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“Online debate.” I am not going to lie, when I hear that phrase, I cringe. Or at least, I used to. After partaking in an online debate tournament, I have found that online debate provides a viable, beneficial, and even fun alternative to debate tournaments during quarantine. In this post, I will relay my tips and advice for those thinking about or actually competing in an online debate tournament. But first:

Why Online Debate?

Obviously, we are all stuck at home right now, and COVID-19 has cancelled the majority of the remaining tournaments including multiple national championships. Why should you continue to compete online? First, debating is still debating, online or otherwise. Online debate successfully captures the basics of actual debate rounds, so if you love any of the researching, writing, CX’ing, persuading, or refuting that goes into debate, online debate has you covered. It thus allows you to continue to sharpen your skills during this off season. Second, it forces you to work on certain skills such as voice tone, speed, and inflection. Because you aren’t physically before the judges and your opponents, you must utilize different styles of speaking than in a normal round. This stretches your speaking ability. Finally, it’s fun! My partner and I, both originally skeptical, really enjoyed ourselves. Of course, it could never replace actual tournaments with our friends, breaks, and finals rounds before everyone, but it’s definitely an activity that I would encourage trying. 

That being said, for those planning to compete in an online tournament, I have three main pieces of advice:

Tip #1: Send Yourself The Right Cues

This is immensely important. If you want to perform well in the online tournament you have to tell your body and your mind that it’s like any other tournament. The obvious aspects of this are: 

  • Dress for a tournament. Dress like you would as if you were going to a normal tournament. In fact, pretend you made finals and you are debating in front of hundreds of people. Dress like you would then. 
  • Stand when you speak. This may be harder for some tournaments than others (depending on the setup of the tournament), but whenever possible stand when you deliver a speech. Standing allows you to project better and puts your mind and body into “delivery” mode. 

The less obvious aspects about this are specific to the person. Do or wear those things that you only do at a tournament. Do those things that make the tournament feel like a tournament. For me, that means wearing my dress watch that I wear almost exclusively for speech and debate; it means using my “debate” water bottle; it even means finding and using a real lectern. If you wear a specific set of shoes at a tournament, put those on. If you do some speaking warm up before each round, do that. Whatever it is that you do specifically at a tournament, do those things. If you can tell your body and mind, “I am at a tournament,” you will be able to debate more effectively. Failure to send yourself the right cues can lead to sloppy, unenergetic, and altogether ineffective debate.

Tip #2: Establish/Test Your Station

This is where online debate can get fun! You are about to debate multiple rounds on your computer over a few days so you will want an organized and comfortable space to do it within. One of the many benefits of online debate is that you can set up your own “debate station” and utilize it every round. This would be a place where you can have your computer, prepared materials, flow pad, lectern (if available) and other supplies with ample table space. The amazing part is that this space can be entirely put together in the way you want it: you won’t have to move your materials from room to room. While establishing your space is fun (in a nerdy-debater kind of way), it is also very important. Additionally, don’t try to set this up on the day of the tournament, as it can take longer than you might think. You need to make sure that you have room for all your things, an outlet for your computer, room to stand and deliver, a way to communicate with your partner (for partnered debate events), and a place where you can sit for hours without being interrupted or distracted. Once you have this “debate station” set up, it is crucial that you test it. I would recommend a practice debate round: Find a family member, friend, acquaintance, or anyone willing to help, and run a debate round as you would in the tournament. For me, this was critical for working out my game plan on how to communicate with my partner, send evidence, and do other inter-round actions.    

Tip #3: Be All In

There is a temptation with online debate to slack off—to not try as hard, to be less respectful/ethical, and to otherwise act like it’s not a tournament. This hurts at least three people. It hurts you by worsening your debate performance and your chances to get something out of the tournament. It hurts your opponents by not giving them your all to make the rounds great debates. Finally, it hurts your judges by wasting their valuable time judging someone who hasn’t committed their everything. You should act as if this were any other tournament and debate in a fully committed, all-in way, in which you are utilizing every one of your persuasion and debate skills. Take these tournaments seriously. When you do this, you increase your chance of not only doing better in the tournament, but also of getting more knowledge and understanding of debate out of the tournament. Doing this also prepares you for whatever happens at the end of the tournament. When you’ve competed as hard as you could during the tournament, success is all the sweeter. Alternatively, when you don’t achieve the success you wanted, you know that you gave it your all and you are better equipped to learn from the experience. 


While at certain points it may feel awkward and limiting, online debate does offer opportunities for debate and competition. On the whole, online debate can be fun and educational, and thus can serve as a sufficient replacement for regular debate tournaments during this season. At the same time, when you participate in these online tournaments, it is important to send yourself the right cues, have an established “debate station,” and be “all in.” Doing these things will help to limit some of the downsides of online debate while also helping you learn and compete better.

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