Criteria for Judging a Debate


Range of marks: According to the WSDC and DSG regulations, marks shouldn’t go below 26 in style or much higher than 30 or 31 per substantive speech. In reply speeches, the margin is 12-16.

Be confident! Especially if you feel you’re on the wrong side of the motion, you must first convince yourself there is also some right in what you want to say. Believe in yourself. I have seen debaters change their minds after they had prepared their speeches.

Always speak loud enough! Your voice should fill the room, but don’t shout. Some speakers have a habit of speaking with their heads down, reading out what’s on their palm cards. This cuts off the air stream from your lungs.

Speak clearly enough! Open your mouth while speaking to make the vowels sound right. Don’t swallow syllables or entire words.

Speak slowly! Generally, debaters go too fast. I personally believe marks should go down for speeding if a speaker wants to impress the judges and even more if they want the other team to miss their points. Especially native speakers tend to demonstrate their linguistic advantage by speeding. In average, the rate of 4 to 5 syllables should not be exceeded.

Fluency: You should always strive to speak fluently. That doesn’t mean you cannot pause when it seems appropriate. If you speak freely without any manuscript, you can hardly get by without some stuttering and occasional “ums”. Nevertheless, you will be more recognizable as a speaker and more flexible during the debate.

Keep eye contact! Usually, speakers will speak to the audience (namely the judges). It’s also fine to address the other team, but don’t focus primarily on the other team. Eye contact is important for several reasons. Firstly, you should know how the audience reacts to what you say. Are they thrilled to hear you speak? Are they bored?

Respect the judges! Look at all the judges on the board, not only at the chief judge. Judges differ a lot with regard to temper and professionality. Some shake their heads violently if they disagree. Some scribble down notes without ever looking at you. And some look completely bored, Don’t get frustrated. Usually, judges try to maintain a pokerface.

Respect the other team! I have seen teams discussing their strategy rather noisily while the other team was still speaking. I have witnessed several cases of misplaced arrogance, verbal aggression and unfairness on all levels. Judges should interfere rigorously! Respect for the other team is vital for effective debating. You shouldn’t make fun of the other team. Don’t snicker if they make a mistake or if you think their English is funny. Even if it is not your turn, control yourself! Don’t make faces or roll your eyes. Even if you’re not speaking, the judges may still have an eye on you.

Control your body language! Stand straight, don’t do too much walking and don’t get hectic. If you really have to hold your palm cards, use your free hand to add emphasis to your words and to visualize what has been said.

Your accent shouldn’t matter! While there is no clear distinction to your status as an ESL learner, EFL learner or native speaker, judges shouldn’t focus so much on how you pronounce words as long as you get the message. Experienced judges will not pay as much attention to your regional accent.

Be in control of what happens! You shouldn’t get sidetracked by PoI or anything that happens in the audience. Good judges will assist you by sanctioning people who can’t behave or who apparently don’t know the rules. Don’t sway gently from one side to the other, don’t touch yourself in the most inappropriate places, don’t put your hands in your pockets, don’t play with your pen or shuffle through your palm cards.

Public speaking is not simply talking! From the earliest moments of public speaking in history, good speakers made effective of rhetoric devices. Speaking is an art form, and a good speaker should also apply imagery and figures of speech.

Humor, passion, pathos, wit! Whatever you say, it should not only appeal to the listeners’ minds, but also to their hearts. If your argumentation if fine, but your speech is lame, you shouldn’t win the debate. Public speaking is about reaching the audience. You should be entertaining and persuasive at the same time.


Range of marks: Once again, marks shouldn't go below 26 or higher than 30 or 31 per substantive speech. In reply speeches, the range of marks is 12-16.

Analysis: As a speaker, you will be required to analyze the problem in depth, making use of supporting arguments and valid examples from more than just one perspective.

Logics: Your argumentation should follow the general principles of logics. Watch out for the usual pitfalls, such as biased thinking, fallacies, confusion between cause and effect or making wrong conclusions.

Weight and relevance: As you should always start with the most important argument, you should weigh your arguments. As a rule of thumb, things that can have a huge impact on a lot of people are more important.

Selection. Make sure you don’t use all your arguments. Some arguments are so dreadfully weak that they will do more damage than good. The more arguments you have, the more can you leave out if they don’t really matter in a debate.

Connection to the case. Sometimes, you see arguments coming up that are only loosely connected to the case or way beyond the point. Irrelevant arguments don’t count, such as far-fetched examples.

Order. The most important argument should be mentioned first. If you start with a minor point or an argument that goes beside the point, the other side will probably not have enough arguments to deal with in their rebuttal. That’s bad, because it reduces the overall quality of the debate.

Clashes. You must rebut all the arguments on the other side, as weak as they may be. If an argument is terribly weak but the other team does not clash it, it remains standing and will contribute to your defeat.

Facts. Before you enter a prepared debate, you may do a lot of research. The other team may do the same. But it is rather unlikely your opponent will know all the tiny little details associated with the case. Generally speaking, it is very hard to attack someone on grounds of factual correctness. As long as it sounds plausible, people will accept your materials. You can question the other team’s reliability or attack their names and numbers if they are incorrect, but it’s not advisable to do so. Why? Not even the judges know the exact background of the motion and there is no way of checking during a debate.

Examples: Does a debater come up with a few rather convincing examples? It depends very much on a debater’s age, background, and personal experience whether a team can supply the individual speaker with fine examples. But everyone can google a few examples that work in a debate. They should be relevant, though.

Balance between rebuttal and clash: Especially second speakers may feel tempted to overdo their rebuttals and neglect their own substantive arguments. You should be aware that you will always have to add to your team’s argumentation. Even a third speaker cannot solely rely on rebutting but must show why the motion matters to the overall case.


Range of marks: As for strategy, marks never go below 12 or higher than 16 points per substantive speech. Feel free to use 0.5 points as well. In reply speeches the margin is 6-8.

Timing: Timing is important. Speaking time is 6 minutes (Senior League: 8 min). However, in the first rounds of Junior League, the judges will usually go down to 5 minutes because many speakers make their first public appearance as speakers. Later on, you will lose points if you go below or beyond the limit.

Priorities: Sometimes, debates circle around some sub-point of a sub-argument that isn’t really relevant for the case. Both teams should avoid spending too much time on details that have next to no influence on the questions the debate should answer.

Linking the issues to the case: Team Prop’s speaker has defined all relevant terms and proposed their case – which, ideally, has been accepted by the other team. Instead of wriggling around the definition and largely ignoring the provisions the other team has made, you must refer to how the case has been shaped. If the motion has been located in Germany, you can’t talk about Nicaragua.

Use and response to POIs: There’s an extra column for Points of Information, but it’s rarely used. Only if a speaker’s PoI are way better than his speech or a lot worse, you can add or take off some points (not many, though – 0.5 points is fine). However, this doesn’t say anything about a speaker’s ability to use PoI effectively or handle them when the other team offers them. Does the speaker accept too many points? Doesn’t the speaker accept any PoI at all? Has the speaker decided well which PoI to take – and when? Does he react confidently, answering the other team’s PoI aptly and quickly?

Balance of substantive matter and rebuttal: Most debating guidelines make recommendations on how much time you should assign to the different parts of your speech. If you waste an awful lot of energy to do your rebuttal just to find that you’ve run out of time for your substantive speech – that shouldn’t happen.

Signposting: There’s no real controversy about whether it is really necessary to use so much signposting. Nonetheless, I would like to point out that there are a few speakers with considerable talent who will manage without any signposting. But it’s dangerous to leave it out completely if you’re not an expert speaker. It’s also easier for the judges because it helps them to structure their notes and not to lose track.

Structure: There is not just one way to open up a speech and there are several ways to close a speech. But there must be an introduction, a main part, and some kind of conclusion or summary. Whatever your job is as a first, second or third speaker, these are the essentials. Depending on your role as a speaker, you’ll have to put more tasks on your list (team line, definition, rebuttal) – just don’t forget them.

Redundancy: Repetition is a definite must in public speaking. All speakers use it. However, redundancy (a mere repetition of content) must be avoided. You shouldn’t always come up with the same old argument, recycling what the other speakers in your team have said. Unless you feel your team has not completely finished off an argument, you shouldn’t tackle it over and over again.

Coherence: It’s sometimes difficult to follow if a speaker skips parts of the argumentation to deal with other issues or jumps from one example to the next that doesn’t even seem closely related.

Team line: Teams who don’t co-operate well when they prepare will sometimes notice that they have exactly the same arguments as the other speakers or even contradict them. They also cannot refer to what their teammates will say. Debating is a team sport – you should work together closely during all stages of your preparations. Everything in debating, from defining the motion to the debate itself, requires teamwork.