What Actually Happens at Debating Competitions?



Welcome to Competitions Week here at Noisy Classroom, where we’re dedicating  a whole week’s worth of blog posts to debating competitions. Hopefully you’ll read our posts and be inspired to enter your students into some competitions…or even host your own. 


Attending a debating competition, especially your first one, can be an intimidating experience. This ‘FAQ’ page aims to demystify competitions and expel some fears that your students might have.

 Q.What will happen when I arrive?

 You will have to register. Teachers will have to pay for the competition if this hasn’t been paid or      discussed beforehand. Once teams arrive, the organisers of the competition can begin to sort out who will debate who. Then, once they are ready, there will usually be a short briefing (where they will explain what will happen during the competition) and then announce the first debate.

 Q.How long will the competition last?

This will depend on how big the competition is and how many debates there are. As a guide, each debate will last between 45 minutes and an hour and a half, but that depends on the debating format and the length of speeches.

Q.Where will I debate and who will the audience be?

You will debate in rooms in the competition venue. Competitions are often hosted by schools, universities and businesses. Usually, most debates in a competition take place in small rooms, in front of the judges and accompanying teachers and students. For ‘out-rounds’ (quarter-finals, semi-finals, and finals), sometimes the debates happen in front of everyone else who was at the competition.

Q.Who will the judges be and what will their criteria be?

The judges are people who have debating and public-speaking expertise. They may be individuals from your local community (e.g lawyers or journalists). Often, they are university students who are involved with university-level debating.

Criteria for judging debates changes between competitions. At all competitions judges will be looking for well-explained, well-structured arguments, use of evidence and teams that listen and respond to their opponents. Sometimes they will also be marking you on your language and delivery.

Q.What is a tab?

A tab is a piece of computer software used to organise who you will debate against. Generally, but not always, competitions use tabs to ‘power pair’ – so that if you win your first two debates, in your third debate you will debate against a team/teams that have also won their first two debates. This means that everyone debates against people who are a similar level.

Q.How do they decide who I debate against and what position?

They do this by using the tab. Tab software tries to make sure you debate against teams of a similar standard, and to ensure that you debate in every position that the format allows, but this isn’t always perfectly achievable.

Q.Will I find out how I did? As a team? As an individual?

Some competitions will tell you the result of the debate as soon as the judges have made a decision. They will give the result for teams, not individuals, and explain how they came to that decision.

Some competitions don’t tell you the results straight away, usually because they want to build suspense and excitement for when they announce the teams that have made the final. They normally publish a ‘team tab’ that gives the information on how teams did in each debate, and the competition as a whole. This is sometimes handed out at the end of the competition, or made available online in the days that follow.

Some competitions also give individuals ‘speaker marks’. These usually aren’t released until the competition has finished. The ‘speaker tab’ is normally released at the same time as the ‘team tab’ and again gives information on how individuals did in each debate, and in the competition as a whole.

Q.Is there a dress code?

Unless the competition tells you in advance, no. Some people choose to dress up and wear suits. Others prefer to wear jeans or tracksuit bottoms. Some schools like their students to wear school uniform (although this isn’t very common at weekend competitions). It is up to schools and students to decide what is best – we’d make sure that you are comfortable. Judges aren’t judging you on your fashion sense, but wearing uncomfortable clothes that make you fidget will distract both them and you from your arguments.

Q. What are the policies on equality?

Debating competitions are intended to be positive experience for everyone. Lots of competitions offer bursaries to state schools/individual student to make sure money doesn’t prevent anyone from attending.

Many competitions now have an ‘equity officer’. The role of an equity officer is to make sure that the competition is a positive experience for everyone. This doesn’t mean they will tell a judge off for saying your team has a lost a debate. The equity officer makes sure no one feels excluded from debating; if someone uses deliberately offensive language, or behaves in a way that aims to intimidate or threaten another individual, complaints can be made to the equity officer. They are not there to censor arguments in debates, and students won’t be punished for an accidental turn of phrase or ill-thought point of information. However, debating is about attacking arguments not people, and the most effective debaters do take some time to consider their language. Moreover, you may well make friends at competitions and you’re much more likely to do that if you treat everyone nicely.

Q.Who will chair and time the debate?

Sometimes, the judge will do this. Sometimes competitions will have people they have appointed to do this (often people from the school/university that is hosting). Sometimes competitions will be looking for accompanying school students to chair and time-keep – it may be worth asking in advance if any of your students who aren’t debating will be able to have this opportunity. Many debaters use their own stopwatch to keep an eye on the time during their speech. This helps them know when to move on to their next argument.

Q.What will happen when I enter the room ready to debate?

The judges will tell everyone where to sit. They will make sure the right teams are in the room and take everyone’s names. They may ask everyone what your preferred pronoun is. This is to make sure that no-one is mis-gendered (given the wrong gender and possibly referred to by an incorrect pronoun) which could be a very upsetting experience for some. You can say whether you want to be referred to as ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘they’ or just your name. They may go over the rules again. Then, when the judges are are ready, they will ask the first proposition speaker to begin.

Q.Will everyone be better than me?

Debating competitions are for a range of abilities. Some students may have been debating for years and be looking to try and win the competition. Others may be more novice, and this may well be their first competition.

Q.Will the debates be recorded?

Occasionally debates will be filmed and recorded. Usually competitions will tell you if this is the case, and ask if you will consent to be filmed. You do not have to be filmed if you don’t want to.

Q.How do they decide who goes through to the next stage?

They will look at who has won the most debates, and then (if there are a lot of teams on the same number of wins) look at which teams have the highest combined speaker points.

What happens if don’t speak for the full time?

When you’ve finished your speech, you can end it and sit down. The debate will continue as normal. Speaking for the full time, especially when you are new to debating, can seem like a daunting task. Judges understand this, and won’t make you keep standing up when you have finished. However, the longer you speak for, the better your arguments will be – and after a few debates, you’ll soon feel like you’ve got too much to say and the time isn’t enough! For more tips, see our article on how to speak for five minutes.

Q.What happens if I can’t answer a point of information?

There is always an answer to a point of information! Our top tips:

  • Take a deep breath
  • Repeat the question. This gives you time to think, and can help you to understand the question
  • If you don’t understand the question you can ask the speaker to rephrase it
  • If you really don’t have an answer, you can always say your teammate will answer the question in their speech (but you’ll need to help them come up with an answer)

Points of information can seem scary, but the ‘killer POIs’ you imagine teams asking you never really happen. They are normally fairly simple questions that you’ll be able to answer, so try not to worry about them too much.

Hopefully this has answered most of your questions. If you do have more, please do leave a comment below.

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