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Speaking Stories #1: My First Debate Competition

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The Speaking Stories Series chronicles anecdotes told by real people about their speaking experiences. Seek to Speak hopes to inspire more people to speak out through the connection they make with the stories shared here.

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In the meantime, here is my speaking story about joining my first debate competition:

My First Debate Competition 

A terrible, horrible, no good, very bad experience

When I was a law student at Universiti Teknologi Mara, I decided to join the debate club to get over my fear of public speaking. I was very shy, and the image of lawyers battling it out in court dramas was completely different from the image I had of myself — which was mostly me reading in bed. As a wallflower, I figured that this had to change, and debating seemed to make a lot of sense. The sport would help hone my public speaking as well as critical thinking skills. However, I didn’t realize how truly humiliating and terrible the experience was going to be.

The week after attending the debate club’s recruitment drive, the club’s trainer, Mr. Hafiedz (who we all agree is a real sadist, but we didn’t know it at the time), made us newbies join a debate competition held in Universiti Islam Antarabangsa, Gombak.

I was put into a team with Mai, a close friend of mine, who also joined the club at the same time I did. I remember being extremely nervous, but I was also excited to meet new people. At this point, we had no idea how to debate and barely had a grasp of the competition rules. But we were a large group, and everyone was optimistic, so I thought, how hard could this be?


Spoiler alert: it was very hard

Within the first round, we got a topic about supporting corporal punishment and were assigned the position, Opening Government. This meant that we were the first team to go, and we only had 15 minutes to prepare. I panicked — I didn’t even know what corporal punishment meant, and I couldn’t even Google it because we weren’t allowed to use the Internet!

Luckily, I had an electronic dictionary from my English literature days. Though corporal punishment was not listed in the dictionary, I looked up the word “corporal,” which meant “relating to the body.” This definition confused me even more. As we navigated through the hallways trying to find our room, it still didn’t click that corporal punishment meant physical punishment.

So when the time was up, and I had to start, my speech was terrible. I had no idea what I was saying, and I had no reference point because no one spoke before me. I was so scared that I literally wrote everything down during prep time — and I mean everything. Even salutations like “Good morning, my name is…” (just in case I forgot!)

Of course, that made me look even worse as a speaker since I was constantly referring to what looked like a whole rim of paper! Halfway through my speech, another debater stood up and asked, “Does that mean you condone caning and whipping?” To which my sycophant yes-man nature answered with a, “Uhh, sure….,” not realizing that I had unnecessarily burdened myself with the task of defending caning and whipping children.

I finished speaking at the 3rd minute (even though we had 7 minutes to speak) and sat down in shame. Only then did it occur to me that corporal punishment meant physical punishment, and my answer to the question was now fatal.

The team after us took the opportunity to trash us like crazy, and I experienced a new kind of humiliation. It is one thing to know that you did badly; it is quite another thing to be told, in a very rational manner, exactly WHY you did so badly — by a complete stranger.

The inevitable result

Sometimes in a courtroom TV drama, a debate can swing at the last minute thanks to a final, brilliant speech. Unfortunately, in real life, no such thing happened. Not only did we end up in the last place for that round, but the judge was also less than kind. There was no polite cushion of, “You guys did great, but…”

Instead, the judge unceremoniously announced us as the last-placed team and proceeded to tell us exactly why we sucked. She said: “I know you all are new, but you guys are university students, so there is no excuse.”

I experienced a new low in confidence — which was ironic because I’d joined the debate club to improve my confidence, not shatter it.

The whole tournament was a bust. I had zero general knowledge because the only thing I read outside of strictly academic materials were cheesy young-adult novels. So every debate motion was a question mark.

There was a debate motion about fracking (I thought, is that some kind of sport?) And another one on the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy (…what is this thing nobody wants to ask or talk about?) The last round was on Russia’s invasion of Georgia (…isn’t that a state in America?)

We lost to other varsity teams and even high school teams who looked half our age!

Surprisingly though, we made it to the end without tears. I guess the first round was already so bad that no other round could ever top that first failure. I think it’s also because we came into the competition with no expectations — not just on how we would fare in the competition but literally, what to expect in general. So after the first day, we collectively decided to remove our emotions and endure, telepathically agreeing, “Oh, okay then. I guess this is how it is.”


Watching and learning

On the second day of the tournament and during the finals, we newbies sat huddled together watching in awe as seasoned debaters (including seniors from our university) debated for the win.

I remember being amazed at their level of articulation, assertiveness, and skill. Even though the tournament was quite traumatizing, I think the first round had to happen to get the worst-case scenario out of the way, like a band-aid that needed to be ripped. I am also grateful for staying until the finals because it became an excellent example of what we could achieve if we trained enough.

After the tournament, a lot of the newbies dropped out of the debate club — to Hafiedz’s delight. I was secretly thankful that we weren’t the only horror shows that weekend. Everyone had a similar (if not more) traumatizing experience. Hafiedz said that he did this to newbies every year to weed out the losers. He didn’t want to waste time training people who didn’t have the appetite for the sport.

Mai and I continued debating well into our last years of university, with many national and international accolades under our belt. Mai went on to teach debate education in Korea and now runs her own education consultancy firm in Malaysia, Debate Aid.

And to this day, I always use corporal punishment as a topic for discussion in my public speaking classes because I love it when my students look at me with blank faces. It makes me feel vindicated over my terrible showing in that fateful tournament! 😀


Aissa is the founder of Seek to Speak and teaches public speaking to kids during the weekends. She has a full-time job as an in-house legal counsel but loves sharing her speaking tips and tricks wherever she can. She loves cooking stews, reading fantasy books, and exploring cute cafes.

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