India needs a Debating Culture (Part 6)

Debate Format

“It is reason, and not passion, which must guide our deliberations, guide our debate, and guide our decision.” – Barbara Jordan

The format I decided for our Saturday debates was a simple one. We decided the motion or question a few days in advance. Each of us would first speak for five minutes in round-robin format, and then for three minutes. The first round could be used to make prepared comments, and the second round for rebuttals, answers to questions asked by others and clarifications. In just over half an hour, we would have enriched each of us with our views in a structured manner. The rest of our hour could then be for unstructured conversation.

The first thing I realised was that I had to actually prepare for the debate. Previously, I could just show up on the Skype call and talk whatever came to mind. All I had to do was to make some reasonable interjections – most of which would be short and sharp. If I had to speak for long, I realised that I rambled – because I had not done any homework and research. So, I would speak quite randomly – trying to convey an impression of participation but without eloquence.

In the case of the debate, I had to speak initially for five minutes. That meant about 750 words. I would not be able to do that without investing time before the call in thinking through what I was going to talk about. This automatically changed my mindset. I started doing some research, planning out my talking points, and also doing a mental dry run to make sure I would not overshoot my time. This preparation made all the difference when I spoke.

When the others spoke, I had to stay alert because I also needed to identify points that I could address in my second and shorter speech. I had to stay fully focused – no distractions, no wandering mind. Those 30 minutes were an amazing experience – it was like being in a zone of complete concentration.

I loved the first debate. And we then repeated it for our next call with a different topic. It became even better. Everyone was prepared. There was a richness to the conversation that used to be missing in our free-flowing banter. Each of us could make our points clearly without the worry of being interrupted or cut-off and therefore losing one’s train of thought. More importantly, each of us was an equal participant with the same speaking time. I got a better understanding of each person’s position and mental models – which is sometimes difficult to get when there is a steady stream of short sentences from different voices. More importantly, many new ideas emerged from the debate which otherwise perhaps may never have been said.

A quarter century after my IIT experience, I was starting to re-discover the joy of debating!

Tomorrow: Part 7

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.

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