Debating Skills in Day-to-Day Communication

November 6, 2018 by Fin McCarron

During the Summer when I was doing my internship a huge number of my friends were just over the border in Serbia at the European University Debating Championships and it got me thinking about how the skills that they were using in the competition were also useful in everyday communication. Irena Lukač, CEF Partnerhsip Officer earlier this year wrote about tips for communicating clearly in our writing but increasingly in this high tech world face-to-face communication is more important than ever. With that in mind here are a few ways in which debating skills can help us in day-to-day situations.

1. Structure and Signposting

Most debate speeches start with an outline of what you’re going to say in the next seven minutes, first responses, then the number of points you are going to make then the headlines of those points. This is crucial for the judges who have to write or type everything down and read it back quickly but it’s also important for giving a presentation, or pitching an idea. Signposting helps other people understand when you are moving onto a different idea or argument and stops them from mixing things up. It also helps you to keep track of what you want to say and makes sure you don’t miss a crucial part of your argument. A good structure is also useful in planning your speech or point because you can work out the main headlines and then see what is the best way or organising them so that your speech can really make an impact.

Do – Make sure to clearly outline your main points before adding detail.

Don’t – Forget to expand on them if you said you were going to cover a point.

2. Time Management

One of the 2017 winners of the European Championships once told a story about an ex-debater during a group interview task; the group had been given a subject and told they had an hour to prepare a five minute presentation, the debater, having trained to write speeches under pressure wrote his notes in 15 minutes, the same amount of time you have to prepare for a competitive debate, while everyone else spent the hour overcomplicating their speech and getting stressed out. While sometimes a bit longer to prepare is useful – University debates speeches aren’t noted for their academic rigour – learning to prepare under pressure is a useful skill that means you are quickly able to come up with new ideas or new analysis if you have to change something at the last minute.

The other part of time management is of course  during the debate, or day-to-day during a speech or presentation. Debate speeches are strictly seven minutes long and the judges will stop writing soon after that so you have to learn how to condense a lot of information into a short amount of time. This is best done by prioritising the most important material first and working out what material you can get away with cutting if needed.

Do – Make sure to prioritise the most important points and say them first.

Don’t – Try to cram too much into your speech and not get everything in.

3. Style & Confidence

The sort of debating I do doesn’t officially judge on style but when it comes down to it, some judges, especially the more inexperienced judges will see arguments as less persuasive if the person speaking seems less confident. This is why, even if we shouldn’t care about the way someone says something, implicitly we generally do. Arguing things I don’t really know about, to people who are cleverer than me, against people who are sometimes experts in their field means that I have to appear confident when presenting my ideas and this is a very important skill to learn. One way to do this is to write out your argument and then think of three reasons why it is true and why we should care. You can think about whether one approach provides better benefits in the short run or the long run or whether it makes best use of the resources available. Even working out what the impact of the argument is and why it is better than the alternative option. Maybe one option benefits lots of people a little bit while the other option benefits fewer people a lot. Always remember, why is this true but also why should we care? This makes a speech look comprehensive and it’s easier to look confident when you can explain why what you’re proposing is the best possible thing to do or the most important idea in the room.

Do – Write down three reasons why something is true and why we care about it.

Don’t – Make assertions that you can’t later back up.

How do you think debating skills can help communication? Was there anything you think I might have missed out?

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