Thursday, November 06, 2008

Debating matters

A turbanned young man of 16 odd years describes himself as 'dreaming of doing what Obama has done".

"Er, you can't become the President of the United States..." he is reminded.

"I know that...I mean, to go out there and create a revolution!"

We are at the Nehru Science centre auditorium, 3000 miles away from the US of A. But Obama has captured the imagination of the world like no other leader in recent times.

A John F Kennedy maybe, but that was close to 50 years ago.

We are at 'Debating Matters', a competition for class 11 students organised by the British Council. These are the regional eliminations. After many more rounds, one team will earn the privilege of going to the UK to represent the country.

The topic of the day: "Man, not machines, should explore space".

As in any debate, it's ability of a team to argue coherently and convincingly that really matters. In one round the 'for' wins the day, in the next it's 'against'.

In one case a team completely buckles under and pretty much agrees with the opposition. It's sad to see this happen but sometimes failure teaches us so much more than defeat.

The third round has two evenly poised teams. Until the Q & A session starts. One team completely loses it - unable to rebut and defend their position.

I have never been a debater but judging this event was an interesting experience. Normally debates are more about convention than clarity. Style over substance.

Here the emphasis was on strength of arguments and ability to think one one's feet. Apart from the judges, the audience also threw questions and was allowed to 'vote' on who should win.

Although our decision was independent and final (in all cases audience and judges' opinions matched in any case :)

The judges were also asked to give detailed feedback to each team. And in the larger interest I am sharing some of the points that came up here:

* An argument must be presented in a structured manner: Point 1, point 2, point 3. With many speakers it was not clear what WAS the central argument.

* You can't read out what you have to say from a sheet. At best you should keep points at hand. It's ok to stumble a bit rather than rattle it all out perfectly.

* Too much research is as bad as too little. Judicious use of facts is the key. Examples should aid your points and not be an argument in themselves.

* Avoid cliches like 'glass half empty/ half full' and so on. Also avoid too many quotes from famous people - we want to know what YOU think on the topic.

* Do not put foot in mouth. While answering questions many speakers went into tangents which led to their downfall.

* When you are obviously in a winning position, don't gloat - be gracious to your opponent. There is a thin line between swagger and arrogance.

And well, I could go on but the biggest takeaway is that you must have clarity in thinking. What are you trying to say? Once you know that everything falls in place.

A debate is not about oratory (yes, speaking forcefully and with conviction matters). But WHAT you say matters more.

This was most clear when teams and audience was invited to 'ask questions'. In true Indian style most people actually 'made points' (and you can see this happening at colleges, conventions, press conferences!).

Mayank Shekhar, who played the 'Simon Cowell' role had to point out at one stage:"A question must end with a question mark!"

In an aside I would like to add that it was heartening to see that many of the 12 young people who came up on stage had pretty offbeat career plans (as of now). Apart from those who wanted to be in business/ corporate world there was a young man from Baroda who wished to be a 'cognitive neuropsychologist'.

Other professions which came up included environmental filmmaker and aeronautical engineer. I wish them all the very best of luck - esp the guy who wants to emulate Obama :).


  1. There aren't many debating clubs around bombay. Why don't you start one? :-)

  2. This is an off-topic and irrelevant comment, but nevertheless I am curious.

    I saw the '3000 mile distance' and told myself - "Geez! I got to got my geography right". And I googled for the city in the US that's nearest to Nehru Science center. Ofcourse, it has to be off the mainland, but I couldn't find it.

    Does anyone know the shortest distance between the US and Nehru Science Center? And how do we actually calculate these distances (Do they use geodesic distances, flight path distances or map distances?) Pretty fundamental question and I am both dumb and curious.

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