School By Debate: A Training Manual for Speakers
Sharing my 20+ years of experience as a debater, judge, coach, and organizer
By MARTIN REZNY
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When I say the word “debate”, what comes to your mind? The most common type of answer that I used to get, back when I was asking students during their first debating experience about it, typically pointed to politicians.
Politicians who shout over each other on the TV, who don’t listen to each other, who insult each other, lie and deceive, dodge insightful questions, and waste everyone’s time by giving false promises and by beating dead horses.
If you have a similar idea, then know that this is precisely what debate isn’t. Debate, not just as a form of competition, but also the real thing, requires the speakers to tell the truth and stay on point, answer questions, respect their opponents, and use their time as efficiently as possible. Thus making sure they won’t be wasting the listeners’ time.
This kind of debate can take place within politics, for example about which rights and obligations the citizens should have, as well as about more down-to-earth questions like where we should build a highway.
Real debate can also take place within the scientific academia about the true nature of reality, or within art about the true nature of beauty. Or, with equal importance, among our friends and family for example about which movie we should go see, or which car we should buy.
Debate is a way of life, a way to explore the world and to express oneself. As such, it can be used in any area of human experience. The purpose of this publication is to introduce the competitive form of it to you, teachers and students, as an activity designed to help you exercise your debating capacities. Capacities that include, above all, critical thinking and effective speaking skills.
Debating as a skill is applicable in any profession where you’re expected to be able to publicly communicate and defend your position against your colleagues, superiors, or authorities. Therefore, mainly in areas like law, business, media, education, science, art, or the above-mentioned politics.
Debating is also a key tool for achieving peaceful coexistence with your neighbors, given that mutual understanding, respect, and the art of compromise are the best antidotes to violence.
My hope is that if you learn to be better debaters, you will develop resistance to being manipulated and find your place and calling in life more easily, and that our society as a whole will be better able to deal with its problems.
For all of these reasons, my goal is to help get debating education into more schools. If you, too, consider this to be a worthy goal, you should be able to find within this publication everything that you’ll need for a successful debating start.
1. DEBATE PHILOSOPHY
Debating is a discipline that has its roots in the ancient past, but it is also a living culture thriving in the present. If you decide to give debating a try, like by participating in some form of debating competition, you don’t have to do so in isolation.
You can learn from the experience and work of many different debating organizations while blazing your own trail, just as you can become part of any of the numerous already existing debating programs.
It’s also entirely up to you if you want to pursue debating as an extracurricular activity, or if you want to try to find a way to integrate debating into the everyday teaching of subjects like history or civics.
The following section of this publication will introduce you to the general context of what debating means and entails, so that you can have a basis for deciding how to best make use of it.
1.1 THE HISTORICAL TRADITION OF DEBATING
Debating can be conclusively traced back to ancient Greece, where it was represented mainly by two figures — the sophist Protagoras, who is likely responsible for developing the concept of two sides facing each other as a teaching method, and the philosopher Aristotle.
Right from the start, there was an ideological conflict going on between the sophists and the philosophers. A conflict that’s still raging today, after a fashion. The sophists believed that the point of rhetoric is to be able to win disputes, while philosophers like Aristotle used debating as a tool to get closer to the truth.
What do you believe? Is it better to lie and win, or be right, but lose?
By that, I’m of course not saying that truth cannot win. The modern debating competitions in all of their various forms appear to be one big attempt to merge these approaches — to enable the debaters to win even when they stick to the truth. Nevertheless, debating is only a neutral tool which won’t make any specific ethical judgments for you.
Just look more closely at Aristotle. He cared about the truth a great deal, but today we know that he was wrong about almost everything he ever claimed. Even the values that he stood for often seem unacceptable to us today. For example, Aristotle argued that some people are naturally born slaves, meaning that there’s nothing morally wrong about their enslavement.
Scientific findings and social conventions change over time, and debate is one of the key instruments helping to make that happen. Slavery is one of the most obvious examples of this process. Originally, it was considered to be normal and acceptable even in the noble society of Athens.
As time went on toward the modern age, after centuries of debates about human nature and human rights, the slavery debate became very controversial, only to become completely non-controversial in the present, but at the opposite end of the opinion spectrum. Today, everybody would tell you that slavery is considered to be almost universally unacceptable.
Controversial topics are precisely the most interesting topics from the debating point of view, and it’s entirely up to you in which historical debates you want to take part, and on which side of the argument.
Great debates aren’t only for the great minds, they’re also for the common folk. The only thing you need to do is to find your own voice and start using it. If you join debating, you will become an active participant in this historical tradition, just like any of your students that you decide to introduce debating to.
It’s one thing to read or hear about debates taking place in your society. Debates about topics like the role of humankind in accelerating climate change, nuclear power, religious freedoms, or many other significant issues. It’s something entirely different to be actually involved in them.
Students who start debating will know what’s being addressed and why, what their genuine opinion about it is, and what, if anything, they can do about it. Such students will likely be much more active, concerned citizens who believe that their (educated) opinions matter.
1.2 POPULAR DEBATING FORMATS
Just like debating itself won’t tell you what your opinion should be, there are many different ways in which it’s possible to debate topics, as well as many kinds of topics to debate. In the last hundred years or so, a wide variety of vastly different debating formats was created.
Some of them are bound to a particular world region, others are international. Some are meant for high schools, others for colleges and universities. Some favor academic debate, others favor political debate. Some involve individuals, others involve teams. The list of differences goes on.
No matter what your personality type is and wherever in the world you happen to live, you should always be able to find some debating format that suits you. What follows is a selection of the most popular and interesting debating formats, from which you’re free to choose.
1.2.1 KARL POPPER
The most common debating format in Central and Eastern Europe is the Karl Popper Debate Program (KPDP). This format spread there after the fall of the iron curtain thanks to generous financial support from Open Society Foundations founded by George Soros, awarded to the emerging debating societies in post-communist states.
Many national debating competitions in this part of the world adopted this format, while the main international competition in this format is called World Karl Popper Debate Championship, which is hosted by the International Debate Education Association (IDEA). The most common languages in which one can debate in this format internationally are English and Russian.
This debate format was inspired by the famous philosopher of science, Karl Popper, who is known above all because of his theory of falsification. The theory states that nothing can be definitively proven on the basis of logical induction (any number of supporting observations), but that it is possible to definitively disprove any objective statement with a single observation that runs counter to it.
Because of this focus on facts and debunking, this debate format is more about evidence than values, doesn’t require the opposition to bring their own constructive case, and is good at preparing participants for scientific discussions.
Debate in this format involves two teams (affirmation and negation) consisting of three to five members each (only three participate directly in any single debate). After the first two speeches of each team, a cross-examination follows (direct questioning of the speaker who just finished speaking by one of the opposing speakers). Third speeches are shorter than the prior two, while some versions of the format use a time scheme of 7–7–5 minutes and others use 5–5–3 minutes.
RECOMMENDATION: Suitable format for those who prefer practical debates.
1.2.2 WORLD SCHOOLS DEBATING CHAMPIONSHIPS
World Schools Debating Championships is an international high school debating format, an annual tournament, and organization of the same name that was created in Australia in 1988. It is the most common high school debating format in the English speaking world and at open international tournaments (typically those held in English), like for example the Heart of Europe International Debating Tournament, which is hosted by my organization, the Czech Debate Society.
Other significant international WSDC tournaments throughout the world include for example the German EurOpen, Romanian ARGO Open, Turkish ESDC, Slovakian BSDC, Singaporean Prometheus Cup, or Prague Debate Spring held by the other Czech debate organization, Czech Debate Association.
Some of these tournaments limit the number of participating teams per state, others are fully open, including to the beginners. Details like these change over time, especially when there’s a global pandemic going on, so it’s always advisable to read the current participation requirements for any particular international debating tournament that you might want to attend in the world.
In this format, two teams of three speakers debate each other, while each speaker has one 8-minute speech. After the main six speeches, one speaker from each team returns to have one special closing speech which is only 4 minutes long.
Instead of direct cross-examination in between speeches, all speakers in this format have the ability to offer so-called points of information, or POIs. POIs are questions or objections raised during the opponent’s speech, indicated by a special hand gesture and saying “point of information”, which the target speaker may or may not accept to hear out and respond to.
POIs can be offered after the first minute of the speech is over and before the beginning of the last minute of the speech. A single POI should last up to 15 seconds, while every speaker in the debate should ideally offer at least one POI and accept at least one POI. However, constant offering of POIs is considered harassment of the speaker and is generally discouraged.
The affirmative team in this format is called Government and the negative team is called Opposition, as the inspiration for the format is the British-style parliament typical for the states of the Commonwealth, which includes Australia. Consequently, the main focus of the debates in this format are value clashes and international political issues.
RECOMMENDATION: Ideal debating format for those who prefer large international tournaments.
1.2.3 BRITISH PARLIAMENTARY
The name of the format, often abbreviated as “BP”, is indicative of the main source of inspiration for the format. Just like it was the case with WSDC, this is also a debating format that’s frequently used at international tournaments, only in this case predominantly at the college or university level.
If you’re interested in participating at one of these tournaments, simply search the name of any university town along with “IV” (abbreviation of InterVarsity, meaning “between universities”) and the number of the current or upcoming year. If the university in question is a reputable English-speaking one, it’s almost guaranteed that they’ll be hosting a debating tournament.
In the Central European area where I’m from, the main locations where such tournaments take place are Vienna and Berlin, but there are also active university debate clubs at the largest Czech universities which occasionally host events of their own.
The largest international university competitions in the BP debating format in the world, which change hosting countries from year to year, are European Universities Debating Championships (EUDC) and World Universities Debating Championships (WUDC).
This format is somewhat similar to WSDC, but the speeches are typically 7 minutes long and there are four debating teams involved in the debate instead of two — two governments and two oppositions, each with two speakers instead of three. First clash is between the first government and the first opposition, followed by a second clash between the second government and the second opposition.
Just like in the WSDC format, every speaker can offer POIs, ideally with a gesture symbolizing the holding of one’s imaginary wig with one hand, while stretching out the other arm, with an open palm pointing upward, in the direction of the opposing speaker who’s currently giving their speech.
In some BP variants, the motion can be interpreted in unusual, unexpected ways, which is nicknamed a “squirrel” (e.g., interpreting “Turkey” to mean the animal instead of the country, etc.), however this tactic is usually considered to be unfair in serious competitions.
The reason why a surprising strategy works exceptionally well in this format is that unlike in most other formats, BP debaters typically don’t debate prepared motions. The usual preparation time in BP is only 15 minutes, measured from learning the motion to the start of the debate.
Given the parliamentary inspiration of this format, but a more improvised and sophisticated nature of the debates, the ideal type of motion for this style of debate is one focused on some kind of plan suggesting a solution to a political problem.
RECOMMENDATION: Virtually the only format debated at universities.
The United States has its own unique debate culture, which is in many ways quite isolated from the rest of the debating world. Lincoln-Douglas (LD) is a debating format inspired by real historical political clashes between Abraham Lincoln and senator Stephen A. Douglas from 1858, which is used by the National Forensics League, an organization founded in 1925.
Recently, the organization was renamed to National Speech and Debate Association, perhaps due to the archaic nature of the term “forensics” in this context. Forensics is what Aristotle called debating, however the term never caught up in the rest of the debating world.
If you wish to debate in this format, you will likely have to do it on your own, as there are virtually no official competitions in this format held outside of the United States. LD definitely has its appeal, however, particularly if you’re not interested in focusing primarily on teamwork while developing your rhetorical skills or those of your students.
LD is a unique format in that each debate is a one-on-one duel. Both speakers have the same amount of time in total, however the first speaker (defending the motion) has her time split into three speeches, while the second speaker (attacking the motion) only into two speeches. Just like in KPDP, direct cross-examination happens between the speeches.
Another unique feature of this format is that the speeches can be written down ahead of time and then read from the prepared materials. Significantly shorter speech lengths (around 3–4 minutes), in combination with reading being allowed in this format, result in the fastest possible speaking rate, enabling the speakers to squeeze in a large number of individual speaking points into every speech.
This practice is called “spreading”, and the more you’re going to look into American debating formats, the more debating jargon like this you’re going to find. In the spirit of the original debates between Lincoln and Douglas (about the issue of slavery), this format is focused mainly on value clashes and philosophical arguments.
RECOMMENDATION: Talented speakers tend to enjoy duels and reading speeches teaches one how to write them.
1.2.5 SELECTION OF INTERESTING ALTERNATIVE FORMATS
If you aren’t particularly interested in any of the popular debating competition-based options mentioned thus far, not even if you were to just try them online, maybe you’ll like some of the less popular, but no less interesting ways of practicing your speaking skills.
If you prefer to focus on the art of speech, as opposed to the clash component of debating, then you can try some kind of solo contest, like Extemporaneous Speaking in the United States. The point of this competition, as well as many similar ones in other countries, is to prepare a short speech on a specific topic, arguing for or against something, but the speeches of all of the speakers aren’t made in direct response to each other and may be completely disconnected.
The skills that are being evaluated in solo contests are only those of preparing and performing the speech. If Extemporaneous Speaking still feels too argumentative for you, you can try Toastmasters, which is also about solo performances, but without the argumentative element. The point of this program is to develop speaking skills and confidence in a more friendly, relaxed atmosphere, focusing on conversation and social skills more than debating or philosophy.
If you want to focus purely on the artistic component of the art of speech, pretty much every country has its version or multiple versions of recitation competitions. In my country, the Czech Republic, these include for example Wolker’s Prostejov and Slam Poetry, which by themselves represent two opposite kinds of recitation contest — the traditional reciting of the great works of classical authors, versus the more modern concept of a poetry slam, which is about original, even improvised poetic or dramatic performances.
If you’re interested in something more collaborative or real world-like than debating competitions or solo performances, you can try Model United Nations, where you would learn what it’s like to represent your country at an international summit. Another common type of rhetorical simulation of a real-world situation is mock trial or legislative debate.
Finally, if you want to increase your real-world expertise as well as your rhetorical skills, you can try to get involved in hosting or participating in panel debates of experts, like the Oxford Union-style debates, or expert solo speeches, like the TEDx Program. But even outside of existing programs, any institution, company, or community can invite guest speakers to an event, and the expertise in question doesn’t have to be strictly scientific.
1.3 THE PLACE OF DEBATE IN THE EDUCATION SYSTEM
If you’re wondering whether debating currently is a substantial part of education systems worldwide, the simple answer is: no. What is there is an ongoing global debate about education reform, with some of the key ideas revolving around debate-related capacities like critical thinking and the ability to express oneself.
Generally speaking, involving debate in education isn’t prohibited in any free democratic country. However, one also shouldn’t expect most official state-based educational institutions to be able to effectively incorporate any kind of debating program into the basic, mandatory “common core” of any given education system.
For a number of reasons that are difficult to address, the task of making debating a part of education falls mainly on teachers and students themselves almost everywhere in the world. As well as NGOs, either on the local, country level, like the Czech Debate Society of which I am a founding member, or on the international level, like the International Debate Education Association (IDEA).
To briefly address some of the reasons why debating is still only an educational alternative, despite having existed for thousands of years — it is a subject that’s difficult to standardize; the fostering of true critical thinking among the population isn’t in the interest of any existing kind of government; and there are always the issues of funding and time, or prioritization.
The absence of official debating education may be a good thing — if states were running educational debating programs, they would probably be propagandistic, not philosophical. On the other hand, more people engaging in any form of debating could mean a more informed and active citizenry. Regardless, you can start debating on your own, and you can get support.
But first, it’s important to understand why one should create a debate club at a school and how debating can be integrated into standard education. The point of it certainly isn’t to meet any formal criteria related to testing or admissions. Argumentation is literally based on informal logic, which makes it immune to standardized testing, while perhaps only the Ivy League schools consider debating skills or competition record as a (minor) deciding factor in admissions.
I have already previously mentioned the importance of debating to the development of civic society, and debating is one of the most effective methods of helping students become more aware and active citizens. Similarly, critical thinking is far more effectively taught by an interactive method like debating, as opposed to standard passive instruction.
The young generation cannot be justifiably blamed for not enjoying and failing to learn using ineffective methods. It’s also unfortunate that students typically aren’t allowed to constructively express themselves within standard education systems. Within a subject like civics, for example, virtually every element of the curriculum would be better demonstrated through a debate or discussion, rather than by reading from a textbook.
Debating is also one of the best ways to improve the mastery of both native and foreign languages. Students again shouldn’t be blamed for failing to learn a language or rhetoric when the instruction of basically every subject, including languages, is limited almost exclusively to reading and writing.
This so-called literary grammatical method, which is currently the dominant form of language instruction in most classrooms, is best suited for dead languages like Latin, not living, spoken languages that are still in common use in active, developing societies.
Living languages require a more natural approach, as they’re developing themselves, rapidly in real time, including their vocabulary and styles of speech. Debating teaches languages as they’re being currently communicated. Through debating, students gain the practical ability to express themselves and persuade others.
Using artificially constructed and inevitably outdated textbook examples, students cannot effectively accomplish any of that, or at least not nearly at the same level. Debating uses the same mechanism to teach language that all of us had used to learn our native language — listening and imitation. This may not make debaters able to pass advanced grammar tests, but it definitely makes them able to successfully communicate in real life.
As far as art is concerned, what many educated people don’t realize is that during the enlightenment period, a subtle, but significant change occurred in what educated people understand culture to be. The great works of poetry and storytelling from the ancient times weren’t created by being written. Poetry and storytelling, as well as philosophy, were the key intellectual disciplines of oral cultures.
Contrary to what many contemporary teachers and critics would have you think, speaking isn’t a lesser form of culture than writing. “Writer” isn’t a synonym for “storyteller”, and “book” isn’t a synonym for “story”. Similarly, most styles of music historically originated within oral traditions, derived from expressions of voice like speech or singing, not musical notation.
The key cultural distinction here is between the focus on live performance versus recording. Debating is part of a broader discipline called rhetoric, which covers scientific subjects as well as artistic ones, and recitation and dramatic performance are arts closely related to debating. Sadly, these arts are also generally underrepresented in standard education systems.
Speech, sometimes called “oracy” as a fundamental human capacity, is a more primary, natural form of expression and intellectual exercise than reading or writing, which is closely related to both logic and aesthetics. Therefore, it should be considered at least on par in its importance for human development and culture as literacy, if not of more importance.
What’s more, with the ascent of electronic media, technological progress is again shifting emphasis to audiovisual communication, mainly in the form of videos and interactive programs. This trend was identified by Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan already in the sixties of the previous century, as part of his broader communication theory called technodeterminism. At the same time, most schools today treat the printing press as the peak of modern technology.
Press of course was modern at a particular historical moment and during the subsequent period, but this period is now coming to a close. Books likely aren’t going anywhere anytime soon and nobody is suggesting that students should stop learning to read and write. But if we want to prepare the young generation for what’s coming, or what’s already here, including future jobs and future culture, reading and writing won’t be enough.
The new technological paradigm will require students to learn how to speak and listen well. Schools will also never be able to prevent students from “getting distracted” by watching videos and playing games, no matter how strongly teachers insist that only books contain knowledge and culture.
On the side of schools and teachers, a much more logical and productive approach would be to help transfer existing knowledge and culture into new media formats. As well as to start teaching school subjects in ways compatible with new technology — through speech, singing, action, and playing.
But regardless of the specific school subject, debating as a learning activity is completely independent of what topic is being debated, which makes it suitable across curricula. You can debate topics from subjects including history, geography, natural sciences, even mathematics. Every area of human knowledge contains controversies, problems, legislative decisions, and philosophical arguments.
Best of all, teaching by debate is the opposite of dogmatism, as it is a way to get students acquainted with a subject matter without in any way deciding for them what the “correct” opinion is. It’s an active learning method, where students prepare not because they have to, not for the sake of some test that’s coming up, but because they want to be able to defend their point of view, or to win a contest that matters to them.
Teacher’s role also changes, from authoritarian dictator to impartial moderator. This helps students hate the very concept of school as well as teachers less over time, through the changing of the relationship between the students and school authorities to one that’s more equal and just. Students will appreciate being heard, and any school authorities who are acting in good faith will appreciate that the students learn to do so intelligently and respectfully.
At the end of the day, what matters most is that by creating a debate club at your school or by including debating across the curricula, you will give your students the ability to truly participate in their education.
1.4 THE DIFFICULTIES OF FOUNDING A DEBATE CLUB
First of all, there are important differences between education levels and school types. In my experience, debating is the easiest to establish at specialized high schools and universities, but regardless of the type of school that you work at or attend, there’s always a way to make it work.
The key is to create a sufficient level of interest among the students or teachers, or get the school administration on board. One of the ways in which this is typically done is by hosting an introductory meeting, advertised on a relevant physical or online school message board.
If that’s the way you decide to go about it, I wouldn’t expect very high attendance, however. Most people in the world, perhaps with the exception of the English speaking world, tend to have next to no idea about what debating is. In our NGO, we prefer hosting debate days, which involve whole classes of students trying out debating instead of attending a regular school day.
It would be again unrealistic to expect that everyone involved becomes interested in debating, but that’s not required. A debate club is sustainable as long as the number of students attending it is sufficient to have two teams of at least two students debating each other, plus you need at least one teacher (or experienced debater) to serve as a trainer and adjudicator.
The most effective approach is to host debate days regularly with new classes of students. During this phase, any cooperation with existing debate clubs or debate organizations would be of great help. However, a debate club can function just fine when both the students and the teacher are beginners.
At a certain point, it does become important to confront the students with debaters from other schools, since the elements of competition and socialization are big parts of what’s going to keep the debaters motivated to continue debating regularly over a long period of time.
You should consider inviting a team from a nearby school to debate with your students, or you can visit a nearby school to debate a local team. You can do it any time you want, it doesn’t have to happen as part of any official debating competition.
At this point, it becomes crucial to have the school administration on your side, since the students will occasionally need to be released from regular classes, in order for the participation at debating competitions to be practically feasible. A school that actively supports its debating students is of course the ideal scenario, although it isn’t always achievable.
High schools, middle schools, and grammar schools and their international equivalents are in this context much more problematic than colleges and universities. The more free studying regime at the university level, coupled with the lack of dependence on teachers (since the students are adults), makes it possible, even easy, to have sustainable student-led debate clubs at colleges and universities.
The difficulty there could perhaps arise if the local school administration refuses to lend or otherwise provide spaces for the debates to take place. At the high school level or earlier, this can also be a problem, while the support of teachers is necessary for any debating club to flourish, if it manages to be created at all.
The only other alternative, the legality or hurdles of which depend on the precise nature of relevant laws in your country, is to have some qualified adult from outside of the school lead the debate club at the school, or outside of its premises.
This role can often be fulfilled by debating NGOs, as long as they were established legally as educational organizations. If the school and parents are okay with involving an NGO, and willing to pay for their services (or the NGO is willing to provide free service), the arrangement can allow the school to have a debating program without having to do much to make it happen.
Ultimately, regardless of who founded or leads the debate club or at what type of school, the necessary prerequisite for it to be effective and to survive over time is for the meetings and training to be happening regularly, ideally on a weekly basis.
2. DEBATING METHODOLOGY
Debating competitions use specific terminology, which is identical regardless of the specific format being used. The following section is dedicated to explaining all of the terms that you need to understand in order to be able to debate effectively or to help your students develop their rhetorical skills.
These key terms include motion, argumentation, definitions, rebuttal, rehabilitation, conclusion, and logical fallacies. I will explain these terms using both theoretical analysis and practical examples, while factoring in that you may lack any previous experience with debating.
2.1 TYPES OF MOTIONS
Debating motion is a simple statement in the form of a declarative sentence, which is defensible as well as refutable. Ideally, every debating motion should be balanced (giving enough ground to both its proponents and opponents), current (or at least thought-provoking), and controversial (stirring public interest and diverging opinions).
There are several different basic types of motions, depending on the focus of the statement. The most straightforward type is the factual motion, which is declaring something objective, something that can be scientifically or judicially proven or disproven.
In order for this type of motion to be debatable, it is necessary that it is about something that hasn’t been fully decided yet, either scientifically or politically. Examples of this type of motion include “recycling is good for the economy” or “climate change is a threat to humanity”.
In both of these examples, note that there is general agreement expected that one can do recycling or that climate change is occurring, but that still leaves some open questions to be discussed using facts. By the time you read this textbook, the scientific or political consensus may have shifted (again) regarding these topics, but that just changes what aspects of such topics are currently more or less debatable.
Another type is the value motion, which focuses on a fundamentally irresolvable conflict of personal beliefs or subjective preferences. These motions often delve into philosophy and involve clashes of classical values like justice or freedom. In terms of examples, think something like “democracy is the best form of government” or “chocolate is the best flavor of ice cream”.
One more basic type is the plan motion, which proposes a solution to a problem, a change of the status quo. Debates on this kind of motion are quite similar to how new laws are being proposed by the appropriate members of government and deliberated in the appropriate chamber of parliament, including their questioning by the opposition.
This type of motion can also be distinguished from the others relatively easily by the use of the conditional mood — we “should” do something, something “ought to” be done, etc. For example, “we should make university education free of charge” or “we should legalize cannabis”.
In a debate, all motions except the factual ones also require a so-called “criterion”, or, in other words, a goal. The goal that you’re trying to accomplish could be, in an abstract sense, some sort of moral imperative, or, in a completely practical sense, a tangible result of a specific plan. I will explain the criterion in more depth later in a whole chapter devoted to it.
2.2 THE DIFFICULTIES OF DEFINING KEY TERMS
Defining the process of defining is a bit tricky, so let’s just think about this as me trying to explain to you how you should go about explaining the motion. Namely, explaining what you think the motion is actually saying.
Considering that motions are simple declarative statements, it may appear that their meaning is always obvious. Which is something that many people undoubtedly believe, but it is in fact exceedingly likely that different people, when left to their own devices, will come to understand the same motion differently.
The main goal of the proposition side is to explain the motion so that both sides end up talking about the same thing during the debate. The best way to illustrate what differences in the interpretation of a motion can look like is to use an example. Take the debating beginner classic — “the death penalty is justifiable”.
Do you personally believe that it is justifiable, or do you not? Decide for yourself now. If you believe that it is justifiable, read on very carefully. What if I told you that by death penalty, I meant death penalty for mass murderers? Your opinion probably remains unchanged.
But what if I told you that I meant death penalty for traitors? Maybe you’re starting to reconsider. What if I told you I meant death penalty for women who have cheated on their husbands? That seems to be much harder to support and still feel morally in the right. And we’re just getting started.
What if the mass murderer was insane? What if they were 12 at the time they committed the murders? What if the method of execution wasn’t a painless injection, but instead a beheading by a guillotine? Or hanging? Or electric chair? Gas chamber? Stoning?
This kind of motion requires a substantial amount of specification in order for anyone to be able to make an informed judgment about it. The important factors one should take into consideration include the nature of the crime, age, gender, and culpability status of the perpetrator, means of execution, and often also the region of the world in which the execution would take place.
As this example hopefully demonstrates, definitions are absolutely essential in debating. If the debating teams aren’t in fundamental agreement about what it is that they’re talking about, the proposition and opposition are unlikely to clash with their arguments at all.
As for how definitions work on a technical level, the basic rule is that any term can only be defined by a different term or terms. Try to never repeat the word that you’re defining within its definition, not even disguised as its synonym from a foreign language or some kind of technical jargon.
Beyond this rule, there are multiple entirely different types of definitions. You can define a term by listing all of its parts, by explaining its fundamental nature, by naming its opposite, by describing the circumstances of its origin, by citing a convention about the usage of the term, by referencing a different definition, etc.
But regardless of which type of definition you decide to use, make sure you understand which debating options your definition leaves available to you. What your definition doesn’t include, that shouldn’t be discussed in the debate, and what is included in your definition, you must not fail to discuss in the debate.
Don’t rely blindly on any single dictionary definition, regardless of how reputable your dictionary of choice might be. Instead, explore as many different (relevant) definitions of the key terms as possible and try to merge them into one that best reflects your personal perspective and/or debate strategy.
What should also be mentioned are the basic unethical ways in which one may choose to do definitions. Defining, by definition, narrows down the topic. To some extent, this is necessary for a clash to be possible.
However, when the narrowing goes too far (often intentionally), both teams may no longer have equal chances of winning the clash. Such intentional excessive narrowing of the definition of the debated motion needs to be challenged right away in the debate and then at every opportunity for as long as the dispute about the definitions isn’t resolved.
The opposite, but potentially equally unethical way to do definitions is to make them too vague. For example, you can define what solving a problem would mean so vaguely, that basically anything would qualify. This also doesn’t improve the quality or balance of the debate. In this case, you need to ask clarifying questions until the key definitions are sufficiently clear.
2.3 BASICS OF ARGUMENTATION
Argument, in the most basic sense, is a reason why. Arguments therefore logically follow motion statements, making “MOTION because ARGUMENT” the most fundamental type of debate sentence, simple and straightforward. If the phrasing of your argument cannot follow the motion in this way, it may not be an argument at all, or it isn’t a particularly good argument, and definitely not one that’s properly phrased.
It isn’t necessary to always use this exact sentence scheme, but in order to make a more complicated statement work, you’d need to have an appropriately more advanced level of rhetorical skill. Beyond phrasing, argumentation as the core mechanic of debating is connected with a number of specific terms, which we will now explore.
While this step isn’t strictly necessary, it is generally best to begin arguing by formulating or introducing (or you could also say naming) the argument that you’re trying to make. If you skip the introduction of the argument, you’re increasing the odds that members of the audience will misunderstand it.
I have already discussed the basics of the phrasing of arguments, so I will only add that a basic argument sentence in the form of “MOTION because ARGUMENT” can be considered to be the name of the argument, but you could also use some kind of shorthand or poetic reference instead. To introduce an argument in a debate, simply state its name and reference its number (first, second, third, etc.).
The whole introductory formulation is usually something like “Our n-th argument is that MOTION (e.g., we should legalize cannabis) because ARGUMENT (e.g., each individual should have the freedom to decide what they put in their body”). Argument names are useful as quick references to complicated ideas, so that you don’t have to keep explaining them over and over. Assuming you have explained the ideas at some point in the debate. Speaking of…
An unexplained argument is no argument, and an argument that’s not supported with evidence is nothing more than speculation. This argumentation step is therefore by far the most important one. Immediately after you introduce an argument, you should explain it, starting with something similar to the definition exercise that you did for the motion.
Identical words can again mean different things to different people, but in order to properly explain an argument, you’ll need to go far beyond simply defining the terms. You’ll also have to explain the specific logic at work behind the argument.
Logic typically works either with causes and effects (mainly relevant to factual motions), or with comparisons (mainly relevant to value motions). You should focus on showing which effects you’re trying to accomplish and which effects you’re trying to prevent, as well as on which causes lead to which of those effects, in your analysis. When you’re making comparisons, you need to clarify what are the things that you’re comparing and by what measure or measures.
Plan motions further introduce the concept of “problem”, for which you’re supposed to propose a solution. In this case, explaining the argument means to identify the problem and its causes, show how these causes can be limited or prevented, and then describe all the benefits that your solution to the problem will bring.
Any and all of these explanations should of course be supported with as much evidence as you can muster, at every step of the way. Imagine that pieces of evidence support arguments like pillars — more and stronger is better. Regardless of how seductive any sophisticated logical hypothesis might be, a simple hypothesis that’s well supported will always be much more compelling. We will discuss different types of evidence later.
One of the golden rules in debating is that no argument is bulletproof — you can argue successfully against essentially everything. Even scientific facts evolve over time, with new evidence and new perspectives on old evidence. Argument is also a complex structure, a chain with many links, which is only as strong as the weakest of the links.
To counter an argument, all you need to do is to counter one of its logical steps, a single explanation of “why” or “how”. Let us now explore all of the levels on which a rebuttal of arguments can take place. A good motion for the purposes of demonstrating the different avenues of counter-argumentation is, for example, “scientific progress is a threat”.
188.8.131.52 Countering Definitions (the Explanation of the Motion)
Definitions are treacherous. Typically, it is not recommended for the opposition team to try to build a winning strategy on attacking problems with definitions, but there are times when it would be a good idea. Considering the example motion, “scientific progress is a threat”, there are some challenges to coming up with proper definitions for the key terms.
The terms that need defining are “scientific progress” and “threat”. The nature of science is fairly straightforward — it includes all uses and applications of the scientific method — but what is progress? Progress generally includes the inventing of new technologies, which would make for a reasonable minimal definition (progress = the invention of new technologies by using the scientific method).
However, one can easily manage to complicate the definition of progress, as well as bring a far heavier debating burden on themselves, by dragging in the question of the goal or goals of progress. Potential goals of progress are numerous, including problem-solving, improving the quality of human life, opening up of new possibilities, better understanding nature, etc.
Assuming the proposition team defines progress as coming up with technologies to make life easier, how do they then justify bringing up technologies like nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, which clearly don’t share that goal and therefore are not examples of scientific progress? Maybe such technologies could be acknowledged as inadvertent side effects of trying to make life easier, but it creates an opening for the opposition team.
The opposition team could simply point out that by the proposition’s own definition, scientific progress is positively motivated, turning a mere definition into an immediate concession by the proposition team. If progress is defined as only positively motivated technologies, it’s harder to make it sound damaging or evil, and therefore threatening. Which is avoidable by the proposition, if they simply go with the minimal reasonable definition.
With all that said, the potential problems with the definition of threat are larger still. Two questions need to be answered — threat of what, and to whom. Most commonly, the threat will be defined as a threat of extinction to the human race.
If the proposition instead chooses to focus on something less dire or smaller in scale, then scientific progress will appear to be only a minor threat at best (meaning worst). It would enable a universal counter-argument — even assuming all proposition arguments are true, one would always be able to find a counterexample of a technology that negates or mitigates minor harms.
Conversely, if the proposition defines the threat in exaggerated terms, it will also decrease its chances of winning the debate, since it would have to double down on defending the logical fallacy of slippery slope. Finally, if the definition of the threat is too vague, the threat would be unclear, which would make it difficult to connect it with any specific argument.
In summary, rebuttal of definitions doesn’t mean that the opposition simply rejects the proposition’s definitions, it’s about pointing out the shortcomings of the definitions, as well as how these shortcomings negatively impact proposition’s arguments.
When a definition is bad, it may inadvertently put some parts of arguments or some evidence outside of the scope of the debate. When that is pointed out by the opposition, the opposition can thus make such arguments and evidence appear questionable or entirely moot.
184.108.40.206 Countering Premises (Logical Foundations)
This type of rebuttal is perhaps the most advanced, while also being the most effective, making it very difficult for your opponents to quickly come up with an effective counter-strategy if you successfully pull it off. Premises, or logical presuppositions or requirements of arguments, are often left implicit, unsaid. They’re automatic, taken for granted.
When you shine a light on them and show that they’re invalid, or you offer an alternative point of view on the whole debated situation that you demonstrate to be more important, you will effectively obliterate the opponent’s whole case and pretty much change the rules of the engagement. It’s like switching from older physics to newer physics, from Newton to Einstein — the facts and measurements are still the same, but the shift in the point of view changes what they mean in dramatic ways.
For example, if the threat posed by scientific progress is defined as a growing endangerment of the continued existence of the human race through us devising ever more deadly technologies, this extreme point of view is quite vulnerable to a shift in perspective. The unspoken premise of the proposition team in this case is the idea that without modern technology, life would be safer.
Which is, of course, fundamentally incorrect. Nature isn’t safer, it isn’t safe, period. While some technologies are very dangerous and threaten our extinction, in the absence of technology, nature guarantees our extinction. Possible calamities that could do it, or, to be more exact, one of which would inevitably do it, include plague, supervolcano eruption, asteroid impact, global flood, ice age, the death of our sun, etc.
Science and technology are essential in enabling our continued survival, for us to have a chance at all. This logic makes all examples of horrific technologies irrelevant, enabling the opposition to accept all of the proposition’s arguments in full, as necessary risks, and still win the argument. In comparison, the real threat would be the opposite of scientific progress — mother nature. Ironically, the uprooting of premises is like dropping a nuke on your opponent’s case.
By the way, this isn’t even the only way to turn the whole logic of the debate upside down for this motion. Consider this, as a response to the previous change in perspective — which is more important, our survival and wellbeing, or the survival and wellbeing of the whole biosphere? Mother nature doesn’t threaten life as a whole, it threatens only the survival of individual species.
Our technological progress doesn’t only threaten our survival, but the survival of the whole biosphere. Perhaps even beyond our planet, perhaps of the universe as a whole, who knows how advanced technology can get before it backfires. Following this logic, scientific progress is a threat precisely because it does allow us to survive, while mother nature is the opposite of a threat precisely because it aims to destroy us, eventually. Suffice it to say, successful attacks on premises tend to make for some very interesting debates.
220.127.116.11 Countering Causality
This should be the most common way of countering argumentation, which is also fairly simple to understand, in theory. If you show that cause A doesn’t lead to a consequence B, you can disrupt any of the links in the chain of argumentation. An example will cease to support an argument, a problem won’t be caused, a plan won’t solve a problem, a solution won’t lead to benefits, benefits won’t fulfill the espoused values, and so on.
Don’t forget that only one of these steps needs to be countered, and the whole argument stops being valid. There are so many potential, diverse applications of this principle, that it would be pointless to try to provide any universal examples.
The general recommendation would be to always question every discrete statement of your opponent with a “why?” or “how” question. Whenever you cannot get a satisfactory answer to such a question, then it is likely that there’s some kind of issue with the causality of the opponent’s argument.
18.104.22.168 Countering Criterion (Value or Goal)
Typically, the main problem with the goal or the overarching value, regardless of which team chose it, is that it isn’t sufficiently significant. In such cases, to counter it, it should be enough to point out that it is a dubious goal or value, one not worth pursuing. Alternatively, you can propose a much more powerful counter-goal or counter-value of your own and make a comparative analysis.
Goals and values that are dubious within the context of any given debate or morality in general, e.g., profit from selling weapons to conflict zones, cannot withstand a fair comparison with goals and values that are generally considered to be more ethical or worthwhile, e.g., humanitarian ideals. In real life, dubious values may prevail, but the goal of debating is to try to find ways to improve the world, not to try to become the ruler of its ashes.
Sometimes, a team may decide to promote multiple values or to try to achieve multiple goals. This usually makes the job of their opponents easier, since countering at least one of the goals or values casts doubt on the case as a whole, and having more points to defend means that you have less time in which you can defend each one. If the criterion is missing altogether, the case is probably aimless or pointless, and can be easily countered by pointing that out.
22.214.171.124 Countering Evidence
Evidence or proofs can be countered in many different ways, some of which I have already described, e.g., by countering the causal link between example and argument. However, when the example does support the argument, it can still be countered.
One of the aspects of evidence through which it can be countered is the credibility of its source. A report from a tabloid newspaper or an opinion of your random friend aren’t as credible as a scientific paper or an expert opinion, for example. But again, even an expert opinion or a result of a scientific study can be reasonably argued against.
An expert opinion can be countered with other, diverging expert opinions, while a scientific study may have some issues with its methodology. The methodology of scientific research is a topic that’s too extensive and complex for me to be able to cover it here, but it should be enough to keep in mind that scientists are people too, capable of making mistakes or fudging research results for personal profit.
Finally, in terms of logic, it’s important to question whether the evidence as it was presented really proves everything exactly in the way in which the team that proposed it would like everyone to believe. For example, a study that suggests that general AI will be developed within a couple of decades doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be exactly like Skynet, or that it will happen exactly in a couple of decades.
The key aspect of evidence to always consider is what it definitely proves, and what it only suggests, and with what levels of precision or reliability. Don’t ignore or make up evidence, but don’t let yourselves be intimidated by it, either. The relative weight of any particular piece of evidence is always up for debate, and that’s what makes it matter, or not.
Above all, respond, respond, and respond. Listen to your opponent, make note of all of their complaints, and then respond to them. It’s not enough to just repeat what you have already said in your prior speeches. Repeating your case isn’t a defense, and not listening to your opponent goes against all debating principles.
Those who don’t listen to people who have a conflicting opinion, and who only keep repeating their own opinion, are called fanatics. It is said that a repeated lie becomes the truth, and it can happen in the real world, but not in an environment where there are active listeners who are able to critically examine everything that they’re told.
Debate judges or adjudicators are trained to listen carefully, analyze everything that you have said, and judge it neutrally and objectively. As debaters, you should strive to master this ability and adopt this mindset as quickly as you can, at least by trial and error. This will empower you to reason and to appeal to critical minds, which is, paradoxically, the “heart” of debating.
But whatever your current level of debating skill is, I would advise you to not hesitate to test yourself against the most skilled opponents you can find. No argumentation is perfect, and, by the same token, no counter-argumentation is perfect either.
Imagine a perfect debate, where two perfect teams oppose each other (which is impossible, but let’s ignore that for now). As long as they debate a balanced motion, the debate will be perfectly balanced. Anything that one team says, the other team will effectively counter, only for the countered argument to be completely rehabilitated in the next round by the team that proposed it, which will continue until a perfectly reasonable and valid summary is given by both teams.
In the end, the judges will determine who won and who lost the debate, not the arguing teams, which is why it’s generally better if there are more judges in a panel, where each one of them has an equal vote. Odd number of judges is preferable in order to avoid a draw, which would likely be a demotivational outcome for a competitive debate.
If the debate ended in a draw, it could feel like a waste of time for the participants, or like argumentation doesn’t actually solve anything. But it’s important to understand that debating, however successful or unsuccessful, is always a valuable learning opportunity. By practicing argumentation, one learns through every mistake to become a better thinker and speaker.
If you’re determined to win arguments in competitive debates, then you need to realize that your ultimate goal is precisely to persuade the judges. It’s generally advisable to try to maintain eye contact with them, both to enhance their attention, and to try to read their expressions to figure out whether whatever you’re saying sounds convincing to them. Judges are advised to maintain a poker face, but it’s very hard to mask surprise, approval, or disagreement.
Also, don’t forget that judges are only people too, with their own personal biases, as much as that shouldn’t affect their ultimate decision. Even with that taken into account, though, your best bet will always be logic. In order to defend your case, you need to clearly and overwhelmingly demonstrate that, despite all of the objections of the opposition, you’re more right than wrong.
2.3.5 IMPACT/DRAWING CONCLUSIONS
To demonstrate that you’re right, the main thing you need to be able to do is to show the impact of your arguments, to draw persuasive conclusions. This includes being able to reference how all of the opponent’s counter-arguments were neutralized by your rehabilitation, as well as addressing unmentioned hypothetical objections that the audience might be thinking.
You can think of it as answering all of the possible “why” and “how” questions that you may have been asked regarding your case. How will our plan solve the problem? This is how. Why do opponent’s objections not matter? This is why. How does this example support this argument? Like so. Just keep answering good questions (well), even if nobody is asking them.
In fact, in the real world, persuasion is in large part about addressing unvoiced concerns. Probably more so than in a debate, since in real life, people are often afraid of public speaking, or confrontation in general. If you want to be strategic in how you’re communicating, then you need to be aware of what you’re trying to accomplish, which makes it essential to always explain all of the impacts of what you’re proposing.
2.3.6 SUMMARY/DEBATE ANALYSIS
This is mainly the responsibility of the last speakers, however it can be useful to some extent at any later point in the debate. As the last speaker, one shouldn’t bring any new ideas or information into the debate, which many debaters unfortunately often do. Think of it this way, all things must end, and debates are no exception.
The last speech in a debate (for each team) is supposed to offer a conclusion, a summary, a look back at the debate, and explanation of how it went, for the benefit of the judges and the audience. You should cover exclusively what had already been said in prior speeches, meaning the arguments that were presented, the counter-arguments, the rehabilitations, and the final end points of all clashes.
It isn’t so much about listing all of the errors that the opponent has made, the judges took note of those. By trying to get into the details of rules at an abstract level, you’re only risking that you will accuse the opponent of committing something that’s actually allowed.
You should focus on the content of the argumentation — ideas, evidence, plans, and values — and demonstrate which were more or less valid or important. Of course, each team is supposed to do a biased summary, one that will help them win the debate.
Ideally, you should be able to demonstrate that everything you said was more valid and important than everything your opponents said. You’d be surprised how often a good summary can turn the whole debate around just by shifting emphasis or perspective.
2.3.7 ARGUMENTATION CASE AND SPEAKER COOPERATION
Apart from all of the specific functions that individual arguments are supposed to serve, and apart from the rules of how one is supposed to come up with arguments, it also matters whether all of the arguments work together. The best argumentation case is one within which all of the arguments complement and strengthen each other.
If you only create a random shopping list of several different reasons why to support or not support a motion, there likely won’t be any overall point to the case as a whole, and the different reasons may even contradict or undermine each other in some hard-to-foresee logical endpoint.
You should always begin from the definitions of what the main problems are and from the ultimate values and goals that you’ve chosen to adopt. All arguments that you make then need to address the defined problem or problems and aim to uphold your values and achieve your goals.
Simplicity is also generally advisable. Too many arguments or problems, too broad definitions, overly complicated goals, or multiple competing values being considered at once are likely to make your argumentation case untenable or at odds with itself.
To further ensure the coherence of your argumentation case, you need to focus on the continuity of how you present the arguments, on maintaining the proper flow of various parts of your case between the different speakers. Put simply, how the first speaker starts the case is what the next speakers should follow, instead of branching off into their own cases.
In most debating formats, the speaker roles are as follows — first speaker introduces the case and outlines where it’s supposed to be headed; the second speaker continues the case in the advertised direction, defends it against opponents’ attacks, and attacks the opponents’ case; the third (or more broadly closing) speaker then finishes and sums up the case, while at most adding some supporting examples, and overall tries to “sell” the case to the audience and the judge or judges.
The proposition team naturally puts more emphasis on defending their own case, while the opposition team puts more emphasis on attacking the opponents’ case. The attacks can most definitely include criticizing the opponents’ case for being inconsistent or contradictory.
Except for Lincoln-Douglas debates, debating tends to be a team sport. This means that the best strategy to ensure consistency is for the speakers to prepare the case together, as well as to help each other during any time in a debate in which communicating with your teammates is allowed. A single divergent speech that introduces contradictions into your case can lose you a debate, so balanced teams often have advantage over teams with a single exceptional speaker.
The best way to think of how to bring evidence into a debate and how to measure its relative weight is to look at the debate as a court case. The similarities aren’t accidental, given that court proceedings are a large source of inspiration for the rules of debating formats. Both at court and in most competitive debates, you have two sides that disagree about a statement, an impartial judge or jury, and an audience.
At court, the main relevant categories of evidence are direct versus indirect evidence, as well as objective versus subjective evidence. Direct evidence definitely proves that something is a fact beyond reasonable doubt, while indirect evidence only suggests it. Objective evidence is scientific, physical, tangible, or inescapably logical (like in a good detective story), while subjective evidence includes testimony and expert opinions, which rely on human memory, judgment, and character.
Generally speaking, objective evidence is much stronger than subjective evidence, and direct evidence is much stronger than indirect evidence. In a debate, objective (and potentially direct) evidence could be a scientific study from a natural field. Comparatively, a study within humanities could be equivalent to expert opinion. On the subjective, philosophical end of the spectrum, quotes from significant thinkers, artists, authors, politicians, etc., could also have some weight, depending on what specific point you’re trying to make.
A relevant scientific study or an opinion of a true subject matter expert are probably the best types of evidence to bring in a debate. However, such factual proofs aren’t the only thing you can use to support an idea. Especially in value or plan debates, hypothetical examples or scenarios may be applicable. Such hypotheticals don’t have to be based on anything that has already happened — the persuasiveness of the logic behind the speculation is what gives them weight.
This kind of evidence is often called logical proof, as opposed to empirical proof (evidence from experience), and it’s quite popular in philosophy, especially political philosophy. When the core of what you’re arguing about deals with utopias and dystopias (ideal or undesirable visions of the future organization of society, respectively), empirical evidence may not be available yet.
If you prefer to avoid pure speculation, you can also use parallels or analogies. These are basically comparisons between two different entities or situations, aiming to emphasize similarities between seemingly unrelated phenomena. A parallel can be thought of as a single one-to-one example, whereas analogy is more comprehensive, like a whole system of parallels.
For example, if you want to demonstrate that your plan will be successful in country A, try to find a country B in the world where the plan has already been successful. The more objectively similar country B is to country A in important respects, the stronger the parallel becomes. If the compared examples aren’t sufficiently similar to cause a reasonable expectation that what happens with one is bound to happen with the other, that’s when the parallel fails.
Finally, you can also think of evidence in terms of deduction and induction. I won’t use what Sherlock Holmes is doing as an example of deduction, mainly because what he’s doing is actually induction — making observations and then formulating theories on the basis of those observations.
Deduction means that you first formulate a hypothesis, and then you put it to a test. You should therefore think of deduction as a controlled experiment, in contrast to induction as a free observation that informs deduction. In science, induction and deduction are different steps of the same process.
The key thing you need to understand about induction and deduction for the purposes of debating is that no amount of supporting inductive examples can definitively confirm a theory, while a single deductive experimental proof that debunks a theory definitively disproves it. This is the falsification theory devised by philosopher of science Karl Popper, after whom at least one debating format is named.
A demonstration of this principle can be done on the statement “all swans are white”. You can bring millions of examples of white swans, but that doesn’t prove the hypothesis, while a single observation of a black swan (a species of which was eventually discovered) disproves the hypothesis. If there is a single black swan in existence, then, logically, all swans are not white.
Whatever kind of evidence you decide to use, be careful to avoid disreputable or irrelevant sources like tabloids, random blogs or conspiracy websites, or the opinions of yourself, your family, or your friends. That’s not because your favorite conspiracy theorist friend couldn’t happen to be right about something. A broken clock is right twice a day, as they say. A reliable, trusted source is one that uses solid methods to produce evidence and has a good record.
You should always know where your evidence comes from, so that you can provide a citation when asked. Much like in court, you should aspire to do better than hearsay. Providing “evidence” without referencing a reasonable source isn’t any better than just making stuff up, defeating the purpose that evidence is supposed to serve in a debate — giving your words more weight.
2.5 SELECTING A CRITERION
The word “criterion” may sound arcane, but it’s something that everyone commonly uses both in debates and in life. When you ask yourself what you consider to be important in life, the answer will be your values. When you ask yourself what you want to accomplish in life, the answer will be your goals. Criterion is a combination of values and goals that applies to a particular argumentation case.
Values and goals tend to be closely connected. If your goal is to get into college, for example, maybe you value being educated in and of itself. Then again, maybe your ultimate goal is a high wage, which means that what you value is economic prosperity. Or maybe, money is just a means to an end for you, to be able to do whatever you want, which makes you above all a proponent of freedom.
This is exactly the kind of consideration that you need to make in a debate in regard to your case. Usually, this would mean that the chosen values and goals should apply to all of society, as you’re not just making a case about yourself. Once you select a criterion, all of your arguments have to follow it, or they’ll be susceptible to an attack by the opponents on the grounds that you don’t know what it is that you’re trying to accomplish in the debate.
2.6 CROSS-EXAMINATION AND POINTS OF INFORMATION
There are two basic types of how opposing debaters can ask each other questions during a debate, cross-examination and points of information. In cross-examination, used for example in Karl Popper and Lincoln-Douglas formats, one side only asks questions and the other side only answers questions, much like between a prosecutor or interrogator and a witness or suspect. The speaker who’s cross-examined is typically the one that just finished their speech.
Let me repeat the important part, that debaters often get wrong in practice — one side only asks questions and the other side only answers questions. Also, questions are the sentences that end with the question mark and raised intonation. Through which you’re trying to glean information, not declare what you believe.
Maybe you’re wondering why I’m putting so much emphasis on such basic concepts, but you’d be surprised how often questioners try to declare things during cross-examination, or how often the debaters who are being questioned start asking questions back at the questioner. Suffice it to say, neither of these approaches is a good strategy.
Judges are instructed to ignore anything that speakers say out of turn, including when they ask questions or provide answers when they were supposed to be doing the opposite. The main goal of cross-examination is to get useful information out of the opponents, or to clarify any of the points that the opponents have made.
Ideally, you can get your opponents to contradict themselves or to admit something that hurts their case — evidence provided by the opponents against themselves has a lot of weight. The best way to accomplish that is to prepare a series of clever leading questions that lead to a logical trap that’s not obvious, meaning that the questioned speaker won’t see it coming.
The alternative approach to questioning in a debate is the points of information model, used for example in WSDC and BP formats. The goals and methods of questioning are similar, but the main differences are that you can offer the points of information in the middle of the opponents’ speeches, not after they’re done, and that you can also offer comments, not just questions.
This is inspired more by parliamentary practices than court proceedings. Generally speaking, every speaker in a debate should at some point offer and accept points of information, given that not offering them looks like you have no objections, and not accepting them looks like you can’t handle them. What’s discouraged is whole teams constantly barraging their opponents with them, as that’s more about harassment than trying to make a good point.
Regardless of the questioning system’s specifics in any particular debating format, the role of questioning in a debate is to enable direct interaction between opposing speakers. This helps the debaters to develop and maintain a clash, something that’s necessary for a debate to be a real debate, as opposed to just a bunch of people randomly shouting at each other. The best questioners are keenly aware of that and always cut to the core of the disagreement.
2.7 LOGIC AND LOGICAL FALLACIES
Natural logic, or informal logic of natural language, is, or at least should be, the foundation of all argumentation. Sound logic is what makes argumentation reasonable and effective. However, it isn’t entirely simple to explain what logic is. Put as simply as possible, your speech is logical when what you’re saying makes sense, and at the same time doesn’t contradict any objective realities.
To be clear, it’s not so much about what makes sense to you personally, but what makes sense always, for everyone, under all circumstances. The easiest way to see what that should be like in practice is through negative examples of arguments that don’t work, the so-called logical fallacies. These are very numerous and cover all of the dysfunctional, absurd, and unethical ways of “reasoning”, arguing, and providing “evidence”. Let’s look closer at some of them
2.7.1 AD HOMINEM
This is the (not so) good old personal attack. This logical fallacy is typically not being hidden, which makes it easy to spot. A personal attack is when you claim or suggest that your opponent is wrong because of who they are, what they’re like, or where they’re from.
The logical failure of this type of argument is that even if your opponent was the dumbest, ugliest, and most reviled person in the world, they can still be correct in what they’re arguing. Even if they’re wrong or lying, they won’t be incorrect because of your or anybody else’s personal opinion on their intelligence, appearance, or circumstances.
Personal attack therefore doesn’t work as an argument in a debate because even if your assessment of the personal attributes of the opponent is broadly accepted as accurate, it doesn’t impact the validity of their arguments.
For example, if Lenin, Stalin, or Hitler said that the sky is blue, which they likely have said at some point in their lives, they would be correct, regardless of what anybody overall thinks about them. Much like if you tried to punch them to change their claim, and they were successfully intimidated to do so, you wouldn’t change the accuracy of the original claim. As a general rule, debate judges tend to frown on anyone who uses attacks instead of arguments.
There’s only one kind of personal argument that may carry some weight in some debate scenarios, and that’s the assessment of relevant character attributes. With the emphasis on “relevant”. More specifically, it’s the issue of conflict of interest, or the speaker or expert standing to gain from making false claims or incorrect analyses.
If a quoted expert or researcher for example has a provable reason to lie, or even worse, a record of lying or being wrong on the subject, in that case it may be valid to “call a spade a spade”, as the speakers who use this type of approach tend to call it. Even so, this type of argument has to be made carefully, with proof, so that it doesn’t come across as defamatory.
2.7.2 AD POPULUM
This is a dangerous logical fallacy that can lead a whole society astray. The core idea behind it is that the majority is always right, or more exactly, that what people agree on is the truth. To state the (somehow not sufficiently) obvious, when most people believe something, it may or may not be the truth. Hence the saying “science isn’t a democracy”.
Democracy is indeed the political incarnation of this sentiment, especially the radical (winner-takes-all majority rule) and direct (referendum-style) versions of it. Throughout history, majorities of people have supported dictators and totalitarian parties, who then oppressed or exterminated minorities and invaded other countries. This is why liberal democracies put constitutional limits on executive power, emphasize human rights, and prefer coalition rule.
To be clear, this isn’t aimed against any particular belief that people can have, political or spiritual, it’s about a general tendency of all people to conform, to find strength in numbers, to prevent being ostracized or exiled (which, historically, often meant death). When people form a mob, mob mentality takes over, and critical thinking becomes difficult and dangerous to attempt.
Logically speaking, what most people want, believe, or want to believe could most accurately be called a preference. It does make sense to factor it in when one is making political decisions, but in order to get closer to the truth, one needs to rely on objective evidence and well-reasoned thinking. Most people are too easily manipulated and often prefer fantasy to reality.
In a debate, an appeal to the belief of the majority or plurality of people is, in a word, irrelevant. If you’re trying to use it as evidence of something being factually true, to be specific. It may have some weight if you’re trying to use it to argue what’s right or wrong, given that common sense, or what most people decide to live by, is a factor to consider in philosophy. Even then, you’ll need to be careful to not come across as a tendential populist, conformist, or traditionalist.
2.7.3 APPEAL TO DUBIOUS AUTHORITY
Who can we trust then, if not most people? The answer is, authorities, specifically expert authorities. Not uncritically, however, and certainly not absolutely. Every expertise has limits. There are many different types of expert authorities you can quote in a debate, based on their area of expertise, including scientists, politicians, lawyers, artists, religious figures, athletes, etc.
It’s important to understand that no single person can be an expert in everything. A politician may know a lot about politics, a lawyer about the justice system, and a scientist about their field of study. But try to ask a showbiz celebrity about quantum physics or pope about ice hockey, and you’ll find that what they have to say isn’t particularly authoritative.
Similarly, quoting the opinion of yourself, your friend, or your family member would only be authoritative if you, your friend, or your family member happen to be a subject matter expert regarding the topic in question. It was demonstrated rather nicely, if meanly, by Aaron Eckhart playing a tobacco lobbyist in one of the best debating-related movies, Thank You for Smoking.
On a Bring Your Parent to School Day, a little girl tells him that her mom told her that smoking kills, to which he replies: “And is your mommy a doctor? A scientific researcher of some kind?” The girl answers no to both, so he concludes: “Well, she doesn’t exactly sound like a credible expert, now does she?”. Of course, experts agree that smoking is bad for your health, but to defeat sophists like lobbyists in a debate or in real life, your arguments must not be dubious.
2.7.4 SLIPPERY SLOPE
This logical fallacy can be summed up with a single sentence, courtesy of Yes, Minister, a great debating-related show: “Where will it end, with the abolition of the monarchy?!” To answer this type of honestly shocked or disingenuously shocking rhetorical question, you can respond the way another great debater, John Oliver, did: “Somewhere”. Every proposed change of status quo, the cornerstone of plan debates, will end somewhere.
Usually, this fallacy is wielded as a scare tactic, tapping into our paranoid imaginations and paradoxical attractiveness of doomsday scenarios. Using this fallacy, you could argue that marijuana or other drugs shouldn’t be legalized because it would lead to the unraveling of society. Or that tolerating homosexuality would lead to human extinction. Or that lack of religious worship would lead to natural disasters. In the absence of facts, imagination is the only limit.
It doesn’t matter how extreme or absurd the imaginary threat is, it will still sound compelling to many people, as long as they consider the dangerous outcome to be sufficiently tangible. It’s important to understand that realistically, changes are likely to lead to some negative or unintended outcomes, but only exceedingly rarely will a change lead to a cataclysmic outcome.
The correct way to caution people about potential negative outcomes requires you to connect all of the dots, all causes and effects, proving the chain of events every step of the way. Less commonly, slippery slopes may tap into hope rather than fear, promising wonderful outcomes, but the problem remains — all the dots need to be connected, or what you get is a fallacy.
This is one of the most basic methods of deceptive argumentation. You create a strawman when you take the argument of your opponent, distort it into something they didn’t actually say that’s easier to refute, and then proceed to attack the misrepresentation of the argument.
The success or failure of this devious trick depends on how attentive and discerning the audience is. A strawman may not always be easy to identify, it can be sophisticated and subtle. It is often the burden of the misrepresented speaker to call out the strawman and take it apart.
In terms of the possible degrees of subtlety, a strawman can be anything from a minor tweak of the opponent’s argument, to outright lying by putting words into the opponent’s mouth. I guess that would make the strawman more of a ventriloquist dummy.
For example, if you argued for the lowering of taxes, a strawman would be to say that you hate the poor. If you argued for universal healthcare, a strawman would be to say that you’re a communist. Anything that’s more obviously wrong and easier to attack than your actual position. In any case, you need to actively fight against any misrepresentation of your arguments.
2.7.6 RED HERRING
Put simply, this is distraction, or avoiding a critique instead of answering it. Most often, speakers resort to distraction and avoidance while they’re being questioned. It may mean ignoring the question or comment entirely, if they’re being offered as points of information, but typically, it involves a lot of talking, only about anything other than what the question is getting at.
Again, this tactic needs to be actively called out, you must not let your opponents get away with giving you filler instead of proper answers. When successfully distracted, you would look like the dogs in the movie Up when they see a squirrel. In most situations, it should be enough to simply point out that the opponents were evasive under questioning regarding any particular points.
This will either force the opponents to address your questions, or risk appearing to the judges or the audience as not having the answers to your questions. The only scenario in which one can get away with a distraction is when nobody notices that they avoided answering a question.
2.7.7 NO TRUE SCOTSMAN
This is a specific way to quibble over semantics in a debate, aiming to show that a particular member of a group shouldn’t be counted as a member of that group. Usually to absolve the group of its responsibility for the inconvenient actions of “bad apples” (“no true Scotsman would…), or to take responsibility for good actions of people who don’t belong in the group.
For example, if you want to demonstrate that all Christians are moral people, you can try to argue that any Christian who has committed an immoral act, in breach of one or more of the ten commandments, isn’t a “real” Christian. You can of course substitute Christianity in this example for any other group and the ten commandments for any set of guiding moral principles.
The logical problem with this kind of reasoning is that when multiple people try to follow the same set of principles, they can justifiably arrive at vastly different outcomes. Including criminal, deranged, harmless, or beneficial outcomes. Not to mention that it is impossible to exactly define boundaries between any in-group and out-group on the basis of abstract ideas.
Christianity is a good example for this fallacy not because Christians are any more guilty of using this fallacy than literally any other group, but because there’s one Bible, but several different canonical sets of commandments and over 45,000 different denominations. Trying to determine exactly which Christian church is the “true” one is a question that cannot be settled.
The appeal of this fallacy is precisely in that it pretends that such questions are easily settled. In reality, any one person can be considered to simultaneously belong and not belong to any number of groups by any number of more or less reasonable criteria. What do you think defines a “true” believer? Following every rule? Going to church? Quality of their intent? Their word?
The no true Scotsman fallacy can be used as an honest mistake by a speaker, or it can be an intentional attempt at escaping institutional responsibility. Notably flawed, and often disingenuous, is a common defense of “those are just a few bad apples”, considering that the whole saying goes “one bad apple can spoil the bunch”. That’s almost an admission of guilt.
The ideal way to reframe any “bad apple” is to keep the “bad” and then focus on the group identifier attached to it. For example, “bad cop”, “bad Democrat”, or indeed “bad Scotsman”. Probably, the bad cop works for the police, the bad Democrat is a party member or candidate, and the bad Scot was born in Scotland. A reasonable person should accept that if those are examples of real people, then there is enough association to merit a discussion of responsibility.
2.7.8 FALSE DILEMMA
When you’re questioning an opponent and they’re trying to avoid directly addressing your questions, you may be tempted to push a “yes-or-no” question on them. This may sometimes be warranted, and when it isn’t, you may sometimes get away with it. However, the “yes-or-no” question shouldn’t be designed to obscure the very real existence of other valid options.
Almost always, there are more than two valid distinct options. To make matters even more difficult for our bilateral brains to process, even when you’re offered or you offer more than two options, there may still be more valid options left out. All of the bilateral names of this fallacy — false dilemma, false dichotomy, or black-and-white fallacy — are therefore committing the fallacy.
Famous American comedian George Carlin came up with an ideal stand-up routine to demonstrate that more than two options offered could still exclude valid options. He said that whenever he sees a macho guy in the “lead, follow, or get out of the way” shirt, he obstructs.
This preference for two options is hard-wired into our thinking due to our physiology, but by trying to be aware of it, you can resist it to a significant extent. This is generally harder to do the more pressure you’re under, like when you’re questioned by an opponent. The best approach is to make sure you’re not avoiding the question, but also not letting your opponent dictate how it must be answered. Also, don’t use this fallacy as a crutch while questioning opponents.
2.7.9 LESSONS TO BE LEARNED FROM LOGICAL FALLACIES
Once you start understanding what logical fallacies are and how they work, you will be able to stop using them. You will stop attacking your opponents’ persons, which means you won’t be intimidating them, offending them, ridiculing them, or hurting them.
You will stop basing your arguments on questionable sources and dubious authorities. You will stop scaring or deceiving audiences, distracting everyone from the fact that you’re not answering questions, needlessly quibbling about semantics, offering false choices to your opponents, and, most importantly, you will stop lying.
Simultaneously, you will gain the capacity to call out your opponents whenever they’ll use any of these fallacies themselves. To do so correctly, you should always explicitly identify that a logical fallacy is being used, which one it is, and why it doesn’t make sense. This approach may not win over every audience in real life, but it will persuade judges, and it’s the right thing to do.
2.8 APPLICATION OF RHETORIC AND NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION IN DEBATING
In most debating formats, the content and strategy of argumentation take precedence over speaker’s charisma or the aesthetic and performative components of speech when it comes to deciding the outcome of the debates. Even so, the dramatic quality of the performances is usually evaluated and scored and plays some part in the overall placement of teams.
Some debaters may therefore decide to ignore the art aspect of speech and focus exclusively on improving their argumentation. I’d argue that would be a mistake. Human beings, including debaters and judges, are capable of rational thought, but they’re not exclusively rational creatures. Subjective impressions will determine the outcome of many close debates.
Beyond making an impression, the art of rhetoric is also functional, about ensuring that you will be listened to and properly understood. Let’s go through some key phonetic terms and how to be in control of them. First, tempo. Don’t speak too slow, so that your listeners don’t fall asleep, but don’t speak too fast either, or you’ll risk losing them, as they won’t be able to keep up.
Second, rhythm. Much like spice in Dune, the speech must flow. Not only at the right speed, but also with correct diction (emphasis put in all the right places). Flow also implies fluidity, smoothness. In combination with intonation (melody of speech), you can achieve a music-like level of control over your speech, making it poetic, song-like or rap-like, if you want.
The musical qualities of speech, if mastered, can achieve predictable, measurable effects. You will become able to attract attention as well as induce and alter the emotional state of your listeners. For example, when they start losing attention, amp up your energy and raise the tone and speed of your speech. When they look confused, slow down and repeat what you said.
As long as you’re holding the attention of the audience, don’t be afraid to use dramatic pauses, since silence can be exceptionally powerful for punctuation. To keep things interesting, you should be constantly changing and adapting your tempo, volume, rhythm, and melody. Monotony is the killer of interest, regardless of what speed or tone you’re staying at.
For all of that to work, however, you mustn’t forget to properly articulate. Don’t be afraid to enunciate more than you would in a normal conversation, especially if the room you’re in is very noisy, or if the audience is sitting far away from you. That’s basically the difference between film acting and theatrical (thespian) acting. Just try to sound as natural as you can while enunciating.
If you have any speech defect, it’s possible that rhetorical practice will help you overcome it, although it can’t be guaranteed. But even if you keep the defect, it may actually become your signature, endearing quality. Especially rhotacism doesn’t appear to be a deal-breaker for debaters, just consider Isaac Arthur, who became a popular science popularizer on YouTube.
Other defects could be more problematic, like stuttering or lisping, but only if they reach a level that either robs you of time to make your arguments (with stuttering), or makes it literally impossible for the audience to understand what you’re saying. Lower levels of these defects may be annoying to some, but again, could be endearing to others. This is rather subjective.
A common speech defect that can definitely be overcome is the overuse of so-called “parasite words”, like “um”, “well”, “so”, or similar. In my case, I sometimes start overusing “essentially” for no good reason. As long as you become aware of saying such words, you can focus on eliminating them, stopping yourself when you’re about to say them. Recording yourself helps.
Finally, in order to truly master speechcraft, you need to master more than just your voice. Voice is of course the most important rhetorical instrument, but not the only one. Your body also communicates, which is why you need to be aware of it as well on some level, without being so self-conscious about it that it would paralyze you. You need the right mix of control and comfort.
To achieve that, correct posture is upright, not hunched, with your head held high, not bowed. This type of posture projects confidence and power, as well as openness. The more hunched over you are, the more guarded you’ll appear. If you’re quiet and not moving, or moving in a repetitive, compulsive manner with your body, you may end up looking downright catatonic.
You should also be using your arms and hands to gesticulate, as opposed to locking them around your torso, strait-jacket-style, or using them to grasp the lectern. Hand gestures can illustrate the ideas that you’re trying to convey. However, you shouldn’t overdo arm movements, given that at some level of animation, you become a danger to yourself and your opponents.
As far as legs and feet are concerned, in contrast, they should be quite fixed in place. Constantly shuffling on your feet projects nervousness and is distracting. If you’re on a stage and have some nervous energy to burn, you can always walk over the stage to a different speaking position, but while in the position, you should once again be standing firmly.
Next, the face, or the arts of eye contact and mimicry. You should always maintain eye contact with the target or targets of your speech. If the idea of that makes you nervous, you can focus just above people’s heads, looking slightly over the crowd into the distance. Your facial expression should be reflective of what you’re saying, emotion-wise. Save deadpan for humor.
And last, but not least, the so-called “proxemics”, or the branch of knowledge that deals with the amount of space that people feel it necessary to set between themselves and others. You can work with the space during a speech, like by walking up to the audience to literally and figuratively get closer to them. Don’t do the reverse, don’t retreat. Also, dressing nice helps.
2.9 HOW TO MAKE SPEECH NOTES
Tip number one most definitely is to make notes. So are tips number two through five. Ours is a famously flawed memory, barring that of rare exceptional people like savants, which is why you shouldn’t rely on yours. This advice seems obvious, but you’d be surprised how many debaters simply don’t take notes. The smarter one is, the easier it is to get overconfident, I suppose.
There are two fundamentally different approaches to making speech notes — writing everything on a single piece of paper, or writing individual points on separate cards. The flowchart-style, everything-in-one-place approach gives you a more holistic overview, which is why it’s preferred by debate judges, but you can get lost in it at the lectern. The opposite applies to the cards.
In the flowchart, you can write down the arguments made by opposing speakers either top to bottom, or left to right (or right to left, I guess, depending on the language used). Side-to-side approach is generally preferred. For each speech, you need to reserve a separate column or block on the paper. That will allow you to visually track the evolution of points across speeches.
This is exactly how judges are trained to see the debate — as points and counterpoints, connected in a sequence from the moment they were first introduced, to the moment they were last mentioned in a debate. In this way, you can see who dropped which point where, and therefore lost it, or what all the separate ideas are that will require your response.
3. DEBATE EXERCISES
The following section includes debate exercises divided into three levels of difficulty with ten examples each. You can think of the level of difficulty as a minimum combination of talent, education, experience, motivation, and confidence required to not give up in face of a challenge. A motivated, confident beginner can attempt a more difficult exercise right away.
However, the most difficult exercises do require the participants to be well-versed in debating rules and principles. At the same time, the simplest exercises are always useful, even for the most experienced debaters, if they need a confidence boost or if they want to relax by doing something entertaining. The key attribute to foster is motivation, to ensure continued practice.
3.1 BASIC EXERCISES
3.1.1 SPEAK ABOUT ANYTHING
Complete beginners often experience stage fright, also known as glossophobia, or fear of public speaking, even in front of their friends. It is therefore important to start very gradually, one small step at a time, so that they can feel safe. One of the best ways to accomplish that is to first let them speak extemporaneously on any topic they choose, without any rules, analysis, or clash.
From both a motivational and educational standpoint, it’s still important to give the speakers feedback. Keep in mind they’re beginners, so don’t be too harsh. To get them used to a formal debate setting, it’s also generally a good idea to formally introduce speakers and make sure that there’s applause before and after each speech. This is basically the Toastmasters model.
3.1.2 HOT AIR BALLOON — MISSION TO MARS
In a group of beginner speakers, an effective way to break the ice and socialize everyone is to engage them in some role-playing. These two different versions of the same game both require the teacher to assign a profession to every student, ideally randomly. As soon as everyone has a profession assigned, the teacher explains the situation. These are the two scenarios:
- The speakers find themselves stranded midair in the gondola of a hot air balloon, which will crash unless some weight is dumped. Unfortunately, there are no weights left, other than the people onboard. Every speaker has to argue why they shouldn’t be thrown overboard, meaning why their profession is more important to the society than any other. The passengers (both living and dead) then vote secretly which speaker was the least persuasive and throw them overboard. The process repeats until there’s only the most persuasive speaker left standing. If this seems too macabre to you, try the next one.
- A more optimistic and team-based version of this game is called Mission to Mars, and that’s exactly what the scenario is. This time around, there are multiple groups of speakers, and each group is assigned a different profession. The speakers who share a profession then prepare a collective case why their profession is so essential that they should be sent as part of the mission to Mars. All speakers then vote for a team other than their own that they believe made the most persuasive case.
3.1.3 TRUTH IS STRANGER THAN FICTION
Every student (as well as the teacher, if they want to lead by example) prepares three short statements about themselves, of which only one is true. One by one, all participants present their statements, while the task for the others is to guess which statements were true or false.
The point of this exercise of course isn’t to learn how to be a better liar, it is to become better at spotting signs of misdirection. For this reason, this exercise needs to be followed up with a discussion led by the teacher.
For example, the guessing could be secret, so that the teacher can then announce which student was the hardest to fool and ask them how they were able to tell who’s lying and who’s telling the truth. Who knows, maybe there will be a truth wizard in your class. It’s real, look it up.
3.1.4 SPOT AN ARGUMENT
Not every statement is an argument, which is a distinction that may be mysterious or confusing to beginners. A simple way to help them learn the distinction is to give them one example after another of motions followed by arguments that are supposed to support them. Only sometimes, it won’t actually be an argument supporting the motion, or it won’t be an argument at all, meaning the statement won’t be giving any reason or reasons to support the motion.
One category of examples of what that could look like is the so-called “tautology”, or the saying of the same thing twice over in different words, e.g., “Cats are better than dogs because dogs are worse”. You could also use non sequiturs, or the logical fallacy that can be translated as “it does not follow”, e.g., “Fruits are healthy to eat, therefore I’m an orange”. Other statements that aren’t arguments include exclamations (“OMG”), reports (“it rains”), warnings (“keep out”), etc.
Students will be tasked with guessing which statements are arguments and which aren’t, and they should first try to explain in their own words why they think one way or the other. Afterward, the teacher should tell them which ones they got right or wrong and explain to them the theory behind what arguments are and why some statements don’t work as arguments.
3.1.5 FIND THE VALUE
Much like it may not be easy for complete beginners to identify arguments, they may also find it difficult to see values behind them. This exercise is very similar to the argument spotting one, except instead of whether or not something is an argument, the students are supposed to try to determine the values promoted by each argument, or at least its ultimate goal.
Every argument should then be followed by a discussion between the teacher and the students about the kinds of values that could be used to defend or promote the motion that it supports, as well as about which of those values can be considered more or less important in general.
Understanding of the use of values and goals, the so-called “criterion”, is essential in debating, since most of the debates will either be philosophical to some extent, or involve some sort of plan. An argumentation case that isn’t promoting values or trying to accomplish goals is entirely useless in most situations, except for when you’re trying to settle purely factual questions.
3.1.6 AND WHY
One of the most common beginner errors in debating is insufficient explanation of one’s own arguments. This error stems from a common assumption that how I, the speaker, understand what I’m talking about is how everyone in the audience understands it as well.
To help the speakers realize that audience members can’t read their minds, it’s necessary to voice the questions that the listeners ask themselves internally while listening to speakers who aren’t properly or fully explaining important aspects of their own arguments.
To that end, the teacher will start by selecting a motion, one of the two basic positions on the motion, and a speaker who will try to quickly come up with and present a single argument to support that position. The task of the audience members will be to ask “And why?” out loud every time the speaker stops explaining the argument.
This should go on for as long as there are any aspects of the argument left unspecified. If you don’t want to be extremely formulaic in the execution of the exercise, you can instruct the audience members to ask more targeted questions, whenever they have one. When nobody has any additional questions, that’s when the exercise concludes in this scenario.
3.1.7 ARGUMENTATION PONG
Divide the students into two groups and tell each group to stand in a row facing the other group, as far away as makes practical sense in the space that you’re in (they still need to be able to hear each other). It’s important for the students to be standing up and speaking loudly during the exercise, as it’s supposed to energize them. Sitting down and listening does the opposite.
When everyone’s in place, come up with a motion and assign opposing positions to the two groups. The proposing group starts by firing off an argument, whoever is able to do it first. Within a specified time limit, somebody from the opposing group needs to shoot a new counterargument back, not necessarily precisely targeted at the argument proposed in support of the motion, after which it is the proposing group’s turn again, and so on and so forth.
The point of the exercise is for the groups to keep quickly coming up with new unique arguments and counterarguments, without having to fully explain them. Whichever side cannot come up with any new ideas first (within a reasonable time frame), loses. This can be followed with a discussion of the argument ideas that were proposed during the exercise.
3.1.8 TONGUE TWISTERS
This can be done in many different ways or in different languages, depending on what you decide to prepare for the session. Ideally, you should select a number of tongue twisters, or sentences that are difficult to pronounce, write them or print them out on separate pieces of paper, and then let each of the students draw one of them randomly and try to read it out loud.
The further specifics of the exercise are quite optional as well — you can let the whole group try to repeat the tongue twisters, you can try to make the students say them faster and faster, count how many times they were able to repeat them without making a mistake, etc. The primary purpose of this exercise is actually to involve everyone to help reduce their stage fright.
3.1.9 FINE READING
Prepare some samples of fine literature for the session, ideally poetry. You can also instruct the students beforehand to bring examples of poetry or prose that they personally like. Every student will try to read out loud a sample of prose or poetry, trying to enunciate it properly, to recite it, perform it, focusing on proper rhythm, intonation, emphasis, and overall flow.
The purpose of this exercise is to introduce the students to the idea of good writing, especially for the purposes of preparing a speech. Or, in other words, to the concept of listeners inferring what you’re trying to say from how you say it. This means you should try to compare different performances of the same texts, mainly in how they could be understood differently.
On the most basic level, interpretive reading is also a very effective form of speech practice, improving pronunciation, rhythm, and flow. By repetitively saying well-written phrases, one memorizes new figures of speech, making it easier to use them correctly in a spontaneous manner in an opportune real-world or debate situation that may arise in the future.
3.1.10 PLACING EMPHASIS
Carefully placing emphasis is one of the simplest methods of fundamentally changing the meaning of your words, without actually changing the words. In debating, this technique is best demonstrated on the names of arguments, so start by suggesting a motion and asking the students to come up with an argument in the full format of “MOTION because ARGUMENT”.
As soon as they come up with the statement, ask them to say it out loud repeatedly while always putting emphasis on a different word. After each version of the argument is stated, discuss the shift in meaning due to different emphasis with the students. You’ll find that a change in emphasis may invoke entirely different priorities in terms of values, goals, proof, or any other aspect of debating strategy, while some versions may be confusing or illogical.
3.2 INTERMEDIATE EXERCISES
Brainstorming is one of the most common methods of preparing for a debate, but it is also used for many other purposes. This exercise is largely freeform, but there are some general guidelines you should follow (and explain ahead of time to all participants). Firstly, it’s a team activity, so the participants should be put together or divided into small to medium groups.
Secondly, brainstorming requires a decent amount of time — at least 15 minutes, but ideally around an hour. Thirdly, while this exercise is informal, it needs to have a specific goal, a clear thing that you’re preparing or trying to come up with. Finally, every participant has an equal voice and no suggested idea should be ridiculed. Discussed, certainly, but not shot down.
There’s of course no expectation that every brainstormed idea will be brilliant, but immediate negativity or hostility toward suggestions will only deter all but the most confident participants from voicing any suggestions. Statistically, the more ideas you throw out there, the higher the chance that you’ll discover at least one good one. The difficulty is in being able to identify it.
3.2.2 MOTION PARADE
Propose one motion after another and let the students vote whether they personally agree or disagree with the motion. At every turn, ask the students why they prefer one position over another, or neither position, if that happens to be the case. When you find a particularly controversial motion for your group, let the most motivated students debate each other. After the debate among the students resolves, you can ask whether anyone’s minds were changed.
The purpose of this exercise is to find out what kinds of motions your particular group of students would be interested in debating, which means it’s one of the first exercises you should try. The logic is that if you let debaters debate what personally interests them, it will make them more motivated to engage in debating, both to get started and to continue debating long-term.
3.2.3 FOUR CORNERS OF AN OPINION
If you want to introduce motions to students in a more organized and systematic manner, you can try this exercise instead. Before the exercise, prepare a list of motions. As part of the exercise, tell one motion from the list to the students and give them 5 minutes to decide their position on it — strongly agree, mostly agree, mostly disagree, or strongly disagree.
Then split the students into four groups based on their positions and send each group into one corner of the room. The groups will internally discuss and write down their reasons for why they chose their position, after which one selected representative of each group will present their reasons to the whole room. After all speakers make their presentations, all students have an additional 5 minutes to rethink their position and change groups. Repeat for each motion.
3.2.4 GUARDIAN OF LOGIC
After you explain logical fallacies to your students, this exercise is a fun way to test their understanding of the theory. You will assume the role of a sphinx, or another magical creature that serves as a guardian in fantasy stories, barring the way to safety or treasure. As the guardian, you will prepare one logically fallacious statement for each member of the party.
It’s important that each of those statements is based around one specific logical fallacy, so the correct answer to your riddle isn’t ambiguous, but you can make it as difficult to identify as you like. Whenever a party member gives a wrong answer, they’re thrown out of the game. The party wins if it manages to identify all of the logical fallacies before it runs out of adventurers.
3.2.5 TIME THIEF
In a debate, it is vital to learn how to manage remaining time, and this exercise is one of the ways in which you can train this ability. Pick a motion, a side, and a student to defend it. In the first round, the speaker will have 3 minutes to do that. Then, after the 3 minutes are up, the speaker will try to do the same, but in only 1 minute. Then in 30 seconds. Then in 10 seconds.
By trying to make the same case in less and less time, speakers learn how to be more concise and less redundant, how to get straight to the point, how to condense more information into a shorter span of time. Like just now, I could have said only one of these things. The time for this exercise comes when the speakers start running out of time, not when they still struggle to fill it.
3.2.6 OPINION EXCHANGE
Every debate is an exchange of opinions, but in the case of this exercise, the meaning of the word “exchange” is more literal. Suggest a motion and ask about the students’ positions on it. Pick the most ardent supporter and opponent of the motion and then assign to each of them the opposite side than the one that they personally believe in. They will then try to defend it.
An important aspect of debating is the ability to seriously consider the arguments of people with whom we disagree. For this exercise to be effective, the selected motion should be as controversial as possible, one that most people wouldn’t normally be willing to give fair consideration to from the point of view of the opposing side. But be careful, you don’t want to deter students from debating before they get a chance to learn to be more open minded.
3.2.7 BAD DEBATERS
When the students start being confident in their debating abilities, this could be a fun exercise to try. Prepare cards with one debating error written on each. Every student randomly draws one of the cards, secretly, and then, one by one, the students proceed to make a speech on any motion, committing the error. Others will be tasked with figuring out what each error is.
The simplest kinds of debating errors that can be demonstrated through this exercise are rhetorical errors — wrong volume, tempo, stance, etc. More experienced and skilled debaters should be able to improvise and identify more complex or abstract errors, like logical fallacies, weak evidence, strategic mistakes, etc. Error corrections should also be suggested.
3.2.8 PARASITE ALERT
Parasite noises and words like “um” or “so” can be successfully removed from speech, with some effort. However, speakers do need to build some confidence first before they attempt this exercise which aims to accomplish that, so that it doesn’t demotivate them instead.
Pick any motion, any side, and any role in the debate in any debating format and assign them to a speaker. The speaker will then attempt to make a speech as usual, with the exception that every time they say any parasite word, the teacher or the audience will make a loud noise.
It could be anything that functions as an alarm, for example a whistle, a yell, an exaggerated repetition of the parasite word, or similar. This is supposed to alert the speaker that they said a parasite word and condition them to try harder to avoid it in the future. It will also help in counting the number of times they did so during the speech, so that you can measure progress.
3.2.9 DEBATE DRAMA
Debating isn’t just about content or strategy, even though these aspects are the most important. When opposing speakers are equally persuasive in terms of logic, the ability to make the speech artistically interesting or emotionally compelling will decide who wins the argument.
For some speakers, mastering content and strategy is much easier than mastering acting skills. This exercise is designed to help them flex their dramatic muscles, much like they would in a theatrical improv session. Pick any motion and side to defend, but each student will also pick a card with a random emotion. They will then try to say the whole speech in that emotion.
The task of the other students will be to try to identify which emotion is being communicated. For higher difficulty, you can take more inspiration from theatrical improv and for example keep changing the assigned emotion mid-speech, helping the student learn how to quickly adapt.
One of the often underestimated aspects of debating is the importance of broad and varied vocabulary. When the students are preparing for debating in a foreign language, this exercise is especially useful. Pick any motion and side to defend, but forbid the speaker to use a specific word that’s the most obvious necessary term to be able to discuss the selected motion.
The best terms to forbid for the purposes of this exercise are those that have many interesting synonyms. For example, in a motion about arms trade, forbid the use of the word “war”, or in a motion about faith, forbid the use of the word “god”. For higher difficulty, you can forbid more words, or you can even make it into a competition — who can make do without the most words.
3.3 ADVANCED EXERCISES
3.3.1 THE HUNT FOR DEFINITIONS
Despite definitions being the very first thing that needs to be discussed in any debate, it tends to be one of the last aspects of debating that beginners come to truly understand. The point of this exercise isn’t to find some usable definition, even though that’s of course needed, it is to try to discover as many different ways to define each motion as possible, as well as their weaknesses.
Take the example of defining the death penalty. Write the term on a board and visually break down all of the components of the process of executing someone that require separate definitions — all available methods of execution, all kinds of crimes for which it has ever been used as punishment, all possible restrictions on its use, all regional specifics, etc.
One group of students will then get assigned one particular possible version of the definition and they’ll try to defend it against criticisms raised by the other students. Specifically, the criticisms should aim to propose things that the definition should include, but doesn’t, or doesn’t include, but should. The students will learn how choice of definitions alone can win or lose a debate.
As soon as students learn to formulate their own arguments and correctly respond to the arguments of their opponents, it’s a good idea to try to teach them more ways to add weight to what they’re saying. One such tool is (meaningful) quotation of famous politicians, scientists, or philosophers throughout history to support all kinds of ideas, or at least better explain them.
Quotes can of course always be prepared ahead of the debate, but true rhetorical mastery requires the speaker to know many powerful quotes by heart, so that they can improvise with them. To this end, you can help the students learn more quotes by telling them ahead of time what the motion or topic will be and that they should prepare as many quotes as possible.
However, the students will learn which side they’re supposed to defend only moments before the debate starts, while as part of this exercise, only arguments that are supported by a quote from a relevant famous person will count. You can also try to stage a direct “quote-off”, during which the speakers will only respond to each other using quotes, until one of them runs out.
3.3.3 SCALES OF PROOF
Evidence is the number one thing that gives arguments weight, and for the purposes of this exercise, any piece of evidence that’s brought up and not debunked counts as being of equal weight. Pick a motion for the next session and tell your students to prepare as much evidence for it as they can. Assign sides to your students only minutes before the exercise begins.
The students will take turns bringing individual pieces of evidence supporting their side, which should be written on the opposing sides of a board (feel free to draw a picture of giant scales in between if you like). If the students of the opposing side can’t quickly come up with a valid rebuttal of a piece of evidence, it stays on the board, otherwise, cross it out. This continues until no one can bring new evidence, and the side which ends up with more evidence left wins.
3.3.4 STUDENT PARLIAMENT
This could be a fun novelty for experienced debaters, but also a legitimate way to learn something about politics in practice. Beginners can try this exercise as well, but it should be more valuable as a learning experience the more skilled the debaters who participate in it are.
Divide the class into several different political parties (in any way you prefer), ideally imitating some real political situation, current or historical. For higher educational value, it would be better if the students try representing real political ideologies, or real positions on real issues.
Whatever kind of parties will be involved in the scenario, the goal of every party will either be to win upcoming elections, during which every student will have to vote for a party other than their own, or you can try to form a government and pass a piece of legislation. Or do all of it — elections, prime minister nomination, forming of a government, and passing of legislation.
What you need to get right for this exercise to work are the formal procedural aspects of how parliaments are set up in general, or how a specific one is set up in particular. All speakers need to have equal time to make their points, an order in which they speak based on their position, appointed times for interruptions, questions, or comments, etc. Make it as realistic as you like.
3.3.5 MOCK TRIAL
Another educational real-world debating scenario that you can try with your students is a trial. In this exercise, the teacher plays the role of an impartial judge, while the students take up or are assigned all of the remaining roles, mainly prosecution and defense. If you have a larger group of students and you want everyone to have something to do, use a jury, like in the U.S.
You may also need to have someone playing witnesses (expert or otherwise), the damaged party, or the defendant, depending on what kind of case you decide to prosecute, but you don’t need to limit yourself to entirely realistic scenarios. You can put an abstract principle or fictional character on trial, like love, Monday mornings, or the pokémon. Just maintain trial procedures.
The level of detail in observing realistic court and trial proceedings is entirely up to the level of skill and experience (or seriousness) of you and your students. You can model the mock trial after how trials work in your own country, or take inspiration from a different kind of trial from anywhere in the world or throughout history. You can go sci-fi, or hold an unjust kangaroo court. Even if the kind of trial you pick is unfair or absurd, it can still teach a lot about justice.
3.3.6 DEBATING DUEL
One-on-one debating in the form of a regular competition is only done in the U.S. in the Lincoln-Douglas format, which is certainly a good way in which you can try debating duels with your students. You can find the rules online, but you can also make any adjustments to them as you like. Just make sure the two speakers have equal speaking time throughout the debate.
Debating duels are generally the more attractive to speakers (and the more useful as an exercise) the more experienced and skilled they are. To beginners, this kind of debate may be intimidating and demotivating, especially if they face off against a much better debater. For exceptional debaters who feel like they’re held back by teammates, this may be the best format.
3.3.7 DEBATE IMPROV
The most experienced debaters often reach a level at which they basically don’t need to prepare for debates, given how many topics they’ve already debated, most of them many times over. With this kind of experience, they can remember what they’ve already argued, or have thought about arguing, or have heard someone else argue. At this level, they can improvise.
You can for example prepare cards with different motions and sides on them, which the experienced debaters will take turns drawing, having only seconds before they have to start giving a speech on the randomly picked position. You don’t even have to tell them ahead of time how long the speech is supposed to be, or you can make them change positions mid-speech.
This kind of exercise is the ultimate form of preparation for the so-called “impromptu” (meaning unprepared) debates. In this format, debating teams or individual speakers have only 15 minutes to an hour of preparation time from the moment they learn which side of which motion they’re supposed to defend. Typically, more motions are announced than end up being used.
3.3.8 RECORDING ANALYSIS
For training purposes, especially for debaters who aim to learn how to succeed at tournaments, you can try collectively watching debate recordings and breaking down what worked and what didn’t. For that to be valuable and not just boring, however, you need to have a substantial understanding of debating. This type of exercise is often done in any professional sport.
To maximize learning potential, you should pick a really good debate, or one that’s catastrophically bad, so that there will be interesting points or impressive feats to analyze and draw some conclusions from. There’s also strategic value in breaking down debates of teams that your students may actually face in the future as opponents, in more competitive formats.
3.3.9 SHADOW JUDGING
Debating is an art that’s best learned by practicing it, and the same is true about the art of debate adjudication, despite the fact that debate judges outwardly don’t look like they’re participating in an activity. Learning some theory and simply listening to speeches helps, but adjudication also requires the abilities to maintain attention and make notes in real time.
Shadow judging is safe in that the student can learn to adjudicate debates without actually having an impact on their outcomes, much like it is with any form of educational shadowing. The shadow judge should still be required to explain and defend their decision, however, to get feedback from more experienced judges. Beyond learning to be a critical listener, understanding how debates are judged is of course very helpful to the students who want to win debates.
3.3.10 SHOOTING RANGE
Every argument can be countered in a number of different ways, which means that you can do an exercise in which the students are trying to come up with as many counterarguments as possible for a given argument. You can write all of them down and try to determine which are the strongest. You can also try to come up with effective counters to all the counterarguments.
As it is with all the exercises mentioned in this textbook, don’t be afraid to make your own modifications to adapt this exercise to the current skill level and needs of your students. Experienced students can also lead any exercise, it doesn’t have to be done by the teacher. In this kind of exercise, the only limitation is the level to which the participants, and especially the person in charge of determining who’s best, understand what makes a good counterargument.
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