Sunday, 28 September 2014

Points of information – Definition and tactics

This is part of a series of introductory articles. Where I try to explain basic concepts of competitive debating.

What points of information are

A “Point of Information” (POI) is when a speaker on the opposite side of the table offers a short contribution to a speech, normally consisting of a question or comment of around 15 seconds duration. Points of information are one of the things that makes British Parliamentary debating more interesting and dynamic as a format, as it allows speakers to engage with one another's arguments throughout the debate, not just during their own speeches. 

These are distinct from Points of clarification, which are specifically for during a speech from first proposition where they are outlining their definition and mechanism. The purpose of which is to clarify the mechanism that is being set out so that the debate can go smoothly for everyone. It is generally accepted that people should accept points of clarification when offered in order to make sure their position is clear and the debate goes well for everyone. Attempting to use points of clarification as a cover for points of information is considered extremely bad form.

Offering points of information
In order to offer a point of information you should stand up and say something like “Point of information,” “Madam,” “On that point,” “On that,” etc. Note that you are not allowed to say “On economic instability” or something similar. This is known as 'headlining' and is considered an illegitimate way to insert your own points into an opponents speech without their consent.

Please maintain a level of politeness at all times when offering your point. You are asking a speaker for their permission to take time out of their speech to make a contribution and they are entirely within their rights to accept and refuse on their own whims. Offering POIs aggressively or excessively often in order to force a speaker to take you or to put them off of their speech is not allowed. A good general rule is to wait 15 seconds between offering POIs.

In order to make POIs as effective as possible I recommend preparing them beforehand in the same manner you would for a point in your own speech. It is also useful to share them with your partner (either by whispering or writing them down) so that you can decide on the most important point for you to make at that point in the debate and

Accepting POIs

In general you are under no obligation to take Points of Information. However continuously refusing to shows an unwillingness to engage and a lack of confidence in your material. (Think of politicians dodging questions). However taking too many can leave you with little time to cover your own material and disrupt the flow of your speech.  In general I would recommend taking at least 1 and at most 2 POIs in a 5 minute speech.

It is generally best to take a point at the end of a major point so that it doesn't overly disrupt your speech. You are allowed to ask a speaker to wait when they offer a point (by saying something like “In a moment”) but its a little mean to leave them standing for too long. You are also allowed to cut a speaker off politely when their point is going on for too long.

Taking a POI can be a very good way to demonstrate your abilities, replying to it well can demonstrate your ability to respond on your feet and understanding of your arguments. Also it allows you to deal with a weakness in your argument that they point out and make it overall better (so hopefully you can win more). 

Different tactical uses of POIs

This list is not by any means exhaustive, but should give you a general overview of the most common and useful ways to use POIs.

Direct attacks

These are the most commonly offered type of POI, where you directly challenge what the speaker is saying at a particular time. When this works it can be devastating, but it is generally difficult to do in practice as speakers have a lot more time to respond to your point than you have to offer it. Also debaters have a tendency to stand up immediately in response to a point without thinking it through (my prior comment about preparing POIs in advance can help with this).  

            Tactical concessions – These are very strategically useful but difficult to implement. In these cases you ask a speaker a question in such a way that it forces them to concede an important point that you can use later in your own speech. E.g. You ask “Do you believe the state's first duty is protection of the most vulnerable?” They reply yes, then you show in your speech that your side better does that. Or ask them to take a position on a particularly problematic or controversial example.

Look at my stuff!

This serves to force a speaker to engage with your material and make the judges aware of it. It can be done in two slightly different ways depending if you are offering it to a speaker before of after you.

            Flagging an extension – If you are POI-ing a speaker above you on the table (e.g. the first proposition team if you are in 2nd opposition) it can be useful to bring up a point that you are planning to use in your extension to gauge their reaction to it so you can combat those arguments. This is of course risky if they are able to completely defeat your point, however my personal feeling is that in these cases the point would have likely fallen later on anyway and it is better to repair it or to deploy another better point. There  is also a risk of a good top half team stealing the point. 

            Remember what I said – When are POI-ing a speaker further down the table from you (e.g. 2nd Opposition when you are in 1st Proposition) it can be useful to bring up material you previously discussed in you or your partner's speech. E.g. “We explained to you why the Syrian regime will never peacefully surrender and no one on our side has had an adequate response to this.” This serves to keep your points relevant in the debate and at the top of the judges minds, and forces the other speaker to combat your material. 

            Red herring – This verges on the 'dark arts' of debating, where you offer a point not intending to particularly deal with it yourself but cause them to use time dealing with it they would otherwise have used on their own material. Be cautious with this, as depending how it is done it may be frowned upon by some judges.

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