What do judges look for when judging a debate?

Coach Andy
Post by Coach Andy
What do judges look for when judging a debate?


Many of us are used to making debate speeches and then waiting anxiously for the decision from the judges. But how often do we really think about what judges look for when judging a debate?

The truth is that this is a very important question, since debating is a quite subjective art; the more we understand about how judges decide and what they are looking for when judging a debate, the more equipped we are as debaters to give judges what they are looking for! So, let’s read on to find out a bit about the criteria for judging a debate.

Role of the judge

The first thing to understand about judges is that they should be impartial and unbiased. That is, they should not judge the house based on their personal opinions of the topic, but rather on their assessment of how well the teams debated the topic.

The average informed voter

By the same token, the judge should not bring any specialist knowledge they may have of the topic into the debate. Instead, they should adopt the standpoint of the average informed voter – interested in the topic, willing to be persuaded by any given point, but not necessarily expert in the subject under discussion.

Matter – what you say in your speech

The first thing judges listen to when judging a debate is what is called Matter. Matter is the content that is being presented in the debate. Matter can cover both arguments and rebuttal, or even research ****– anything which is said in the team's case. In order to score highly with the judge, arguments and rebuttals should be logicalrelevant and persuasive.

It’s important to note that adjudicators don’t step in to complete the analysis for the debaters, even if they have heard some version of your argument many times before. Instead, they evaluate you on what you actually say. So make sure that you explain your arguments clearly for the judge, and develop clear reasoning and impacts for each point, whether you are on proposition or opposition!

Manner – how you make your speech

The second element that adjudicators note when judging a debate is what’s called Manner. Manner deals with howcontent is presented – your style or delivery. Judges evaluate speakers’ manner based on how engagingly and persuasively you argue.

This can involve verbal elements such as clarity, volume and pace, or non-verbal elements such as eye contact or posture. Judges often don’t explicitly comment on manner when explaining the result of a debate, but it is always a factor even so.

There is no singular acceptable style, but some traits – speaking too quietly, too fast, failing to enunciate – are alwaysdetrimental to communication. Judges tend to respond better to speakers who are clearer and more engaging. You are not judged by adjudicators on your command of English – so don’t worry if your opponents have a stronger grasp of the language than you do.

Method – how you organize your speech

The final element of speeches that judges will consider, at least in schools debate, is sometimes called Method – which covers organization, engagement and speaking time. Speakers should structure and signpost each point clearly, not insert important points in the last minute, and teams should always engage with their opponents’ argument and defend their own.

When judging debates, adjudicators generally reward students, particularly in later positions in the debate, who listen to the other side - and answer them.


Hopefully this helps you to understand some of the key elements that a judge is looking for when judging a debate. Matter, manner and method aren’t always referenced explicitly by adjudicators in their critique, but they are always factors. The first step towards convincing the judge that you should win the debate, is knowing what they are looking for - so at least you can get a majority of votes!

Continue reading more about debate adjudication here.

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Coach Andy
Post by Coach Andy