Given that the majority of competitive debates are unprepared, i.e. debaters are given 15 minutes to prepare with no access to either internet or coaches, preparation tends to be a fast, furious, pressured activity. However, it can be very helpful to occasionally allow yourself to do some 'slow prep', taking as much time as possible. This will give you the opportunity to reflect on how you prepare, and to refine your preparation skills. If those skills become firmly embedded, you will be able to reach for them at speed the next time you are in the preparation room.
Here are some suggested activities to improve preparation skills, all to be undertaken in a training session with a coach.
1. Rank your arguments
Choose a motion. The coach then asks the whole squad for ideas for arguments, each to be expressed as one sentence. She writes the sentences on a whiteboard. Then she allocates each sentence to two debaters; one has to argue for the argument, one has to argue against. They have the task of either defending or attacking their allocated argument as an argument; that is, not using it as an argument in the way they would in a debate, but making the case for it being included in a speech / excluded from a speech, focusing on its strengths and weaknesses as an argument.
After some time to prepare, each argument is debated, with debaters speaking for and against its merits as an argument. Once everyone has spoken, the squad vote; they have three votes, for the three best arguments. The lowest scoring argument is eliminated after the first round; this process continues until there are only three arguments left.
The coach leads a discussion about which arguments survived and which were rejected. What makes a strong argument? A weak argument?
2. Categorise your arguments
Pick a motion that can be approached in more than one way, e.g. 'This house would restore foreign aid to Afghanistan.' This motion could be approached with a focus of principle, that the well being of the people of Afghanistan should be our priority; or it could be approached with a focus of pragmatism, that the national security of the UK should be our priority.
In pairs, debaters list as many arguments as possible. They then put them in the two (or more) categories. So, taking the proposition for the Afghanistan motion, it might look like this:
- Afghan public spending was almost entirely dependent on foreign aid.
- Afghanistan is experiencing a famine.
- Afghans are already suffering from the tyranny of the Taliban; why make them suffer more?
- We have no right to dictate the nature of another country's government.
- We have a moral duty to help those less fortunate than ourselves.
- Building a relationship with the Taliban government makes it less likely they will sponsor terrorist attacks against us.
- A more stable and prosperous Afghanistan is less likely to fall under the influence of extremism, and may yet return to democracy.
- Feeding the Afghani people will slow the passage of refugees, relieving pressure on our borders.
- Removing Western aid provides fundamentalist terrorists with propaganda to recruit followers.
Thinking in terms of categories like this will make speeches more focused and coherent. It will work very well if one speaker in a team takes a principled approach, and the other a pragmatic approach; mixing up the two approaches in one speech, on the other hand, runs the risk of looking confused and incoherent.
3. Find the point of clash
The coach shares a list of motions.
Debaters have to find possible points of clash for each motion. So, for example, with the Afghanistan motion, these might be:
- The principle of not supporting an immoral regime vs the principle of not abandoning people in need
- The dangers of Afghanistan collapsing vs the desirability of the Taliban regime collapsing
- The responsibility of richer countries to help poorer countries vs respect for other countries' sovereignty
As debaters become more skilled at detecting points of clash, their arguments will become more focused and precise.
All of these activities will make preparation, even under pressure, more effective.