How to prepare for a debate
How to prepare for a debate

Silence falls on the room (unusually for debating). Everyone looks up, at one person, who for that moment has absolute power. She reads out a sentence, very, very slowly. She reads it out again. We hear nothing but the scratching of pens. She gives a signal. Everyone runs out of the room.

That's how it is at short preparation or 'short prep' debates, where debaters are given 15 minutes to prepare a motion they have not heard until that moment. It's a pretty scary prospect, having to speak in front of a room full of people, half of whom will be disagreeing with every word you say, about something you knew nothing about until 15 minutes ago. Even more so when your phone and / or tablet has been surgically removed from you (as is the rule in all debating competitions), and you have nothing to rely on but your naked brains and those of your debating partner.

Every minute - every second - counts in that prep time. So, how to make the best use of those precious quarter of an hour?

Get to the room as fast as you can (this could easily use up two minutes, depending on how big the building you are competing in is and how good your sense of direction is).

Make sure you have:

  • Paper
  • Several pens or pencils
  • Highlighters
  • Index cards
  • A bottle of water

Now you're in the room, alone with each other. What to do first? You should both keep quiet for five minutes.

Why? Surely we should be discussing, sharing our ideas? Well, yes, but you have to have some ideas to share first. It's quite possible you will never have thought about the motion topic in your life. Even if the topic is one on which you have both deep knowledge and passionate convictions, you need some time to gather your thoughts. And if you gather your thoughts separately, you'll have twice as many thoughts by the end of the prep time. So, for five minutes silence should fall again, as you scratch away with your pens.

What are you writing about?

You need to be asking yourself questions; big questions. There are seven big questions which apply to every debate motion, which you should always ask.
1. What is the debate about?
2. What do we have to prove?
3. What do they have to prove?
4. What will be changed if the motion is passed?
5. Who are the actors?
6. Who are the stakeholders?
7. What is the mechanism?

Write or type these questions out on a piece of card and bring them to every debate.

(NB these questions only work with what we call 'policy debates', that is ones where the motion begins 'This house would ...' We'll cover how to prepare for 'principle debates', where the motion begins 'This house believes ...' in a later post.)

How might you answer these questions in practice?

Let's take an example; preparing the motion 'This house would tax meat', with you proposing. It's a nice big, broad motion (only four words long) with lots of scope for interpretation.

1. What is the debate about?
This question is asking you to cut through all the practicalities and focus on the essential point of principle. Here, the debate is about whether the state has the right to intervene in the market for the benefit of society as a whole. It's about which is more important; the individual or the collective.

2. What do we have to prove?
You are proposing a change to the status quo. First you have to prove there is a problem with the status quo; then you have to prove that your proposed change will solve the problem. There will always be both costs and benefits associated with any change, and you have to prove that the benefits of your proposed change will outweigh the benefits. So, you have to prove that: consumption of meat has bad consequences; taxing it is an effective way to lessen those consequences; the benefits of taxing meat will be greater than the costs.

3. What do they have to prove?
As they're defending the status quo, they have to prove either that the status quo works and does not need changing, or that it does need changing but that your way of changing it will either not work or that its costs will be greater than its benefits. (They may also choose to propose a better way of dealing with the problem presented by the motion.) So, they have to prove either that the consumption of meat is not a bad thing (or is even a good thing), or that it is a bad thing but that taxing meat is not the way to deal with it, either because it will not work, or because the costs will be greater than the benefits.

4. What will be changed if the motion is passed?
Most debate motions say, 'The world will be a better place if we take this action.' So, what will the world look like if your proposed action happens? It's worth considering both short and long (and sometimes medium) term effects. In the short term, everyone will eat less meat, and the government would have more money. In the long term, climate change will be greatly slowed down now that thousands of acres of land are filled with health giving plants rather than farting cows, and everyone will be slimmer and healthier thanks to their vegetable rich diet; those few who persist in eating meat will be treated for the diseases brought on by their diet in shining new hospitals paid for by the tax on their addiction.

5. Who are the actors?
This means who is going to make the change happen. Here, it is the government, as they are the ones who are going to be setting and collecting the tax.

6. Who are the stakeholders?
This means who is effected by the change. Here, it is the government collecting (and spending) the tax; meat farmers and retailers who are likely to see their income fall; consumers who will see the price of meat rise.

7. What is the mechanism?
This means how will you make the change happen. Here, you get into the nitty gritty. How much tax? 5% of the price? 10%? 25%? Will you add it to the price in shops, or to the price retailers pay to farmers? Which is most likely to achieve the benefits you seek while minimising the costs? Having a high tax rate would be more likely to put people off buying meat; having a low tax rate would make it easier to get popular support for the measure, and would make black market evasion of the tax less likely.

You need to have answers to these questions jotted down in the first two minutes. Yes, two minutes. You have to think fast as a debater.

Next, you need to take up another sheet of paper and start brainstorming arguments for both sides (still without talking to your debating partner). Do this for three minutes. In this three minutes, you need to switch off the part of your brain that keeps telling you that what you're doing isn't very good. Don't worry whether the arguments are good or not; just get them down, as many of them as possible. Quantity is more important than quality at this stage. Selection comes later.

The five minutes are up. You look up from your notepads. Your eyes meet. What do you do now?

First, you share your answers to the big questions, and make sure you agree on the answers. If you're speaking first for the proposition, agree how you're going to define the motion (see our earlier post here on how to do that). With the big answers clear in your minds, you can proceed to the arguments. Go through the ones for your side of the motion first. Choose the six most persuasive. Then rank them by persuasiveness. The first speaker gets the top three in order of persuasiveness, the second speaker gets the next three in order of persuasiveness. Note, no more than three arguments each. Time to reach for the index cards now. Take one for each of your three arguments. On it, write a headline, which should be no more than a word or at most a phrase, and short points on how you're going to expand on it. With the motion we've picked, one of your cards might look like this:


Excessive consumption of meat = major cause of heart disease and diabetes
Taxing it discourages consumption, nudges consumers towards healthier choices by making them cheaper
Heavy taxation on tobacco = massive reduction in smoking = major health benefits; taxing meat = same.

The smallness of index cards has two advantages:
1. It makes them easier to handle while you are speaking, ensuring you spend more time making eye contact and less time fumbling with your notes.
2. It ensures your notes are concise and focused.

Boiling your speech down to three index cards will also help you to signpost it better; see our earlier post here on how to signpost.

I'll just take a moment here to remind you that you should NEVER, NEVER, NEVER write out a debate speech in full. That isn't debating; it's essay writing. You can be good at writing essays and good at debating, and you can learn a lot about how to write essays from doing debating, but they are NOT THE SAME THING. I hope I made that clear.

This sorting out of your own arguments should take another five minutes. Now it's time to consider the other side's possible arguments and how to rebut them. Do this by taking turns, one person stating the arguments, the other one rebutting them. As well as working out what you will say in rebuttal, this will both get you into the mind set of the other side (which is vital), while also sharpening up your rebuttal responses. It's a bit like footballers passing a ball around to warm up just before kick off.

Your final task is to find the point of clash. See our earlier post here on the point of clash. This should be the thing you keep in mind all the way through the debate, your guiding star. You need to keep coming back to it, and keep showing the judge that you are on the winning side of it, particularly if you are speaking last. Very often, it will be the answer to the first question: what is the debate about? Here, the point of clash is the right of the state to intervene to protect the health of the community against the individual's right to make their own choices. You have to show that the damage that meat eating causes to health and the climate outweighs the loss of freedom entailed by a tax on meat. Say the point of clash to each other a few times, as a kind of mantra, to make sure it is at the front of your mind.

By now, your brain should be singing, and you should be ready to talk for England (literally, if you are representing England in the Worlds Debating Competition). If you're feeling nervous, embrace it. As every actor, performer and sportsperson knows, that adrenalin rush will sharpen up your performance and make you more focused. Gather up your notes, take a swig of water, and head for the debating chamber. Into battle ...