The Singapore Secondary School Debate Championship is starting next Friday! SSSDC is a grueling tournament with 3 preliminary prepared rounds which span over 8 weeks in the WSDC modified format (6 minute speeches, 3 minute reply speeches). While most schools hire experienced debate coaches to help train and prepare their students for the tournament there are also a number of schools which do not have the budget to do so. In this article, I will provide some useful pointers and tips that can hopefully help them avoid basic mistakes.
Do not, do not, i repeat, DO NOT, NEVER EVER, begin any of your speeches with the line:
“Good Evening, ladies and gentlemen, my name is Alfred and I am the first speaker of Eh Priori on the motion THBT debating is life, my 2nd speaker Reuben will present you this additional argument and my 3rd speaker will summarize the case.”
Consider this, each substantive speech in the SSSDC format lasts 5 to 6 minutes. All debaters operate under the same time constraint, speakers who are able to deliver a greater quantity and quality of material will therefore perform better. The problem with the opening lines above is that they take up valuable time without pushing forward the teams case, they also do not explain to the judge anything he or she doesn’t already know.
The adjudicator knows what the motion is, which school you are from and which students are speaking in which positions, in fact at SSSDC these information are always written in the white or black board behind. Repeating the words in the motion and introducing yourself, your school and your teammates is not only unnecessary, it is taken as a sure sign of a novice debater who has not received proper coaching, which hurts the legitimacy of the speaker and the team they represent.
If you are not able to prepare an opening line that you find satisfactory, it would be far better to simply start your speech by presenting the definition / policy / case / substantive. At the very least you would be giving yourself the maximum amount of time to deliver the material you have prepared over 1 week.
DO NOT, provide a dictionary definition of all the terms in the motion
“Panel, we would like to define This House to be the 6 very intelligent and rational debaters in this room. The term ban is a verb which means to forbid something, especially officially according to the Cambridge Dictionary. The term smoking refers to an act of smoking tobacco according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary.”
Notice that none of the above definitions are actually useful to the judge or important to the debate. Most of the time, speakers end up providing dictionary definitions of the terms in the motion because they have seen other debaters provide definitions at the beginning of the 1st Proposition speech and therefore they simply follow suit.
As a debater, it is absolutely crucial that you understand not only WHAT you should be doing in your speeches, you need to consider also WHY you are saying what you are saying, or in this case the reason why you are spending limited and precious time in your speeches to deliver a definition.
In the motion THW ban smoking, it is quite apparent what the words ban and smoking mean, which is why a dictionary definition is not necessary. What you should consider providing is a working definition for the debate, which should clarify the parameters of your proposal.
“Side proposition intends to enforce a legal prohibition on the sale, provision and consumption of all non-medicinal tobacco based products. A violation of this ban would lead to a sliding scale of penalties from fines for first-time offenders found smoking to jail terms for repeated offences and those who sell tobacco based products illegally.”
This is a working definition for the debate since it specifies the details of the ban and how it would be enforced, information that would be useful for the debate to proceed so that both teams as well as the adjudicator understands what exactly is being proposed.
This one of my favourite debate mantras for my students which I repeat all the time.
“If I do not begin my substantive at the 3 minute 30 second mark, I have already lost the debate.”
Obviously, this isn’t an actual rule in any debate format. You can win any debate as long as your performance is comparatively better than your opponents. However, my favourite mantra is a very good rule of thumb to abide by for the following reasons.
a) The minimum requirement to judge at SSSDC is to have been accredited by attending a workshop organized by Julia Gabriel’s or the Debate Association of Singapore which lasts a couple of hours. This means that a significant proportion of the judges at the tournament may have little to no actual debate experience, in fact it is fairly common that some judges at SSSDC have less debate experience then the students they are judging.
I must highlight that the Debate Association of Singapore over the past few years has done admirable work to raise the quality of adjudication through better engagement with experienced debaters in the varsity circuit. That being said, if the organizers insist on having panels of 3 judges for 15 rooms the quality of adjudication will definitely suffer since there just isn't that many good and experienced judges available.
Many judges will mark down your material as a substantive only if you highlight the substantive to them in BRIGHT NEON LIGHTS, and if you begin on your argumentation late in your speech you will likely be immediately penalized due to insufficient substantive material. In any case clear sign-posting is generally a good habit to develop since adjudication requires an ability to multi-task and process many strands of information and judges appreciate debaters whose speeches are easier to follow and track.
b) If you refer back to my previous article where I explained the simple steps to follow in order to properly analyze an argument (a must-read for beginners), you will realize that a proper argument will probably be around 200-400 words in length. Since the average debater should speak for around 120-150 words per minute (which means a 6 minute speech should be somewhere between 700-900 words in length), this means you will need approximately two minutes to fully flesh out and impact that argument.
c) While it is indeed possible to win a debate based on your rebuttals alone, it is far easier to defeat your opponent presenting a few good arguments that are hopefully better than theirs. Think of it this way, even if your opponents run a mediocre argument, you are unlikely to be able to completely demolish the argument such that it has zero or negative level of persuasiveness. Rebuttals can be effective in mitigating the impacts of your opponent’s argumentation, having argumentation of your own helps you to win debates by presenting superior contributions.
d) Most teams do not respect the 2nd speaker argument. Inexperienced debaters often present short and weak arguments in 2nd speaker, forget to provide rebuttals to their opponent’s 2nd speaker arguments and 3rd speakers often drop their 2nd speaker material entirely. This always seemed strange to me, speakers at WSDC speak for 8 minutes and tend to have 2-3 arguments in each speaker. Debaters at SSSDC only speak for 5 to 6 minutes. If you have spent your week long preparation time wisely, you should find yourself having too little time to run all the arguments you have generated.
e) 2nd speaker substantives can be as/if not more powerful than 1st speaker substantives. Put simply, if your opponents are able to run only 1 strong argument and you have 2 equally strong arguments, you will have an incredible advantage. If your opponents often neglect to respond to your 2nd speaker argument because their 3rd speaker is too caught up in the moment to think up of responses on the spot, you are likely to win the debate there and then. Similarly, the 3rd speaker should never drop the 2nd speaker material because those are the arguments that are likely to be fresh in the judge’s mind and relatively unmolested by your opponents.
Explain, elaborate and defend your 2nd speaker argument well to give yourself an edge over your opponents.
Tips for Points of InformationI found this Youtube video which introduces POIs quite nicely, for some reason it only has 40 views, oh well, hopefully this article can change that!
At the world championships, judges can deduct or add up to two speaker points based on the quality of POIs they give and the quality of their answers to POIs from the opponent. This means that theoretically POIs can account for a 12 point swing in scoring. To put that into perspective, a 12 point margin is an absolute thrashing.Thankfully, judges at SSSDC will not score your POIs that way, but it is still worth noting that they can significantly affect your speaker scores and therefore the final verdict. Here are a few very basic tips anyone can follow to immediately become decent at POIs.
a) Write down your POI word for word before you offer it.
POIs are about making an impression, many inexperienced debaters often stutter through the POI they are giving or sound unclear, which is a sure-fire way of leaving a bad impression on judges. As I have explained previously, given that quite a number of SSSDC judges are also pretty inexperienced, they are likely to judge based on their impressions of you. It really isn’t difficult to write down your POI on a piece of paper and pass it around your teammates to vet through before you offer it to the speaker.
b) Spread the POIs around and offer as many POIs as you are allowed to.
There is an old joke around the circuit in the past that if you it impossible to split the difference between two evenly matched teams, you can simply give the win to the team which offered more POIs to reward their willingness to engage. Obviously this is BAD judging and judges SHOULD NOT judge this way, but the fact remains that the number of POIs does influence the judge’s impression of your team. The way to give the judge a good impression of your team is to ensure that each of the three team members all offer a good number of POIs. The WSDC rules allow for teams to offer 1 POI every 20 seconds, this means that for a 6 minute speech with 2 minutes of protected time, teams should offer around 12 POIs during every speech.
What if you or your teammates have no idea what POI to offer? Well, the solution is to refer back to point a) write down your POI word for word.
Pro tip: Debaters from Nanyang Technological University used to write down their POIs and other ideas on post-its so that they can share them with their teammates without actually speaking to each other.
c) Taking the first POI that comes your way
This advice is especially for 1st Proposition speakers who receive a POI at the first minute mark. Usually at this juncture you would have barely gone through your case set-up, definitions or policy. It is unlikely that your opponent would be able to give a POI that is highly damaging to your case or your arguments given that you haven’t even been able to present them yet! Chances are, a POI given this early will likely be:
i) A clarification, for which it would be in your best interest to answer anyway
ii) A repetition of what has already been said so wouldn’t pose much of a threat
iii) 15 seconds isn’t nearly enough time to deliver an argument so in the worst case scenario it may just be a pesky rebuttal to your speech, in which case its best to take the POI early so you have the entirety of the rest of your speech to deal with it
iv) There is a good chance that your prepared speech would have addressed the POI given later on anyway, which means that you won’t have to take another potentially more dangerous POI later on.
d) Only take a POI at the end of a sentence or argument
I often see debaters accepting a POI in the middle of their sentence. This is really problematic because they might lose their train of thought and forget what they were trying to explain prior to taking the POI. Even in the best case scenario, you would have to spend 10 seconds repeating the sentence you were delivering before you accepted the POI, as the rhythm of your speech would have been broken. Always remember that the person speaking on the floor has the right to accept or reject a POI, you should only accept a POI when you feel ready for it.
This is where I shamelessly promote our other articles and programs:
For more about how to prepare for the preliminary rounds of SSSDC, click here.
For more about how to develop and elaborate your arguments, click here.
For more about improving by through video analysis, click here.
If you feel insecure about your abilities and suffer from frequent confidence crises, click here.
For motions about implementing policies, which usually begin with This House Would, click here, and here.
If you feel like you need additional coaching, click here.
The following articles were written for debates in the BP format, but many of the ideas also apply in other formats, including SSSDCs.
For more about how to prepare for 1st speaker speeches, click here.
For more about how to think of 2nd speaker arguments, click here.
For more about how to deliver a 3rd speaker speech, click here.
Hope you guys find the articles and programs we have useful! If you have any feedback, questions or requests do feel free to post them in the comments section below!
P.S. If you have never read the rules of the WSDC format, might be a good idea to check it out here.