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An EFL’s formula for effective opening lines

As an EFL debater, the way I get around thinking of good opening lines is by having a formula ready.

“Madame Chair, the global poor all around the world, and no matter what country in which they live, currently live in a system of dictatorship. They live under a dictatorship known as no alternatives, shackled by capital that’s been unjustly acquired, constrained by landed gentry that have no incentives but to pursue their own interests, and chained by the fact that they can’t do anything but to look at the question of their own subsistence. They’re unable to reach out for the right to liberty and to self-determination that we think inheres in the human condition.”

Bo Seo’s opening line in his 2016 WUDC Open Final speech is probably one of the most well known lines in debating. It’s difficult to think how anybody could ever come up with anything like that, but that opening line is really there for a purpose.

As an EFL debater that started off with 2 minute speeches full of stutters, I can assure you I’ve tried to make such good opening lines for a long time. To this day, the rhetoric bank in my head is often closed. The way I try to get around this—and the way you can, too—is by having a formula ready.

And I want to address this first: Why are opening lines important? While there’s a recent trend of skipping opening lines and immediately explaining what debaters want to bring in their speeches, opening lines will still make your speech more valuable. It’s the first thing judges hear and it can make them want to pay more or less attention. It’s the line you want your speech to be remembered for. It makes you sound like you understand the most critical point you need to convey and sets you to be an important speaker in the debate.

So, what are the formulas for an effective opening line? I think there are five different types of opening lines. I’ll go over them and provide you with examples. And bear with me if I use a lot of Bo Seo references, because all his speeches have legendary opening lines.

Highlight a vulnerable actor

In a lot of debates, there’s a clear, isolated group of people that you want to protect. Social movements debates, war, and law debates, for instance, will usually have people that we like to call most vulnerable actors. These can range from women in the lower class to victims of crimes and warfare.

Highlight the significance of a problem/solution

When there isn’t a specific group of vulnerable actors in this debate, the debate tends to be more macro, evaluating large-scale problems in the status quo. This usually looks like economics, environment, and philosophy debates.

  • “There is nothing more cruel that I can think of than X”
    There is nothing more cruel that I can think of than telling somebody that nothing they do matters, nothing they have done ever has mattered, and that nothing they will ever do will matter. There is very little worse than living in a world where life is indeed nasty, brutish, and short, and you have absolutely no power to change it.”
    (Enting Lee, This House prefers a world where there is a universal belief that free will exists – Gov)

Highlight a unique context

In some debates, you want to point out a unique situation that makes an unconventional opinion make sense. Especially when proposing a motion that challenges the status quo, these opening lines can be useful.

Acknowledge unpopulist takes

If you know you’re debating the less populist side of the motion, it can be beneficial to admit it, but frame it as an option of the last resort. It shows that you care about the feelings of the people you’re talking about and that you still want the best for them.

  • “This is not a choice in an ideal world, but…”
    “Usually I begin my speech with saying ‘I’m proud to oppose’. But really, I’m not. Because this is not a choice that any woman should make in an ideal world. But to be able to make even more choices in the future, this is a choice that women have to make and you cannot let the fearmongering on side Proposition detract from this choice.”
    (Matthew Tan Tze Yang, This House would ban the practice of importing brides – Opp)

Case study

These last two are my go-to opening lines now, because they seem to be the most effective. Having a case study makes your arguments linked to real world concerns, and that usually strengthens your points of likelihood and importance.

Opponent’s flaw

If you’re a responsive speaker, and chances of which are big because there’s only one person who speaks first in the debate, this is the easiest formula you can use. 

  • Point out unresponded material
    This is a debate about reimagining humanity and how we structure society. Humanity is more than being a cog in the machine for mass production. We may not have diseases and we may have a lot of convenience stores to choose from, but we lead lives that already lead us to die every single day when we go to work and try to fit in with this unfeterred mass consumerist and commercialized lifestyle. This is what we brought to you at Closing Government that was unresponded to.”
    (Luigi Alcaneses, This House regrets the Industrial Revolution – Gov)

The examples I used may have super advanced language from EPL speakers, but make no mistake (wink) that opening lines don’t have to be that fancy. The point that I want you to notice is that opening lines are there for a purpose. Once you know the purpose of your speech, you will know what kind of statement you have to make at the beginning. That also means that these are not the only types of opening lines out there. This article is just a cheat sheet for practice and for emergencies, explore and experiment!

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