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Student John Milnes-Smith: How a debating initiative boosted my confidence

John Milnes-Smith 

Three years ago I competed in the Institute of Ideas Debating Matters Competition as a sixth form student. The Bar Council has decided to sponsor this competition to encourage more school students around the country to take on moral, political and legal issues and engage in considered (yet often heated) discussion. I can honestly say that this experience has developed my confidence and means that whenever I now watch the news or talk about topical issue with friends, I know how to think critically and structure my arguments effectively.

The reason this competition was different to the other opportunities available is because it takes young people seriously. It gets students to develop their own arguments but also consider the other side. I was required to take on board criticism but also be able to stand up to it.

When I first began debating at the beginning of sixth form, I was a very different person from the one I am today. At my first debate I struggled to make even one coherent point, and certainly for the next few debates it was a battle of nerves to get any sentences out. It was the increase in self-confidence and the exposure to the expert judges that took me all the way to the national finals.

The judges of the competition played a key part in making the experience enjoyable for me and my peers. For me, there was nothing more daunting than the judge's questions. There were times when the judge was putting me under intense pressure but all they wanted was to watch me fight back and take control of the debate. It was the fear of the judge that forced me to be well prepared, to stand up to criticism and consider every eventuality from the other side.

Debating seeks to promote intelligent conversation and develop skills in public speaking, persuasion and listening. These are all skills that I now find useful in everyday life but are also skills that I imagine Barristers employ every day. It is therefore inevitable that students immersed in debating may also develop and interest in a career in law. That is why this new partnership with the Bar Council is so beneficial, the Bar Council is now on hand to guide students, like myself, who may never even have realised that the Bar is a viable option for them, into the next stages of training.

As judges of Debating Matters, several barristers are already part of this competition that has helped thousands of young people across the country. As the competition progresses over the year, judges have the opportunity to watch the same sixth formers grow in confidence, intellect and ability to take on ever more challenging arguments. 

If you would like to be a judge in one of qualifying rounds, please do get in contact. Take a look at the dates and locations of our upcoming rounds on our website here and email judges@instituteofideas.com with your preferences so that you too can join us debating what really matters.

The Bar Council is a partner of the National Debating Matters Competition. This is part of the Bar Council's ambition to educate young people about the Bar and present it as a viable career option regardless of background.

John Milnes-Smith is a Debating Matters alumnus currently completing his undergraduate degree in International Relations and History at LSE.