How to Debate: Learn & Get Better


Well-Known Member
  • #1
Have you ever watched a debate? I mean a really good debate? One where both participants were skilled and who had years and years of practice? Watching people argue on TV or the internet is a given, but watching skilled debaters do their thing is like watching Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel. Every time I bear witness to those who are handed a viewpoint other than their own and walk away as victor, I am simply in awe. I become jealous of good debaters and that's why I've made it my job to learn as much as there is to learn about the sport.

You may be intimidated by the art of debating, but you really shouldn't be. Although good debaters appear to be of greater confidence, of higher intelligence, and better public speakers than the average person, debating is a skill anyone can learn. It's all about appreciating how the structure and format works and becoming handy with a few techniques. Of course, it'll take lots of preparation and practice to become a skilled debater, but once you learn how to do it well, the skills you've earned will become invaluable in so many different aspects of life. Learning how to and practicing debate is an excellent way to build confidence, speak well in public, and argue efficiently and effectively. You'll also become convincing in your arguments and will learn that controversial issues oftentimes have two or more sides.

In this thread, I'll explain what debating actually is, give you some examples of good debating topics, teach you basic debating skills, explain the content required of every debate, and discuss the roles of the debaters. I'll do my best at packing this thread full of good information, so please feel free to bookmark it and ask questions down below. I love helping out where I can.


Well-Known Member
  • #2
What is Debating?

A debate is an argument that makes sense. Although it may become heated, it's generally not emotional. Well, the arguments don't rely on emotion to convince the audience. Emotion is transparent while supported and well thought out opinions are much more solid. In general, debates consist of two sides that are given issues to discuss. Each side may consist of one or more people. The topics each side is handed may or may not be in alignment with their own views. This is the beauty of the debate. The person or people arguing might not agree with their argument, but may eventually come to understand and appreciate the validity of it. And unlike arguments that you and I have had with family and friends, arguments during debates are timed. Each participant may only argue for a specified time before allowing the other side to respond. Debate topics are oftentimes assigned, so any argument offered has the potential to be quite the challenge for those involved.

Debates are highly structured and oftentimes cover issues that are divisive and inflammatory. One side is usually "pro" and the other "con." Debates offer many benefits to not only their participants, but their audiences as well. Some of these benefits may include:

- Having to allow the other party to speak thoroughly without interruption.
- Giving you insight into views that don't align with your current beliefs.
- Encouraging you to think rationally and to formulate coherent and strategic responses.
- Enhancing your public speaking skills.
- Opening your mind to the fact that you may be on the wrong side of things.
- Learning how to research a position and formulate a persuasive argument.


Well-Known Member
  • #3
Structure of a Debate

Although debates can take many different forms, there is a general debate structure that I'll outline below.

Resolution/Motion - This is when the debate topic is chosen and assigned to the debate participants. While debates may oftentimes allow the debaters to chose their own topics, it's common for those topics to be chosen by the committee beforehand and given to the participants. Topics usually revolve around contentious or controversial issues, such as current events or other longstanding arguments that permeate society. Debates can also address a statement with a true/false dichotomy. The Affirmative team or individual would support the true/false statement, while the Negative team or individual would oppose it.

Team Setup - In general, there are two debate teams that consist of three individuals each. Alternately, there can be two teams of one individual speaker each.

Positions - As stated above, positions (affirmative/negative) may be assigned or debate participants may choose their own position.

Preparation - Oftentimes, if a debate is high profile, its participants will go in knowing their own position and will be debating a natural opponent who truly does have a contrary position. Obviously, these are debates where each participant knows his own position rather well and can counter almost any argument with ease (think Sam Harris vs. Andrew Sullivan, Sam Harris vs. Jordan Peterson). With more scholastic debates, topics and positions are assigned and the teams are given one hour to prepare their arguments.

Allotted Time - During the debate, each debate participant/speaker is given an allotted time in which to make his or her argument.

Alternating Speakers - During the debate, each speaker from each team will alternate with one another. In most cases, the Affirmative team will begin with their first argument, followed by the first speaker from the Negative team and so on.

Judging - Once all speakers have completed their arguments in their allotted times, the debate will have concluded and it will be judged by the judges.

Audience - Quite often, there will be an audience watching any given debate, but that audience plays no roles in the debate itself.


Well-Known Member
  • #4
Roles of Affirmative & Negative Debate Speakers

There are some customary roles for the speakers involved in debates. I'll list the common responsibilities below. Each of the speakers in the debate are required to perform the following functions.

First Affirmative Speaker - This very important speaker is responsible for placing the entire debate into context. He or she must explain how his or her team views the issue at hand and why or why not they agree or disagree with it. If there are definitions that require explanation, then this is the time for that. The entire team's case will be outlined and the division of responsibilities will be offered to the audience. Finally, this speaker will provide a few arguments that coincide with their position.

First Negative Speaker - It's likely that this speaker will reframe the debate in their favor. Also, if there are any definitions this team disagrees with, they'll be clarified here. Definitions can be tricky things (definitions will be covered later). If one or more need to be altered, then they must be immediately and effectively. There must be good reason for this though and those reasons must be conveyed to the judges. The new definition must be given. An argument will be provided as to why the new definition is more appropriate than the previous one. And finally, with the new definition in hand, the First Affirmative speaker's argument must be countered in this new context. Also, like the first speaker, this speaker will outline what each speaker on their team will provide. A rebuttal to the first speaker's arguments will be given and then a few arguments against the motion will be provided as well.

Second Affirmative Speaker - This speaker clarifies and resolves any definitional discrepancies, rebuts the First Negative speaker's arguments, and offers their own arguments. Generally two to three arguments are given in favor of their position on the motion.

Second Negative Speaker - Again, this speaker will focus on their view of definitions, will rebut the arguments offered by the Affirmative team as of yet, and then will provide additional arguments in their favor.

Third Affirmative Speaker - This critical speaker wraps up their team's case. They'll focus on specific arguments given up to this point by the Negative team. They'll also offer a summary of the Affirmative team's position and arguments and will highlight the key discrepancies between the two teams.

Third Negative Speaker - Same of this speaker.

During a speaker's speech, it's sometimes customary to allow the opposing team to make a point or ask a question. This is referred to as Points of Information. To do this, a speaker from the opposing team will stand and say, "point of information" or "on that point." It's up to the speaker to allow the opposing teammate to continue or not. If they are allowed to continue, they may do so for 15 seconds. Anywhere in this 15 seconds, the speaker can shut down the opposing point of information, which will force the opposing team to stop talking.


Well-Known Member
  • #5
Debate Definitions

Debate positions and arguments may be misconstrued if viewers aren't clear on what a term or phrase means. It's important to clarify exactly what you're referring to when you speak during a debate. Just be careful to avoid "over-defining" terms because that can end up being confusing and worse than not defining anything. When you define too much, you waste time and lose your audience's focus. When deciding on what to define, think of how effective your argument will be without the definition. If you don't think your argument will have it's intended impact because of confusion over a word or two, then be sure to define those words. If you think everyone already knows what those word are referring to, them leave those definitions out. For example, if the motion is something like, "video games makes people more violent," most people will probably understand what video games and violent mean. Or will they? Which video games? All of them. Even those for three year old? And what does violet mean? Playfully slapping someone? Throwing them off a cliff? It's best to clarify if necessary.

There are different factors that may determine definitions in debates. They are:

Context - When stating definitions in a debate, be sure to stick to the context of the motion. If we use the motion "cell phones shouldn't be allowed in school" as the motion, then we need to think of the current issues that surround this controversy. Are mobile phones bad in all cases at any school anywhere? Or are we talking only about having them in classrooms? You'll need to think about what exactly is going on that would inspire someone to make this a motion in the first place.

Spirit of the Motion - People don't just make up debate motions for no reason. They find certain topics interesting usually because of current events of other compelling reasons. When defining terms or phrases, think about what the spirit of the motion is. What's the audience going to find helpful? What are the judges looking for? When choosing your definitions, be sure to do so in a way that makes for a good and spirited debate. If you water down the issue with unhelpful definitions, you run the risk of having the opposing team challenge them and then you'll run into technical time wasting. That's not going to make anyone happy. For instance, if the debate motion is "technology makes us more lonely." the term technology is ambiguous. Typewriters? Microwaves? Or the internet?

When attempting to define technology, think about what's going on in the world. Have people been complaining about microwaves making them more lonely? Probably not. It's most likely the internet that's the culprit. And if you can't come to a sensible conclusion, go with whatever will make for the most exciting debate. If both the context and the spirit of the motion agree that it's the internet, then go with that. Make that your definition. If it's a split decision, then go with either one. The value in this is having the opposing team agree with your definition so you don't waste valuable time.

Also, when providing your definition, explain why you chose what you chose. That can give it context, which will help others understand your way of thinking.


Well-Known Member
  • #6
Debate Argument Structure

There are any number of ways you can divide up and spread out your debate arguments. If you're debating in a three person team, you can assign each speaker a different topic or a group of related topics. If the arguments have to do with economic and political, health and well-being, and automotive and race track related topics, then you can split those topics up between your group members. Or you can obviously split things up however you'd like. Whatever you or your group chooses, you should definitely argue your most effective points first. So if those points fall under the health and well-being groups, then your first speaker should handle them. After that, assign the topics to speaker in order of importance. Most important to least important.

As for the argument itself, there is a tried and true structure you should employ. It goes like this:

Claim - Make your argument clearly. Keep it simple and state the reason you hold your position. "Feeding wild horses is bad because..."

Evidence - Use supporting data and facts to back up your claim. Your evidence should be clear and concise. "Wild horses have become 917% fatter since tourists began feeding them..."

Impact - Why does the evidence you just shared matter? This is where you wow the audience. Support your claim by stating the significance of what you've stated so far. "A 917% fatter horse means that, on average, wild horses will weight 17 tons each. Do you know what kind of damage a 34,000 pound horse can do...?"


Well-Known Member
  • #7
The Rebuttal

It's easy to make a claim during an argument and it's relatively simple to show some impact, but when it gets to providing evidence for the claim and evidence from which the impact to be derived, trouble can arise. Oftentimes, evidence isn't totally concrete and doesn't cover all of the claim, opening the door for counter evidence to completely wipe away what was already established. Yes, it's true that more evidence can oppose the opposing evidence, but too much of this gets messy and it's not an effective strategy to pursue. The most effective route to take is to provide solid evidence for your claim that can't readily be disputed. Overall, claims are generally made with care and evidence is fairly good, but sometimes the claim is on shaky ground to begin with. What you want to do is look for a flaw in the claim itself.

I've made a list of common flaws you can keep an eye out for. Remember, these are more common than you think and once you become proficient at picking up on these, you will become a much better debater overall. And once you find a flaw in a claim, you'll have the ability to build a solid rebuttal against it.

Morally Flawed - "If we put the elderly 'to sleep' when they turn 75, the nation will save billions of dollars every year on health care costs." While this may be a true statement, it's morally flawed. Who in their right mind puts otherwise healthy people to sleep?

Correlation Rather Than Causation - "Because the sales of ice cream and sun screen rise and fall together during certain times of the year, there is a direct relationship between the two products." This is a false claim. The relationship of these products is likely to be with the summertime, not with one another. During a debate, if a speaker makes a relationship claim such as this, look for some reasoning and explanation behind it. If none is given, you may have found your flaw.

Failure to Deliver Promises - This is a very common flaw during a debate. One speaker may assert, "My teammate will make a case for such and such..." and then the teammate will never deliver on that assertion. Keep your ears open for this type of thing. One speaker may also promise to follow up on an earlier point, but never will. Because there's a lot going on during debates, speakers can find themselves losing track of their claims and supporting evidence.

Compare Conclusion to Reality - "If we only defund all police around the country, we'll finally have peace a racial justice." This is a simplistic view on a complex topic. When comparing your opponent's conclusion to reality, ask yourself what would really happen if that conclusion was enacted. If all hell would break loose, then that goes to show that your opponent hasn't thought their case through.

Contradiction - "People shouldn't have to work for a living. We'll just tax the rich to get the money we need." This is a contradiction. If people don't have to work, how will the rich be rich? They won't be working, remember? Contradictions during debates can also take place apart from one another. For example, a speaker may have made the statement, "I think all fishing should be made illegal" and later says, "We should provide tuna sandwiches to all citizens of our nation," they would be engaging in what we call a logical contradiction. When pointed out, contradictions erode the opposing team's credibility.

Assertion - "Most of last week's protests have been peaceful" is an assertion. When a statement like this is made, it's easy to point out that evidence for it couldn't possibly exist so quickly, therefore it can't be used as a claim. A good defense for an assertion is to point out that there hasn't been sufficient time to fully examine all aspects of whatever it is being asserted, therefore the assertion is likely invalid.

False Dichotomy - When a speaker doesn't have a full understanding of the motion or if their case is weak, they'll likely try to frame the entire debate into one where only two sides exist. For example, if a speaker states, "White people should support minorities and if they don't, they're racist," they are engaging in a false dichotomy. There are obviously more sides to this story, but the speaker is attempting to limit the arguments to what they either have an argument for or what they're comfortable with.

Straw Man Fallacy - "My opponent has made the claim that songs other than Christmas songs should be also included in public school Winter Concerts. I say that these types of people will never be happy until Christmas is entirely wiped from the earth!" This is a straw man argument. These types of arguments arise usually when one person makes a claim and then quickly and exaggeratedly rebuts it. Either that, or they say things like this because they were hoping that their opposition would have made the initial claim. Whatever the case, this person's rebuttal is extreme and must be taken to task. When you face this type of statement, be sure to identify the straw man and ask your opposition to substantiate their distorted claim. Then ask them to explain how their assertion is anywhere near your initial claim. This will put them on the defense and will force them to defend their view.

When it comes to making strong rebuttals, it's critical to have a good understanding of the debate as a whole and to have identified the key arguments. Don't expect to make a few weak rebuttals and walk away a winner. You need to be able to see the types of flaws described above and to apply counters to them appropriately.

When listening to your opponent's case, be sure to ask yourself if it's flawed in any way. Listen carefully to how your opposition has approached the motion. Also, take notice of your opponent's strategy and how they've set goals for themselves. Have they achieved their goals? If any general assumptions have been made during the debate, be sure to ask yourself if these make sense and if they're all that should be discussed. Is the premise accurate? Attempt to refute any premise offered by the other side. And finally, take notice of your opponent's primary argument and use evidence to shut it down. Don't concern yourself with minor arguments. Focus on the important ones that will sway the audience. If you can discredit that, then you will have made your point. The rest will trickle down. If the judges or audience can't trust the primary claim, they'll likely not trust and ancillary ones.


Well-Known Member
  • #8
Content & Case

If you think about what you say while debating and the arguments you use to make your own claims and rebut your opponent's, you're thinking about debate content. This is the material that's actually verbalized. In respect to the specifics of the debate, such as its length, how many people will be involved, and how it will be structured, that's up to the judges and those who have set up the debate in the first place.

The Entire Case - When you first stand to launch the debate, you'll want to state your overall case in your introduction. Explain your primary arguments and where you'll be heading during the debate. Do this early and quickly, for you'll want to get down to the explaining of your position. You'll want to begin your arguments. Also, during the introduction, if you're on a team, introduce the other members and how they'll approach the motion. When everyone has concluded, give a brief summary as to what happened and why.

Parts of the Case - This is where organization becomes important. After you explain how your argument will unfold, you'll need to build the parts of your case. A common method for doing this is to either divide your own case into two to four parts, or if you're working with a group, assign each person an argument or two. As explained above in the argument structure section, you'll need to use logic, examples, stats, and quotes to support any claim you make. Proof of a claim is what drives that claim home. It's that proof that also gives impetus to the evidence's impact. When thinking of proof, think of how you can strategically use it with the most impact. Proof is also about appearance. If you think of high drama court cases you see on TV, you'll have seen strategic proof in action.

When arguing a point and offering evidence, remember that you'll need to support everything you say. You'll also need to offer reasoning, so only argue points you can show evidence for. And again, always front load your arguments, meaning, situate the most important ones early on in the debate.

Example Case Outline:

"The media in today's world can have much more of a political brainwashing effect than the government can ever hope for. I say this for three reasons. First, the large majority of people base their political views on what they see and hear in the media. Second, the media has long set the agenda for political debate. And third, the media can either make or break an individual candidate. Only the extraordinarily strong can weather the storm of a media onslaught if they so desire to wage that battle. Because of this, media commentators have become the defacto source of political information, rather than the politicians themselves. "

Although the points given in the above outline are arguable, it does offer a good overview of what's to come. Also, because none of the arguments above were too detailed, a wide range of issues can be discussed, leading to a lively and entertaining debate. When debating, you don't want to button things up so tightly that no one can argue anything. What you want to do is keep your points solid enough to go back and forth with your opponents in an effort to flesh out any details the participants deem important.


Well-Known Member
  • #9
Scoring a Debate

I can remember debating back in middle school. I think I was in 7th grade and all I wanted was to get the experience behind me. I didn't particularly care if I won or lost. What was most important was that I spent as little time speaking in front of my entire class as possible. I didn't enjoy public speaking, so I didn't try very hard during the debate. The problem I faced was a lack of confidence. Today, I know not trying was a mistake. I should have tried to win. And to win, I would have had to focus on what I'll discuss below. But first, let me tell you that one of the most important personality traits to show the judges is self confidence. Even if you're unsteady with your arguments, your confidence will shine through.

Judges observe different criteria while watching debates. I'll list them below.

Content & Subject Matter - This is what's actually stated during the debate. If you were to type your words out on paper and hand it to the judges, this is what they'd see. It consists of what the speakers say, what their arguments are, what their evidence is, and how relevant their arguments are in relation to the entire debate.

Style & Manner of Presentation - This aspect is completely subjective. The judges will look at how you speak, what language you decide to use, and your tone of voice. Some debates have been won and lost based on style alone. This is where you get to show off your flair and wow the audience with your style. Don't underestimate the importance of this.

Strategy & Method of Approach - When going into a debate, you need a strategy. You need to anticipate your opponent's arguments and style and you need to counter them. A good strategy is critical for winning a debate. You need to structure what you say so it makes sense and you need to be very clear during rebuttal.


Well-Known Member
  • #10
Basic Debating Skills

While a debate is going on, judges have a lot to look at. I'll list some of these things below. Be sure to study them and practice them to become proficient with them.

- What you say needs to relate to the topic at hand. Don't go down an irrelevant road.
- When you either lay out an argument or rebut one, be sure to always rely on evidence as opposed to your own personal opinion or hunch. You'll need to back up everything you say.
- Never let the judges or your opponents know your own personal opinion on a motion. During the debate, your opinion is irrelevant. If you let your feelings creep in, the audience will see that and your opinions can quickly and easily morph into passion and aggression. That's not a good thing.
- While debating, pretend that you're part of the audience. What type of conversation would persuade you? Stimulate you? Bore you? Always be mindful of how you're interpreted while you're speaking.
- Follow the three pillars of rhetoric while speaking; ethos (ethical appeal), pathos (emotional appeal), and logos (logical appeal). Don't focus too much on any one of these, but all equally.
- Notes are fine, but don't read directly from them. Only refer to them when necessary. That will show preparedness. Also, keep your notes organized by using only headings. Be sure to keep separate notes for rebuttals on a completely different piece of paper.
- Compare what you're proposing via argument with the real world. If your arguments were enacted, would the world be better for it? Do the same with your opponent's arguments and explain why you're position is better than theirs.
- Don't joke if you're not a naturally entertaining person. The risk of falling flat is too great.
- Always stay level headed in your thinking. There's a 50/50 chance that you may get a position that you don't agree with. If you live a life of looking at both sides of the story, you'll train yourself to be a good debater. Think about arguments and counter-arguments often.

Use Your Voice

- When speaking, enunciate, speak clearly, and speak concisely.
- Determine a good pace. Remember that your speaking will be timed. Be sure to either trim what you have to say to fit in the allotted time or speak fast enough to fit it in. Just don't speak so fast that it comes off offensive or misunderstood.
- When speaking, pretend that the entire audience is sitting in the farthest reaches of the room. Speak to them. Project your voice.
- Show your talent for becoming quiet when called for, louder when called for, and dramatically pausing when called for.
- Show flexibility with your tone. Emphasize important words for effect.

Show Your Confidence

- Remember, practice builds confidence. Appearing confident can be derived as much from what you don't do as what you do. If you practice avoiding certain traits and gestures, your appearance of being confident will grow exponentially.
- Stay relaxed. Breathe. Keep your pose and posture in a relaxed form. Remember, you want to be there. You're eager to tell the audience what you have to say.
- Don't use filler words at all. This will require practice and focus. Um, uh, so, well, er, ah, like, okay, right, and you know. None of these are good and you'd rather pause to think rather than appear amateur by using these words. And never begin a sentence with the word "so."
- Know your material well enough to present it to anyone. Even your most argumentative aunt. Again, practice. Frequent debating will provide you this practice.
- Use your hands for emphatic gestures, but avoid appearing nervous by using nervous gestures (biting or chewing fingernails, playing with hair, wringing hands, tapping feet, wiggling, avoiding eye contact, nervous laughter, rumming fingers, playing with objects).
- Always, always, always maintain eye contact with the audience.

Choose Your Language

- Don't show off the big words you know. Speak clearly with common language so you're understood.
- Always refer to the opposite team and "my opponent."
- Avoid words such as never or always or words that may lock you into a position you didn't intend to be locked into.
- Avoid stating that your opponent is wrong or any other type of position that's firm and unwavering. Give them the benefit of the doubt by claiming that they're mistaken or unaware.

Avoid Like the Plague

- Don't make things up, such as evidence to support your argument or to rebut your opponent's.
- Don't publicly counter a judge's decision or critique. There's always time for that later on in private.
- Don't comment on a speaker him or herself. Comment on his or her argument. This type of thing is transparent and neither the audience nor judges will appreciate you attacking a speaker personally.
- Keep your aggression to yourself. Never show any type of aggression toward another speaker, your opponent, the judges, or the audience.
- Remember that if you interrupt another debater, you may appear to have a weak argument. A confident debater is one who remains silent when not up as speaker.
- Don't blatantly disagree with statements or facts you know to be true.