British Parliamentary Debate Competitions - Top 5 Effective Prepping Tips (Part I)
If you’ve watched any skateboarding videos, you’ve probably noticed that a typical trick doesn’t last more than a few seconds. To the untrained eye, the trick might seem like something easy that just “happens,” however that couldn’t be further from the truth! Skateboarders practice their tricks for months in advance: they learn how to position the skateboard, adjust their speed, and anticipate any bumps along the way. It’s this preparation that determines whether the skateboarder executes the trick – or falls flat on their face! Similarly in debating, the quality of your speech is hugely affected by the quality of your prep time.
In British Parliamentary, you have 15 minutes to prepare, so it’s important to master using that short time effectively. There are five steps that will help you prep effectively for British Parliamentary debates. It’s important to note that different teams have different ways of preparing. Teams often adjust their preparations based on a variety of factors, including the motion and their speaking position. Over time, you will also develop your own strategies, but nevertheless, the following five steps will help you to get started on that process.
The first couple of steps is actually done during “silent prep time.” While some teams like to start talking immediately once the motion is released, it’s often better to first start thinking about it on your own. This is important in order to make sure both team members are freely coming up with their own ideas and to avoid getting “locked” on a few initial ideas coming from only one partner. Usually, teams use between one to three minutes of silent prep time. Don’t use any more than that or you won’t have time to properly discuss.
Step 1: Examine the Motion
The first step in prep time (after starting your timer) is to examine the motion carefully. Read word for word, and make sure you understand the motion fully. Few things in the debate are more disheartening than accidentally prepping for the wrong side of the debate, or preparing for a different debate altogether. You can’t use the internet for this. Instead, if you’re at a competition, you need to ask one of the chief adjudicators (known as the CAs) for clarification. If you’re in class, you should ask your coach what the word means. While you are allowed to use your own dictionary, some words might have different meanings in different contexts, so it’s better to ask the person who decided on the motion. Checking the motion should take you about 30 seconds, and both Opening and Closing teams should do it.
Step 2: Check Each Team’s Burdens
The second step is to think about what each team’s burdens are. Stop, and double-check to see what you should be defending in the debate. For instance, in the debate “This House would ban the death penalty,” Government teams have to defend never using the death penalty, while Opposition teams can say that they would only use the death penalty in limited situations, but that it should still exist. Similarly, you should identify the comparative: what is it that is being compared in this debate? In the motion “This House would ban the death penalty,” it’s clear what the comparative is: a world with the death penalty as a punishment, or a world without it. This can get more complicated though. In the motion “This House regrets the glorification of soldiers as heroes,” you have the world as it is now, where soldiers are glorified as heroes. But what do you need to compare it to? If we didn’t glorify soldiers as heroes, what would have happened instead? This is called the counterfactual: would soldiers be seen as workers who do a job, like plumbers? Or would they be seen as lethal mercenaries that should be feared? You need to figure this out before you can move forward in your prep. Identifying what your burdens are, and what the comparative is in the debate should only take about a minute. Both Opening and Closing teams should do this, because it is easy grounds for an extension, to develop a burden that an Opening team missed, or to do a better job explaining the comparative.
Step 3: Identify Your Arguments
If you still have some silent prep time left, move on to the third step, which is to identify your arguments. One way to do this is to try and anticipate potential clashes in the debate. A clash is an area that both sides fundamentally disagree about. For instance, in the motion “This House would ban the death penalty,” both sides will disagree about whether the death penalty is an effective deterrent, and whether it’s legitimate as a punishment. You can use these clashes to help you identify potential arguments. For instance, if you were in Opening Government on the death penalty motion, you might want to construct an argument about why the death penalty is an ineffective deterrent, and why it is illegitimate for the state to kill people. Alternatively, if you find it hard to anticipate clashes, ask yourself the following questions instead:
· What problem is this motion trying to solve? Why is our model or stance the best way to solve this problem?
· What are the main arguments for our opponents? How are we going to engage with them?
· Who is affected by this motion? Who are the most important stakeholders? Think about how, exactly, they’ll be affected and how they’ll react. You should also consider if any of the potential effects or reactions might change over time.
· What rights or principles are involved in the motion?
After you answer these four questions, you can choose the most important arguments for your case. Overall, identifying arguments should take about three to six minutes. Remember, at this stage, you’re just trying to identify your key arguments. In the next steps, you’ll develop them more fully.
If you’re in Closing, you should continue to develop arguments for longer than this, as you’ll need to have more options, and you’ll have more time at the end as you don’t need your arguments to be fully written before the round. If you’re in Opening, you’ve got about four and a half minutes into prep time. You’ve read the motion carefully, identified your burdens and the comparative, and you’ve selected your key arguments.
Now that you’ve seen how to use the first few minutes of prep time, head over to part two of this article and learn how to use the remaining ten minutes of prep.