From 77 to 82: characterisation and contextualisation

Top teams don’t think of incredibly innovative arguments, they’re probably going to be the same arguments you’d think of six months into debating. The difference is really in how they construct the world behind it.

In a seminar of his, Tin Puljić said the difference between a 77 and 82 speech is usually framing and characterisation. Top teams don’t think of incredibly innovative arguments, they’re probably going to be the same arguments you’d think of six months into debating. The difference is really in how they construct the world behind it.

The reason this makes a huge difference is because these two skillsets will set the battlefield to your advantage and make your arguments harder to rebut. Characterisation and contextualisation argue a sort of tendency or direction for actors and phenomena, so they also stand before all other types of analysis.

So, how do we utilise them and what does it look like in practice?


This first skillset we’re going to discuss is also known as actor analysis, which means we’re picking an important actor in the debate and describing their traits. Each actor is characterised by a unique interest and power – what they pursue and what they’re limited by.


  • What are they driven by?
    e.g. companies are driven by profit, politicians are driven by votes, the average person is driven by the maximisation of pleasure.
  • How far are they willing to get it?
    e.g. companies will want to get profit, but not to the point of scamming people or starving their workers because their reputation will be compromised, and it’s less profit in the long term.
  • How do their interests weigh against each other?
    e.g. governments will sacrifice the environment for the economy because voters are more interested in short-term gains.


  • What’s their ability to get their interest?
    e.g. how much money, resources, connections, and firepower does a country have?
  • What coerces them?
    e.g. soldiers are beholden to their superiors, because disobedience is punished heavily. People are obliged to the law, because otherwise they’ll be fined or jailed.
  • What norms are they bound by?
    e.g. religious parents will want their children to be religious, because that is what gives them good status in their community.
  • What influences them?
    e.g. fans are influenced by celebrities and they hold them in high regard. People’s economic behaviors are influenced by advertisements because it changes what they think is a trustworthy and good brand to buy from.

Example of characterisation

I think the best example of this can be seen in Sajid Khandaker’s speech in IBA Nations League Final, with the motion This House believes that comedians from minority communities should not base their comedy on stereotypes and slurs about their own groups. He explained 5 incentives that make minority comedians shift to insult rather than nuanced discussion, which roughly looks like this:

  1. They’re poor. They have to get money by pleasing privileged people, who would like to laugh at the underprivileged’s suffering.
  2. The privileged people are their core consumer base to get money. Even if they’d like nuanced discussion, there’ll still be more minority insults in proportion.
  3. They’re misfits. They’re already social rejects in their community when they pursued a rather trivial job. So they don’t have the interest to help their community.
  4. Comedians need a Unique Selling Point. The easiest way to be unique is by making jokes that insult their own minority community.
  5. People go to comedy to see something different from everyday life. People want to see unprotected speech, and there’s a culture that races for offensiveness.

This incredible actor analysis won the debate because it shut down Opposition’s ways of saying minority comedians can empower the community if they base their comedy on stereotypes. It also centered on analysis logically prior to Opening Government and was framed to matter in breaking the Opening deadlock.


Contextualisation analyses the broad setting of the debate. When you identify where the debate happens, you’re able to limit opponents’ arguments by forcing them to only talk in terms of the relevant conditions.

  • Why does a certain problem arise?
    e.g. do people become a terrorist organisation’s recruits because of misguided faith or economic conditions?
  • What is a prominent trend relevant to the debate?
    e.g. there’s currently a trend of corporate social responsibility because people have been realising the devastating consequences of ignorance.
  • What are the political, social, cultural, and economic conditions of the society?
    e.g. How progressive is the society? Does the debate likely happen in a developed or developing country context? What is the level of wealth of the society?

Example of contextualisation

Honestly, I tried to find someone other than Sajid, but I’m a fan, so I have to put his video again as an example here. In the motion This House, as a Muslim-majority Southeast Asian nation, would reject Saudi Arabian investments in education, he used a lot of context in his rebuttals.

There’s quite a lot to unpack, so I recommend just watching the video. Several points that he brought include:

  • He proved the debate is not just about Indonesia because Saudi invests in madrasas in Singapore, the richest Southeast Asian country. It’s not part of the debate, but countries will still want to accept funding even if they’re rich because it gives more education for their minorities.
  • He rebutted the point of MBS being liberal by pointing to the Jamal Khashoggi assassination and explaining that the elites are interested to be more conservative. For him to rise to power, trends suggest he’ll have to become more conservative.
  • He explained a tradeoff of having slower education being okay because the investments are net negative. One of the reasons being that the minorities in Muslim-majority nations are non-Muslim, and there’s likely going to be forced proselytisation.

These kinds of analysis are especially good to deploy in international relations debates, but can also apply to other debates! I remember using contextualisation in trend motions, social movements motions, religion motions, and many more.

Where do you put these in your speech?

Just in case you’re wondering, this is a matter of style. Some people have a separate section for these and signpost that they’re going to put X layers of characterisation or X layers of context. Some people integrate them with their likelihood analysis inside their argument. I personally choose the latter because I strictly make my speeches as simple as possible, not too many types of analysis.

So do what you find comfortable, but in case you’re confused, your choices include, but are not limited to these:


  • Characterisation after your argument title / before likelihood analysis
    There are X pieces of characterisation for this actor…
    a. …
    b. …
    c. …
  • Characterisation as a part of likelihood analysis
    a. This actor is likely to do this action because of this characterisation…
    b. This actor is likely to do that action because of that characterisation…
    c. …


  • Contextualisation in your setup
    There are X pieces of context for this debate…
    a. …
    b. …
    c. …
  • Contextualisation after your argument title / before likelihood analysis
    This argument happens in this context…
  • Contextualisation as a part of likelihood analysis
    a. This impact is likely to happen because of this context in the debate…
    b. That impact is likely to happen because of that context in the debate…
    c. …

Sometimes, you can make a few slips in characterisation or contextualisation. When that happens, you might get brutally called out like this:

So, watch out for being too extreme

  • Play in moderate scenarios
    This is an absolute must-use in social movements debates, or any of those where you have progressive people and conservative people. When talking about getting more support to a movement, you want to say progressives will support the social movement on both sides, and conservatives will oppose it on both sides. Then you find a way to say your proposal exclusively gets the people in the gray areas to listen. If you try making a characterisation that’s too convenient for you, it’s usually too easily called out as ridiculous as well.
  • Play in multiple scenarios (but carefully)
    If you’re think the debate demands engagement in multiple scenarios, you can also have multiple possibilities of characterisation or contextualisation! Engage in how multiple actors would react, and how proposals would apply in different contexts. If you’re unsure, package the less believable ones as even-ifs so that you don’t sound contradictory—you’re just proving that you win, no matter which scenario is correct.

Watch out for inconsistencies, too

You can avoid this by checking for inconsistencies during casebuilding and coordinating well with your teammates! Make sure you all have the same idea for what the context looks like and how the actors are likely to behave.

On top of that, if you get accused for inconsistencies mid-debate, quickly clarify it. Extra points if you can explain that’s just the opponent misunderstanding what your previous speaker has clearly explained.

What this means for you

When you try to implement this, as I wrote before, you’ll get some good additions to your speaks if you do it successfully. But if you haven’t done it successfully, you can go back and scan this article to find out which part specifically you haven’t been doing well enough. Perhaps you missed opportunities in answering those questions under Characterisation and Contextualisation. Perhaps your contextualisation was too extreme or your characterisation was inconsistent.

If you polish this skill, you’ll be surprised at the upward trend your speech quality will be on!

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