Top Tips

We asked past debaters to provide students entering the competition for the first time with some advice. Below is a selection of their responses. We hope you find them useful, but remember, it is always down to you to decide what is the most effective way to win the argument – there is no ‘10-point plan’ for success.
Tony Gilland, former Debating Matters National Coordinator


It sounds obvious, but it is very important – without it, it’s possible to miss out on major points or even get the wrong idea of what the motion actually means. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do your own research – you need to be innovative, and if you just rely on the Topic Guide it’s difficult or impossible to do this. However, the Topic Guide provides a good summary of the core arguments for and against the motion, and it’s a good place to start your research from.
Chigozie Nri (Graveney School, London)


Tackle the research head on. Start early and read everything that you can, the Topic Guides are essential. Don’t just stick to your side of the argument though, read your opposition’s articles and try and anticipate what they will attack you with. If you are already prepared for some responses, then you won’t be wrong-footed as easily. However, don’t rely on this and remember to work with the flow of the debate. Further reading is great too, read around the subject but be prepared to justify your points and cite your references for statistics.
Chris Wakefield (Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College, Darlington), alumnus, 2006/07


A lot of your time on the floor will be spent responding to both judges and your opposition, and some participants fall down in retreating from their original assertions when confronted by criticism from the panel of experts. In my experience, confidence in defending your arguments from the criticisms made by the judges is critical in the overall result. Don’t be afraid of offending them! Some of the most successful teams pick up a lot of points in criticising the focus of the judges’ questions. Answer them directly, but don’t let them subvert or change the course of what you’re trying to say. Tackle them head on.
Charlie Winstanley (Blackburn Sixth Form College)


Often, people will try to interpret a debate too narrowly. The debates are carefully selected so that there are good arguments to be made on either side, narrowing the debate could show a lack of understanding or confidence, so grasp the debate fully and be bold in what you say. Often a strong position can bring out the issues at the heart of the debate, allowing you to flourish more visibly with your coherent arguments!
James Metcalfe (Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College, Darlington)


Unfortunately for some of us, during the competition we can often find ourselves arguing for motions with which we disagree. Far too many competitors, in realising this, seek to compromise with their position in order to reach a more balanced, ‘neutral’ sentiment. It’s understandable, but fundamentally not an effective way of winning the argument in Debating Matters. The judges will be looking for your ability to take your argument to its ultimate logical conclusion, and defend the most radical of suggestions with skill. If you see your opposition succumbing to this desire to extend the olive branch, do not hesitate to get stuck in.
Charlie Winstanley (Blackburn Sixth Form College)


Use them to support your points but beware! It is very easy to find statistics from your perspective but be prepared to back them up with multiple sources and always cite your references and sources. It is very easy to become over reliant on them, so don’t depend on them. There is a good balance between arguments and evidence, so try and aim for a good mix with statistics only when needed.
Chris Wakefield (Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College, Darlington), alumnus, 2006/07


Know your argument, but be flexible with it. It is quite possible that somebody will offer a new perspective on your argument. This does not necessarily directly contradict what you have said, but might prove a good discussion point. The ability to respond to these new ideas, while linking them to your original argument, will demonstrate the ability to listen, think, and respond to different points.
James Metcalfe (Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College, Darlington)


The judges will probably go straight for your arguments, so don’t panic! Stand your ground and fight hard on points. If they ask tough questions, take a little bit of time to consider your answer. It is very easy to get wrong footed and jump into something too quickly and end up saying things you later regret. Take your time and address each question without rushing. Remember there are two of you, so work together with your partner to help give a united front. At this point, make sure you are sticking to the debate topic too, the judges may be giving you subtle hints if they feel the debate isn’t quite on track, so be sure to pick up on this if it is the case.
Chris Wakefield (Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College, Darlington)


The judges will be looking for your ability to defend your position to the extreme. Make sure you know your position inside out before you compete, as there is no room for altering the intention of your motion in the Debating Matters structure. Be prepared to take on some uncomfortable and fundamental positions – don’t draw back from defending principles which are difficult to tackle in public debate. Your ability to challenge the fundamental assumptions and values that lie behind contemporary debates will be rewarded.
Charlie Winstanley (Blackburn Sixth From College)


Do not underestimate this section. This lasts a long time when you are under fire from all angles but this is a very important part of the debate. Tackle as many questions you feel comfortable with and try to pick up on questions that are in support of your side. During this section, start thinking about the closing summations and really try to pick up on any particularly weak area of your opponent’s arguments.
Chris Wakefield (Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College, Darlington)


Talk about current issues with friends and relatives. If you keep generally up to date with the news and current affairs, this might be relevant in one of the future debates and helps to get your mindset into a debating and critical one, which I found very useful. Practicing with your team is also good, our team did this a lot anyway before we even started debating and it can be quite interesting and thought provoking to hear and respond to other people’s opinions.
Chris Wakefield (Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College, Darlington)


Understand the material – if you have well prepared speeches, but also a strong command of the facts and ideas surrounding the issue, you will find it far easier to respond to counter-arguments and points from the floor that you may not have considered. The Topic Guides are an excellent starting point for this – they focus on the heart of the debate. Talk through the issue with friends and relatives – often such informal discussion will help to build up interest in the subject and aid the formation of a coherent argument.
James Metcalfe (Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College, Darlington)


Try and stay calm and speak slowly. Whilst the time limit is fairly tight, it is better to have a calm and mannered presentation than a rushed one which tries to cram too much in. Place your strongest arguments first to get them into the debate early, don’t leave key arguments until later as you may not get the chance to use them. That said, saving a few little bits of information or smaller arguments for later on can work very nicely and help to sway the debate in your favour during the cross-examination.
Chris Wakefield (Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College, Darlington)


I think the most important thing is to enjoy yourself and to have fun, which sounds clichéd and tedious, but I loved every minute of the competition. I took a lot of valuable experience with me and I honestly never expected to get past the Qualifying Rounds. Whilst you are there chat to people, make new friends and throw yourself into every debate, whether you are watching or taking part.
Chris Wakefield (Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College, Darlington)