The perils of being a retired Third Speaker

One day, when I was ten, my school sent me home with a letter for my parents. It was one of those letters that, unbeknownst to anyone in my family, would change the course of my life.

The letter began with the usual, "Dear Parent/Guardian", something that I had always thought a little silly as the information therein very much pertained to my interests rather than my parents', and began a page-long description that stimulated intellectual lust deep within me. We were offered an entire term's debating coaching for the low price of $50. The class would be run after school by a woman with the apt last name of Brain and places were limited. I'm not sure that I quite knew what "debating" meant, but I did know that I'd excel in a class that rewarded excessive chatter. My parents didn't call me Babbling Brooke for nothing. If places were limited, I had better get my slip signed and a cheque from my parents as soon as possible. I didn't want to miss out. Mostly, I think the precocious child in me wanted to be trained by someone who must be cerebral. How could you have the last name Brain and not be?

The early days of our training involved tests - could we speak on any topic for a minute without saying um, err or ahh? If we had a question, could we voice it logically (and without any hesitations)? It was a skill that quickly developed in more confident speech being packed into ever shorter time periods. A talent I still possess, though unfortunately used whenever explaining the full meaning of an acronym. These days, the lack of ums and ahs and the need to explain myself fully means medicaljargonissaidsomethinglikethis.

Our training moved along to logical groupings of thoughts into topics. It was this training that meant, in Year 8, when we were asked to write argumentative essays, I knew what I was doing. When the essay writing guide suggested paragraph four began with phrases like, "on the other hand," I knew that I would summarise the opposition's points. And the conclusion was to look somewhat like the adjudicator's response. Luckily for me, I would always win the debate in essays. Unluckily for my peers, I had difficulty understanding why they struggled so much with what had for me become innate.

In University, I joined the Melbourne University Debating Society, affectionately known as MUDS. I sat in awe as some of the Society's finest demonstrated their skills. I felt like I'd finally found my people. My pen flew across spiral-bound notebook after spiral-bound notebook as I attempted to absorb the lessons of quality debating.

  1. Tell them what you're going to tell them. Then tell them. Then tell them what you told them.
  2. Always act like you know what you're talking about (even if you don't).
  3. Never make up statistics. You'll look pretty silly if the opposition know you're wrong.
  4. Organise your arguments logically. Use topic sentences. Filter down.
  5. Never stop asking why and what. What is the status-quo? Why do you agree or disagree with it? Why is this debate the most important thing you've ever discussed? Why are your arguments well-founded? What will happy if your proposal occurs? What will happen if it doesn't?
  6. Don't put an onus on the other team (i.e. The opposition has an onus to prove that environmental policy must be reviewed in order for the European Union to recover from the Financial Crisis). Nobody will like you. If you're the unfortunate team that's had an onus pushed upon them, make sure you refute their claim, lest the adjudicator expects you've accepted this unwanted burden.
  7. If you're on the negative side, ensure there is a great deal of ideological space between your case and that of the affirmative. Nobody likes debates where both teams are arguing for the same thing. Also, you almost guarantee yourself a loss.
  8. Don't say the opposition is right unless you follow it with "but..."
  9. Never use words like "good" and "bad". They don't tell you anything. Similarly, don't use words like "stupid" or "idiotic". They just make you look like you have a very limited vocabulary.
  10. Feel free to swear. Just make sure it's not excessive. You would think this would be contrary to rule #9, but it isn't.
  11. Don't attack the people. Attack the opposition.
  12. Speak to time. Nobody likes the debater who just. keeps. on. going. Three claps really means sit down. Now.
  13. Respect the adjudicator, even if you disagree with their judgement.
  14. (and if you're an adjudicator, try not to roll your chair. An adjudication panel consists of an uneven number of adjudicators, lead by a "chair". And when a greater proportion of the panelists vote for a different team to the chair, it is termed "rolling the chair." Don't do it.)

My debating role almost always fell to being Third Speaker (the final speaker of each team in 3-on-3). This was normally a strategic decision - as a Science student, I didn't actually know anything about the law, business or International relations. Where my colleagues could easily reel off the latest report from the Committee on the Rights of the Child or policies released from the European Central Bank, I could only wrangle up factoids on helminths. And I'm telling you now, knowledge about helminths is never useful in a debate.

Being a Third Speaker means it's your job to rebut everything. And by everything, I really mean everything. You also don't need to know anything, which worked perfectly for me. You need to destroy the opposition's case by pulling it apart and tearing the flesh from each of its bones. You find the three broad topics in the opposition's case (pretty easy when debates always run in threes and, if they're helpful, they will have defined those for you). And you need to prove, definitely, why their arguments would never stand in the real world.

Being a Third Speaker means you, without fail, believe in what you're saying. Being a Third Speaker means you turn every single argument upside down. Being a Third Speaker means you hold the strength of your team for the final say. And you better do a good job, or you risk losing the debate.

Being a Third Speaker means you get pretty argumentative on a day-to-day basis. Being a Third Speaker makes you pretty poor at admitting when you've gotten something wrong. Being a debater, in general, can reduce your capacity to behave humbly.

For all the positives of being able to logically phrase arguments, there are times when it would be useful to smile and nod. There would be times when listening would be more worthwhile than being right. And there are many times when the ability to let go would be very useful. You don't need to argue about everything.

Countless times, I've been chatting with friends who've been (understandably) discussing their dissatisfaction with a particular aspect of their life. The Third Speaker in me analyses their comments and compiles some form of rebuttal. The Third Speaker in me tries to convince them that there's another side to the story. The friend in me should know to listen, to agree, and say something comforting. But the debater normally wins.

For all of positives of my debating training - logically forming arguments, persuasiveness, lightning-quick rebuttal and a "debating" voice - it's been quite the journey picking myself up on the constantly intrusive Third Speaker. I may have retired from the debating world two years ago but ten years of training are slow to cease their influence. And, just quietly, I really miss the adrenaline of standing in front of my peers and making it through a minute-long speech without saying um.

Learning that you don't have to be right is one thing. Accepting that you're actually not right is another. And it's even more difficult to be able to say no one knows the answer. Which is exactly what I need to practice. Because we don't know everything. Especially in Medicine.


Unknown said…
I often find comments on parasitic worms to be a useful distraction during a highly vocal debate. Puts them off their guard and running to their favourite search engine

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