Guide for speakers entering the competition

Mr Martin Collins, LIT DEB, NUIG, tries to make a point during The Irish Times Debate final 2004 at the Helix. Photograph: Moya Nolan

Mr Martin Collins, LIT DEB, NUIG, tries to make a point during The Irish Times Debate final 2004 at the Helix. Photograph: Moya Nolan


Whether you are an experienced Irish Times speaker, or a novice, you are likely to have questions about the competition’s format and timetable, the difference between the Irish Times and other competitions, the way to approach Irish Times motions, and the way in which debates are adjudicated. This guide provides you with vital information that you will need to compete. You should retain a copy throughout the duration of the competition for reference. If you require further information about the competition, please contact

Competition structure

  • There are 16 first round debates, including generally up to 10 teams of 2 speakers.
  • Two teams and two individual speakers will qualify from each debate for the second round. The 32 teams and 32 individuals who qualify for this will be divided into 8 second round debates, each with four teams and four individuals. At the second round stage, teams and individuals will be drawn in specific debates - they may not “swap” their position on an order paper.
  • From each second round debate, two teams and two individuals will qualify for the semi-finals.
  • The 16 teams and 16 individuals who reach the semi- finals will be split into four debates containing four teams and four individuals. From each semi-final, one team and one individual qualify for the grand final.
  • At the grand final, the winning team and winning individual speaker are chosen. In addition to the prestige the winners enjoy a remarkable prize; an all-expenses-paid tour of the United States.


  • The only information that you need to compete is an order paper. At the first round stage, you will be selected by your institution to compete in a particular debate, as DIT C, UCC Philosoph F, TCD Hist A or something similar. The alphabetical tag has no significance, and will be replaced by your names, at the first round debate.
  • The order paper will detail the motion, your speaking position, and the time and place of the debate. On each order paper, a meeting point will be specified (sometimes a reception venue, sometimes the actual debate venue) for 30 minutes prior to the scheduled commencement of the debate. The debate will start punctually.
  • Each debate is hosted by a particular society or union in the relevant college. They are responsible for providing you with directions, and information on travel and accommodation in the location where the debate is taking place. A contact person and a contact telephone number in the host college are supplied on each order paper, if you need any help.
  • Notwithstanding this, it is your own responsibility to arrange transport and accommodation for each debate. The college or society that you represent will often make some arrangement with you about defraying your costs.
  • The order papers for the subsequent rounds will not be posted to speakers, but to the society or union that you are representing. They will be responsible for passing the details on to you.

Format of debates

There is a necessary distinction in format between first round debates of the Irish Times, and all subsequent debates:

The first round:

In a first round debate there are generally eight-10 teams. Taking an eight team debate as our example here, four teams will propose the motion, and four teams will oppose the motion, beginning with the proposition, and speaking alternately, one member of a team at a time. Thus, at the half-way point, the first speaker from each team will have spoken. The second half of the debate follows the same order, with the second member of each team speaking in the same sequence. Thus, in a debate with eight teams, the order of speaking would be as follows:

(1) Speaker 1, Proposition Team 1
(2) Speaker 1, Opposition Team 1
(3) Speaker 1, Proposition Team 2
(4) Speaker 1, Opposition Team 2
(5) Speaker 1, Proposition Team 3
(6) Speaker 1, Opposition Team 3
(7) Speaker 1, Proposition Team 4
(8) Speaker 1, Opposition Team 4
(9) Speaker 2, Proposition Team 1
(10) Speaker 2, Opposition Team 1
(11) Speaker 2, Proposition Team 2
(12) Speaker 2, Opposition Team 2
(13) Speaker 2, Proposition Team 3
(14) Speaker 2, Opposition Team 3
(15) Speaker 2, Proposition Team 4
(16) Speaker 2, Opposition Team 4

Subsequent rounds:

Each of these debates will feature 4 teams, and 4 individual speakers. 2 teams and 2 individuals are on each side of the motion. The first member of each team speaks first, then the four individuals, then the second member of the four teams. The order paper will thus be:

(1) Speaker 1, Proposition Team 1
(2) Speaker 1, Opposition Team 1
(3) Speaker 1, Proposition Team 2
(4) Speaker 1, Opposition Team 2
(5) Proposition Individual 1
(6) Opposition Individual 1
(7) Proposition Individual 2
(8) Opposition Individual 2
(9) Speaker 2, Proposition Team 1
(10) Speaker 2, Opposition Team 1
(11) Speaker 2, Proposition Team 2
(12) Speaker 2, Opposition Team 2

Showing up

  • It is vital that the society is represented at every debate in which it has entered a team. Unexplained no-shows are completely unacceptable and if they occur, the Convenor reserves the right to:
  • Bar the society in question from hosting debates in subsequent rounds
  • Disqualify all other teams from the same institution
  • Fine the institution
  • If a team selected to speak in a round unavoidably cannot be present the society in question should
  • Make every conceivable effort to send a replacement team
  • As a matter of last resort, ensure that they contact the host institution before the start of the debate (contact details will be on the order paper), to inform them that they are unable to participate.

Competition rules

  • Speeches are of seven minutes duration. A bell is rung after one minute, after six minutes, and after seven minutes, when there is a double bell. Speakers who continue for longer than 30 seconds after this point will be penalised.
  • Points of Information may be offered from the end of the first minute (when the first bell rings) and until the sixth minute elapses (when the second bell rings). They may only be offered by participating speakers on the opposite side of the current speaker. To offer a point of information, a speaker should stand up and clearly say “Point of information” in such a way as to attract the attention of the speaker. A point of information should be no more than 10-15 seconds in length, and should either take the form of a question, or a brief statement of fact that undermines the speaker’s current point. Accepting points of information is entirely a matter of the speaker’s discretion, however advice on how often they should be accepted is provided below.
  • Speakers must be current registered students in the college which they are representing. Any third level educational institution in Ireland is eligible to participate.
  • Entry fees must be paid in full for the institution before any team is permitted to speak. If you are in doubt as to whether these have been paid, check with your society or union.
  • Debates will start punctually. If you are not there at the commencement of the debate, the order paper will be re-organized and the debate will begin. At that stage it may be impossible for you to participate if you arrive late.
  • Dress code will informal for the first and second rounds and then formal (black tie) for both the semi-finals and final.

The adjudicators and adjudication criteria

A debating competition is only as good as the persons judging it. Competitors have a legitimate concern about the quality of the judges. Adjudicators of the competition will only be persons of demonstrated ability and experience in competitive debating.

Specifically, this means that first and second round adjudicators will almost invariably have:

  • reached a national final (Times/Mace), or
  • reached the knock-out stages in the World Universities Debating Championships, or
  • reached the final of the Oxford or Cambridge intervarsity competitions or the final of the European University Debating Championships, or
  • acquired extensive chief-adjudicating experience at International Intervarsity and World Championship Debate level.

Adjudicators at semi-final and final stages will almost invariably be:

  • a former Irish Times Debate champion, or
  • a winner of another national title, or a major international intervarsity competition, or reached at least the quarter-finals of the world championships.

Each adjudication panel will, save in extraordinary circumstances, contain graduates from at least two different colleges.

10 Vital components of a successful speech

1. Argument
The basis of every successful speech is a coherent argument. A successful speaker will always have a clear argument which is continuously impressed upon the adjudicators in a convincing fashion. The ability to address earlier contributions while remaining original is an important balance to strike in the presentation of an argument. A chain of thought and clear progression is important to avoid losing the audience.

2. Content
Content distinguishes a good argument from an array of unsupported assertions. Content should be relevant, interesting and ideally, innovative. In a debate on an ethical or moral issue, little research may be required, however on a specific economic or political topic, extensive reading may be necessary unless you are particularly well-informed in that area. “Specialist” arguments based on knowledge acquired in your particular academic discipline are not welcome and won’t win you friends on an adjudication panel. The content that you use in any debate should be widely available to all, not to mention of a high quality. A useful tool in this regard is obviously the Irish Times itself.

3. Fluency
A good speech must be delivered fluently with minimal use of notes. A fluent speaker will be more persuasive as he/she will appear to be more convinced of the truth of what they are saying. Never forget that a debate is an argument with rules, not an exchange of position papers. Reading is not debating and will be heavily penalised by any adjudication panel.

4. Refutation/rebuttal
This is the ability to effectively attack the critical point of an opponent’s position, while retaining your own argument and structure. It is critical to undermine the arguments of opposing speakers. Refutation should be incorporated into your speech. If you deliver a pre-prepared speech for five minutes, and then say “now for some rebuttal” you are missing the point. The whole point of your participation is to undermine the stance taken by the opposite side - as you are making your own points you should refer to the weaknesses that exist in the opposition.

5. Humour
Humour can help you to win over an audience and can make your speech stand out from the rest, especially in the first rounds as these are large debates. Frequently, the most effective use of humour is as a tool to ridicule the position of your opponents. Remember though, that while a successful stand-up routine might persuade an audience or adjudication panel that a speaker has a great sense of humour, unless there is a point to it, it is irrelevant and a waste of time.

6. Style and presentation
This is a general heading incorporating a speaker’s general competence as an orator. It includes conviction, humour, presence, gesture, tone, eye contact, a clear and audible delivery, and freedom from notes. Many of the best speakers have quite a distinctive style. Obvious stylistic weaknesses, such as speaking too softly or loudly, too quickly or in monotone will detract from an otherwise strong performance.

7. Points of information
A speaker is not obliged to accept points of information but it is recommended that speakers accept 2 or 3 points during a speech. They should be accepted at an appropriate time, - never in the middle of outlining a particular argument or example - and answered decisively. Refusal to accept any points, or failure to competently answer them undermines your argument, as you appear unwilling or unable to defend it from attack. Accepting 4 or more points of information is generally regarded as unwise, as it will excessively distract you from the central purpose of offering your own argument.

Each speaker should offer points of information throughout the duration of the debate. They should be short and directly relevant to the point that the speaker is currently making. Abuse of this facility so as to upset or distract a speaker, by continually offering points at short intervals (“barracking”), or by offering points at an inappropriate time, when a speaker is patently only introducing or outlining the basis of his argument, will be penalised.

8. Teamwork
A team speaker will be judged as such. A successful team will have a coherent argument which unifies both of their speeches. The first speaker in a team should set out the argument of the team with supporting examples. The second speaker should then defend it, by showing how the arguments that have been offered in the intervening time have not effectively undermined the original team line. If the second speaker for a team departs from his/her partner’s argument, he/she will be heavily penalised.

9. Individual speakers
In the subsequent rounds of The Irish Times Debate there are individual speakers as well as teams. The individual speakers are “sandwiched” in the middle of the debate, and the principle arguments will usually have been made by the first speaker on each of the teams. Because they have no teammate to reiterate their argument, it is often the case that successful individuals will in some way add a novel dimension or original perspective to the debate. There is an important distinction between novelty and irrelevance, an individual will not be rewarded for introducing completely different subject matter, but a new argument, or a reworked version of an existing argument, will be welcome.

10. Order of Speaking
Different responsibilities attach to different positions on the order paper.

  • The first proposition speaker has the specific responsibility of defining the motion, and explaining what he/she believes is at issue in the debate.
  • The first opposition speaker may respond to this definition, but should in almost every case, accept it and work with it. Only in the very rare situation of a “squirrel” (where the proposition have defined the motion in such an unreasonable fashion that their definition bears no relation to any meaning that could reasonably be ascribed to the text of the motion) is the opposition entitled to disregard the definition offered by the proposition, and substitute their own definition.
  • Thereafter, the first speaker from each team should clearly state what that team will seek to argue. Although what is at issue in the debate should now be apparent, each team is free to adopt its own different arguments, different structure and different examples to argue their side of the motion.
  • As a general rule, the later a speaker is on an order paper, the greater the responsibility to refute arguments already made, and the lesser the responsibility to introduce new material. Indeed, the last speakers for the proposition and the opposition should sum up the arguments made by all of the speakers on their side of the motion and rebut the arguments of the opposing teams. They should not introduce new arguments - rather, they should largely confine themselves to reiterating the arguments advanced by their teammate.

Types of debate

All debates in the Competition are “prepared” - speakers will have notice of the motion, typically, for at least a week, and often for 10 days or more. Because of this it is generally regarded as inappropriate to have “vague” motions that have no apparent meaning, and could be interpreted as any one of an infinite number of possibilities by the first proposition team.

Irish Times Debate motions tend to posit relatively clear issues. Adopting an unusual definition - such as, for example, proposing to ban the boxing of fruit on the motion “That this house would ban boxing” impresses nobody and will almost certainly backfire. The first opposition team, in an Irish Times Debate, would be entitled to disregard such a definition, and substitute their more conventional understanding of the motion.

The motions chosen for the competition seek to avoid cases of genuine ambiguity which might be caused by a motion such as “This House supports the right to strike”, which could be legitimately defined in the very different settings of labour relations, corporal punishment, or military initiatives.

If you are in any doubt, the best tactic in any Irish Times Debate is to tackle the most obvious and straightforward meaning of the motion. That way, you are certain to be in the thick of the debate, and not on the sidelines.

Motions usually deal with a particular, and current, political, moral, religious, economic or international issue. The quid pro quo for having time to prepare, is an expectation that you will be well-informed on the topic.

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