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3 March 2011

Q&A Confidence hit in "second season"

Here is the next Q&A e-mail I came across in my clean up of my e-mails.  I suspect this is a common problem as a lot of speakers find they do well as freshers/maidens but find it difficult when they reach second year and are expected to compete against senior speakers.

Hi Colm,

I was looking at the guides for debating at KOC worlds, and I found them really interesting. The thing is, I've been debating for a year (I'm now a second year) and I'm still pretty shit but I really want to improve and I found that the advice on some stuff to be a little general for where I'm at. I'm not that bad, but I came pretty low on the tab at XXX and we have one or two really good first years who I'm afraid could out strip me this year !

I've been told my problem is that while I have the basics of stuff like role fulfillment and structure and I understand how it works, I am still sloppy and tend to forget about the more nuanced aspects of it. Would you have anything on that ?

I have also been told that while I have the basics of analysis and structure to my speech it is only mediocre. Again would you have anything to show me on that ?

Also, I am wondering if you have any advice on how to clear up messy debates ? Do you have any pointers on how to watch out for and recognise it and how to rectify it ? Or how to prevent creating one when in first prop ?

I know I'm already asking you a lot, but I also found your articles on first principles to be really interesting. Would you have any more guides on first principles and how I can improve my competence with bringing debates back to that ? That's where I could really gain, because I often get bogged down by weird motions and hence make dodgy points.

I'm sure you get a lot of emails like this so I'd be very grateful if you could respond.



I know where you're coming from. Some people seem to take it up very quickly but for most people it's a bit of a slog. I was not a good debater. It took me 3 years to even become average at debating. I think if I was to go back now I would be better but in reality it was hard work for me. I think the best way to think about it is like Golf. There are some golfers who can just pick up a club and do really well (Darren Clark) but there are others for whom it is a hard slog of work (Padraic Harrington). Both can be successful you just have to remember that just because you aren't a natural doesn't mean you can't win majors in the future.

Without having seen you speak it's hard to say what are your strengths and weaknesses. You say you know the basics and that's good to start with. After that the the main thing is practice. There really is no replacement for it. Debating is like any skill. The more you practice it the better you get. A lot of the reason for that is there isn't a check list that can be applied to every debate. Sure there is the basic stuff but after that every debate is different. The definitions, the challenges, the arguments, the rebuttal etc or the lack of any of these all change the course of the debate. You have to go through this time and again to learn the differences. In the likes of Oxford, Sydney etc they will have several debates and workshops a week and competitions at the weekends so some speakers (in particular in the run up to Worlds) are practicing 2-3 times a week and debating 5-7 times at the weekend.

OK so that's not a very helpful suggestion on the debating stuff. Practice. Anyone could have told you that. One other thing strikes me on your e-mail though. "I'm still pretty shit" "I am still sloppy" "I'm afraid", "only mediocre", "bogged down". Your confidence is shot!

That's fine. That's fixable. I was there in my debating career. I didn't think I was good enough and therefore I was not good enough for a very long time. What you need to do is build up something that can be the core strength of your debating ability. Something that can be your crutch that you can mentally go to when you walk into a room and look at the others in there and say to yourself "I'm better than everyone else here at.......". For some people it is their speaking style, For some people it is their analytical ability. For some people it is their depth of knowledge.

If you can do that in one area your confidence will improve. If your confidence improves you will become more persuasive. If you become more persuasive you will win more debates. If you win more debates your confidence improves and so on.

So what do you do. Well the easiest is to start to work on your knowledge. I don't know if case files are still common on the circuit. They go through phases when they are seen as essential and when they are seen as naff. In the times when it's naff those people in the final with backpacks. They are hiding their case files in the backpacks. You are not going to know everything about the huge range of topics we expect debaters to be able to argue so you need to have a case file of information.

Do you have your Times or Mace motion yet? If you do start working on those. Read about the subject. What's the background to the topic. Understand the issues on BOTH sides. Get the best articles you can find on the subject and summarise the main points. Attach the summary and the key articles together and there is your first file of knowledge. Don't try to memorise it. This isn't an exam. Understand what you are reading then file the sheets so you can get the info out when you need it.

Now once you have done your times and mace debates move on to the motions that were at UCD. After that the motions at Oxford and Cambridge. Start reading the paper every day. If you have some free time instead of listening to music listen to a news show on the radio at least once a day. It's probably only 30 minutes to get the main issues and you will be surprised what sinks in. Over time you will build up your knowledge base so that you can walk into a room and realise that you know more about this topic than everyone else in there.

Now how do you apply that knowledge. For that look at The basic principle of how to think about your argument What is this Debate really about? What is usually required to win this debate? What can we add to the debate that hasn’t already been said? Are our arguments convincing? Are our examples good & getting to the heart of the issue or simply taking up time?

If you have the knowledge and ask yourself those sort of questions about your argument you will find that your performances improve.

It's going to be a slog. Don't get disheartened. You are going to take some beatings over the next few months but hopefully you will see some progress as well. The best thing is to set yourself a target (say top half at a particular IV). That gives you something to aim for and a reasonable time frame to get the work done.
I hope some of that helped.  Let me know how you get on.



  1. Anonymous7:06 am

    I find this very helpful. Sometimes I just think I will never be good at debating. At least it is good to know I'm not alone in that.

  2. It's like any skill or sport. The more you practice the better you get. No one is born with a perfected talent. Stick at it.


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