[Remag] What Debating Taught Me (And Can Teach You Too)

18 Nov

By Deb W.

First published by Remag on Jun 2014. Reproduced with permission.

Up until a year ago, most people I knew wouldn’t have thought that an introverted, socially awkward and shy girl like me could be a debater. Whenever I talked, I swallowed my words, could barely make eye contact with most people, and was always either talking too fast or too soft – not exactly the type of person who you’d expect standing on a podium defending, or going against, anything from necrophilia to beauty pageants.

Today, I’m not (yet) an exuberant, lively and engaging debater and communicator in real life. I’ve not yet even broken* in any major local tournament – the closest I got to that was last year’s Great Gender Debate, where my teammate and I were ranked a spot below breaking (we were ranked 17th, and there were 16 breaking teams with two teams tied at 16th place. So close!). However, what I can testify today is that my debating experience for the past year has brought me a long way from the persona I once was, in more ways than one.

Clarity of Speech and Thought

In today’s workforce, soft skills such as communication and persuasion are very much in demand – good communicators get business done and money coming in, among other benefits. This is one of the more obvious benefits that people think about when it comes to debating, and I readily concede to that. I mentioned earlier that I was prone to mumbling, and had poor eye contact. In debates, it’s not enough if you know a lot of general knowledge – in order to win, you need to string that knowledge into coherent arguments that are clear and concise, as well as use emotions and body language to persuade the adjudicators that your team deserves to win the case.

Whenever I went for debate training, my trainers and fellow debaters would give me feedback – and vice versa – about different areas of improvement, such as arguments that were ‘one-liners’ and in need of more in-depth analysis; repetitious points that could have been said in one or two sentences; me constantly twirling my hair or shifting my feet (it’s distracting and reduces overall persuade-ability), and so on. With these pointers given to me, I am able to improve in my debating. But the story isn’t over – I realized, after a while, that the ability to word things more effectively also helped in other situations in life as well, such as class presentations or persuading some friends to do a certain activity with me. By being clearer (and still working on it), people are more apt to consider what you have to say.

If you’re naturally confident and eloquent, debate still helps you communicate clearer and avoid pitfalls such as having jumbled-up arguments, far-fetched ideas that are not well-proved, and over-confidence, which shows up as all fluff but no matter – which all are the more common mistakes made by naturally confident speakers. You get to improve what you’re already good at – your body language and presentation even further as well.

No Idea Is Too ‘Sensitive’ – Bring It On!

A few trainings in, and my trainers decide to start giving us ‘controversial’ motions to debate on: legalizing homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia for starters, then moving on to motions about the use of porn, sex education, race relations in Malaysia, and other things. Perhaps you fancy yourself liberal and think that these topics are nothing to shout about. True, but when debated in the context of a local university where being deeply religious and conservative is the norm, it becomes uncomfortable, at least at first, for most of the people who hear of it. Imagine a religious Muslim or Christian debater given the motion of defending homosexuality – not very natural, right? The controversy did indeed drive some folks away from our debate team during the first few meetings. (Note: These only apply to the English debates. BM ones still generally stick to more conservative topics, from what I know.)

However, when we start debating these motions, we are exposed to the different schools of thought in the world about why people choose to do or legalize certain things and ban others. There are always two sides to an argument, and we often have to defend something we don’t agree with – the more liberal debater might find himself having to support tax exemptions for religious institutions, for example. Bear with the controversy and stay a little longer, and you’ll find that you’ll be more able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, even if you personally disagree with what they do, and understand why they would do it. At the same time, you are also able to understand and defend your own beliefs better, in debates as well as in real life, using logic and reason rather than emotions and avoiding the (sensitive) topic.

The (Real) Concept of A ‘Team’

There are many places where you can learn teamwork as a student – group assignments and projects, organizing events, and the like. In debate however, a team is the basic building block of every meeting and tournament – having a good team is crucial to going anywhere in debate, especially during tournaments. You may exude charisma, maturity and a good flow of thought, but if you don’t know how to work well with your teammate(s), you aren’t going to win the case. There are different roles for each team member to play, which cut across racial and gender boundaries – a female debater can lead the case, while a male debater might support the case, or vice versa. Having said that, every role is crucial, and the first speaker is no less important than the last one. All speakers in the team must contribute to discussion and during the debates if they ever want to win cases.

When constantly put in teams during practice rounds and tournaments, I found myself experiencing two things. Firstly, working with different people on a regular basis gave me no excuse to be stagnant. I could not rely on a set ‘formula’ to go about debating every single time, and it made me more creative in thinking of how to explain and present different points and principles. Secondly, working within a team structure in the long term forced me to deal with a lot of flaws, whether physically or in character, through feedback of team members. Issues that I dealt with (and some that I am still dealing with now) range from technical things, such as talking too fast or soft, to interpersonal tendencies such as dominating team discussions, not really listening to ideas from team members, etc. Having all these issues faced on directly made me more aware of them not only in debates, but in everyday communication as well.

I speak here as an amateur, but I can tell you today that joining debate was one of the things that I didn’t regret doing, for all the growth that it brought me not just in terms of speech and confidence, but also in terms of mindset expansion and character building. If you’ve ever wanted to debate but am hesitating for some reason, take this as an appeal to join, or support those who do.

*To break is to enter finals rounds of a tournament (octo, quarter, or semi-finals, depending on the tournament).

Deb has represented a local university in Malaysia in English debate for over a year. She is also an aspiring lifestyle journalist and is currently in her second year of communication studies.

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