Impromptu Debating for Beginners

Tara Sallis was on the England Schools Debating Team in 2017 and is an undergraduate at Oxford University. On this guest blog she shares her tips for approaching impromptu debates for beginners. For more help you can find Noisy Classroom resources on this here and here

Approaching impromptu debating can be intimidating, but some of the most vital skills that debating can offer come from learning to form arguments under time pressure and give a speech that you have not written out in advance. Often preparation time is short, with most British Parliamentary competitions giving just 15 mins for students to get ready, so using this time effectively and keeping on top of the debate as it happens is essential. There are three main aspects of impromptu debating to think about when introducing it to beginners: prep time, knowledge, and arguments.

  1. Prep time

Giving a debate speech is like pressing play on the prep time before it: a good prep time will yield a good debate. Having a prep schedule can help make the prep session efficient and effective, ensuring that you do not go into the debate without essential parts of the speech. This can be very simple for beginners and can be tweaked and perfected for teams that are more advanced. The key part of any prep schedule is at least some time at the beginning in silence before the discussion of ideas starts. Giving students space to independently think about the motion before their teammates start moulding their thoughts is a really good way to get more ideas out there and avoid a misunderstanding of the motion. An example prep schedule for a beginner might follow the pattern: 3 mins silent thinking, 7 mins discussing ideas an arguments, 4 mins discussing rebuttal and Points of Information, 1 min reviewing the case and finishing off notes. Practicing just preparing for debates can be a good way to make this process more slick and ensure that students will know what they are doing when it comes to a real debate.

  1. Knowledge 

Getting a motion you know nothing about is a big fear that beginners have in impromptu debating. Remind students that they can ask about words in the motion if they do not understand and that they should take care to read any information slides or other prompts that they are given before the debate. Encouraging students to stay on top of current affairs, or even just to check the news on the run up to a competition will give them the competitive edge, but the majority of motions do not require specific or in depth knowledge. Most debates can be approached by arguing from first principles. So, for example, if a motion comes up on military intervention in Syria and a student does not know much about Syria, they can argue the general case for or against military interventions.   

  1. Arguments 

When pre-preparing debates it is easy to access lots of statistics, complex ideas, and help whenever you need it. When doing an impromptu debate, the internet and help from teachers is not usually allowed, meaning that it can be hard to come up with these sorts of arguments. An impromptu debate does not require the same level of researched detail as a pre-prepared debate and the arguments will often be most effective when they are simple and clear, but specific to the motion. One of the most difficult aspects of impromptu debating can be coming up with enough arguments in the time given. Trying techniques like asking if students have thought about all the groups affected by a motion can prompt more ideas. For example, in a motion about sports, have they thought about the players, the fans, the general public, the youth, female footballers, the managers, etc. 

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