Why you should try debate — My Experience

Hello everyone! Hope you’re all doing well. And to all the students — hope you’re all enjoying your summer holiday! I’m back again with yet another article, and this time, we’ll be talking about one of the clubs that I joined in year one of university: debate club.

Now, I’m sure many of you are thinking: why are we talking about debate? What a nerdy activity. Yes, I openly confess that I am an absolute nerd — my hobbies range from playing musical instruments to chess and debating. In fact, when I was in the debate team, I subscribed to debate channels to learn and improve my debating skills. But I hope you all give debate a chance! It’s actually really fun, and you get to learn and practice very useful skills.

But before I dive in, I’m going to talk about my debating background, my personal experience with the NUS debate team, and end off with some reflections on why I think everyone should try and join debate at least once. Even if you don’t want to go to competitions or become a debate fanatic, I think it is a good platform for developing confidence, critical thinking and communication — skills everyone should have.

My Debating Background

Now, for those who might be afraid of joining the debate club in university because you have no debating experience, don’t worry — that was me. I had never officially joined debate prior to NUS debate. I didn’t even join any related activities or CCAs like MUN (Model United Nations). For the unaware, MUN is often considered to be similar to debate, as both require you to think critically, provide argumentation, and fight for your point.

Personally, throughout primary school, secondary school and JC, I had never joined a CCA similar in requirement to debate. I did things like badminton or orchestra. I have had some experiences with a debate setting — sometimes, in class, the teachers would simulate a debate as a ‘fun activity’ to engage us. One instance was when I was in secondary four. The class was learning Macbeth (a Shakespeare play), and we debated whether Macbeth caused his downfall. But that was a more casual setting, and no one really knew what they were doing. In other words, there was nothing comparable to a formal debate setup.

So, if a nonexistent debating background is the main thing stopping you, I encourage you to give debate a try anyway. I cannot speak for all university debating teams, but from my personal experience, the NUS debate club is very welcoming, and even if you have never learnt how to debate, they teach you the basics and help you improve your skills.

My NUS Debate Experience

Allow me to share my own experience in NUS debate! If anyone is curious as to how it went, or hesitate because you think experienced team members might look down on you, allow me to allay your concerns.

I joined debate in my first semester (so year 1 semester 1). During that time, I thought it would be good to join as many clubs and CCAs as possible, just to have something to put on my LinkedIn or resume. Since I had only had one prior psychology-related experience, I thought that bolstering my LinkedIn and taking up clubs that allowed me to demonstrate relevant skill sets would help increase my chances of employability. Also, I wanted to learn as much as I could, and I thought I could learn something about a different field, or pick up a new skill through joining CCAs.

I chose debate because I wanted to be able to formulate arguments, practice critical thinking skills, and just sound smart in general. I also thought it might be useful in future, because debaters are well-known for arguing over relevant topics through having governmental or policy-related motions.

Now, when I joined, COVID-19 was still an issue, so practice sessions and tournaments were held online. In the very first session, the team was considerate — they knew that not everyone came in with debating experience, and not everyone was aware of what a debate might look like, so they ended up doing a mock debate. It was a pretty fun motion — I believe it was something like, ‘This house supports Eminem starting beef with other celebrities to boost his career’ (or something along those lines). Watching mature debaters being forced to reference celebrity pop culture (despite a slight lack of knowledge in this area) was quite amusing, but my goodness they all spoke very quickly. The second the first speaker opened, it was a jumble of words coming out rapidly. Keeping track of anything was obviously not easy, nor did I attempt to do so. We were all told that it was just a demonstration and we could watch to see what a real-life debate would be like, so none of us really focused on taking down the main points.

After the debate, they briefed us a little on what just happened, and reassured us that even though they might have spoken very quickly and sounded rather intense, it takes time and practice, and to not be worried if we are beginners and cannot do that yet. I thought that was nice of them, and think it shows the supportive nature of the main members: even if you really have no background or understanding and might be slightly nervous, they are there to support you and to help you improve. They understand how it can be difficult to speak up, especially when you first start, and are there to guide you through the process.

They also tried to make the first session fun — after the whole debate simulation, we played a fun game over zoom to just connect and bond (I think we were playing scribble.io — it was a nice wholesome time).

Over the next few weeks, they scheduled basic lessons covering debate formatting, how a general debate speech should be structured, and used examples (i.e. real motions) to get us thinking about how we could formulate points for our arguments. They also let us practice by giving us a motion, letting us prepare for 15 minutes (typical time of an actual debate), and then having us debate against each other. After each debate, they will give us feedback.

Overall, I think it’s nice of them to have these basic lessons — they don’t assume that you know everything, and are willing to answer any questions you may have. Also, I know that having to actually debate against someone for the first time sounds quite daunting. I was pretty nervous, too —  the first time I ever had to speak for seven minutes, I was really disorganized. My points were all over the place, I didn’t know how to develop, and I had a lot of nerves. I didn’t even manage to speak for all seven minutes, and did my best to keep going and fill in the silence. I think my voice was slightly shaky because I was so nervous. But they were really nice about it — when I got my feedback, it wasn’t something like ‘you didn’t make a single good point’ or ‘you need to learn how to develop more complicated arguments’. Instead, the core member started my feedback with ‘I know it can be hard doing a seven-minute speech for the first time, so good job!’ He did tell me what I can improve on, with advice specifically for beginners like me: instead of telling me to focus on more complicated debate strategies, he simply said that I should do my best to organize my points, and explicitly signpost and tell the judge when I start each new point. This was a strategy that was very achievable and was something I could easily work on, and I was really grateful.

Over time, I would receive feedback on debating performance and strategies, and I learnt that things like figuring out what the motion or main topic is really about are not that easy. I also learnt that it never really gets easier — I was always nervous whenever I had to speak, or when I had to debate. While the nerves didn’t go away, I learnt how to manage them. I learnt how to come up with strong arguments, and to evaluate my opponent’s strong and weak points. Admittedly, I would have to force myself to face debating — before every debate Zoom meeting, I would consider backing out and not spending an hour of my life getting destroyed by someone better than me. But I would push myself to go, because that was the only way I could improve.

I also pushed myself to join two debate competitions — one as a debater and one as a panelist judge. Both debate competitions are relatively well-known (AWDC and UADC), and were good experiences for me to learn and practice. And even though I didn’t continue with debate after that semester, it wasn’t because the people were bad or because I hated debate. It was simply because I achieved what I wanted out of the CCA — I learnt how to critically think and engage with arguments, evaluate the pros and cons of reasonings given, and improved my communication skills.

Why Everyone Should Try Debate

And now, after all that, why should you bother to sign up for debate? Well, I think that everyone can benefit from trying debate, even if it is just one semester. There are two main reasons: first, you learn beneficial skills; and second, you grow as a person.

Regarding skills that you can learn, I don’t think I need to provide an in-depth elaboration on why debate can enhance skills like critical thinking, evaluation, logical reasoning, communication, and organization and clarity of speech. I think all of these go hand-in-hand with being able to formulate an argument in fifteen minutes, and being able to articulate and argue for your position through a seven-minute speech. I think my experience should also reflect, to some degree, the type of activities we do and the skills required. And I think it is relatively self-explanatory that the more you learn and practice these skills and the more you improve.

But I think there is a second reason that is equally important, which is that debate challenges you to grow. Whenever you engage in a debate, you have to steel your nerves and go for it. Additionally, no matter how good of a debater you are, there will always be something to improve on, and you have to learn how to take feedback — both good and bad. You have to learn to take feedback and not feel slighted by it. You also often get humbled, because every debate you go to involves you and your side getting argued at for approximately half an hour. And from experience, when you are the person making a weaker point and the opposition uses your point against you, it is not a good feeling. But you learn to get better, to manage your emotions, and to grow and improve. It pushes you outside your comfort zone, but every time you force yourself to face these things, you become better at things like taking criticism and managing your nerves. Overall, I think debate challenges you as a person, and allows you to grow. Or at least, it did in my experience.

But of course, my experience is unique to me and only me. Some people could have had negative experiences and actively avoid debating. But I think you should at least give it a try and see where it takes you. So just sign up and enjoy the ride!

That’s all from me, see you guys next time!

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