to pick your fights, and figure out how to fight those fights. You can’t just bash your way through to a victory. Some of the most amazing speakers I’ve seen in the Asian Parliamentary format who could single handedly crush an opposing team with their whip speech would routinely fail to achieve that level of dominance in BP, because steamrolling the speakers in front of you doesn’t exactly work when there is more than one opponent, who can duck out of the way and take a completely different line of argumentation.

Finally, there’s just less, maybe no room for error because there are only 2 speakers in the team in BP. There’s just nowhere to hide. Can’t feed the weakest speaker and send them PM because you have 2 other speeches to back them up like in all 3v3 formats. Or put them in the middle flanked by 2 strong speakers. If one of you messes up in BP, you lose. Which means each speech needs to be made well, and efficiently. Efficiency is critical when you have fewer speeches and less time to construct and defend a case.

Given these problems there are 4 key things to remember when trying to secure that 2nd.

1. Role fulfilment.
It is the most commonly cited reason for knocking teams down a rank. It is just so easy for a judge to say “Err...your extension...wasn’t very I couldn’t give you higher than a 3rd.” If that’s frustrating for you to hear as a debater, then make sure you do your job in the debate and don’t give judges easy reasons to place you lower in the debate. Have a thorough understanding of what you’re expected to do and remember it. Focus on doing your own job first, before you concentrate on everything else that is going on in the debate. Understand the intricacies of your role. For example, if you’re OG, realise that you’ve only got one opportunity to clash with OO in Deputy Prime Minister. If you’re CG, you’re fighting a battle on two fronts, and each speaker will have to deal with a completely different team  (and sometimes different debate). We give a brief overview of every speaker’s roles here, with a detailed breakdown of OG in this article. Look out for future pieces on extension speakers and whips in the next 2 weeks.

2. Stop trying to fight everyone.
If you think about it, each position you do in the BP format only has 2 other teams within your direct locus of control. Meaning that there are only 2 teams that you can directly influence the persuasiveness of their case in the minds of the adjudicators.

OG: You can directly respond to OO, make their arguments sound weaker, and shut out CG by running the most important arguments on your side. There’s very little you can do about CO outside of Points of Information (POIs).
OO: Destroy OG by responding to their case, and shut out CO by running the important arguments. Little you can do about CG.
CG: You can respond to both OO and CO. Can’t control what OG says at all.
CO: Respond to both OG and CG. Again, can’t control OO.

Focus on beating the 2 teams that are within that sphere of influence and you guarantee a 2nd at least.

3. Construct a game plan before you step into the room.
There are 3 other teams with differing strengths and weaknesses, especially on different motions and in different positions. Work on identifying threats before the round so you are mentally prepared to deal with those threats. Engaging with the strongest team helps create a clear clash, and judges will reward you by placing the both of you in the winning half because that’s where the best debate happened. Don’t avoid it and don’t pick on weaker teams because it’s easier. Adjudicators will think your attacks were not as useful in the context of the debate because the team/case was already dead in the water. Knowing who to focus on helps you construct more efficient speeches during the debate and should make you appear more relevant.  This isn’t just about evaluating pure debate ability. Attempt to predict the trajectory of the debate. A mental simulation of sorts. Think about the motion. Are you on the moral high/low ground? What are the most persuasive arguments on each side? What is the central clash? Did your/their opening run it? Is there a possibility of closing running it? Preempt and try to predict. If you can figure out the attacks that will come from your opponents and where they will come from, you will be all the more prepared to deal with them.

4. Flexibility and adapting to changing tides.
It isn’t sufficient to identify threats before the round but you need to update that evaluation during the round. You need to have a running counter of the likely rankings as the debate is happening, evaluate your own ranking in the debate, and figure out how you can finish in a higher position. This is quite a bit harder to do compared to a debate with only 2 teams because all you need to figure out is if you’re losing and to try harder to beat the opponent in front of you. BP requires you to make an educated guess as to which team has a higher ranking and then formulate a strategy for taking that team down. The biggest mistake is reacting to the debate you anticipated, not the debate that is occurring. You just construct a game plan and stick to it, but sometimes you need to throw it out the window. Which if you’re closing for example can be very useful. I’ve seen teams run funky extensions even though their opening has flopped and gifted them the 1st on a silver platter. All they needed to do was the standard PM or LO speech and accept that victory. If you’re MG for example, how much damage has been done to OO? Are they likely to get a 4th? If so, prioritising the development of your own extension and giving CO a headache would be the right call. Be nimble and balance everything in the debate, your different roles, how teams are doing, make a call as to which team/s to prioritise, constantly evaluate that decision up to the point you have to give your own speech.

Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Only the ladder is real. The Climb is all there is. Climb my friends.

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