How to Debate
Engaging in friendly or formal argument is an ancient art. These days, you can match wits in a regular backyard spar, or as part of an organized debate. Whether you're debating spontaneously or as part of a in a team or going at it solo, it can be helpful to learn some of the popular formal and informal strategies and formats of debate.
Debating in Everyday Life
Start a debate by asking questions.By probing with questions, you can gradually reveal an argument. Since you're not engaging in a formal debate, you don't really know what side of the argument the other person is going to take, or what they necessarily believe in. Ask questions to narrow things down.
- To get a sense of someone's interests and expertise, probe them with a detailed question like:"So do you believe that the gap in the fossil record says anything serious about Darwinism?"
- Ask directly for their opinion."So what's your position when it comes to affirmative action?"
Understand the other person's position.Ask them to clarify any confusing areas. Nobody's worldview is perfectly coherent, but it's hard to debate someone when they're all over the place. Try to gently get them to adhere to one line of arguments that are more or less consistent.
- If you're not sure about what their argument is, help them out in a non-threatening way:"So, if I understand what you're saying, you mean that the penny should be abolished because it costs more than a penny to produce a penny?"
Introduce your counterargument.After you've respectfully echoed what they say, introduce your counterargument. Explain the gist of what you believe and how it runs contrary to their argument. Try to think of an idea as solid as theirs is. Don't just say they are wrong: think of a thing you can really argue for that is itself a solid belief.
- For example, if they say the government should give tax breaks to hybrid car owners, don't just say, "What I believe is that you're wrong and that's a terrible idea."
- Instead, counter their idea with another: "I think the government should focus on building citywide transit--it's better for the environment if we dismantle car culture altogether."
- Offer examples along with your thesis for why you hold a particular belief.
Offer rebuttals to the other person's argument.After you have stated your counterargument, try to rebut their argument with supporting arguments as well as evidence that supports those arguments.
- "Does it really make sense to say that any form of government — municipal, state, or federal — should legislate sexual morality? It's not a question of "could" — they're more than capable of doing it; it's more a question of whether it'srightfor them to say how we should treat our own bodies in the privacy of our own home. Where does it stop if we let them get a foot in the door?"
Respond to any of the other person's rebuttals.More than likely, the other person you're debating will take issue with some of the things you are saying. Remember their rebuttals and tackle them when the other person has finished speaking.
- Because this is an informal setting, you won't be taking notes as you go. Use more casual methods to remember your friend's points. For example, you might keep track on your fingers of the number of points you want to address.
- Fold down one finger for each point, and release one when you have rebutted a point.
- If that doesn't work for you, just ask your friend to remind you what they said. They'll enjoy repeating it.
Spot logical fallacies.When someone makes an argument that isn't sound in structure, catch it and gently correct it. Common logical fallacies include slippery slope arguments, circular reasoning, and ad hominem attacks.
- Suppose your interlocutor says, "If we let war refugees into our country then pretty soon we'll have to let anyone suffering a manmade disaster into our country and then we'll have to let in anyone suffering a natural disaster and then we'll have to let in anyone who is suffering in any way at all and then our country will be completely overwhelmed!"
- You might respond, "I understand that concern, but I think there's a flaw in your logic. One thing doesn't necessarily lead to another—saying so is a slippery slope fallacy."
Be laid back about it.Don’t pursue a topic your friend or acquaintance doesn't want to pursue. If you are both enjoying the debate, be sure to express friendliness and stay relaxed throughout. It pays to be nice to the other person, even if you're debating them. Don't:
- Hog the conversation. It's an informal debate, which should mean a free-flowing exchange of ideas, not you rambling on and on about why you're right and they're wrong.
- Assume the other person means ill. They might misspeak or the debate could get unintentionally heated. It's best to assume that the other person is coming at the debate expecting only some friendly verbal sparring, and isn't out to hurt you.
- Raise your voice or let things get heated. Try not to get so wrapped up in the debate that you lose your cool. A debate should be civilized and enlightening, not a lesson in browbeating.
Don't rehash the same arguments over and over again.Some debates come full circle and then keep on going because neither party is willing to admit defeat. If you become involved in a debate that never ends, don't push it. Just say:"I respect your opinion. I don't agree with you, but maybe I will in the future. Give me a little bit of time to think it over?"
Wrap things up amicably.No one will want to debate you if you're a sore loser or if you refuse to treat your sparring partner with respect. However heated the debate might have been, try to be friendly as you wrap things up. You may disagree with someone, but that doesn't mean you can't be friends.
Being Effective at Formal Debate
Adhere to all rules and professional standards.While rules will vary situation to situation, many standards are common to most debates. Come dressed to play the part of a serious debater, and bring an attitude to match. For important formal debates—really for any debate you want to win—wear a suit or equally formal wear. Dress like a politician or like you are going to a funeral. Keep your suit jacket on at all times, and your tie if you are wearing it.
- Don't wear anything tight or revealing.
- Face the judge when you speak, and speak standing.
- Read full citations when you are quoting.
- If you're not sure if what you are doing is professional, ask the judge's permission. For instance, if you want to leave the room for water, ask.
- In team debates, avoid prompting your partner unless they are immediately jeopardizing your chances of winning. Try not to do it at all.
- Keep your cell phone off.
- Do not curse.
- Limit jokes to those that would be appropriate in a professional setting. Don't tell jokes that are off-color or that rely on insensitive stereotypes.
Be ready to receive a topic.In British Parliamentary, for instance, one team must debate the "affirmative" stance, and the other must debate the "negative" stance. The team that agrees with the topic is called the affirmative, while the team that disagrees is called the negative.
- For Policy Debate, the affirmative team proposes a plan and the negative team argues that it should not be enacted.
- Both teams will be seated near the front of the room they are to speak in — affirmative team (Government) on the left, negative team (Opposition) on the right.
- The chairperson or adjudicator will start the debate, and the first speaker will present their speech. The order of the speakers is generally affirmative, negative, affirmative, negative, and so on.
Define the topic simply when necessary.Debating "That the death penalty is a just and effective punishment" is probably already pretty clear, but what if you're given a topic like "That happiness is a nobler trait than wisdom?" You might need to offer a definition of the topic before you proceed.
- The affirmative always gets the first and best opportunity to define the topic. To define well, try to mirror the way an average person on the street might define the topic. If your interpretation is too creative, the other team might attack it.
- The negative team is given an opportunity to refute the definition (otherwise known as challenging the definition) and offer their own, but only if the affirmative's definition is unreasonable or it renders the negative's position obsolete. The first negative speaker must refute the affirmative's definition if s/he wishes to challenge it.
Write your speech in the time allotted.Keep your eye on your watch, and set a timer for a minute before your time is up so that you can look over your argument before you are done. Your allotted writing time will depend on the style of debate. For British Parliamentary, for instance, seven minutes is likely. To write efficiently, get your main points down first, then fill in evidence, additional refutations, and any examples or anecdotes you are choosing to include.
- Depending on what position you argue, you must follow certain protocol such as defining the topic or presenting a main argument.
Support your argument.If you say "I think the death penalty should be abolished," be ready to prove why this is the best course of action. Provide supporting arguments, and give evidence for each. Make sure your supporting arguments and evidence truly relate to your stance, or your opposition may co-opt them or ask for them to be thrown out.
- Your opposing arguments might be "The death penalty is more expensive than life in prison," "the death penalty provides no opportunity for redemption," or "the death penalty makes us look bad in the international community."
- Evidence can include statistics and expert opinions.
Choose what to include carefully.If you don't know it, don't debate it unless you have no other choice. If you don't know much about the topic, try to at least come up with some vague, ambiguous information so that your opponents will have a hard time refuting your contentions.
- If they don't understand it, they can't refute it. Keep in mind that the judge probably won't understand you so well either, but trying is probably better than saying, "I know nothing. I give the case to my opponents."
- Don't use rhetorical questions. Always give a clear answer to every question you ask. Leaving a question open-ended gives your opponents room to refute.
- Use religion only when appropriate. Things that are written in the Bible, Torah, Quran, etc, are not usually sound resources to use to prove your argument, as not everyone takes these sources to be the truth.
Present your argument with feeling.Be passionate in your speech—a monotone voice will cause people to drift off, and they may miss the point of what you're trying to say. Speak clearly, slowly, and loudly.
- Make eye contact with whomever decides the winners of the debate. While it's okay to look at your opponents every once in a while, try to direct your argument at the judge.
- Give a layout of your argument before you make it. That way, your audience will know what to expect and your judge won't cut you off unless you run way overtime.
Strike a balance between presenting your team's point(s) and rebutting the opponent's point.Since teams take turns debating, it's always possible to offer rebuttals unless you are the first affirmative speaker. For British Parliamentary, for example, both teams might organize their debate strategy thus:
- Define the topic (optional) and present the team's main line.
- Outline, in brief, what each affirmative speaker will talk about.
- Present the first half of the affirmative's argument.
- Accept or reject the definition (optional) and present the team's main line.
- Outline, in brief, what each negative speaker will talk about.
- Offer a rebuttal of a few of the points presented by the first affirmative.
- Present the first half of the negative's argument.
- This will continue into second and third affirmative and negative arguments.
- 1st affirmative:
Rebut the main points of your opponents' argument.When rebutting a team's argument, remember:
- Offer evidence for your rebuttal. Do not rely on vigorous assertion alone.Showthe chairperson why the other team's argument is fundamentally flawed; don't just tell.
- Attack the most important parts of their argument. It's not very effective if you pick bones with an obscure part of the opponent's argument. Go for the crux of their argument and pick it apart with the ruthless efficiency of a surgeon.
- For instance, if they are arguing for an increase in the military budget, but they also make a casual assertion about citizens being ungrateful for what the military does, you can dismiss the latter with a calm "I beg to disagree" and focus on the problems with increasing the actual budget.
- No ad hominem attacks. An ad hominem attack is when you criticize another person instead of their ideas. Attack the idea, not the person.
Use up all your time (or most of it).The more you talk, the more you'll convince the judge. Note that this means you should come up with many examples, not that you should ramble. The more the judge hears about why you are correct, the more inclined s/he will be to believe you.
Know what aspects of the debate you will be judged on, if appropriate.For the most part, debates are judged on three main areas: matter, manner, and method.
- Matteris amount and relevancy of evidence. How much evidence does the speaker marshall to support his/her claims? How strongly does the evidence used support the argument?
- Manneris eye contact and engagement with audience. Don't stare at your cue cards! Speak clearly. Accentuate your arguments with volume, pitch and speed to highlight important parts. Use your body to emphasize your arguments: stand straight and gesture confidently. Avoid stammering, fidgeting, or pacing.
- Methodis team cohesion. How well does the entire team organize their arguments and rebuttals? How well do the individual arguments mesh together, as well as the rebuttals? How clear and consistent is the team line?
Picking a Kind of Formal Debate
Consider team debate.Debating on a team of two or more can improve your teamwork abilities. Working with partners provides you with a wealth of knowledge and research you can continue to use in your future debates.
- Try your hand at a policy debate. This is a two-on-two format in which your team debates a topic that is fixed by the NSDA throughout the year. This will test your research skills and your overall grit, and is popular with high school students trying to get into competitive colleges.
- Try World Schools debate. This is an National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA) approved debate style where teams argue three to three. Topics are both fixed and impromptu, and the style is highly interactive, with teams asking questions even during speeches.
Try one on one debate.One on one debate is a great choice for aspiring lawyers and people who prefer to work alone.
- Check out Lincoln-Douglas Debates. For this 45 minute debate, you will debate a topic chosen by the NSDA. This debate involves extensive research prior to the debate, but research is not allowed during.
- Explore Extemporaneous Debate. For a fast-paced and exciting experience, try extemporaneous debate. You will be told your topic and your stance (pro or con) half an hour before the debate begins, and will have to research and form your argument within that time. The entire debate lasts only 20 minutes.
Try political simulation debates.One fun way to prepare for a political future (or just interact with many other debaters) is to do a debate that simulates a real political decision making process.
- Do Congressional Debate. Congressional debate is a popular NSDA format that follows the conventions of the United States legislature. Ten to twenty-five debaters participate, and an elected presiding officer runs the show. At the end, everyone votes to pass or block a resolution.
- Check out British Parliamentary Debate. This format is popular in academic settings and is used worldwide. It consists of four teams of two, two of which represent proposition and two opposition. One speaker represents each team, meaning the actual debate is still two-on-two.
QuestionIf I forget anything in fear, what should I do?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerConfidently proceed with your speech. Remember, the judges do not know what points you had planned to say.Thanks!
QuestionWhat are the roles for each speaker?SJ747Community AnswerThe first speaker does the introduction and some points; the second speaker deals with rebuttals and points; and the third speaker sums up the team's case and does a lot of rebuttals.Thanks!
QuestionWhat is the conclusion of the debate? I mean how do I close it?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerTypically, you would repeat what you have said to emphasise the main points underlying your argument, then say "for the reasons stated, I am proud to be on the affirmative/negative team and we firmly believe that______ (whatever the moot says)".Thanks!
QuestionHow do I maintain an edge over my opponent?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerResearch your opponent's and likely arguments so you can have an answer ready for what they say. Always ask rhetorical questions that will make them think. This means you are getting them to think of an answer quickly.Thanks!
QuestionDuring a debate, can I single out one person on the opposing team for a question? For example, if I see an opposing member who is not that interactive in the debate, can I direct a question towards them?SJ747Community AnswerYes, you certainly can and you should. This is a great way to get a quality rebuttal against your opponents.Thanks!
QuestionHow do I prepare for a conference?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerDo the talk alone but imagine that you are having a conference before you. Rehearse as if the audience is there, noting which parts of your talk are best presented loudly, softly, etc. If you need to rebut, think of all the possible questions you might have on your topic and prepare answers for them ahead of time, so that you're not taken unawares. If you know your topic well, this shouldn't be too difficult.Thanks!
QuestionI will be the last person on my team to debate. How should I end it?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerBe a go-getter! What's going to stop you from just saying, "Can I speak my opinion for a minute?". Remember, don't yell or people will just be annoyed by you.Thanks!
QuestionIf I am debating and I become scared, what must I do?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerTake a few deep breaths and remember what you are debating for. Remember that you are confident, and that you can win the debate.Thanks!
QuestionHow do I start an argument?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerIt is very important to pose a question, state an interesting fact or statistic or quote something relevant to the resolution -- keeping your audience in mind -- to help engage them right from the start. Think about the thesis of your argument and make sure your chosen statement to begin your argument relates to it.Thanks!
QuestionHow do I gain knowledge and confidence?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerResearch plays a fundamental role in both your knowledge and your confidence. If you know your material and have done all that is in your power to understand the topic, there is a much higher chance of you being able to focus on delivering your arguments as opposed to their quality. You may also want to rehearse your arguments in front of peers, or even recording a video of yourself so you can work towards a perfect execution. It helps boost comfort, and ultimately, confidence!Thanks!
How do you define a topic?
If you have discussed all you need to, but still have half of your time left, what should you do without rambling or embarassig yourself?
How do I clarify something to my opponent without repeating myself?
How can you greet the audience if you have been invited to a nation debating competition?
I am a second speaker how could I rebut very well?
To debate someone, be clear about why you disagree with them and what you believe instead, and avoid just saying "I disagree with you" or "You're wrong." After the person makes their argument, bring up evidence that counters what they said. Try to be as specific as possible so it's harder for them to disagree with you. If the other person isn't being specific enough, ask them to clarify, which may make it harder for them to defend their position.
- Try practicing every now and then, so you get comfortable in the debate/argue environment.
- In your vote of thanks, thank the opposing team first, then the adjudicator, chairperson, timekeeper and audience.
- Study previous debates. That being said, don't steal the contentions made in that debate word-for-word.
- There are no rules set in stone. Do what you think makes the most logical sense. If you want to make one hundred contentions, do so. If you want to make just one contention and argue for it the whole debate, do so. There's no "right" or "wrong".
- There will be a single bell a minute before the time limit, a double bell on the time limit, and a triple bell at thirty seconds over.
- Never argue with the adjudicator.
- In an informal debate, when you are invited to speak, you should be ready immediately, or within five seconds.
- Make your argument simpler, it will not help to state your arguments in highfalutin words, as it may worsen the impression of the adjudicator towards you
- Just relax — make sure you gather key terms from the rebuttal.
Sources and Citations
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