Stop training your responses by debating, do this instead

There’s this norm in debating that the only way to get better at debating is by debating more. In my circuit and debate upbringing, it’s very prominent, and I hate it.

Every other sport doesn’t expect you to do that. For example, you practice dribbles, shoots, and even small moves like pivots in basketball.

It makes sense to break things down and improve on one thing at a time. It’s an easier learning goal to track and you’re not distracted by other things you’d have to be good at like you would when you’re doing a full debate.

So let’s break down the skill of responses:

  1. Identifying the opponent’s claim
  2. Coming up with a response strategy
  3. Constructing reasons
  4. Prioritisation

Identifying the opponent’s claim

Your opponent’s 7 minute speech is nothing! It can be boiled down to a few main points, and you’re going to disprove those points!

Here are some good pointers for executing this skill well.

  • Don’t identify too little or too much! Usually there’s 1-3 main claims you’d want to rebut from 1 argument.
  • Short summaries. Try your best to shorten your opponent’s point to 1 sentence. You don’t want to retell their whole point, judges have it written down already.
  • Use their words, not yours! If they said “discourse”, no need to change it to “critical mass”. This is so that judges can easily track which claim you’re rebutting.

Coming up with a response strategy

Here’s where you equip your response with weapons of your choice: negating, weighing, and flipping. If you’re not familiar with those terms, check out this video by our Ops Director Judah to learn about it!

The reason you come up with a response strategy first is to know the intention of your reasons later, and to know what direction to go for if you need to improvise or build up on it in next speakers.

It’s important to remember a few things:

  • You can choose multiple strategies in one response.
  • However, it’s not necessary to use all 3 strategies all the time. In fact, it’s probably unstrategic to do so in some situations! For example, some arguments are better off only negated and weighed, and flipping it would be too difficult because the arguments are already very exclusive.

Constructing reasons

Now you want to make structural reasons for your response. You just base them on the strategy:

  • Negating says the opponent’s claim is untrue, so make sure you explain why.
  • Weighing means the opponent’s claim is unimportant relative to what you have on your side, so on top of explaining why, compare it to what you have to offer.
  • Flipping means the opponent’s harm is worse on their side / their benefit is better on your side, so you have to show what happens on their side and what happens on your side.

There are two important things to note here:


After you have your ammunition of structural reasons, don’t rush to shoot and deliver the response! It’s good to make some finishing touches:

  • Think about how long you want each structural reason to be. Think about how much time it takes until a person would buy the structural reason, and how important the claim is.
  • Think about the order with which you will deliver your responses. I find that going from the most uncharitable response to the most charitable response is best. You don’t want to give your opponent their best case right away, because that’ll make the judge believe that’s what’s going to happen most of the time.

How you can practice this

You can choose to do a live debate, but I recommend playing a debate from YouTube. Listen to a speech as you would in a live debate, and write your responses (or part of your responses) as the speech happens. Then, evaluate what you’ve managed to come up with.

Oh, but there’s a particular way you’d want to write your responses. This is very important.

What you want to do is be able to achieve everything gradually. So first you train only identifying the opponent’s claim. Spend your whole time listening to the speech only trying to summarise it into the key points that you would rebut later.

After you get a hang of it, you step up. Try identifying the opponent’s claim and coming up with a response strategy.

Then you try constructing reasons on top of those two things.

And lastly prioritise your responses after you do everything.

Why do you have to do this? Because each step acts as a pillar for the next one.

  • If you identify the wrong claim, your strategy and reasons won’t hold any water.
  • If your strategy is misdirected, your reasons won’t be strong enough to take the argument down.
  • If your reasons are weak, there’s no use of prioritising them – it’s a list of equally weak things. Very sad.

See how these things have an order of importance?

When the nature of rebuttals is how quickly you have to make them, oftentimes you won’t have time to do everything in your notes.

So… Priorities! That’s how you’ll perform better when you deliver them later on the spot, sometimes complete incomplete notes on the spot.

And know that most people only think about constructing reasons. They somewhat come up with a response strategy, but only few are actually aware of what they’re doing. So if you practice this well, you’ll be 3 steps ahead of them!

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