When Public Forum debate was first started one of the primary features was that there was a coin toss before the debate.
The winner of the coin toss go to choose either their side or whether or not they spoke first or last.
At the beginning, people were uncertain as to what to do and often debaters would pick the side of the topic that they were most familiar with.
Today, however, most people have figured out that there are tremendous advantages to speaking second and will usually choose that position. In the US, choosing second has become so common that many tournaments have eliminated the coin toss and the Pro automatically speaks first, with sides being assigned by the computer tabulation program before the debate.
In other parts of the country (and the world) the coin toss is still popular, however. So in this section I will explain what it (almost (or perhaps always)) makes sense to speak second.
In choosing to speak first or second, I think there are two key considerations. First, you need to maximize the prep time you are getting in your debate. Second, you want to have as much time as possible to respond to responses to rebuttal arguments.
Based on these criteria, I think you should always choose to speak second.
All the Reasons to Speak Second
There are many reasons to speak second.
Prep time. If you speak second, you can use all of your prep time plus all of your opponent’s prep time to prepare your speach., as they are always prepping and speaking before you.
Second rebuttal prep time. The way the debate is structure, the first speaker must deliver a rebuttal to the second Constructive as soon as that speech is over. The second rebuttalist, however, has two speeches in between (the second constructive (delivered by his or her partner) and the first rebuttal. This is a lot of time to prepare a high quality rebuttal, as opposed to having to give a rebuttal immediately after a speech is over.
Defending case. If you give the second Rebuttal, you can use some of your time to respond to the first Rebuttal. Most competitive debaters essentially divide the second Rebuttal in two, using two minutes to respond to the first Rebuttal and
Some debaters will even use the second rebuttal to develop arguments, as was discussed in the essay on Rebuttals.
Summary strategy. Doing the first Summary difficult, as the first Summary speaker has to organize, make coverage decisions about, and work through eight minutes of Rebuttal arguments. They only have a two or three (if the tournament is using the new three minute Summary) minutes to do this.
The second Summary only has to cover what the first Summary covered and then can use any remaining time to put new strategic pressure on the first Final Focus.
New arguments. Some people don’t like it (especially first speaking teams ☺), debaters who speak second can get away with making new arguments later in the debate, especially in the Final Focus.
New weighing. Even if debaters do not make new arguments in the Final Focus, it is never too late to weigh arguments.
Birds eye view. Debaters who speak first must always try to think about where the debate will go what their opponents will say, and essentially engage in a lot of anticipatory refutation. Debaters who speak second always know where the debate stands and can make new arguments to put even ore pressure on the first speaker.
Constructive speech adjustments. Although this only applies to the most advanced debaters, advanced debaters who speak second can even adjust their constructive speech based on what the first speaker says.
When to Speak First
It is rare, but it is possible that you will want to choose the side instead of first/last speaking. This happens when the topic is lopsided or you just end up being more prepared to debate on side of the topic. Similarly, perhaps you have scouted a debate and you do not know how to respond to one of your opponent’s arguments. If this is the case, you may want to pick your side, but it obviously creates downside strategic risks.