I developed my debating skills in secondary school inter-school competitions and similar competitions during my undergraduate and postgraduate studies, including at the Oxford Union (where many famous debates were conducted in the past). These skills have served me well in my legal and business careers, and whenever the Socratic method becomes relevant.

Over the last few years, I have enjoyed helping students practice critical thinking and communication through debating competitions. It has therefore been my pleasure to be invited by St. Paul’s Convent School to judge the Senior English Debate Finals in 2017 to 2019. These finals have adopted the British Parliamentary (“BP”) debate format.

Here are a few tips I’d like to share with students, drawn from my recent experiences judging BP debates. These are my personal opinions, of course.

How to score on “content”?

Debaters should score points in the content of their speeches by demonstrating three aspects: argumentation, interaction, and team balance. I will write a bit more on the first aspect as the others are pretty self-evident.

Argumentation is an exchange of ideas using different modes of persuasion. Arguments should establish a warrant to show why a claim is true and its impact (i.e. why a claim is important; how is the depth of argument). These two parts should help the judge assess whether an argument is strong or weak when compared with other claims and counter-claims raised. Establishing a logical flow and, by the same token, avoiding logical fallacies are critical.

Impact not only affects the quality of the content but also affects how engaging the debater is vis-à-vis the judge. A debater should pay attention to how many sub-claims and facts s/he would need to show to make the claim true and important. Certainly, it is important to show evidence that is credible and sourced from good authority. This should help provide the claim depth and show relevance and engagement.

Points are typically not awarded for simply enunciating one-liners or throw-away sentences. Develop the argument and get to the heart of the debate. It would similarly seem like a waste of breathe if debaters on both sides are caught squabbling over peripheral issues when the basic dispute is hardly advanced during argumentation. It is thus important that debaters identify and prioritize their core issues.

Interaction or clash is an explicit refutation of a claim. A claim that is not responded to is deemed unchallenged, and the debater who raises the claim should score on that point. Strategically, it is important to engage less relevant or irrelevant claims to maximize the chances of advancing one’s side.

Team balance relates to the consistency and connection between team mates. There must be coherency and development of ideas from one debater to another over the course of the debate. And, generally, there should be no new point raised by the last speaker of each team.

How does a judge make assessment?

The debate is an unfolding story. During the course of a debate, a judge would listen to a series of claims and counter-claims advanced by two competing sides, and would need to assess which claim has great impact. A judge assesses whether one side has shown supremacy of an issue by reviewing whether a claim has remained true and impactful after debaters on both side have advanced arguments relating to it.

Moreover, in persuading a judge, each debater’s job is to make his/her decision-making process easy. The debater’s job is not to prove an issue conclusively as if there were some threshold (like “beyond reasonable doubt” in a criminal case). There is no burden of proof either. There are simply relative likelihoods that the world (or society or some community) is better or worse when the arguments of one side are accepted.

Suffice to say, getting the message across clearly, effectively and efficiently is the key to scoring on style (“pathos” is how this is done).

How to strategize and show “strategy” and “style”?

Each debate team would be well-advised to track meticulously how each and every argument is developed and refuted. If you were recording on paper, leave plenty of space to note your own reflections and assessment of impact in addition to what the relevant speaker actually said (misquote your opponent and be prepared to face an indignant refutation).

Be precise and concise. Less is more. You don’t want to confuse the judge and muddle your messages, as you will only do yourself a disservice. It is not the job of your listener to sort out your messy communications. So, there is no need to argue every single point you can think of; put forward the most impactful set of arguments.

In refuting a claim, a debater should query what it would take to change the judge’s opinion on a particular issue after hearing the claims and counter-claims advanced so far. You also have limited time. There is no need to defend every point if it is not critical to your case. Similarly, please consider whether you need to provide a technical explanation, especially if it is determinative of an issue.

Debaters should note how debates are evaluated on “content”, “style” and “strategy”.  There are plenty of good advice online, and I may share my further views in the near future on these topics.

The world would surely be a better place when we would all engage in fair and well-reasoned debate – and demand the same from our leaders and representatives.

Photo of Sebastian Ko Sebastian Ko

Attorney turned Entrepreneur. Led first Asian Access to Justice Hackathon.