The Art of War

Based on my personal experience and success coaching many schools in the WSDC format over past 10 years, I have come to realize that many school level debaters often commit elementary mistakes that could be easily avoided. In today’s article I would like to share a few expert tips for prepared motions in the WSDC format, which make up a significant proportion of the rounds in most tournaments.

Rule No. 1 of Prepared Debates:

Never jump straight into developing arguments immediately after receiving the motion. I briefly discussed this in a previous article about prepping for Opening Government, or 1st Proposition team in a BP debate, which you can also refer to as a guide for prepping in general.

Here are a few reasons why:
1) You need to first understand what the debate requires of Proposition and Opposition before you start brainstorming arguments.

Debate motions (well, the good ones anyway) tend to be about complex issues and controversies for which there is no universal consensus over, that’s why there are two sides to every debate. Most school level debaters who have limited experience, who may also be coached by teachers or other former debaters with limited experience, will struggle to fully grasp the full extent of all the relevant issues in a short span of time.

Rushing into argumentation without first taking time to consider what are the central issues and burdens within the debate is like entering into a war without a strategy or plan. Your general strategy and case direction should guide your argumentation and not the other way round. Put simply, you should try to have a clear idea of what your end goals are within the debate so that you can forward argumentation which is effective in driving your case towards those end goals.

For example:
In the motion, THW exaggerate and falsify climate change data. What are the end goals of both Proposition and Opposition? Presumably both teams would prefer a world where more is done to combat climate change. So to a certain extent the end goals of both sides can be similar. This suggests that Proposition shouldn’t spend the majority of their time elaborating on the harms of climate change and the urgency of dealing with the phenomenon, because Opposition is unlikely to contest these points (unless they are climate change skeptics).

On the other hand, Opposition is likely to suggest that while climate change is an urgent and serious problem with significant harms, that falsifying climate change data is not only unjustified, but also likely to be ineffective or counterproductive, perhaps because individuals are less likely to be persuaded by doomsday scenarios.

Therefore, the end goal of Proposition is to showcase how and why falsifying climate change data is likely to be effective in changing attitudes and spurring action.

You will be surprised by the number of schools level debaters who enter every debate about climate change spending significant portions of their time explaining why climate change is an urgent problem which requires immediate action instead of actually analyzing why their side is more likely to create incentives to deal with the problem.

Instead of worrying about arguments, the first question I ask myself whenever I receive a motion is this: What is the central disagreement on Proposition and Opposition?

In policy debate motions, which often start with the preambulatory clause "This House Would", the central disagreement within the motion may be over whether a problem exists in the status quo and if so what is the best solution to a given problem.

In value judgement debates that begin with the preambulatory clause “This House Believes That X Should”, the central disagreement within the motion will probably be over what is in the best interest of the actor X and/or what duties or responsibilities X has to fulfill.

All debate motions should allow both Proposition team and Opposition team to have meaningful disagreements over controversial issues. Each team is evaluated based on their ability to contest those disagreements, which is literally their main objective in the debate. How can you even begin to attempt to contest those disagreements (also known as key clashes) within a debate if you cannot even be sure what they are?


2) Avoiding Tunnel Vision

It is basic human nature to fall prey to cognitive biases. Once someone has spent significant time and energy developing a certain case or argument, they inevitably become emotionally invested in a particular line of logic or worldview which they may find difficult to break out from.

This is especially dangerous because teams may become less receptive to the possibility that there may be issues and arguments which exist that may require them to completely overhaul their original case. It also largely limits the scope and scale of the types of arguments that you may end up discovering along the way.

For example, a classic mistake that most school-level debaters are guilty of is failing to consider contexts beyond their home country. In Singapore, students often end up forwarding arguments which only work in the narrow context of Singapore, which is bizarre because Singapore is a small and unique country which serves as an inaccurate representation in the rest of the world.

As a result, they often are caught off guard when their opponents forward arguments and examples based on other parts of the world. Another common mistake school-level and novice debaters from developed countries regularly make is failing to recognize that debates can be radically different when you consider the context of developing countries.

Another problem with jumping into argumentation too quickly is confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias:
“Once we have formed a view, we embrace information that confirms that view while ignoring, or rejecting, information that casts doubt on it. Confirmation bias suggests that we don’t perceive circumstances objectively. We pick up those bits of data that make us feel good because they confirm our prejudices. Thus, we may become prisoners of our assumptions.”

Forming your arguments too early during the preparation period will result in you believing that the arguments you have developed thus far are better arguments that they actually are, causing you to be biased in your research and likely closing your mind to the merits of alternative arguments or cases which you can possibly run.

The biggest benefit of having 1 week rather than 1 hour to prepare for a debate is the ridiculous amount of time you have to brainstorm and experiment with different ideas, arguments and strategies before you settle on the strongest or most strategic case. If you fall prey to tunnel vision by becoming too invested into your initial ideas, you will suffer a great disadvantage compared to teams which use that time to explore a wide range of different arguments.

3) Know thy enemy


“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” Sun Tzu, The Art of War


Professional sports teams often scout their opponents by analyzing their every move in recorded matches. In debate tournaments it may also be a good idea to view footage of your opponents to analyze their strengths and weaknesses and formulate strategies to beat them.

In prepared rounds however, it may be even more valuable to consider what arguments and cases your opponents are likely to run. As a result of the tunnel vision syndrome as mentioned earlier, teams often neglect to give due consideration to what they may be up against and end up getting caught off-guard by entirely predictable arguments. This is why I often make my students prep the motion on the opposite side to what they have been assigned before we formulate our own cases.

Extensive preparation of rebuttals and countermeasures may be the difference between victory and defeat for a prepared round and consequently your chances of making the breaks, also known as the elimination rounds.

For example, during round 3 of Singapore Secondary Schools Debate Championships 2015, Reuben and I were both coaching schools who were assigned to the Opposition side on the motion: “THBT state funding should be given to political parties to cover their running costs and election campaigns.”

After a short discussion, we quickly realized that the debate changes drastically depending on whether Proposition implements a ban on campaign donations from private donors or lobby groups.

This is the result of an epic discussion Reuben and I had from 10pm to 8am. (In case you were wondering, yes it was a lot of fun)



If Proposition does not implement a ban on campaign donations, their arguments will likely focus on providing assistance to parties which are unable to raise sufficient funds as a result of being small, new or niche. Opposition should therefore focus their argumentation on why small parties should not receive guaranteed funding by the government.

On the other hand, if Proposition implements a ban on campaign donations, their arguments will probably be geared towards discussing the evils of rich lobby groups and and businessmen who utilize their wealth to crowd out the opinions and concerns of those less well-off. In this instance, Opposition will have to discuss at length the checks and balances involved that prevent the political system from being hijacked by the wealthy. Opposition would also be able to run an argument explaining why campaign donations represent a legitimate form of political expression that is vital to the democratic process, which they would not be able to run if Proposition didn’t seek to ban campaign donations.

Since we had no way of reliably predicting what our opponents would run, we essentially prepped two different sets of cases and instructed our students to POI the 1st Proposition speaker to clarify whether they would ban campaign contributions so that they would know which Opposition case to utilize.

4) There is a lot of time for extensive research, use it wisely
In this video, Will Jones spoke about how 15 minutes is a significant amount of time. In a prepared debate you literally have 1 week, that’s 4 (1 Hour) x 16 (Waking Hours / Day) x 7 = 448 times the amount of time as compared to a BP debate. As such it is senseless to be so fixated on what arguments to run. After coaching teams in the WSDC format for more than 10 years and preparing for up to 100 prepared debates, I realized that more often than not the eventual case and arguments my teams end up running is radically different from my first draft of the cases.

For Example:
THBT countries which do not allow female athletes to participate in the Olympics should be banned from the event.
After doing some quick research on Google, I realized that no such countries exist for the past 2 editions of the Olympics and countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei actually sent more female athletes to the 2016 Olympics as compared to the 2012 Olympics. This piece of information showed that Conservative Muslim countries already willingly send female athletes to the Olympics, which meant that the Proposition team cannot simply propose a policy which requires countries to send at least some female athletes, since that would basically have an impact on approximately ZERO countries.

Consequently, if the proposition side did not do their own research beforehand, and based on my empirical observations there were quite a number of teams at that tournament who didn’t (shocking, I know, why do you think I’m writing this article?), they would be placed at a significant disadvantage because Opposition could simply put forth that such a policy would be unnecessary and redundant.


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