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Debate in the Neighborhood Manual

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Debate is a formal method of presenting arguments in support and against a given issue (expressed in a form of a debate topic –or a resolution) in which debaters – either individuals or members of opposite teams, exchange arguments on a given issue in order to persuade an audience. The term formal indicates that debate is governed by some explicit rules and that debaters must adhere to these rules throughout the debate. Although debate involves dissent and disagreement the main function of debate is to educate both participants and the audience on a given issue and provide them with opportunities to explore solutions to different problems facing their community ( in fact the word debate derives from the Latin word Debatum which means to reach an agreement).

Informal debate occurs in many places - for example in families, schools, work places and the media. Informal debates often do not follow any rules of verbal engagement – speakers speak when they manage to get the floor (often through the power of their voice) and the quality and depth of such debates often leaves much to be desired. Everybody is sure to have watched debates on TV between politician of different factions when it was almost impossible to follow what they were saying through the constant interruptions, digretions and some speakers monopolizing the floor.

A more formal debate occurs as part of democratic systems where deliberative bodies such as parliaments and legislative assemblies engage in debates. These debates are characterized by a higher degree of formality- usually with a Speaker of the House or a Chairman making sure that speakers from different parties have equal opprtunity to present their arguments. Also formal debates between candidates for elected office, such as the leaders debates and the presidential election campaign are common in democracies. The outcome of such debates is decided by vote – either in, a house of parliament or through citizens’ vote.

In many societies rule-based competitive debate is often encouraged in high schools and colleges. This is a contest two teams with explicit rule: during which one team supports, while the other team opposes a given proposition. Competitive debate begins with a resolution, a simple statement of a topic that is subjected to critical analysis by both teams. The team supporting the resolution speaks first and is referred to as an affirmative team (since it affirms a given resolution). The other team must then oppose the arguments offered by the affirming team and offer arguments against adopting the resolution (it is referred to as a negative team). Each team is expected to respond directly to the arguments offered by their opponents. It is the job of a judge (or judges), a neutral third party, to listen carefully to the arguments presented by both sides and decide which set of arguments is most persuasive.

Competitive debate develops many skills but the major goal of the study of debate as a method is to develop one's ability to argue on either position (pro and con) with equal ease. Experienced debaters, any proposition can be defended or destroyed after the same amount of preparation time (sometimes quite short).

Thousands of young people all over the world are engaged in competitive debates and participate in local, national and international debate competitions and tournaments. There are many different organizations promoting debate both nationally and internationally and many different styles and formats of debate are practiced.

One of the organizations that promote debating among young people globally is the International Debate Education Association (IDEA). IDEA was founded in 1994 with the goal of encouraging and enabling young people to become active citizens in an open society. Through debate, principle methodology employed by IDEA, young citizens express their opinions, gain self-confidence, and meet and discuss important issues. To date IDEA has introduced and developed youth debate programs to over 40 countries.

While IDEA supports competitive debate among young people (by organizing debate tournaments and competitions) the main focus of the organization is education and youth participation. IDEA’s main goal is to empower young people through debate training, developing and strengthening of a variety of skills as well engaging them in participation in the lives of local communities.

IDEA aims to achieve this objective by implementing different projects and programs that focus on young people and the communities in which they live. One of such programs is establishment of IDEA Houses and promotion of Debate in the Neighborhood (DIN) programs.

The concept of IDEA House is comprised of a few vital components: it is a safe, accessible place for young people who choose to meet and socialize in an informal setting; it provides opportunities to participate in discussions and debates on the issues affecting the lives of young people and their communities (through public debates, round-tables, open community forums, etc.); offers opportunities to develop skills and confidence through a variety of youth-centered interactive programs (adapted and developed to meet the specific needs of young people) as well as positively affect change in the local community.

IDEA Houses operate a number of programs for young people with a special focus on disadvantaged youth and communities (often minority youth). The main focus of the programmatic activity is youth debate and IDEA Houses provide training and instruction in debate to young people and support organization of regular public debates in the neighborhoods.

Debate in the Neighborhood Program involves young people as well as members of the public. It links young people with the community in which they live and establishes and maintains a dialogue between different members of the community aimed at addressing the very issues challenging local communities. Through Debate in Neighborhood program IDEA Houses serve as meeting points for different generations, ethnic and professional groups to congregate and engage one another in a friendly and stimulating exchange of ideas for the development of the community.

This publication aims at introducing the concept of public debate and its main elements: topic, formats, argument, evidence and cross-examination (or points of information). It also offers practical tips for both debaters and debate organizers on how to prepare and conduct public debates and engage both young people and their neighborhoods in this important civic activity. We hope that this manual will assist young people in becoming interested in debating and promoting debate in their neighborhoods. We hope that the regular public debates taking place in IDEA Houses or any other locations in neighborhoods will assist in bringing different groups and individuals together in a desire to address different issues and to get to know each other in a friendly, inclusive and intellectually stimulating environment where one’s ethnicity, age and professional background do not matter and where the people are united by a common goal to not only express their views but also listen to each other.

Definition of Public Debate

Public debate is a formal event (with varying degree of formality) in which advocates on opposing sides of a controversial issue make use of argument and the power of speech to express their own points of view and react to opposing points of view for the benefit of a large and non-specialized audience.

  • Controversy: An issue, a question, or a problem; something that is unsettled and that ought to be settled
  • Opposition: There are two or more parties who have opposing views of the issue, question or problem
  • Argumentation: The parties have committed to the use of arguments and will support their claims with reasoning and evidence
  • Engagement: The parties have committed to focus not only on their own views but also on the views of their adversaries
  • Audience: The argumentation is presented to a particular or general audience, adapted to their level of comprehension, and aims to gain their understanding or agreement.

A public debate, then, occurs in any setting in which advocates on two or more opposed sides of a controversy engage each other through arguments before an audience. The remainder of this section of the manual will develop and present a rationale for public debates. We intend this rationale to serve not only as a justification for the subject matter of this publication, but more importantly as a resource for individuals who need to persuade others of the value of public debates.

Of course, if you yourselves were not already believers in the value of public debating, you probably would not be reading this book. However, at some point you may be in the position of having to justify the value of a public debate to a youth group or organization, a local government, a potential opponent or expert guest, or an organization that may supply funds to sponsor public debates. In all of these cases, you will need arguments on the benefits of public debates. In the following sections, we offer arguments to support three general claims: public debates build skills, contribute to the public sphere, and help an organization meet its goals.

Public Debates Build Skills

Communication Skills

Debaters: Speaking in front of a diverse audience (s) speakers will have to employ effective presentation: using variety and emphasis in voice; developing eye contact with the audience; controlling and employing facial expression, gesture and movement; creating and communicating clear organization and clear logical connections; and selecting concise, appropriate, memorable, and vivid language. Public debates also emphasize extemporaneous presentation; a style in which the speaker is neither presenting memorized or pre-written material nor speaking from the top of her head, but is instead actively fitting prepared knowledge and ideas to the needs of the moment.

Audience: For the audience members, the public debate also provides a setting in which to develop the communication skills of listening, evaluating, and in some settings, participating as a speaker as well.

Critical Thinking Skills

Debaters: Through public debate, debaters learn how to analyze, criticize, and advocate ideas, to reason inductively and deductively, and to reach factual or judgmental conclusions based on sound inferences drawn from unambiguous statements of knowledge or belief. Public debate – by adding additional elements such as moderator and audience – has the potential to promote a deeper experience in critical thinking. Speaking in front of a given audience, debaters need to think critically of how to appeal to the audience’s beliefs, prior knowledge as well as how to respond to potential questions and arguments.

Audience: Attentive audience members at a public debate will hear and appreciate the speakers and they will also follow and evaluate a line of argumentation. This means critically understanding claims, searching for their logical support and implication, and weighing the relative strength of competing claims. In this way, the active audience member of a public debate will be participating in a critical thinking process that parallels the thinking of the debaters.

Public Debates Contribute to the Public Sphere

Public debates have the potential to encourage the general population to experience an actual and sustained engagement with issues. By promoting a dialogue between parties on opposing sides, and between experts and non-experts, public debates facilitate a deeper level of interaction than that which is normally afforded by vehicles of mass communication (TC, radio, press). While an audience member may choose to be passive at a public debate, as much as they are passive as a television viewer, the dynamics of the public debate provide several incentives for a greater level of involvement:

  • Participation: Audience members attending a live public debate have a direct opportunity to be heard. By their comments, their applause, and their very presence at the debate, they send a message.
  • Evaluation: The exchange encourages audience members to investigate and re-examine their own views.
  • Improved information: Public debates provide a better chance to develop arguments fully as well as a better chance to learn more about given issues- whether they are more general concerns (national or global issues or ethical consideration) or whether they are issues related directly to community or neighborhood life.

Public Debates Help Organizations Meet Their Goals

A final category of benefit relates to the organizations that support debates. Whether they are community groups, activist organizations, government agencies, educational institutions, or youth clubs or organizations or any group that seeks to carry a message to the public can benefit from public debates. While potential benefits may be as numerous and specific as the goals of these groups, public debates can be seen as yielding the following general outcomes for organizations:

  • Promoting visibility by allowing the group receive attention for its message
  • Providing information by educating audience in a dynamic way
  • Attracting new membership, audiences, and partners
  • Leveling the playing field by allowing smaller, less recognized or less powerful groups to compete on an equal footing
  • Motivating existing membership by providing an exhilarating and even addictive experience

In addition, as it was mentioned before public debates in neighborhoods provide opportunity for members of the public from different backgrounds to meet together and to get to know their views on different issue in a friendly environment, conducive of dialogue and exchange of ideas.

Ethical Consideration

Like any other social and public activity, debate should be governed by some rules. Since debate involves investigation of controversial issues, both debaters and debate organizers should consider ethical aspects of their actions and decisions before the debate (e.g. when choosing a debate topic and conducting research) or during the debate itself (when presenting arguments to a public). To better illustrate the importance of ethical consideration in public debates, we would like to present the following true story:

The year 2001 Tournament and Youth Forum, conducted by the International Debate Education Association (IDEA) and held in Saint Petersburg, Russia, ended with a final debate before an audience of more than two hundred students and teachers from twenty-six different countries. The two teams of debaters, who themselves represented several different nations, focused on the issue of cultural rights, with the affirmative side advocating a United Nations role in increasing educational opportunities for Europe’s Roma population. The negative side was responsible for opposing this policy, and while other options certainly existed, they chose to argue that there was no need for such a policy. Appealing to broad racial stereotypes, these debaters argued that Roma children have no interest in learning anything and simply can’t be taught. At a factual level, there are good reasons to doubt this conclusion. Even in the audience there were living refutations to this claim since two Roma observers attended the program outside of their normal school year in order to gain education. Believing that the claims were not only wrong but insulting as well, both of these Roma participants left the room in protest, returning only when the debate ended and then only for the opportunity to address the audience and to defend, as forcefully as possible, the idea that the Roma should not be stereotyped as a people who don’t seek out or benefit from education. Others spoke as well, the problem was laid bare and in the end both teams apologized for the way they had handled the issue.

One could hopefully say that these remarks from the final debate served to instigate an important discussion and may have raised the consciousness of those who witnessed it or heard of it. Still, there are better ways to promote understanding, and the story of this debate gone wrong serves as an important reminder to all involved: participants and audience members alike need to view public debates from an ethical perspective, understanding that debates are better or worse, effective or worthless, noble or disgraceful based upon the degree to which the participants emphasize several elements of a good relationship: honesty, respect, and dialogue.

Public debating, because it involves practical communication, reasoning, and adaptation, always involves choice. All issues involving choice are potentially moral issues. Because a public debate is aimed at a general audience, unethical debaters might be tempted to engage in demagoguery by appealing to popular emotion and prejudice rather than making arguments. The fact that most public debates are specific and solitary events also means that opponents and audience members will rarely have a chance to use the “next time” in order to point out an erroneous quotation or criticize a suspect strategy. The importance of ethics is further emphasized by the fact that public debates take place in a context in which it is impossible to check on the validity of each bit of information and unwise to call attention to each act that is arguably unethical. Few audiences enjoy watching debaters bicker over who is more moral, and that is why the ethics of any public debate should be established and understood before the debate even starts. Good public debates can be found where event organizers, advocates, and audiences are committed to a positive view of responsible communication.

We can identify four cornerstone responsibilities of the public debater:

  • A commitment to full preparation
  • A dedication to the common good
  • A respect for rational argument
  • A respect for ideas and people

Let’s consider each of these responsibilities in greater detail and look at some of the resulting guidelines.

A Commitment to Full Preparation

By spending time at a public debate, an audience is doing more than simply spending; they are actually investing. The time and the effort that it takes to follow a public debate attentively are given in the hope that there is some sort of return or benefit for the listener. The audience’s reasonable expectation of benefit creates an obligation on the part of the debaters to do their best to provide the audience with useful information presented in a way that is interesting and engaging. Without full preparation, opportunities for productive dialogue are limited. Thus the need for public debaters to commit to full preparation, and this obligation includes a number of elements:

  • Plan in Advance of the Debate: a public debate demands thorough preparation. This includes previewing the necessary arrangements, selecting and developing arguments, planning speeches and all of the other steps mentioned below.
  • Know Your Subject: complete preparation for any public debate requires that advocates seek out answers to a number of different questions: What is the factual foundation of the controversy? Who are the major parties? What has happened up to now? When debaters only rely on what they already know (or think they know) then they are limiting the potential for clash and the possibilities for genuinely informed dialogue. Solid knowledge is essential for a successful debate.
  • Make Reference to External Research Material When Necessary: by researching the subject matter, you are avoiding error and presenting a more comprehensive argument in favor of your side. Turning to external authorities doesn’t limit a debater’s originality; rather, it allows debaters to participate along with others in an ongoing discussion of the topic.
  • Avoid Representing the Thoughts of Others as Your Own: when presenting the thoughts and ideas of other people – give credit to them and indicate the original sources of information
  • Identify Your Sources: instead of saying, “I remember reading somewhere that . . .” or “Scientists say . . .” debaters should let listeners and opponents know where their information comes from. Information from a source that is unidentified or vague is difficult to evaluate and may simply be discarded the audience. Identifying a source of information you are citing will make you appear more credible to your audience.
  • Ensure That Your References Are Not Exaggerated or Distorted: when you refer to an author to support one of your arguments, make sure that you are giving the argument as much force as the author would give it, but no more. When you represent an author’s views, the critical question of fairness is this: Would that author agree to the way in which you have used his or her words, including your selection, emphasis, and implication?
  • Ensure That You Are Using Fully Accurate and Legitimate References: fabricating support by inventing an expert who doesn’t exist or creating a quotation that was never published represent the absolute lowest points of debate. Even if you believe that something like this was probably said by someone, it is never acceptable to lie about evidence. Because it is impractical to verify independently every reference used in a public debate, the survival of intelligent debate in this context depends on trust.

A Dedication to the Common Good

Inherent in the act of choosing debate over other potential means of persuasion is a willingness to place the common good over one’s own interests. The purely self-interested persuader would probably prefer an uninterrupted monologue to a debate in which an opponent receives equal billing and equal time. By choosing debate, you commit to a process that allows to present both sides—a process that may or may not help your “side” conceived narrowly, but a process that will serve the common good by promoting complete understanding and fair judgment. The following considerations will allow you to reach the goal of achieving the common good:

  • Address the Debate to the Audience’s Level of Understanding: in public debates you usually address a general audience, and while audience members have a responsibility to try to understand, ultimately the question of whether the debate is enlightening or incomprehensible is in the debaters’ hands. Addressing the audience using terms that they don’t understand or in a style of speech that they find incomprehensible makes as much sense as debating in French for an audience that understands only Russian.
  • Share Information: those focusing on the debate as a battle might be disturbed at the prospect of sharing information with the “enemy.” Viewed from the perspective of the debate’s larger goals, however, sharing information (specifically, main arguments and sources of information) can only improve the quality of debate. For those still focused on individual performance, remember that you can only look good if your opponent presents a reasonable challenge—sharing information will help that happen.
  • Choose Depth Over Breadth: while you may put maximum pressure on your opponent by including every good argument that you can think of, that strategy is also likely to overwhelm the audience and result in insufficient development and explanation. A few fully developed arguments are always going to be more conducive to dialogue than a presentation of more shallow arguments.
  • Privilege Content Over Competition: showing your skills and besting your opponent can be an important motivator in debate. However, the emphasis on the common good requires you to remember that audiences are rarely interested in personal rivalries and instead want to see debate as a contest in ideas. During the debate, your attention should focus on showing that your arguments have the most merit, not on showing that you are the best debater.

A Respect for Rational Argument

Public debates are more than an opportunity to showcase your speaking skills or state your point of view. They are opportunities for argument and for the reasoned exchange of views. This interest in dialogue requires an emphasis on reasons.

  • Make Your Reasoning Explicit- a central factor of argument is that it always addresses the question “why?” In a public debate this question may be silent or it may be quite vocal, but debaters have a responsibility to provide an answer in each argument that they make. Statements like “my support for this is . . .”, “here is why . . .” and “the reason for this is . . .” should run throughout the debate. In order to prevent the debate from becoming a simple exchange of position-statements, debaters should identify their reasoning and not rely on what they assume to be true or obvious.
  • Avoid Basing Arguments Solely Upon Your Audience’s Prior Beliefs: reasoning in any public context must account for and include audience beliefs, but this is not a license simply to parrot audience views without offering reasons. Speaking to an audience of hunters, for example, you could probably rely on their belief that people should have the right to own guns but providing rational justification for gun ownership will make your case stronger and more defensible against your opponents’ attacks.
  • Attack the Argument Not the Person: “My opponent is still very young and inexperienced . . . scarcely knows English . . . can’t grasp the complexities of my argument . . . looks funny . . . dresses badly.” All of these statements fail to promote rational dialogue by substituting an attack on the person for an attack on the argument. While there are a few circumstances in which the character and honesty of the advocate is a relevant issue (for example, in a debate between political candidates one may argue that character predicts future policy choices), in many cases the character assault merely covers for an inability to address the arguments. In most public contexts, debates are best conceived as contests between ideas, which happen to be represented by people, not contests between people.
  • Avoid Appeals to Fallacious Reasoning: reasoning solely based on audience beliefs may be termed argumentum ad populum just as attacking the person rather than the argument may be termed argumentum ad hominem. Like other fallacies, these strategies subvert reason by offering an appearance of proof. Other “tricks” of reasoning include popular appeals (“everyone thinks it is so . . .”), reasoning from too few or atypical examples (“I know in my town it is true that . . .”), slippery slope (“if we require licenses for guns, what is to stop us from requiring licenses for everything?”), and many others.
  • Evaluate Arguments Based on the Reasons Offered: as an audience member or judge of a public debate, you may be tempted to base your assessment of the debate on the credibility or speaking skills of the debater, or the extent to which the debater’s views mirror your own. While these considerations can’t be dismissed, you should be committed—whether as a spectator, participant, or judge—to the debate’s main function of allowing a comparison of reasoning rather than other considerations.

A Respect for Ideas and People

An essential element of a debate is that it is a human encounter, one that respects reason over force, arguments over assertions, and persuasion over demagoguery. Aside from a simple recognition of respect for all parties in a debate and the process itself, there are several important elements that we see:

Avoid Name-Calling, Personal Categorization, and Harassment

While most of us are smart enough to avoid making gratuitous insults to our hosts, our audience or our opponents, many public debates still provide opportunities for insensitivity and incidents such as the one described at the beginning of this chapter. The negative team in that debate, by wrapping their arguments in gross generalizations and ethnic stereotypes of Roma people, failed to show respect to specific audience members, for the reasoning process, and for simple human diversity. Even if there had been no Roma in the audience, arguments along these lines would have been offensive—perhaps especially so. That is, it would have been even worse if no Roma had been there to defend themselves. In these and other situations, there is a tension between a desire to promote an open forum free from restrictions on speech and the desire to maintain a civil dialogue.

Appeal to the Best in Your Audience

It has already been mentioned that in a context of public debate, debaters can appeal to the beliefs as well as values that their audiences hold important- for example compassion, intelligence and honesty. We dishonor dialogue, however, when we appeal to vanity, nationalism, pure self-interest, or prejudice of any kind. For example, let’s say that in a debate before students, a student debater argues that a change to their school’s honor code is a good idea because it will allow students to cheat more effectively without getting caught. In this case, he would be communicating a specific image of the audience—namely that he sees them as people who would applaud the opportunity to cheat. He communicates not only his own views in the subject but also implicitly suggests that his audiences share the same view.

Preserve the Value of Free Expression

All debates will at least attempt to restrict discourse to a more or less specific topic but there is a world of difference between topic restriction and viewpoint restriction. Consistent with the values of debate in the public sphere, organizers and participants should avoid any a priori effort to exclude a particular viewpoint. While adhering to the principles articulated above, advocates should consider themselves free to pick the best available argument and should not restrict themselves to whatever the audience considers most acceptable. Sometimes in public dialogues, those who advocate unpopular viewpoints, and are criticized for it, will answer their opponents: “I have the right to my own views!” Certainly so, but as long as their opponents are saying, “You can express your view, but you are wrong,” and not, “You can’t express your view” - then they are not censoring. On the contrary, we avoid censorship precisely in order to allow criticism.

When we are dealing with debate opponents that we know, we can ideally rely on an unspoken understanding with regard to respecting ethnical aspects of public debate. In other contexts it may be advisable to make our ethical commitments explicit. One way to adapt the need for clear ethical commitments to the one-time nature of the public debate is to use a signed ethical compact. The purpose of an ethical compact is to set forth the advocates’ mutual views on appropriate debating behavior in the form of an agreement that could exist on its own or could be incorporated into a larger agreement to debate that includes other elements such as format, topic, schedule and physical arrangements. While an ethical compact in itself is not likely to be enforceable on debaters who may after all still behave unethically even after agreeing not to, the existence of such a compact has several advantages nonetheless. First, it is explicit and thus reduces the possibilities for misunderstanding. Second, the positive act of affixing one’s signature can serve as a strong inducement to follow those commitments. Finally, the existence of the signed agreement can substantially increase the chance that an advocate who violated one of the principles can be effectively criticized for doing so after the fact.

The possibility of being criticized for ethical violations is a powerful deterrent— especially so in high profile debates that involve the possibility of coverage by the mass media. In settings that are likely to be highly contentious, the compact could even be made public or be distributed to the audience prior to the debate. While it isn’t always necessary, a signed agreement can promote clear understanding and deter unethical behavior, something that is in the interests of both sides.

We offer the following as one example of an ethical compact. Because such agreements, and ethics more generally, can be seen as the product of dialogue, your own compact may differ.


Preparing for a Public Debate

Successful public debates require a lot preparation. There is a lot of to be done before debaters even start working on developing persuasive arguments and practicing their speeches or securing the venue for a debate or advertising it. Before moving into the above stages of preparation debate organizers must analyze—they must analyze their own motives, the audience, the situation, the medium and their opponents. In the pages that follow, we will discuss each of these tasks separately, but we cannot emphasize too strongly that all of these issues are inter-connects. Organizers may begin by asking, “Who is our audience?” but in almost the same breath, they must ask, “What do they care about and what should they care about?” and “How do we want to affect them?”

Analyzing Motives

The first question anyone organizing a public a debate should ask is “Why? Why are we having this public debate? What are we trying to get out of this? What do we hope to achieve?” A public debate can have six distinct goals. The organizers of a public debate must decide which of these goals they intend to pursue:

To Inform

When debaters decide to adopt this goal, they may present both sides of a controversy, and each side argues its position forcefully; the primary purpose of the debate, however, is just to convey information, perhaps as a preparatory step for some persuasive efforts at a later date.

To Bring Attention to an Issue

Sometimes the primary aim of a debate is to get the issue on the table. If the debaters and organizers conclude that the target audience does not care enough about a certain issue, or is unaware of it and its importance, their motive would be to raise awareness about the issue. The debate may spur the audience’s interest and prompt them to get involved by making donations, helping other people, writing letters (e.g. to their MPs and to newspaper editors), or by contributing in some other way. Remember: sometimes just raising awareness can do wonders for a cause!

To Persuade

When debaters try to convince the audience to adopt their proposition, and not the one of their opponent- persuasion will be the primary goal of a public debate. Debaters will want to persuade the audience about the merits of their respective policies.

To Move

Debaters may want to move their audience into action. Public speaking is an art, which is, just like any other art, capable of moving and inspiring people. The debate can aim to provide spiritual uplift, or foster passion for a cause. Getting people to take some action is impossible without moving them, usually with emotional appeals, as a lot of highly influential leaders know very well. Pure logical reasoning does not move masses of people to wage war or overturn a government. Whether the ultimate goal of debaters is to rally their audience around a certain cause or political candidate, or to sign a petition, or to join a protest, the first thing they need to do is to move that audience.

To Entertain

Although there are some forms of debates whose purpose is only entertainment (e.g. “pub debates- taking place in pubs or bars!), all debates must to a certain extent entertain. A debater is not going to capture much of an audience unless, on some level, the audience is having fun. So even when addressing the most serious topics, debaters should consider this goal. It is impossible to inform or persuade an audience about an important issue unless the audience is entertained enough to stay and listen to the debate.

To Display Skills

Sometimes the goal of the debate may be to teach about the activity itself. If debaters want to recruit new members for your debating society or debate team, or if a teacher wants to use debate as a teaching tool in the classroom, or if an advocate wants to persuade his/her colleagues that debate is a good tool for advocacy, the debate is an end in itself, not just a means to achieve some of the goals mentioned above.

It is important to remember that many debates will share more than one of the objectives above (e.g. will both inform and persuade). Analyzing the audience and the context

No public debate is an isolated event, but a response to a broader world and its context. Therefore, it is critical for debate organizers to understand the historical, cultural, social and political context of the audience, the setting and the topic.

The organizers of a public debate must ask themselves the following questions:

  • What are the primary societal concerns of the moment?
  • How familiar is the proposed topic to the potential audience?
  • Is it something that they will immediately be interested in or is it something that will require some marketing?
  • How does the average listener feel about the topic? (Is it something unlikely to inspire strong views because the public does not know much about the issue? Is the topic something that would strike most people as so implausible that it would be a waste of time to listen to it?)
  • Is the topic appropriate for the type of audience to be invited? (Isn’t it too controversial and likely to spark negative emotions?)

Analyzing the Audience

A public debate preparation should be based on thorough audience analysis since the outcome of the debate will ultimately depend on its effect on the audience.

Organizers of a public debate can seek information about their audience through many different channels: direct observation (from previous similar (or even different) settings), opinion surveys, focus groups, interviews, questionnaires, etc. The important thing is to keep the central role of the audience in mind in every step of the debate preparation process. Organizers of public debates should consider the following characteristics of an audience:

  • Demographic Characteristics
  • Age/Generation
  • Will most of the audience be younger or older? What generation do they belong to?
  • Sex/Gender

Although it is important to avoid stereotypes and hasty generalizations related to gender roles, it is also wise not to disregard these differences; they should be considered when choosing a topic and adapting it to the anticipated audience. The controversial issue of abortion, for example, affects women differently than men, aside from their political orientation and religious beliefs.


Race and ethnicity can be very pertinent factors in the response of an audience, depending on the issue. Racial and ethnic groups sometimes have their own specific interests and needs, and debaters need to be aware of them in order to respond to them adequately.


Other demographic characteristics can also be important factors in audience analysis – e.g., socioeconomic background, occupation, religion, political orientation, education, etc. Knowing as much of this information in advance as possible can serve as a good predictor of how the audience will be affected by the debate.

Anticipating Audience Expectations, Needs and Interests

In anticipation of their audience’s needs the organizers of debates should ask themselves the following questions:

  • Why is this audience here?
  • What do they expect to get out of this debate?
  • What will they leave with?
  • How much does the audience already know about the topic? (remember: debate which offers too little information may be too boring – debate which offers too much may be incomprehensible for some audiences)
  • What the audience thinks and knows about the debaters? (the speaker’s credibility is inevitably linked to his or her message).

Determining Audience Attitudes Towards the Topic

Anticipating the audience’s attitudes about the debated issue is essential. First, the attitude of the audience – favorable, neutral or unfavorable – will to a great degree determine the choice of arguments, reasoning, evidence, language, style, etc. Second, it is impossible to measure the outcome of the debate – that is, how it affected the audience – without knowing where they stood on the issue before they heard a debate on it.

Favorable Audience

The debater’s goals in speaking to a favorable audience could be to solidify and strengthen their attitudes, or to move them from theoretical approval to positive action. Debaters could ask the audience for personal involvement by showing them how their lives will be affected, or how their actions will create a difference. The goal could be to get the audience to make a public commitment (oral or written) by signing a petition or by raising their hands. Another goal of debating in front of a favorable audience could be to make them carry on the message, to give them “ammunition” to persuade others – arguments, evidence, and responses to counter arguments. By listening to the debate, they will learn how to do it themselves.

Neutral Audience

The audience can be neutral for several reasons:

  • They could simply be uninterested.
  • They could be uninformed about the issue altogether.
  • They could know a lot about the issue, but remain undecided about the particular controversy under discussion.

If the audience is neutral because they are uninterested, debaters should stress attention-getting factors; they should provide concrete illustrations of how the issue affects the audience, and sprinkle their remarks with humor and human interest. If the audience is uninformed, it is a good idea to emphasize clarifying and illuminating material such as explanations, definitions, examples, and restatements. If people in the audience are undecided on the issue, debaters need to make a greater effort at establishing their credibility by presenting new arguments that blend logical and emotional appeals; they should also make sure to recognize opposing arguments, and if they can, refute them. It is also important to offer new arguments rather than recycle those that have been heard already a hundred times; using more logical appeals is usually better for this type of audience.

Unfavorable Audience

Since an unfavorable audience is predisposed to reject the debaters and their message, the debaters should try to set limited, realistic goals for the debate. It is important to stress common ground with the audience – that is, common values, goals, and needs. Common ground establishes a basis for communication, which is the first step in addressing an unfavorable audience. Furthermore, debaters should base their cases on sound logic and extensive evidence; emotional appeals are likely to be rejected as “manipulation.” Every step of reasoning should be explained; nothing should be taken for granted. The extensive use of factual and statistical evidence is needed, and debaters should always cite their sources. The refutation of counter arguments is crucial here. Special attention ought to be paid to establishing and projecting a credible image, an image of a calm, reasonable, fair, well-informed and congenial person.

Selecting and Crafting the Topic for Public Debates

Choosing a good debate topic is one of the most important and yet also one of the most difficult tasks for debate organizers (whether they organize a debate tournament or a public debate). A good debate topic will make for good debates- likewise – a bad debate topic will result in poor debates and potentially a lot of disappointment on the part of debaters, judges and the audience. When selecting a topic area and eventually wording it in a form of a debate resolution, debate organizers should take into account the following criteria for good debate topics:

  • A good debate topic should be interesting – a lot of times this means that a topic concerns a significant contemporary issue or something that is hotly discussed and debate in a public sphere (in the media, etc.). Good debate topics can be inspired by the newspaper headlines, TV news reports and editorials.
  • A good debate topic should be controversial – which means that it should be debatable. Good debate topics provide enough disagreement or pose a problem with many potential solutions
  • Good debate topic should be balanced - it should provide enough arguments and evidence for both sides in debate- the affirmative and negative.
  • A good debate topic should avoid being too abstract and focus on issues that both debaters and the audience understand and can relate to.
  • At the same time a good debate topic should avoid being too specific and technical- some issues related to science may pose good debates for scientists or experts specializing in a given narrow field but would be to complicated for most layman debaters and audiences.

When looking for god topics for debates organizers of a public debate could begin by asking themselves a number of questions:

  • Have there been any recent events which are dominating public discourse right now?
  • These days when acquaintances meet, what do they talk about?
  • What are my country’s political leaders currently arguing over?
  • Are there any new or proposed laws which have been the subject of controversy or criticism?
  • What topics are being covered on the opinion pages of my local newspaper?
  • That last time I got into a discussion about political or social issues, what was that discussion about?
  • Are there any subjects which the debaters already know a great deal about?
  • Are there any subjects which the debaters have an interest in learning more about?

When organizing a debate in a neighborhood, debaters may want to focus on issues that are directly related to the life of people in the neighborhood. For example, specific proposals or plans for any changes to be implemented in a neighborhood- e.g. new constructions or developments (or lack of thereof) may be good topics for debates in neighborhoods which will generate big interest and allow members of the community to express their views on a given issue.

Once you have decided on the subject area, it is time to craft the debate topic for your debate. As a communication device, which will be presented to the audience prior to debate (e.g. in the form of advertisement, on a poster, etc.) the topic should be clear; it should convey the scope of the dispute and should communicate the separation of the two adversaries’ arguments in the public debate context. Broadly, we see the functions of the proposition in a public debate as follows:

  • To attract interest: the topic is the most compelling element for audiences seeking to attend a public debate in order to add to and focus their own understanding of important political and societal issues. Organizers should pick a topic that is likely to arouse passions on both sides of the issue.
  • To communicate the debate’s central theme: the proposition should identify the subject matter in a clear and simple phrase. “Resolved: that our government should provide for the general welfare” gives no clue to the real content of the debate, while “Resolved: that our government should guarantee a living wage for all working adults” is much clearer.
  • To communicate the debate’s central division: the proposition should provide potential audience members with an expectation of what sort of advocacy to expect from each side. “This house would reject the current intellectual property laws” may lead to good debate, but may also lead audiences to wonder whether the proposing side seeks stronger laws, or no laws at all. “This house would strengthen claims to intellectual property” would be much more clear in letting the audience know what to expect from each side.

General Considerations for Crafting Effective Propositions

A public debate proposition should embody elements of good communication. Given the importance of language and the important function of debate topic for the success of a given debate, crafting its specific language should take a bit of time and more than a little care. The following elements should be contained in any public debate propositions:

  • An Identified Controversy: for a debate to occur, there needs to be controversy. There must be a question that reasonable people would answer differently. “What nations comprise NATO?” can be answered in only one way, with the appropriate information; “Should NATO membership be expanded?” will produce more than one answer. The existence of such a question forms the root of the proposition.
  • One Central Idea: in order to provide a clear focus and an understandable sense of the responsibilities of each side, the proposition should center on one subject. Multiple subjects make it hard for debaters to take clear positions. Given the proposition that “Gambling and prostitution are immoral,” debaters would essentially have to take on two cases: one against gambling and one against prostitution. Despite any perceived connection between two subjects, to combine both in the same proposition is to promote confusion. What would happen, for example, if the proposition’s supporters won their case against prostitution, but lost it against gambling?
  • A Single, Simple Declarative Sentence: the proposition should always be a single sentence. In order to communicate meaning to your potential audience quickly, it should be a simple sentence as well. A simple subject-verb-object pattern that avoids unnecessary modifiers and clauses will often produce a proposition that communicates the essential content in the fewest possible words. For example, the proposition might be: “The European Union (subject) should support (verb) gay rights (object).”
  • Clear Burden of Proof on the Proposing Side: the proposition should be phrased so as to place the greater burden of proof on the proposing side. There is a presumption in favor of the existing situation, or status quo (the accused is innocent and “free” until proven guilty); the party that bears the burden of proof must argue to change the status quo (the accused should be judged guilty, and subject to imprisonment).
  • Phrasing that Includes a Conclusion Only, Not Reasons: although the reasoning behind a conclusion is essential in a debate, in order to promote clarity and add flexibility, the reasons are best left to the debaters and ought not be included in the proposition. The proposition, “This house believes that the death penalty is unacceptable because it devalues human life” is better addressed as simply, “This house believes that the death penalty is unacceptable.”
  • Two or More Identifiable and Reasonable Sides to the Issue: debate propositions should be well- balanced providing equal opportunity to find arguments and evidence for both sides in a debate.
  • Neutral terminology: a debate propositions should be phrased in a neutral manner avoiding terms that appear to slant the evaluation one way or another.
  • Avoidance of ambiguity: use clear and unambiguous terms when crafting a proposition

Below are samples of debate resolutions divided into categories that you may want to use for your public debates, before you start developing your own debate topics.

International Issues

  • National interest should be valued over moral principle in the conduct of foreign affairs.
  • A government owes no duty to protect the welfare and rights of citizens of other nations.
  • A nation's sovereignty ought to be valued over international order.
  • The possession of nuclear weapons is immoral.
  • Nations should retaliate against terrorists.
  • The United Nations should expand the protection of cultural rights.
  • Resolved: that the nations of the world should support the creation of an international criminal court.
  • Terrorists deserve justice delivered by soldiers, not by courts of law.
  • The European Union should increase environmental regulations.

General National Issues

  • Resolved: that all citizens ought to perform a period of national service.
  • Resolved: that citizens ought to have the right to bear arms.
  • Risking human life to gain greater scientific knowledge is unethical.
  • Genetic engineering is immoral.
  • The death penalty deters crime.
  • Gay-parented families are harmful to children.
  • Resolved: that our government should guarantee a living wage for all working adults.
  • This house would strengthen claims to intellectual property.
  • Resolved: that the death penalty is never justified.
  • This house would oppose the use of animals by science.
  • Society overvalues material success.
  • Violence on television causes violence in society.
  • Resolved: that community service is an obligation for all citizens.

Political Process

  • Resolved: that civil disobedience in a democracy is justified.
  • Resolved: that society's obligation to the poor ought to be valued above individual economic freedom.
  • Capitalism provides for a better society than socialism.
  • Every citizen has a duty to participate in elections.
  • Religion and governments don’t mix.
  • The Government is superior to the marketplace in guaranteeing quality health care.


  • Resolved: that human rights ought not be sacrificed for national security interests.
  • Resolved: that the restriction of civil liberties for the sake of combating terrorism is justified.
  • Mandatory drug testing of public officials is justified.
  • Resolved: that the protection of society's health interests is ensured through broad-based mandatory drug testing.
  • Testing for AIDS ought to be more important than personal privacy rights.
  • Resolved: that the public's right to know outweighs a candidate's right to privacy.
  • The public's right to know ought to be valued above national security interests.
  • Resolved: that an individual's freedom of expression is of greater value than social harmony.
  • Resolved: that hate speech ought to be censored for the good of society.
  • Community censorship of pornography is justified.
  • Governments have a responsibility to regulate the content of information available to their citizens through the internet.
  • Resolved: that laws which protect citizens from themselves are unjustified.
  • Capital punishment is justified.
  • The criminal justice system ought to place a higher value on rehabilitation than on retribution.
  • Terminally ill patients have the right to die.
  • Resolved: that physician assistance in the suicide of gravely ill patients ought to be legalized.
  • The school's right to search students and lockers is more important than a student's right to privacy.
  • The Boy Scouts should have the right to exclude gays.
  • Marijuana should be legalized.
  • Society should legally sanction homosexual marriages.
  • Resolved: that schools should teach acceptance of homosexuality.
  • This house would not sacrifice civil rights for security.
  • When in conflict, liberty is more important than security.

Propositions in public debates play several unique communicative roles that are not found in other debate settings. Public debate propositions do not simply serve to limit the discussion and define the sides of the debate; they also play an important role in gaining attention and communicating the purpose of the debate. Topic analysis precedes the creation of the proposition in order to ensure that the proposition selected captures the controversy that advocates would like to embrace. Public debate propositions should not be designed to fit the requirements of any preexisting mold or model; their development is best guided by a complete analysis of the particular situation in which the debate will take place, with a proposition designed for that situation.

Debate Formats

If the goal of public debate were simply to promote a spirited discussion, then it could be accomplished simply by putting opponents in the same room with an audience, a camera or a microphone and letting them go at each other. The resulting debate might be vigorous—but the debaters would probably spend just as much time arguing over whose turn it was to speak as they would arguing about substance. The purpose of a format for debate is to ensure that both sides get a fair opportunity to be heard. Usually taking the form of a sequence of timed opportunities to speak, opportunities to question, and often opportunities to receive and respond to audience feedback, the format ideally allows the advocates and the audience to focus on ideas rather than on procedure. When the specific norms that regulate speaking times and opportunities recede into the background because they are understood and accepted by all parties, then the debate can be an intelligent contest of ideas and not a desperate fight for time.

Effective public debate formats should address the following concerns.

  • The format should be adapted to the attention needs of the audience, the subject matter, and the advocates: planning should always begin with a consideration of your situation: Is the subject fairly technical and in need of developed and time-consuming explanations, or will the themes be simple and well known? Is the audience coming to see a spirited contest, or are they coming basically to be educated? Different answers will yield different format choices.
  • The format should promote the orderly development of arguments: Arguments in a debate develop through phases: after the debater articulates the basic thesis of her argument and supports it with reasons (the “construction” phase), her/his argument is subject to the responses of her/his opponents (the “evaluation” phase); she/he then answers these responses, and reaffirms her/his position (the “defense” phase). Public debates could also incorporate questioning periods and audience participation as part of the evaluation and defense phases. Below is a list of debate phases:
    • Position Construction: the position of each side needs to be laid out. Controversial terms need to be defined, major claims need to be explained, and positions need to be supported with clear logic or quoted evidence.
    • Refutation: Once the opponent’s arguments are heard, advocates have a responsibility to provide a reaction. Refutation – the act of evaluating the reasoning, the support, or the implications of an adversary’s argument – should occur as early in the debate as possible.
    • Rebuttal: The act of defending a teams’ argument after it has been refuted is called “rebuttal.” Generally, this defense of a team’s arguments against attacks belongs in the closing phases of the debate. Often, in order to encourage final speeches to focus just on rebuttal (and to avoid the continuing articulation of more and more arguments), advocates are forbidden to introduce new arguments in the closing speeches of a debate.
    • Questioning: Questioning is used to clarify information, to uncover flaws and to lay the groundwork for a teams’ own argument. By either allowing a specific time for questioning (often referred to as “cross-examination”) or by allowing questions which interrupt an opponent’s speech time (often referred to as “points of information” or simply “points”), debaters/organizers of debates can add the excitement of direct interaction between speakers.
    • Audience Participation: An excellent way to build audience involvement and expand the scope and interaction of the debate is to allow a specific time for the audience to ask questions, make short speeches, or both.
    • Preparation Time: While the majority of preparation for a debate should occur before the debate begins, advocates may need time to collect their thoughts and find information prior to their own individual speeches. This kind of preparation time offers little of interest to an audience attending a public debate, however so it is best for preparation time to occur at the same time as other activities: for example, a speaker might prepare for his/her speech while his/her partner is questioning the other side.
  • The format should include equal and alternating speaking time. A core principle of debate is that each side should have an equal opportunity to make its case and this suggests that the speaking time should be strictly equal for each side. The ultimate defense against charges of unfairness is, “You each had an equal opportunity to make your case.” In addition, the need to respond to what the other side has said suggests that speaking time should alternate from one side to the other so that attacks may be made and responded to in sequence.
  • The format should provide the first opportunity to the side supporting the proposition. Generally, the proposition being debated will place the greater burden of proof on the side supporting the proposition. For this reason, audiences will need a reason to accept a proposition before they need to hear a reason to reject it. Frequently, but not always, this principle also extends to giving the side with the greater burden of proof the last word as well. The greater the burden on the proponent’s side – that is, the more unpopular or difficult their position is – the greater the reason to follow this convention.
  • Your format should include variety. In order to retain interest, your public debate should include a mix of types of activities – speeches, questions, and audience comments – without any one activity dominating for an extended period of time. Particularly for debates on television or radio, the need to keep speaking opportunities short and varied is critical to maintaining a lively debate.

While you can develop your own debate format that will best suit your and your audience’s needs – there are already a lot of popular debate formats that are used for the purpose of competitive debates.

The formats discussed below—many of which were developed for tournament settings— must be altered to include audience participation. In developing a format for your public debate, you should approach these formats as illustrative and should not feel the need to adopt a format exactly as laid out: questioning styles and opportunities can be changed, the number and length of component sections can always be changed and adapted, and audience participation can always be added. We will refer generally to the side supporting the proposition as the “affirmative” and the side opposing the resolution as the “negative” side. All of these formats can also be followed by an audience decision or discussion period or both.

The Lincoln-Douglas Format (individual debate with two sides)

It is a one-on-one format. It got its name from the famous debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas for the U.S. Senate seat from Illinois.

The Lincoln-Douglas format includes constructive speeches, rebuttals and questioning time in less than 35 minutes. Although the total speaking times for affirmative and negative are equal, the affirmative speaks three times (beginning and ending the debate) while the negative speaks twice. Each speaker begins with a constructive speech to present his/her main arguments, with the negative debater’s speech being a bit longer so as to include both negative case development and refutation. The affirmative debater has two short rebuttals in which to refute the negative’s case, defend his/her own, and conclude the debate. The negative debater has one relatively longer rebuttal in which to extend and defend his arguments and summarize the debate in his/her favor.

6 min. Affirmative Constructive 3 min. Questioning by negative 7 min. Negative Constructive 3 min. Questioning by affirmative 4 min. First Affirmative Rebuttal 6 min. Negative Rebuttal 3 min. Second Affirmative Rebuttal

The Policy Format (team debate with two sides)

Currently associated in the U.S. with high school and collegiate policy debate, this format has the advantage of strict equality: every speaker gets exactly the same amount of speaking and questioning time as any other. On the other hand, at least if used with the tournament time limits listed below, this format can make for a fairly long debate – as much as two hours if the standard allotment of preparation time is used. Each speaker delivers a constructive as well as a rebuttal speech, e.g., the first speaker from the affirmative side delivers both the first affirmative constructive as well as the first affirmative rebuttal. The basic debate case is laid out in the first affirmative constructive, and a case against the proposition, combined with a refutation of the affirmative’s case, is provided in the first negative constructive. The following two speeches develop and extend those arguments and continue the refutation of the other side. Questions follow each constructive speech and the person doing the questioning is never the person who has to speak next; thus, the questioning time can also be used as last-minute preparation time for the upcoming speaker.

9 min. First Affirmative Constructive 3 min. Questioning of first affirmative speaker (by second negative speaker) 9 min. First Negative Constructive 3 min. Questioning of first negative speaker (by first affirmative speaker) 9 min. Second Affirmative Constructive 3 min. Questioning of second affirmative speaker (by first negative speaker) 9 min. Second Negative Constructive 3 min. Questioning of second negative speaker (by second affirmative speaker) 6 min. First Negative Rebuttal 6 min. First Affirmative Rebuttal 6 min. Second Negative Rebuttal 6 min. Second Affirmative Rebuttal

The Karl Popper Format (team debate with two sides)

Designed for members of the International Debate Education Association ( this format is predominantly used in secondary school programs in Eastern and Central Europe and Central Asia (but is also expanding in Africa, South-East Asia and Latin America). This format involves three speakers on each side and provides just one speaking opportunity for each speaker (although four of the six speakers also conduct questioning). Its strengths are that it includes a greater number of speakers and provides a gentle introduction to debate for less-experienced speakers (the responsibilities are somewhat uneven: the first speakers on each team have a total of 12 minutes on stage; the second and third speakers on each team have 10 minutes apiece.)

The first speech from the affirmative side has the goal of laying out the team’s main arguments. The first negative speaker follows, developing not only that team’s case but also their refutation of the affirmative’s arguments. The two speeches that follow are designed for extending the arguments and the refutation of each side, but not for introducing new arguments. A final speech from each side provides an opportunity to compare and summarize respective debate cases.

6 min. First Affirmative (Constructive) 3 min. Questioning of first affirmative (by third negative) 6 min. First Negative (Constructive) 3 min. Questioning of first negative (by third affirmative) 5 min. Second Affirmative (Rebuttal) 3 min. Questioning of second affirmative (by the first negative) 5 min. Second Negative (Rebuttal) 3 min. Questioning of second negative (by the first affirmative) 5 min. Third Affirmative (Rebuttal) 5 min. Third Negative (Rebuttal)

The Parliamentary Format (team debate with two sides, audience included)

The parliamentary format is probably one of the most recognized formats. The format has the advantage of a relatively short duration (compared to other 2-on-2 competitive formats) and nearly constant interaction. The format includes the honorific titles of a European-style parliament: the team usually referred to as “Affirmative” is called “Government” and includes a Prime Minister and a Member of Government; and the team usually referred to as “Negative” is called “Opposition” and includes a “Leader of Opposition” and a “Member of Opposition.” These terms may or may not be used. Although the use of these terms might convey a special sense of importance or history, they are likely to create more confusion than they are worth in a public debate context – if only because the position taken by the “government” team may not be the same as the position taken by the actual government in the country where the debate is taking place.

This format lacks specifically set-aside times for questioning, but includes the possibility for questions offered throughout the first phase of the debate in a form of points of information. Once a constructive speech has completed its first minute but before it has entered its last minute, an opposing speaker may rise at any point and request a “point of information” – that is, the speaker requests permission to ask a question. At that point, the speaker holding the floor can either accept the question and answer it, before moving back into his speech, or he can say, “No, thank you,” and continue on with his speech. The strength of this feature is that it offers a chance to address a point just after it has been made. A weakness is that, if overused, it can be distracting to the speaker and the audience.

7 min. Government: Prime Minister’s Constructive ‘Points’ allowed after first minute and before last minute. 8 min. Opposition: Leader’s Constructive ‘Points’ allowed after first minute and before last minute. 8 min. Government: Member’s Constructive ‘Points’ allowed after first minute and before last minute. 8 min. Opposition: Member’s Constructive ‘Points’ allowed after first minute and before last minute. 4 min. Opposition: Leader’s Rebuttal 5 min. Government: Prime Minister’s Rebuttal

The ‘Town Hall’ Format (team debate with two sides, audience included)

This is a format for two teams that includes a focused period for audience interaction. Based on a form of debate used at the National Communication Association’s ‘Town Hall Debates’ held at the association’s annual conventions, this 50-60 minute format has proven to be useful and popular for public on-campus debates as well.

Through the first four speeches, the first half hour of the debate roughly, the audience hears from each of the speakers, and hears each speaker ask questions and answer questions. The goal of the four constructive speeches is to lay out all of the arguments for one’s side and to introduce all of the planned refutations against the other side. Up to this point, the debate follows the pattern of the policy debate format described above. After all four debaters have been heard, there is a 15-minute questioning period, during which audience members can make their own arguments or can directly question the speakers. A moderator can handle this audience participation period by providing individual speaking times to audience members who would like to give speeches from the floor (2 minutes, for example) or by simply letting audience members speak for a reasonable amount of time. The moderator should attempt to balance the questions and statements for the two sides as much as possible – for example, by allowing the other side time to answer or react to a question that was asked of their opponents. Finally, the debate ends with two summaries presented by each side. This summary, presented by one member of each team (it doesn’t matter which one) reviews the main issues of the debate and provides reasons why the speaker’s side should be chosen the winner.

5 min. First Affirmative Constructive 2 min. Questioning of first affirmative (by second negative) 5 min. First Negative Constructive 2 min. Questioning of first negative (by first affirmative) 4 min. Second Affirmative Constructive 2 min. Questioning of second affirmative (by first negative) 4 min. Second Negative Constructive 2 min. Questioning of second negative (by second affirmative) 15 min. Audience Speech/Question Period 3 min. Final Negative Summary 3 min. Final Affirmative Summary

A ‘Quick Debate’ Format (individual or team debate with two sides)

Particularly in settings involving the broadcast media, debates sometimes must be accomplished in very short amounts of time. Debaters with experience in tournament debate, as well as public policy advocates, may feel that any issue worth debating needs at least an hour of debating time – but it is possible to offer the kernel of a debate, the fundamental give and take on the central controversy, in far less time. The following format requires only ten minutes, and provides two speaking opportunities and a questioning opportunity to two sides.

This format requires speakers to have both discipline (selecting only one or two arguments) and a great deal of word economy. While the abbreviated format may not permit very complete argument development or extension, it does allow the basic points of view to be communicated and contrasted. As such, it might be ideal for a program that includes debate along with other activities – for example, a talk show or a radio call-in show. Starting such a program with a quick debate may be an excellent way to gain attention and briefly communicate the gist of the controversy.

2 min. Affirmative Constructive 1 min. Questioning of affirmative 2 min. Negative Constructive 1 min. Questioning of negative 2 min. Affirmative Summary 2 min. Negative Summary

A Three-Way Debate (team debate with three sides)

The formats that have been considered so far, and debate more generally, could be accused of presuming that all conflicts have only two sides. While it is certainly most common to conceive of disputes in a way that permits a single “pro” and a single “con” on a question, it is at least conceivable that a debate might involve more than two delineated sides. The more parties that are added, of course, the more the event moves from a debate to a discussion.

This format equalizes time with a varied speaking order; ensures that each debater speaks three times, questions both of his opponents, and is in turn questioned by both of his opponents. It is a little confusing, to be sure, but it remains possible to envision a setting in which it would not only be appropriate but would allow for a more comprehensive understanding of the issues.

6 min. Affirmative, 1st Constructive 2 min. Questioning by Negative B 5 min. Negative A, 1st Constructive 2 min. Questioning by Affirmative 6 min. Negative B, 1st Constructive 2 min. Questioning by Negative A 5 min. Negative A, 2nd Constructive 2 min. Questioning by Negative B 5 min. Negative B, 2nd Constructive 2 min. Questioning by Affirmative 5 min. Affirmative, 2nd Constructive 2 min. Questioning by Negative A 3 min. Negative B, Summary 3 min. Affirmative, Summary 3 min. Negative A, Summary

A ‘Running’ Format

The chief value of any format is that it lays out a clear understanding of who speaks when, as well as a clear understanding of who can ask questions, and when question can be asked. In some settings, however, it may be appropriate to employ a less formal and less rigid system. A “running” format, as the name suggests, is a format which is worked out ‘live’ by the moderator during the actual course of the debate. In other words, just as in a normal conversation, speaking turns and times are worked out in a reasonable fashion without applying strict rules and limits. A person speaks, within reason, until it seems fair to allow the opponent to respond. The response continues in turn until it seems like it is time to move on to another issue. If a question comes up it can be asked, and the debate as a whole becomes as self-regulating as a friendly discussion.

In the abstract, at least, this sounds very natural. In practice, on the other hand, it is quite difficult to achieve. Particularly in a debate in which the two sides have strongly conflicting interests and perspectives, self-regulation can quickly turn to bickering. The debate with which we began this chapter was intended to be a freewheeling exchange. It involved two public figures and probably one of the most experienced moderators in the United States. The fact that it still devolved into rancorous bickering should give caution to anyone contemplating this format. With a set format, debaters no longer wonder, “When do I get to speak? How long can I speak? When can I ask questions? When do I have to answer questions?” A set format removes much of the potential for conflict over procedure and keeps the conflict where it should be: on the content.

Still, there may be settings in which organizers might prefer to work with a natural and unstructured “running” format. For those settings, we suggest the following.

  • The moderator has to be highly engaged in the debate. Rather than just letting people speak, the moderator must constantly ask herself questions like, “Is it time to move on?,” “Did both sides get a chance to address this issue?,” etc.
  • The moderator has to be trusted by both sides, so much so that her decisions go unquestioned during the debate. If the moderator has decided that one side has gotten its argument out and that the other side should now be heard, that decision should be accepted without complaint by the participants.
  • The moderator should ensure equality in all things – speaking times, questioning opportunity, and speaking turns (i.e., the same side shouldn’t always be given the last word). One essential element is that the moderator, or an associate, should keep a running clock on both speakers to ensure that at all points during the debate, their respective speaking times remain roughly equal.

Coaching and Preparation

This chapter focuses on that process of preparing for public debates and it focuses on the role of those who help others prepare for public debates: namely, coaches. While most chapters in this book focus on one aspect of preparation or another, there are elements that relate to the preparation stages as a whole, and because there are individuals who will focus primarily or exclusively on the role of a coach, this chapter is provided in order to serve as a useful overview of the roles and processes involved in preparing for the presentation of public debates. This chapter is intended for anyone who prepares and anyone who helps others prepare. In the context of a public debate, the “coach” may or may not bear that formal title. The coach may be a teacher, an event organizer, a youth worker, debate mentor or even one of the debaters themselves. Coaching may be a role that is shared by several participants. Indeed, to the extent that the need to motivate and organize is common to just about any cooperative enterprise, coaching is a role that is often shared among several public debate participants. For that reason, this chapter is geared not just to teachers but to anyone who plays a constructive role in the planning and execution of a public debate.

After introducing some general elements of coaching motivation, and then considering one basic but important distinction between two modes or approaches to coaching, we will move on to consider the unique elements and responsibilities of preparation, at each of four phases in the debate: first, reaching important agreements; second, exploring the issues; third, preparing, practicing and developing individual speeches and questioning strategies; and fourth, moving into full-group practice.

Motivation and Leadership

Coaching is a highly individualized skill that varies based upon the personality of the coach, the personality of the individuals being coached, and the situation. If it were possible to amass a comprehensive description of the specific elements of coaching, such an accounting (by individuals more experienced than ourselves) would fill the remainder of this book. That, however, is not our purpose. Instead, we aim simply to provide a few general reminders on coaching prior to considering the unique attributes of coaching for a public debate, at each of four phases of preparation.

So, what does it mean to coach? Is it just the act of telling participants what they need to do, when they need to speak, what they need to say? Is it just the act of providing confidence and encouragement, cheering them up when they are feeling overwhelmed? Is it just serving as a support person for the true performers in the debate, providing an ear that they can speak to, another mind against which they can test their ideas? It is safe to say that coaching can be boiled down to none of these, but involves an aspect of each.

Because our first image of a “coach” may involve an individual in a gym, whistle in hand, perhaps we should first return to the field of sports. Craig Clifford and Randolph Feezell, two philosophy professors whose 1997 book, Coaching for Character was originally intended to aid sports team coaches in the process of promoting in their players a sense of respect for themselves, the game, and their opponents, developed a series of guidelines for coaches to follow in promoting this kind of sportsmanship. By substituting “public debate participants” for “players” and by shifting “sportsmanship” to the somewhat similar need to develop in debaters a concern for audience, opponents and the entirety of the event and not just their own performance, we found that many of the principles developed in this book apply quite well as advice for the public debate coach.

Some elements of advice are:

  • Be a good role model. Demonstrate good preparation habits, good advocacy practices, and a good attitude toward the event.
  • Emphasize the value of the entire event and the public’s perceptions from the very beginning. By speaking, first and foremost, of what the audience walks away with, and not just what each individual will say, you send the message that the debate’s value is found in the understanding and appreciation that the audience gains.
  • Remember to combine seriousness and play. Debate is hard work, but the creative generation of ideas and arguments should also be enjoyable. That is a big part of why people debate. In this case, it is not a question of work vs. fun, because the work is fun.
  • Talk about the relationship between the success of the event, and the debaters’ personal success. It is a cliché to say “when the audience wins, you win” but there is a truth contained in the idea that the more the audience understands, appreciates and enjoys, the greater the likelihood that a speaker’s objectives will be attained.
  • Regularly use language that focuses on the success of the whole event, not just on one’s own performance. Avoid an “us versus them” attitude toward the audience, and in many cases, toward your opponents as well.
  • Expect a focus on the success of the whole event and the public’s perception in both practice and in the debate itself. Encourage participants to think about the audience from the very beginning, not just when the audience arrives.
  • Establish norms, customs and traditions that reinforce a collective focus and esprit de corps. A feeling of being part of something important is reinforced by social elements, such as group meals.
  • Encourage participants to take the perspective of other participants in the debate and the audience. Thinking of arguments and issues from another’s perspective, or even role-playing, can improve a participant’s perspective.
  • Clearly deal with anything not suited to the goals of the event. When something goes wrong, fix it right away.
  • Reinforce good practice and good performance. When something goes right, make sure that everyone knows it.
  • Communicate the importance of a focus on the success of the whole event to supporters and sponsors. Make sure that not only participants, but also those who attend or support the event also know that the most important “players” are the audience members and that equal respect is due to all.
  • Promote reflexiveness by asking questions, not by giving answers. From a coaching perspective, the question “Do you think that evidence is clear enough?” is always going to lead to more progress than the statement “that evidence doesn’t make sense!”
  • Expect participants to know the procedures and the plan for the event. Commanding the time and attention of others is a privilege, even if it is one that requires a lot of hard work. No one “owes you” their attention; you have to earn it by being prepared.
  • Show by your actions and your words that you care and that what you are teaching is important. For participants to think that the event is important the coach has to be sure that it is important and to convey that in words and deeds.
  • Don’t forget to have fun. Debating is naturally fun, and an energetic approach to coaching can enhance that tendency.

Two General Approaches to Preparation

While some principles apply to all coaching situations, others will vary depending upon the approach that is taken. Let’s imagine a spectrum that runs from a point of full and complete cooperation to the point of absolute and inflexible competition with many points in between; at the ends of the spectrum are the two general approaches or attitudes toward preparation described below.

The Cooperative Model

In some settings the main purpose of the public debate may be to show the give and take of positions, to offer strong arguments on both sides and to showcases the idea that dispute can occur peacefully and reasonably and that there can be strong and credible aspects to both sides of a question. In this setting it makes sense for both sides to work together through all phases of debate preparation, to see themselves as a single unit with a common mission, and not as two separate teams with antagonistic interests. Several elements characterize this method of preparation:

  • Meetings which feature both sides in attendance
  • A coach or a facilitator who takes responsibility for the success of both sides
  • Collective planning and analysis of issues, potentially prior to individuals choosing sides
  • Relatively full exchange of information on the arguments planned by all participants
  • Full debate practice, without the need for role playing or sparring partners

The Competitive Model

In some settings teams may want to prepare individually with the hope of championing their side of the question. Beyond establishing basic agreements on format, forum, and time, there would be little communication with the other side. Work within this model would then be characterized by the following elements:

  • A coach or advisor for each side
  • Few if any contacts beyond basic arrangements
  • An effort to analyze and make predictions about what the other side will argue
  • The use of role-playing in practice


The degree of cooperation that characterizes the debate preparation process will depend to a large extent on the opinions of the event organizers and the advocates themselves. The greater the degree to which the most important aims relate to advocacy, the greater the impulse to compete. The greater the degree to which the most important aims relate to education, the greater the degree to which joint preparation will be important to the debate process. The choice that participants make for one method or the other will obviously influence the steps that follow, with those following a cooperative debate model pursuing collective work strategies and those following a competitive model developing arguments and practicing on their own. Overall, we can identify four phases of the preparation process.

Establishing Common Goals and Procedures

The first step is to have a meeting. Depending upon whether the planning for this debate is cooperative, competitive, or something in between, this meeting may take place among those planning one side of the debate, or among all of those who are involved in all sides of the debate. (Some elements (such as time, place, format and topic), of course, must be handled cooperatively and must be addressed or at least agreed to by all sides.)

The meeting could begin with a series of questions, which the coach or whomever is facilitating the debate can address to the group:

  • Who is our target audience? Whom are we trying to reach?
  • What is our goal for the event?
  • How do we find the point of controversy or divide the issue?
  • How do we express that controversy as a proposition that would be meaningful to our target audience, and clear to the advocates?
  • How much participation do we want from the audience? What do we want them to go away with?
  • What do we, as participants, want to get out of the event? What goal do we have for ourselves as participants?

Exploring the Issue, Refining the Focus

Once the parameters of the debate have been laid out, the next phase is to look deeply into a discovery of the factual information as well as the disputes and controversies that characterize the topic under discussion. In this phase, participants explore the audience’s current knowledge and attitudes, will begin to engage in research on facts and arguments, and will begin to develop a list of the main issues that will evolve into the structure of the debate. If planners have adopted a cooperative model of preparation, then all of these actions would be taken by both sides of the debate and would include the following steps:

  • Establishing the factual background on the issue (what, when, where, how much, how many, etc.?)
  • Investigating the ways in which the subject may be important to the audience (What does this audience already know about the issue; Is there any way in which disputes about the issue might affect them, or might relate to their experience?
  • Looking for arguments for and against a given issue

Advocates may use a variety of methods and tools to accomplish this face of preparation for a debate: brainstorming, fishbone diagram, Venn’s diagram, etc.

Developing Speeches and Other Components

Once each person has a sense of what his or her role is, and what the main arguments are going to be on each side and on the whole, participants are ready to move toward more specific preparation of individual speeches and questioning periods. Participants could prepare their speeches by developing the main points, along the following lines:

  • Introduction
  • Argument 1
  • Evidence in support of argument 1
  • Argument 2
  • Evidence in support of argument 2, etc.
  • Conclusion

Speakers are encourages to deliver their speeches extemporaneously and to avoid scripting their speeches.


The inherent liveliness of a public debate should not be seen as a reason for avoiding practice and preparation in advance. There are several reasons why practice before a public debate is an essential element:

  • Practice allows debaters to identify their own flaws. Elements that may be incomplete or not fully developed may not be discovered until they practice.
  • Practice is a way of debaters’ realizing their capability for performing; in effect, practice is self-persuasion, a way of convincing oneself that it is something that one can do.
  • Practice is an important way of smoothing out debaters’ performance.

Offering feedback

During the process of practicing before the public debate, debaters may consult with a “coach” a person who is not debating in a given debate but has experience in debates (some expertise in argumentation, communication, public speaking) or they can offer feedback to each other, following their individual speeches (or the entire debate). There are several things that a coach or debaters should remember in giving feedback to others:

  • Use constructive criticism. Often recognizing something done well is more important than realizing that something was done poorly. Letting the advocates know that they did something well will remind them to do it again when the pressure is on and will boost their confidence as well.
  • Combine criticism with compliments. Start the comments with something soft and complimentary), then add an element of critical commentary, then end with something complimentary again. For example: “Tom, you are providing a lot of excellent evidence in this debate. However, you say that marijuana causes medical problems and I think that is really an unsupported point. But it should be easy for you, with the information you already have, to find this support and add it to your otherwise excellent argument.”
  • Always supply solutions to the problems that you identify. If you are going to tell someone that he/she doesn’t look confident enough, there is a reasonable chance that you may be making him/her even less confident (now he has one more problem to worry about, and that is his lack of confidence). Instead of identifying it as a failure, rephrase it as a solution: “You know, you would look much more confident if you made eye contact with the audience.” “You would sound smoother if you used key-word notes only instead of that script.”
  • Be careful of modeling behaviors. The practice of giving ‘line readings’ (“say it like this…”) risks robbing the performance of its originality and risks substituting your judgment for the judgment of the speaker; you might end up depriving the speaker of a natural style. While there may occasionally be a cause to say “consider doing it like this,” in general you can get farther by asking questions.
  • Ask questions – criticize by asking questions rather than by making direct statements. Instead of saying, “I think that the support is insufficient on your second point,” ask instead, “Do you think you have enough support for the second point?” “Do you think that the audience is going to understand that example?” “Do you think those statistics are recent enough?”
  • Discourage participants’ tendency to treat a speech or an argument as a finished piece of work. When practice is seen as a performance or as a dress rehearsal rather than as a laboratory for testing and refining ideas and approaches, then there is a chance that the participants are going to be resistant to changing anything or defensive toward even constructive criticism. That has to be set aside at the very start: “The reason we are here is to improve upon ideas, and while I don’t want to shake your confidence or push you off track, I would like you to approach each of these speeches as pieces of work that could be improved. So during this practice I might ask you to experiment with a few things in order to test your preparation and the choices that you’ve made so far.”
  • Avoid arguing. Frequently, it will happen that a coach’s perception is simply different from that of the advocate. Focus on the purpose of the criticism, and not the argument itself: e.g., “My role here as a coach is to share my perception, and whether we agree or not, there is a chance that my perception will be the audience’s perception as well. So our question is not whether I am right or wrong, but the question is how do we deal with this possible reaction to your argument?”
  • Emphasize “re-gives.” Have the speaker do the speech again. Often, the real educational moment comes when the debater repeats and improves a speech or speech segment – and then realizes that he/she has done better. Just hearing that something is wrong or could be better is not enough. It is essential whenever a coach identifies something that can be fixed immediately, you ask the advocates to fix it immediately: “Why don’t you try giving that speech, making that argument, asking that question, again?”

Reasoning with the Audience – Making Effective Arguments

Whether we participate in a public debate or a discussion, make a presentation during a conference respond to media, write a press statement or develop a proposal, we have to rely on arguments in order to achieve our objectives. Whenever we make a judgment or proposal to support a particular course of action, we can expect that others will ask us to justify our position. Sometimes the purpose of our justification will be to assist others in understanding the course of our action, our convictions or beliefs. At other times we will provide arguments in the hope of persuading others to accept our belief or to act the way we would like them to. In order to achieve these objectives we will need to use effective reasons and arguments.

This chapter focuses on the task of developing arguments in a public debate. Through the use of argument, logic, and evidence debaters seek to convince the audience of the superiority of their position. This chapter will focus on presenting and analyzing reasoning with a target audience. There is a difference between reasoning to your audience and reasoning with your audience. While the former might suggest a demonstration of debater’s own forethought and logical capacity, the latter suggests that you are inviting your audience/targets to become partners in the process of developing, offering, and ultimately accepting or rejecting the reasons that underlie your claims in a public debate.

In this section of the debate manual will cover the following aspects of argumentation and reasoning: structure of argument, different patterns of reasoning; use of external support for arguments; critical response to the arguments made by others (refutation) and methods of makings arguments more effective.

Before proceeding to the above-mentioned aspects of argumentation it is important first to focus on exactly what we mean when we say “argument.”

What Is an Argument?

Fans of the British comedy show Monty Python’s Flying Circus might recall a sketch in which a man walks into an office and announces, “I’d like to buy an argument.” As it happens, however, he finds it hard to accomplish this task:

Man: Look, this isn’t an argument! Other Man: Yes it is. Man: No it isn’t! It’s just contradiction! Other Man: No it isn’t! Man: Yes, it is! Other Man: It is NOT! M: It IS! You just contradicted me! O: No, I didn’t! M: Oh, you DID! O: Oh, no, no, nonono! M: You did just then! O: No, no, nonsense! M: (exasperated) Oh, this is futile!! O: No, it isn’t! M: I came here for a good argument! O: No, you didn’t. You came here for an argument! M: Well, an argument is not the same thing as contradiction. O: (Pauses) It CAN be! M: No, it can’t! M: An argument is a connecting series of statements to establish a proposition. O: No, it isn’t! M: Yes it is! It isn’t just contradiction. O: Look, if I argue with you, I must take up a contrary position! M: Yes but it isn’t just saying “No it isn’t.” O: Yes it is! M: No it isn’t! (Pauses and looks away, slightly confused) M: (Continuing) Arguments are an intellectual process. Contradiction is just an automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says. O: (pause) No it isn’t. M: Yes, it is! O: Not at all! M: Now look . . .

As this humorous sketch shows, the meaning of argument is not always clear and can itself become the subject of argument. We believe that the best way to look at argument is not just as a “connecting series of statements to establish a proposition” but more fully as the use of reason-giving in an attempt to convince the audience of the truth or value of your perspective. Specifically, we believe that there are four general principles that need to be kept in mind when applying this definition.

First, arguing is not “fighting with words.” When a woman says “I had an argument with my boyfriend” she may well be describing a conflict, but not necessarily a rational one. That is, one may have an “argument” without necessarily making any “arguments.” An “argument” conceived as a claim with reasons isn’t the same or even necessarily associated with “argument” conceived as a verbal conflict. In fact anger and aggression are rarely conductive of creating rational arguments.

Second, argument is more than just assertion and contradiction. The sketch indicates that for argument to get anywhere, it has to be more than simple disagreement. A statement, e.g. “Affirmative action is justified”, does not rise to the level of argument until it is accompanied by a reason, e.g., “ . . . because examples show that it can be an effective means of compensating disadvantaged groups for past injustice.” No matter how many times a statement is made, and no matter whether it is shouted or accompanied by fist-pounding certainty, it doesn’t become an argument until it is accompanied by information that an audience sees as providing reasons.

Third, argument is more than just logic. Reasons need to be present in order for argument to occur, but at the same time, argument should not be reduced to just the presence of logical reasoning. Instead, argument ought to be thought of as “motivated reasoning” where the motive is to convince an audience or a target to adopt a new belief. Employing logical reasoning that fails to speak to a given audience (e.g., quoting your country’s constitution to a group of anarchists), does not constitute argument as we see it. Instead, argument represents the use of logic in the service of developing audience conviction and this means that it is the subset of audience-relevant logic and reasoning that we are most interested in.

Fourth, argument is more than just persuasion. We don’t make arguments just to demonstrate our ability or to hear ourselves speak—persuasion is the ultimate goal. But at the same time, it is only persuasion by means of good reasons that constitutes argument. Repetition may be effective as a persuasive strategy—say something over and over again and it starts to sound like common knowledge—but that doesn’t make it an argument. You can “persuade” people with money or the threat of violence—but money and violence do not constitute reasons. Good delivery, eye contact, credibility, confidence, and dynamism are all essential aspects of good communication, but to the extent that they do not offer a reasonable basis for attaching greater truth-value to a claim, they can’t be seen as aspects of argument. Persuasion that seeks not just action or recollection, but genuine conviction must involve an appeal to the audience’s capacity to consider and accept good reasons. In summary, argument can be seen as assertion and contradiction when accompanied by reasons, logic when motivated by a goal to persuade, and persuasion when accompanied by logical justification.

Argument always makes use of logic in the service of persuasion, but it can’t be reduced to either logic or persuasion. By focusing on the use of logical reasoning in order to persuade, we are focusing on the most rational means of persuasion and we are focusing as well on applied logic—that is, logic used for a purpose. The next sections will provide a bit more detail about the complementary roles of logic and the audience prior to applying these perspectives to the practical tasks of developing strong and complete arguments for your presentation, debate or press statement.


Effective argument in a public context involves more than “a connecting series of statements to establish a proposition”; to be effective it must also involve the integration of the debaters’ reasoning with the pre- existing knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs of an audience. A substantial role for the audience in argumentation has long been recognized. The classic Greek teacher of rhetoric, Aristotle, captured the essential participation of listeners in the construction of good arguments through his concept of the enthymeme. Aristotle saw the foundation of formal reasoning in the syllogism—a series of statements, called premises, leading to a conclusion:

Major Premise: All men are mortal. Minor Premise: Socrates is a man. Conclusion: Therefore Socrates is mortal.

The enthymeme is sometimes called a “truncated syllogism,” because one of the terms is missing. If, for example, the speaker were to say only, “Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal,” he would be depending upon his listeners to supply the missing premise (that all men are mortal). In other words, his enthymeme builds upon a belief or an attitude that is already held by an audience. This belief or attitude is part of the argument, but because it represents knowledge or belief that is already held by the audience, it need not be expressed explicitly. The utility of the enthymeme, however, is not in saving time. By identifying and adding to what the audience already thinks and knows, the enthymeme creates argument as a joint product of speaker /writer and audience/reader. As we will argue below, the enthymeme is especially fitting for certain types of argument.

For example, contrast the following arguments.

The Scientific Syllogism

Major Premise: All electronic products pose a risk of electrical shock. Minor Premise: A television is an electronic product. Conclusion: A television poses a risk of electrical shock.

The Rhetorical Enthymeme

(Audience Premise): Many television programs portray stereotypical views of ethnic minorities. Support: Studies show that an acceptance of stereotypes in the media causes a tolerance for stereotypical portrayal of others in real life. Conclusion: Television is furthering the spread of ethnic stereotypes in society.

The syllogism works because it is based upon an absolute and categorical statement: all electronic products. . . . In contrast, the sort of judgments and evaluations that more often characterize the most important human discussions are less likely to take the form of such absolute statements. By dealing in probabilities and relationships, the enthymeme makes a conclusion that is more fitting to the way in which we usually deliberate about human affairs. Notice that in this case the enthymeme “works” only as long as the audience is willing to agree to and supply the identified premise. Average individuals who own a television might be expected to know and concede that television often portrays stereotypes. A group of individuals who don’t own televisions, or conversely a group of television executives who believe that television has increased its responsibility and reduced its level of negative portrayal of minorities in recent years, would be less likely to concede that belief. Thus, the effectiveness of the enthymeme depends to a great extent upon what the audience is bringing to the table. This, however, does not suggest that a good argument is simply that which the audience already agrees with. Instead, a good argument is an argument that builds off of the reliable prior beliefs and knowledge of an audience and supplies additional justification or implication for that audience. Furthermore, a good argument is one that survives criticism (or “refutation”) from a reasonable opposition. In this case, the opposition could either question the extent of violence on television or they could question the relationship between portrayed violence and actual violence. In addition, they could question whether a mere tolerance for violence translates into actual violence. For the argument to be effective it would need to address and surmount these challenges.

Earlier, we defined argument as the use of reason-giving in an attempt to convince the audience of the truth or value of your perspective, but at this point we need to get more specific about what counts as “reason-giving.” What would lead one audience to consider the enthymeme above to be reasonable while another audience would not? The answer to this question requires an elaboration of the components of an argument. It is a good idea to consider these elements, not because we would refer to them explicitly when constructing arguments, but because we should consult them mentally when we are forming, appreciating, or criticizing arguments. Having a model in mind lets you know what to look for, what to strengthen, and what to attack.

The following model defines an argument as a claim that is warranted by data. Each of the central terms in this definition, however, requires a bit of explanation:

Claim: That which you want your audience to ultimately accept. For the purpose of a given argument, this might mean the knowledge or the conclusion that you would like them to believe when the argument is concluded. For example, adults should be able to choose whether to use marijuana or not might be a claim advanced by a side that is urging liberalization of laws against the use of this drug.

Data: Additional information given to the audience in order to support the claim. Words that would reasonably follow “because . . .” are offered to provide the audience with a justification for the claim. For example the information that marijuana has been shown to have only moderate health risks might be used as data to support the previous claim.

Warrant: An assumption or a logical relationship that connects the data to the claim. The additional supporting information (the data) needs to be logically related to the conclusion that you would like the audience to accept (the claim). For that reason, a connective statement that clarifies that relationship should be expressed or should be clearly implied in a complete argument. In the previous example, the warrant adults should be free to accept moderate risks to their own health could serve as a logical bridge between the data and the claim. We would emphasize that the warrant cannot be taken for granted as true—it, too, is arguable. These three basic elements of argument can be represented graphically using a model developed by Professor Stephen Toulmin:

Viewed in this way, it is possible to see an argument as an effort to get an audience to accept a claim by providing them with additional data that is connected to that claim by a clear warrant. Simply seeing this arrangement of statements in the form of an argument, however, does not mean that the argument is valid, or even necessarily strong. Both the data and the warrant could easily be open to question. Depending upon the situation, a given audience could accept them as self-evident or could look for further backing for these elements. For this reason, there are several other elements of the argument that may be present:

Backing: Additional information used to provide further support for the data or the warrant of an argument. For example, if the claim that marijuana bears only moderate health risks is seen as controversial by a particular audience, then it would make sense to supply research conclusions that document these risks. For example, a World Health Organization study found that most of the effects of marijuana use “are small to moderate in size” and that at current rates of use, marijuana is “unlikely to produce public health problems comparable in scale to those currently produced by alcohol and tobacco.”

By the same token, if the audience is unlikely to automatically grant the notion that adults should be free to accept moderate risks to their own health, then it would make sense to provide further support for this notion by providing other situations (such as the use of tobacco or alcohol) in which adults are entrusted with similar choices.

Exception: Special circumstances in which the data and warrant would not justify the claim. If the drug could be shown to harm society or individuals other than the user, for example, than this would constitute an instance in which the claim would not be considered true. This component is included as an acknowledgement that claims frequently are not universally applicable and that an honest recognition of a claim’s limits can in some circumstances make the claim stronger.

Modality: In the presence of an exception, the claim will not be universally or certainly true and thus a qualifier like “in most cases” or “probably” may need to be added to serve as a limit upon the claim. The modality of the argument answers the question, “How certain are we that the claim is reliable?” The modality can highlight possibilities for qualifying or answering the argument. We will add these elements to the basic model presented earlier to provide an expanded view of the elements of an argument:

This model will be useful to debaters while understanding and evaluating arguments; in a public forum , it will not be as useful when they are expressing those arguments. That is, it wouldn’t be wise in all likelihood for debaters to say in a course of a debate: “I would now like to present my warrant . . .,” simply because the term wouldn’t mean much to participants or an audience that is unfamiliar with Toulmin’s model. It would be wise, however, for debaters to think about the warrant, or other elements, when they are thinking about how to defend or attack the argument. A speaker who wished to advance the claim identified above could use the model as a mental checklist to answer the question, “How far do I need to go?” In other words a speaker should ask, “Will this particular audience require an explicit warrant for my claim? Will my warrant require backing? Will my data be seen as sufficient, or will it, too, require further backing?”

Finding, Analyzing, and Using External Support for Arguments (Evidence)

Few people (including debaters) are experts on everything on which they speak. It is for that reason that in preparation for debates debaters should find material support for their own ideas by researching the ideas and knowledge of others. Citing outside sources that are neutral and authoritative can also build speakers’ own credibility. Some speakers feel that by using external support or evidence they are somehow silencing their own voice and just parroting the views of others. Certainly, this is an extreme to be avoided, but equally worth avoiding is the extreme of just relying on one’s own assertions when a debater does not have the knowledge or expertise to back them up. The effective use of external support is the golden mean of supplementing one’s own reasoning with the careful use of authoritative material.

Some claims (matters of logic, perspective, or the application of common knowledge) may be supported through speakers’ knowledge and reasoning. Other claims, however, require that debaters turn to outside resources. When debaters lack the knowledge, the experience, or the expertise to fully support a claim, or when they need to build their credibility for an audience in a public debate, then they would help their case by turning to external support. And the more involved the audience is with a topic, the more the use of evidence matters, not only for its informative effects, but also as an essential way of building credibility for the speaker.

The process of research and finding information which can be use effectively in a debate can be complicated and it may make sense before research begins to clarify what it is that we are looking for. Debaters may want to take few moments to decide what it is that they are looking for and the following are the first advisory steps:

  • Analyze your purpose. Identify the main issues you hope to explore.
  • Generate a list of synonyms and related words for the key words in debate resolution
  • Make a list of the questions that you will need answered (information that you presently don’t have)
  • Make a list of the controversial claims that you expect to make which would most likely require external support in order to convince a sceptical audience.
  • Identify the time-frame in which you are most interested in locating information. Matters of current events (politics, economics, international relations, etc.) will likely require very recent support, while matters that are philosophical, legal or moral will require less up-to–date evidence.

The second stage in research is finding useful material sources (books, articles, internet web-sites, etc.) that will be relevant and appropriate to the researched debate topic. At this stage, debaters should use whatever is available in local libraries, newsstands, or universities. Using the widest variety of sources will also ensure that debaters are not just receiving information from a particular perspective or one area of expertise. Students preparing for a debate may consider the following sources of information:

  • Books
  • Encyclopaedias
  • Newspapers
  • Magazines
  • Specialized Journals
  • Computer Databases
  • CD-Roms
  • Electronic Publications on the internet
  • Organizational web-pages on the internet
  • Interest Groups
  • Government Officials
  • Independent experts (University professors, activists, etc.)

For a source to be useful, it should meet the following criteria:

  • Authoritative: it is from someone who is an expert on the subject or who has investigated various facts and opinions.
  • Timely: it is recent enough that the facts haven’t substantially changed since it was written.
  • Clear: it makes understandable claims supported by identifiable reasons.
  • On Point: it supplies information relevant to the points that you would like to make.

The next step is to locate and record the information that debaters may use in the debate. If a debater has located a photocopy, a computer-printout, or a personal copy of a text that he/she would like to use in their speech, then they can mark that text indicating the beginning and ending of useful quotations and sections.

The sections that speakers decide to keep and potentially to use should meet several criteria. The selected portion should:

  • Support a clear argument for the side. Background information is important, but the relevance of any information should be tested to see if it leads you back to a relevant argument in the debate.
  • Include claims as well as reasons: not just the author’s assertion. “C02 emissions do no cause global warming” is a powerful statement, but it remains just a statement and not an argument unless it is accompanied by a reason or evidence.
  • Selected so as to be “in context:” When e the words or ideas of another are used in a speech, the speaker needs to ensure that they are not quoted “out of context” that is, in a manner inconsistent with the author’s intent. The question is, “would the author agree to the way in which you have used their words, including your selection, emphasis, and implication?” Fair representation demands that debater’s best answer to that question be “yes.”

There are different types of evidence and external material can be used for different purposes but debaters should ensure that the particular evidence they use meets a number of criteria. Below are a few examples of types of different uses of evidence and appropriate considerations for debaters:

  • Providing factual description: “The process of cloning has several phases…”:
    • The source is qualified to describe a given phenomenon
    • The description is clear enough to be understood by the audience
    • The description is complete and representative
  • Introducing statistics: “Unemployment has increased by 3 % over the last year”
    • The statistic uses clear units of measurement
    • The statistic is recent enough to be relevant
    • The statistic uses a reasonable sampling method (e.g., random sampling)
  • Describing the results of research: “Viewing simulated violence in a laboratory setting causes people to tolerate violence…”
    • The research appears in a credible publication (e.g. other experts had a chance to review it)
    • The methodology of the research is identified and supported by the practices of the field
  • Reporting what happened: “After three days of protests, the police entered the building and seized the painting… ”
    • The source was in a position to observe or to consult reliable records
    • The source is free from an obvious bias or conflict of interest
  • Provide a qualified opinion: “The President is far more effective in matters of foreign policy than any of his challengers...”
    • The source has acknowledged expertise on the matter on which they are offering an opinion
    • The source has identified their reasoning: the basis on which their opinion rests
    • The source is free from an obvious bias or conflict of interest

The final step in researching for a debate includes recording information in a useful format. Once debaters have found a clear, well-supported and useful section that they would like to use during a debate, the next step is to save it in some fashion so that they can find it easily when they are preparing a debate case and subsequent speeches. One of the easiest ways to retain information is to keep it on an index card with other information that will help to use the material in an argument. The note card should include the following information:

  • A label: One short sentence, phrased as an argument, which identifies the most likely use for the information during the debate. The shortest and clearest labels will often be formed in a subject-verb-object fashion: e.g., “The International Court upholds fairness.”
  • The source: This should include, the name of the author, their qualifications, and if published, the name of the article, the name of journal, newspaper or book, its publication date, and the page number of the specific material that you are using. Having this full information will prevent the practice of making empty references such as “I’ve read that…” or “experts say…” which do not carry much if any credibility.
  • The quotation or information itself. Debaters should be careful to reproduce the text exactly as it appeared in print (it is easiest to just cut it out of the photocopy of the article).

Using Evidence in Your Speech

When presenting the information, remember that it is not the existence of the material but how it is used that best promotes persuasion. Sometimes the evidence seems to help the speaker, and other times it did not. When advocates identify and qualify their sources, then the use of evidence enhances persuasion, but when advocates instead simply name a source without qualifying it (e.g., “Daniel Denning said . . . ”), or use no evidence, then persuasion is reduced. Thus, it is important to remember that the “who says?” part of the evidence is the most important part in a public context. Using external support is simply a form of reasoning, viz., reasoning by authority. If the reasoning isn’t strong (i.e., if we are given no reason to consider the cited source as a credible authority), then the argument isn’t strong.

In addition to presenting enough information to encourage the audience to place trust in the source of the information, advocates should also ensure that they are providing content that aids their case in a clear and compelling way. Debaters should always ask themselves, “Why am I reading this instead of just making the argument on my own?”

Finally, advocates should remember that their time is finite and frequently quite short in a public debate. Long quotations and intricately developed arguments from another source may be quite compelling, but if you are not able to boil them down and reduce them to a very concise expression, then perhaps those arguments should be left for another occasion. Remember that although the audience will want you to support your arguments, your audience will want to hear from you and not from a bunch of experts that you have brought in on index cards. The best support is going to be clear, vivid, to-the point, and brief.

Developing Successful Patterns of Reasoning

One you have have learned about the subject matter by making use of external sources, the next step is to utilize these sources and construct powerful reasons. The use of expert testimony is one form of reasoning (argument by authority) but is far from the only form. Audiences do not form beliefs based solely on what experts have said- they also form beliefs based on sound reasoning appeals. In fact the best expert testimony will be effective not just because of the credibility of the source, but also because of the reasoning that the source displays. Audiences are likely to judge that claims are well supported when they conform to one of several familiar patterns of reasoning. The main patterns that will be discussed in this essay are: reasoning by deduction, example, cause, analogy and sign.

The value of knowing these forms of lies in analysis. You can use these types of reasoning knowing that your audiences will recognize them and that they will appeal to them. Thinking about argument forms assists debaters in knowing what makes the arguments strong and what may make them week as well as how to best construct them and critique them.

Deductive Reasoning

For this argument to be more effective you will need to make sure that your audience understands that refusing jobs based on ethnicity is discriminatory (by providing examples, etc.) and that discrimination is illegal (by quoting the constitution) by once they accept these 2 statements, they will also accept your claim. Advocates relying on deduction must ensure that they are reasoning from a principle that really is categorically true.

Inductive Reasoning

The warrant in this case is that the example is representative. The assumption is that we can reason from the specific to the general because the specific in this case is a good example that does not differ in important ways from the larger case. As an advocate you will need to make sure that your audience is either familiar with your example or that you spent enough time providing them with information. You could make this argument more persuasive if you provided more examples (possibly from other countries as well, where de-segregation projects have taken place).

Reasoning by Cause

This type of reasoning draws a relationship between an effect and its cause (e.g. by demonstrating that one event/occurrence causes another).

You could also make this argument more persuasive by providing positive examples of minority groups with better education who found good jobs or quoting statistic on correlation between lack of education and poverty. It is crucial that your audience understands and accepts the causal relationship between the phenomena that you are describing.

Reasoning by Analogy

Reasoning by analogy consists of comparing two cases and arguing that what is true of one case or event is likely to be true of the other.

You could make your case stronger by documenting the case of government’s increased spending on other groups and providing evidence that the situation of the Roma and other groups is similar or the same. It is important that you explain sufficiently the similarities between the two items/issues to your audience and that your audience accepts that the two phenomena are indeed similar.


Advocates can use a number of techniques when refuting arguments of their opposition:

OPPOSING (DENIAL) – an advocate contradicts the claim made by the opposition and provides reasons.


Your opposition: Desegregation of schools can cause ethnic conflicts in classrooms between minority and majority students.

You: Not true conflicts arise outside of classroom in contexts where students do not know each other. By studying together they will learn about each other and accept the differences. A study conducted by……

MINIMIZING – an advocate does not deny the validity of the claim but reduces the argument’s significance.


Your opposition: Roma children may feel threatened by the new experience of a mainstream school.

You: Yes, this may happen but once they gain confidence in their abilities through continued educational improvement caused by attending a de-segregated school, they will stop feeling threatened. We have testimonies from children who…..

OUTWEIGTHING - an advocate agrees with the opposition but points to the benefits of his/her proposal.


The opposition: Desegregation will cost a lot of money.

The negative: Yes, but it will save us more money in the long run by reducing unemployment among the Roma and reducing the need for social benefits. It will also have an incredibly positive impact on social and cultural aspects of our society which cannot be measured in terms of money only.

TURN AROUND - an advocate uses the reasoning provided by the opposition to prove his/her point.


Your opposition: Desegregation of schools will cause and out-cry among the majority population.

You: This may be the case but then it will also stimulate a discussion on the issues of inequality and discrimination and it will draw attention to the plight of the Roma.

You can also respond to your opponents’ arguments by showing that their reasoning is not sound (or logical), that their arguments are not relevant to the discussion of the issue and/or that some of the arguments presented by the opposition are inconsistent with each other (e.g. contradict each other). We would like to stress it again, however that whenever you respond to the reasons provided by your opposition, you must provide your own reasons – making sure that they are correct and logical. Similarly when developing your own message you must be aware that your arguments and evidence are open to a critical response. It is also important for advocates to know some of the more common mistakes in reasoning (known as fallacies) and be able to refute them by pointing them out to your audience. Some of the most common fallacies include: Begging the Question – Whenever an argument makes a claim and then provides evidence which is just the same as the claim it is begging the question. Example: A: “Tom is telling the truth.” B: “Why do you say that?” A: “Because he wouldn’t lie to me.” (Isn’t that the same thing as telling the truth?)

Circular definitions (tautologies) – To beg the question is defining a term by using the same term. Example: A bad law is a law that is bad.

Straw man (also straw argument) – Making up an argument that the other team has not given and then defeating it. For example, if one team says air pollution is bad, and the other team argues and says they are wrong because water pollution isn’t that bad they are creating a straw argument.

Red Herring – To divert attention away from the main argument to something insignificant. So if the argument is about bad drinking water and the other team asks questions on how swimming pools are filled, it would be a red herring

Ad hominem (against a person) attack – This is an attack against the person and not the argument. This also can be to attack someone for the group they belong to. If someone says “he can know what he is talking about, because he is too young,” that would be an ad hominem.

Appeal to the people – To say that something is true because the majority of people support it. Popularity doesn’t necessarily make something true.

Appeal to authority – When the opinion of something is considered the last word with no argument against it allowed.

Hasty Generalization – When we “jump to conclusions” on too few examples or examples that are not typical to the group.

Non Sequitur (does not follow)– This general term is used when anyone provides an argument where the claim and the grounds do not fit. The conclusion does not follow from the reasoning provided. Bill eats McDonald’s hamburgers, therefore he supports globalization.

False cause – Because proving cause and effect is not usually simple, false causes may happen in many ways. Sometimes people will claim that because something came first, it caused something that came after it. Another false cause is looking at two things that don’t cause each other but are related to a third thing that causes both of them.

Refuting Different Types of Reasoning

Deductive Arguments

A deductive argument is an argument that begins with known, general truths, and draws a conclusion about a particular instance. In order to refute a deductive argument, a debater (or his/her opposition) must disprove one of the general truths that lead to the conclusion. Typically, general truths include absolute words like “all” or “only”: all men are mortal; all cows eat grass; etc. A general truth can be disproved by pointing to significant exceptions, and establishing that “all” should be replaced by “most” or “some.”

For example: Quota system for minority students at universities is wrong because it privileges one group over another.

The unspoken premise in this argument (warrant) is “All forms of privileging one group over another are wrong” (general statement). In order to respond to this argument an advocate needs to point out that the general statement (“All forms of privileging one group over another are wrong”) may not necessarily be right- some forms of privileging one group over another may be justified- for example in order to address the unequal opportunity caused by past or current injustices (affirmative action)

Inductive Arguments

Reasoning by Example

When a debater reasons by example, he/she draws a general conclusion from specific instances. There are a few ways to refute this kind of argument. One is to point out that the examples not support the conclusion (e.g. “we have other examples of this kind which show that our opponents are wrong”); another way is to challenge the quality of the evidence presented (e.g. “the study our opponents are quoting is recent and we do not know the long –term effects of this phenomenon”); a third way to refute this argument is to reject the relevance of the evidence to the issue being discussed (e.g. your example is applicable in some cases but not in the one we are discussing today”).

For example: De-segregation initiatives do not work because in this particular instance they did not work. In response to this argument, an advocate can attempt to explain that a given example is isolated and provide more examples of instances that prove the claim that de-segregation initiatives work.

When arguing by example, many people commit a fallacy of hasty generalization – a faulty argument which is based on insufficient evidence- that is on one or two examples. It is important to remember that one example does not prove a general truth (but also converse is that one example does not necessarily disprove a general truth- it is not logically strong to put too much weight on an exception to a rule.

Reasoning by Cause

Debaters reasoning by cause are trying to establish causal links between events: something happened or is happening because of something else that happened first or is happening. There are some ways to refute causal reasoning: the refutation may completely reject the cause proposed by the first advocate (e.g. This decision/phenomenon has nothing to do with the other phenomenon”). It is also possible to accept the cause proposed, while minimizing or outweighing it (e.g. “This phenomenon may be partly attributable to the cause mentioned by the opponents but the biggest causes of this phenomenon is ….”).

For example: Low school attendance among children of certain minority groups is caused by the fact that these minority groups do not value formal education.

In order to respond to this argument, a debaters needs to point to other causes of low school attendance among certain minority groups: for example poverty, mistrust in mainstream education, prejudice on the part of teachers, peers, etc.

Sometimes when analysing causes and effects, advocates make a mistake of post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy (in Latin; “after this, therefore because of this”) In other words this fallacy does not recognize the difference between “after” and “because”. Just because one event comes after another, does not mean that the first events caused the second event.

Reasoning by Analogy

An analogy is a comparison between two different items. Simply put, the logic of reasoning by analogy goes like this: “A and B are alike. Therefore, something that is true about A will also be true about B.” Analogies are useful in order to explain difficult or less clear (known) concepts by comparing them to better know or more easily understood concepts. The simplest way to refute an analogy is to reject the validity of the connection between the two issues/items.

For example: Supporting disadvantaged groups by the state is like feeding animals in a wild- it increases dependency on assistance and weakens the ability of individuals to take care of themselves.

In response to this analogy, one can point put that the there are significant differences between people and animals (in fact one can point out that making such comparisons in relation to people is inappropriate!) and that people respond to assistance differently.

One of the fallacies in relation to this type of reasoning is a fallacy of false analogy: comparing two issues that have nothing in common.

Reasoning by Sign

Reasoning by sign is a method that uses independent indicators in order to support a claim. Very often the signs that are correlated are statistical: for example, a debater may argue that a rise in unemployment correlates with substance abuse. Debaters may not have any convincing causal evidence to support the claim that it is that unemployment that leads to substance abuse but they may argue that the high levels of substance abuse are indicative of high levels of poverty and unemployment. Arguments that depend on reasoning by sign may be refuted in much the same way as arguments that depend on reasoning by cause. Just as there are always potential causes other than the ones suggested by the advocate, there are other ways to interpret signs.

For example: Members of certain minority groups are under-represented in qualified professions or high positions in work-places. This indicates that members of certain minority groups are not interested in pursuing professional careers.

Of course this argument is flawed! The fact that there are fewer representatives of minorities among professionals may indicate decreased access to educational opportunities, prejudice and bias in work-place, discrimination, etc.


This brief introduction to argumentation has sought to advance the position that reasoning not only takes a central role in a public discourse (and thus is of crucial importance to those involved in a public discourse), but also takes a unique from in advocacy and diplomacy. Argument means not just asserting or fighting, not just persuading or using logic, but reasoning with the target audience- using premises that build upon the audience’s existing knowledge, experience and beliefs. By using different patterns of reasoning and forming enthymemes, advocates develop a partnership with the targets of their messages. By locating and using external sources and combining that material with their own resources for analysis, advocates build arguments that adhere to the patterns of reasoning recognized and accepted by their audience and that guard against possible weakness.

This chapter also presented the concept of refutation- that is critically responding to the reasons presented by others. We emphasized that refutation is not simply contradicting what our opponents said but engaging in a critical analysis of their argument. While doing so, advocates should relate to their targets’ premises and make sure that the audience or their opposition understands the response.

Style, Organization and Delivery

Although reasoning and strong evidence are central to good debates, debaters mustn’t forget about the power of language to move and persuade people. This is particularly true of public debates where there may be various expectations of the audience with regard to debate: many members of the public may want to hear hard evidence but others may be interested in being entertained by vivid and humorous language. While debaters debating in public should still pay attention to the reason and facts presented, they may also want to employ some specific techniques to enhance the presentation of their arguments. Here are a few suggestions on different effective stylistic devices that speakers may find useful.

Figurative Language

Figurative language is a broad category – it includes similes, metaphors, symbols, synecdoche, and a whole host or rhetorical devices. Below are a few examples of an effective use of figurative language:


In May 1940, three days after becoming Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill addressed the House of Commons and said this: “I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this government: I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat." The power of his statement comes from his use of figurative language: the concrete imagery of blood, tears and sweat make his promise emotionally compelling.


John F. Kennedy, in his inaugural address, announced that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.”


Bill Clinton promised voters that he would “build a bridge to the 21st century”


Repeating of certain phrases or syntactic structures can be a very effective tool in debate – emphasizing a given point and also appealing emotionally to the audience.


In his famous speech at the March on Washington in 1963, Martin Luther King used the phrase “I have a dream” no fewer than nine times.


President George W. Bush speaking on the war on terrorism: “We will not waver; we will not tire; we will not falter; and we will not fail.”


Winston Churchill after the loss of Dunkirk: "We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields, and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!"

Contrast, Comparison and Choices

Contrast and comparison, in simple terms, are stylistic devices which allow speakers to better say what something is by saying what it is not.


John F. Kennedy delivering during his inauguration in 1961: “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.” John. F Kennedy “Inaugural Address”

Particularizing the Abstract

This strategy makes it easier for the audience to understand complex and abstract issues.


President Ronald Reagan, making a speech about the national debt (which was approaching a trillion dollars in 1981):

“I've been trying… to think of a way to illustrate how big a trillion really is. And the best I could come up with is that if you had a stack of thousand-dollar bills in your hand only 4 inches high, you'd be a millionaire. A trillion dollars would be a stack of thousand-dollar bills 67 miles high.”


President Bill Clinton when addressing Congress:

“I well remember 12 years ago President Reagan stood at this very podium and told you and the American people that if our national debt were stacked in thousand-dollar bills the stack would reach 67 miles into space. Well, today that stack would reach 267 miles.” Rhetorical Questions

A rhetorical question is a question that is asked for the effect, with no direct answer expected from the listener.


Mario Cuomo, in his address to the Democratic National Convention in 1984:

“If July brings back Ann Gorsuch Burford [the controversial administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency] – what can we expect of December? Where would another four years take us? Where would four years more take us? How much larger will the deficit be? How much deeper the cuts in programs for the struggling middle class and the poor to limit that deficit? How high will the interest rates be? How much more acid rain killing our forests and fouling our lakes? And, ladies and gentlemen, the nation must think of this: What kind of Supreme Court will we have? We must ask ourselves what kind of court and country will be fashioned by the man who believes in having government mandate people's religion and morality?


The primary function of humor, in the context of a public debater, is to establish a relationship between the debater and an audience. Humor can also be used as an offensive weapon in a debate; that is, a debater can use humor to belittle an idea or a plan offered by an opponent. Humor can also be used effectively as a defensive weapon; audiences respond positively to speakers who are self-deprecating, and can show that they “do not take themselves too seriously.”


President Franklin Roosevelt, who began one re-election campaign speech by saying, “Well, here we are together again – after four years – and what years they have been! You know, I am actually four years older, which is a fact that seems to annoy some people…”


The order in which debaters present their arguments as well as the structure and organization of their speech is also an important way to not only enhance the audience’s appreciation of the debate speech but also increase their understanding of the presented arguments. Debaters should remember that structure of a speech is part of the message: it increases the effectiveness of the communication for the audience but is also easier for the speaker to remember the sequence in which the arguments should be presented.

A well-organized speech should have an introduction, the main body (central idea) and a conclusion.

The main body of a speech should contain the main points that a debater wants to raise: explanations, reasons, illustrations/examples, etc. Since speeches in debates are rarely longer than 5-6 minutes, if a speaker wants to develop the points well, she/he would rarely have time to introduce three to four main points. Before explaining each point, a speaker may want to provide a little introduction of what points he/she will cover in a speech. This will allow the audience to follow the main ideas better and retain more information after the speech. Speakers should also provide “smooth” transitions between the main points, by for example, using the following phrases: “now that I have discussed… I would like to move on”, “what follows from that point is…”

Beginning and ending the speech

The first part and the last part of the speech are particularly important because they are more likely to be remembered by the audience. The introduction is critical because the audience is first meeting a speaker, discovering the topic or learning what the speaker plans to do in the speech. The conclusion is critical because a speaker is pulling the information together, reminding the audience of the most important points, and telling them what he/she would like them to do with the information. For these reasons it is important to pay special attention to the beginning and the ending of your presentation. Below are some useful ‘hints’ for debaters:

  • The first thing you need to do is capture your audience’s attention by focusing on something that is novel, surprising, suspenseful, important, humorous, familiar or profound. Experience show that audiences that are not pulled-in at the beginning of a speech, are less likely to pay attention during the speech.
  • After gaining attention, you should identify a thesis in one clear sentence. This thesis identifies the content or the message that you would like the audience to walk away with after your speech.
  • Tell the audience early in the introduction why it is important for them to listen. Provide the ‘payoff,’ that is what they get in exchange for investing their time by listening to your speech. They need to know exactly why they should listen.
  • Demonstrate your own credibility. If you have special experience or knowledge on this topic, or have engaged in specific research on this topic, then let the audience know in order to give them a reason to listen to your views.
  • Address your motivation. Let the audience know why you wanted to speak about this topic, why you know about it, why you care about it, why you feel that they should know and care about it as well.
  • Let the audience know what to expect. Telling the audience what main points your are going to address through your speech by providing a preview allows them to focus their attention.

In your conclusion provide a summary of the main points you have covered in the speech. This calls for a fair amount of repetition, but some say that the secret to public speaking is ‘tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them.’

  • Return to your thesis. Remind the audience of the central message that you would like them to walk away with.
  • Tell the audience what they should do with your information. How specifically should they change what they know, believe, or do? What would be the ‘action plan’ that your audience should take as a result of your speech?
  • End by providing closure, or a sense of ‘coming to an end.’ Closure can be achieved by returning to the facts, stories, or illustrations that were used in at the beginning or by similarly ending on a note that is surprising, illustrative, novel, etc. Speakers who need to finish by saying “that is all,” have not provided closure.


Although content matters most in a formal setting of a public debate still, it is important to remember that audiences will not necessarily be able to separate the message from the way it is presented. Very much like a gift, a note from a good friend, or a special dinner, how a speech is delivered matters as much as what it contains. A large part of communication relates not just to arguments and words, but to speaker’s voice, body, and movement.

The elements of good delivery parallel the elements of good conversation. The audience should feel that a speaker is speaking with them, not presenting to them, so in most settings, it helps to be natural. The following guidelines contain some important reminders.

Using voice effectively:

  • At most points, debaters should speak about the same rate that they speak in a conversation – increasing speed in order to convey excitement or action, and slowing down in order to emphasize important points.
  • Speakers should vary the pitch normally, and try to avoid speaking in a monotone, or in a sing-song fashion (as if you are reading out loud).
  • Debaters should try to keep “vocalized pauses” to a minimum (umm, ahh, eer, etc.). Instead, they should just use a silent pause.
  • Speakers should pause at strategic points in their presentation: between important points and before or after dramatic statements.
  • How loudly debaters need to speak will depend upon the room the debate takes place in, the distance of the farthest audience member and whether or not they can use a microphone. Speakers should speak so that all can hear without any effort. Dramatically raising or lowering volume can also be used to emphasize key ideas.
  • Voice sounds more natural if speakers are using notes based on key words only. If they are reading word-for-word, then they will likely sound like they are reading. Their voice will have less variety and it will be harder for the audience to pay attention to the speech.

Using body language effectively:

  • A speakers should keep is/her face relaxed and expressive. Showing tension in the face can often be interpreted by the audience as anger. Smile has great effect on the audience (provided it is appropriate to the content).
  • Speakers should maintain an appropriate amount of eye contact with their audience. When they are not looking at the notes, then they should be looking at members of the audience eye to eye, not at the walls, the floor, or out the window. Speakers should try to include as many members of the audience as possible in their eye contact.
  • Speakers should gesture naturally with their arms and hands, just as they would in a conversation. They should void repetitive or constant gesturing though as it may be a distraction.
  • Speakers should move by taking a step or two at a few points during the speech as a way of maintaining interest, dissipating nervous energy, and highlighting key points. A speaker who continually paces though risks distracting the audience.

To sum up- a style that is sincere, conversational, calm and committed is the best speaking style to adopt in a public debate.

Some debaters are natural born public speakers and they feel no fear when facing even the biggest audience. Most people however experience a range of negative emotions prior to having to speak in public: ranging from mild discomfort to sheer panic. But even the nervous speakers can achieve success in public debates if they spend some time practicing it and preparing for the public performance. Practice in public speaking means standing up and presenting the speech just as a speaker will when he/she performs the final version. Here are a few ‘tips’ on how to practice for a public speech.

  • Use key-word notes. This means that you should write one or two words at most for each sentence that you plan to say. Thinking as you speak, use the key words and your own memory and knowledge in order to present your ideas. In order to develop a familiarity with your materials, use the same note-cards during practice that you will be using for the actual presentation.
  • Give your presentation a little differently each time. Don’t commit yourself to a memorized version - you don’t want to make the presentation so static that it sounds like you are just reciting words rather than speaking with your audience.
  • Once you get to the point of being able to complete your speech, then you should commit yourself to practice the speech all the way through, no matter what happens. Saying, “wait, can I start over again?” is a luxury that you will not have during the actual presentation.
  • Know your space. If it is possible, you should take a close look at the room in which you will be giving your presentation. This way, you will know the resources of the room in answering questions like “how loud will I need to speak?” “Will I have room to move?” or “Where will I plug in my equipment?”
  • As you practice, visualize yourself giving the speech in the actual setting with the actual audience. Positive visualization can be a powerful technique of refining your presentation and reducing your nervousness.
  • Get feedback from friends and associates if you can. Practicing alone is also effective, but you will not notice everything about your speech (like repetitive gestures and too many “umms”) and there is no substitute from hearing from a friend or a colleague what is coming across well and what could be improved.
  • Use audiotape or videotape if you can. It is not always a pleasant experience to listen to oneself on tape or see oneself on video, but there are a tremendous number of lessons to be learned this way.
  • Remember that practice is self-persuasion: you are persuading yourself that you are prepared, and this can be a key means of reducing your anxiety. To make sure that you are decreasing, and not increasing, your anxiety, remember to focus on the positive things you are doing and the constructive things that you can do in order to improve.

Preparing a Public Debate – Promoting Debate in a Local Community

When preparing for a public debate, just like in a competitive debate, debaters must research a topic, develop good debate cases, construct arguments, work on the compelling style and practice their delivery. Some of these elements in fact may require more effort and preparation than a competitive debate (e.g. debaters should usually spend more time on how to present in the case of public debates than on what to present).

There is however one important consideration that must be paid special attention to in preparation for a public debate and it is promoting debate in local community and assuring audience attendance. Of course student debaters can rest assured that their parents will want to see them debate but the challenge maybe to reach out to other segments of the local population. This will require publicizing debate in a local community. Publicizing a debate is a way no different than trying to sell a product. Marketing an event like public debate and marketing a commercial product have a lot in common, and the same principles of basic marketing, or the four Ps – product, price, place and promotion apply:

  • The product is the debate event itself.
  • The price can be interpreted on two levels: the first is the perceived value of the event to the audience (which they pay for with their attention and time spent attending the debate); the second is the cost of organizing the debate (the time and effort invested in the preparation and publicity, as well as any real monetary costs – for the venue, refreshments, flyers, posters, travel expenses and fees for experts, etc.).
  • The place is the venue of the public debate; the location affects not only the size of the audience, but the character and mood of the event as well. The natural choice for students to host the debate may be a their school. This would promote their debate program in a community as well as help to build a closer link between their school and the community. Besides, many of the members of the audience – the parents- will already know how to get to the venue. Organizsers of debates may want to choose a different venue however- depending on how big or prominent their want to make their debate. Good venues include town halls, sports venues, churches, etc. It is important to reserve the venue long in advance however and also sometimes consider its cost implications (rent). In choosing the place for the debate organizers should consider its location (the more central- the better) and easy of access- including access by disabled members of the audience.
  • Promotion is a necessary ingredient of any endeavor involving an audience, listeners, followers or customers, whether you are selling a product, an idea or an event.

One of the first questions that debaters should ask themselves when preparing the logistical side of the debate is: Who will do it?

If the scope of the debate is grand and there is money available, responsibility for promotion can be given to people specially hired for that purpose; more frequently and realistically, the debate organizers themselves are in charge of the task. In many circumstances, it is possible to arrange for debate sponsors – companies and organizations that are interested in supporting the event with money or with company products (refreshments, paper, computers, etc.). In return, the sponsor gains publicity or even increased sales (in a case where the sponsor’s product becomes the “official” refreshment of an event, and only that product is sold at refreshment stands). When a sponsorship is established, debate organizers must feature it in their promotional materials – but sponsors are often happy to underwrite promotional costs. After all, the promotional material is a form of advertising, and it is in the sponsor’s interest to see that the advertising is well done, and travels far and wide. What is more, the sponsors have an interest in seeing the event itself well attended; they do not want to have their names associated with something that looks second-rate or unsuccessful.

There are many different vehicles suitable for publicizing a public debate: newspapers, television, direct mail, radio, magazines, the Internet, e-mail, newsletters of various organizations, bulletin boards, posters. The best method of promotion – because it reaches the greatest number of people at the lowest cost – is free coverage in the media.

Press Release

The first step in attracting any media attention is to write an interesting press release. The press release should answer the five Ws – who, what, where, why and when. This should be covered at the very beginning – the lead of the press release. The rest of the release – the body – should elaborate further on the lead, and include quotes, background information, and any additional details.


Local newspapers are a great way to promote an event. They provide timeliness, broad coverage and high level of credibility. Newspapers can either publish a feature story about the debate (more common if the topic has some special relevance to the community), or list it in their calendar of events. The critical first step in trying to secure newspaper coverage is to send a press release. It is always a good idea to get the name of a contact person at the paper and to send the press release directly to that person.

Radio and Television

Radio and television are usually the best vehicles for promoting debates to wide audiences. Both vehicles – but television in particular – provide a very broad coverage and appeal to the audience’s senses on more than one level. If organizers can afford it, advertisements are, of course, one very effective option. But if funds are restricted (or unavailable), it is worth spending some time and effort in trying to get some free exposure with Public Service Announcements (PSAs). Organizers should target local (as opposed to national) radio and television stations, since they are always looking for something of interest to the local community, and a public debate involving students may suit their needs. .

Public Service Announcements (PSAs)

Whether made for radio or television, Public Service Announcements should be an exact length of time – usually 10, 20 or 30 seconds. They should answer the basic five Ws (who, what, when, where and why); they should use short sentences, catchy phrases and words that are easy to pronounce. Most radio stations will make a tape themselves from a written text without charge; some will accept tapes prepared organizers; others will simply have an anchor, newsreader or announcer read a copy live. It is best for the organizers to contact their local TV and radio station for more details

Direct Mail

One common and cost effective marketing tool is mail directed at targeted audiences. Direct mail can be addressed to particular segments of the population and involve relatively small expenses (design, printing, copying, and mailing costs). The downside is that direct mail is frequently discarded without being opened (especially in more consumer-oriented countries), and even when it’s opened, a direct mail piece may get less than a minute of the reader’s attention.


When using posters as a way to promote a public debate, two things matter- design and a place where a poster is posted.

Design - an effective poster catches the viewer’s eye and gets straight to the point. Since a poster cannot contain many details, always provide a phone number and/or a web site address for further information (if possible, on pieces of paper that can be detached from the bottom or the side of the poster, so that people can take them and use the information later). Posters are all about visual appeal, so they should be well designed and uncluttered, with any imagery complementing (not obscuring) important information. If your budget allows only for photocopying, not printing, you can still make your poster stand out by using colored paper. The poster should be as large as possible, yet not too large to be posted in certain venues (A3 size).

Where to post- posters should be placed in high-traffic areas, where they are likely to get the attention of the type of audience you would want at your debate event. Good venues include libraries, schools, community centers, outdoor kiosks, supermarkets, stores, shopping malls, launderettes, coffee shops, sports clubs, banks, hospitals, art centers, bulletin boards, churches, university campuses (in campus centers, dining halls and other central locations), subject-related departmental buildings, off-campus hang-outs (pubs, cafes, bars, clubs), etc. Organizers do need to make sure, however, that posting is allowed in their desired locations, and they should check from time to time to see that the posters have not been removed or covered with other posters.


More and more people get their information on the Internet, and many people rely on the Internet exclusively, making it an important promotional tool. Debate organizers can create their own web page or post information about the debate on existing web sites. The basic rule of five Ws (who, what, when, where and why) still applies; site developers must also pay attention to structure, style, consistency and ease of navigation. There are certain technical requirements as well, and there are plenty of good designing software programs available.

Welcoming the Audience

Public debate is, like any other organized public event, involving hosting people (if even for a short duration of the debate) will require some degree of formality, courtesy and hospitality and this in turn will require a team of well prepared and intentioned individuals. Organizers will need to assure that there are volunteers manning the front entrance, cloakroom, handing out leafltets, offering refreshments making sure that there are enough seats of everybody and taking care of less able guests. Organizing a public debate will require a lot of effort from the organizers both prior to the event (preparation) as well as during the event. It is best if the debaters themselves are not directly involved in any activities other than the debate on the very day of the public debate- their main focus should remain the debate!

One of the most important persons during a public debate, apart from debaters, is a moderator or an MC (Master of Ceremony). The role of the moderator during the debate is many- fold. The moderator should welcome the audience, introduce the debate and the speakers, insure the smooth conduct of a debate as well as provide a closure to the event. When performing these tasks, the moderator must ensure fairness. The moderator is the guardian of the format who must see to it that rules are followed—but he/she must also ensure fairness when addressing the audience, introducing speakers, and explaining the structure of the debate. The following a more detailed tasks of a moderator:

Addressing the Audience: Setting a Tone and Establishing Purpose

The moderator serves as host for the event and generally will be the first person to speak to the audience. As a result, the moderator has a responsibility to set a tone for the event; in his/her opening comments, the moderator helps to establish audience expectations for the debate that will follow. The moderator should remind the audience of the importance of the question being debated and should characterize the conflict in an evenhanded way. The moderator’s opening remarks should be strong, and should demand the attention of the audience; they should establish a relationship with the audience; and they should create a context—albeit a neutral context—for the debate.

Introducing the Speakers

The moderator’s second major responsibility is to introduce the participants in the debate. This is not simply a matter of reciting names and job titles; rather, the moderator must introduce the speakers in a way that says to the audience, “Here is someone you will find interesting.” The moderator can do that by highlighting something in particular from the speaker’s resume of experience, or, if possible, by telling the audience something that they don’t know about the speaker. In making the introductions, the moderator must be scrupulously evenhanded: if one speaker’s introduction is festooned with mentions of awards and accomplishments, and the other speaker is introduced with only a name, the audience will in all likelihood become predisposed toward the speaker with the longer introduction. It is true that all debaters are not created equal, and some will arrive with more impressive resumes than their opponents; nonetheless, the moderator should try to minimize this imbalance, rather than maximize it.

Explaining the Structure of the Debate

Public debates can take many shapes and forms. The public debate audience often does not know how much time has been allotted to each side; it does not know the ground rules governing direct exchanges or questioning periods; it may not even know exactly what the resolution is. It is the moderator’s job to inform the audience about these matters, so that they will know what to expect during the debate. The moderator must begin by articulating the resolution or the question at stake precisely. The purpose of this introduction is simply to give the audience some idea of the rules that are in place, so that they can follow the sequence of events.

Maintaining Order

It is part of the moderator’s job to make sure that those rules are followed. The moderator is a bit like a traffic controller—that is, someone who manages the flow of the debate, makes sure that participants stop when they are supposed to stop, and go when they are supposed to go. A large part of the moderator’s job, then, is keeping track of the time— although that does not mean that the moderator needs to time the event personally. Indeed, it is probably more efficient to have another person keep time and display it in a way that is visible to both teams and to the moderator.

Generally, the moderator should interrupt only when he judges that the violations—exceeding allotted time or breaking other rules—represent an imminent risk to civil and productive dialogue. Because an overly intrusive moderator can do as much harm to the debate as an unruly advocate, the moderator must exercise careful judgment before interrupting.

Facilitating Interaction and Engagement

The moderator’s final responsibility—to facilitate interaction and engagement— will be shaped largely by the ground rules of the debate as determined by the participants. At one extreme, the ground rules may limit the moderator’s job to introducing the event and enforcing the rules. But it is also possible for the moderator to be more significantly involved, both formally and substantively. When the audience participation is incorporated into the design of the debate the moderator might take an active role in determining which members of the audience are allowed to speak. The moderator might also determine which audience questions are posed to the debaters.

It is also possible to design a debate in which the moderator poses his or her own questions (in this case, of course, the moderator must remain a neutral party- that means that the moderator cannot cross-examine a speaker the same way that an opponent would; it is certainly possible, however, for the moderator to raise issues with both of the debaters (or teams) involved.

Choosing a Moderator

When choosing a moderator for a public debate the organizers may want to take the following recommendations into consideration:

  • The moderator should be someone who is publicly neutral about the issue at hand.
  • The moderator should have good public speaking skills.
  • The moderator should be a person with flexibility and good judgment (maintaining order requires the ability to respond to situations as they unfold, as well as sufficient assertiveness to control the situation when necessary).
  • The moderator should be genial and good-humored (a good moderator provides a calming center when exchanges become intense and keeps the debate on track with an easy hand).
  • The moderator should be familiar with the topic and with the process of debate.

The Moderator’s Preparation Before the Debate

The moderator must make sure that he/she comes prepared to the debate. Although his/her level of preparation does not have to match that of the debaters’ the following are the minimum requirements:

  • The moderator must gather necessary information beforehand from the participants (in order to introduce them).
  • The moderator should also prepare her/his opening remarks before debate: the shorter the speech is, the longer it takes to prepare it.
  • The moderator should check on the facilities where the debate is being held. (although setting up the debate physically (e.g., supplying chairs, lecterns, microphones) is the primary responsibility of the debate organizers, but the moderator should ensure that the facilities are appropriately arranged, and that everything is in working order)

The Moderator’s Participation During the Debate

The Opening

These are the steps that the moderator could follow in the process of opening the debate:

  • Welcome the audience
  • Identify the event
  • Identify himself/herself and his/her role
  • Identify the topic and justify its importance
  • Identify the participants and build credibility for them
  • Explain the format
  • Highlight any particular audience involvement
  • Introduce the first speaker

After the First Speech

After the debaters begin speaking, the moderator has a choice: his participation can be regular and automatic, or it can occur on an “as-needed” basis. Regular and automatic participation would involve managing every transition in the debate: after the first speaker finished, the moderator would introduce the next step (“Ms. Johnson, you have two minutes for your opening statement.”). Subsequently, the moderator would indicate the time allotted for questioning, for refutations, and so on.

If, on the other hand, the moderator chose to participate on an as-needed basis, he/she might speak only when a time limit or rule had been violated or to introduce a major change in procedure (e.g., “At this point, we will open the floor for questions.”). The moderator should choose his/her model of participation to suit the occasion.

Dealing with Problems

When dealing with infractions committed by the debaters, the moderator must ensure that time limits and rules are respected. The moderator also has a role in controlling the audience. There is no universal law governing the behaviour of audiences at public debates; rules and standards need to be determined as appropriate for each particular situation. In most debates, audience activity will follow the rhythms of the debate itself: audience members are likely to talk to each other at the conclusion of a speech, when one speaker is stepping down from the lectern, and another is stepping up—even if that change takes place in a matter of seconds. It is the moderator’s responsibility to see that those sporadic eruptions of conversation remain sporadic, rather than constant. The debate will not succeed if there is an unbroken undertow of noise, and the moderator needs to admonish the audience as necessary.

Closing the Debate

The moderator generally closes the debate. Minimally, this means that the moderator announces that the debate is over and thanks each of the participants individually. As in the opening, it is appropriate for the moderator to make brief general remarks about the debate—although such remarks must be neutral and impartial. Some public debate may incorporate judgment into their model—that is, some mechanism that allows the audience, or a panel of judges, to say who “won” the debate. When such a mechanism is used, it is the moderator’s job to manage the process, and to provide ultimate closure by announcing the winner, before bidding the audience a final farewell.

Evaluating the Debate

The main purpose of the competitive debate is to declare the winning team. This is often prompted by the need to decide who will proceed to another elimination round (e.g. in a tournament) and each debate organization running a competitive debate event has strict procedures in place to assure that the process is fair and smooth. These procedures involve having a tournament director and teams of judges (sometimes debates can be judged by single judges), ballots and appropriate methods of pairing debate teams for rounds and tabulating results.

In a public debate, competition is less important but since debate is an inherently competitive event (it is a contest of reason), organizers of public events may want to introduce an element of judging and deciding who the winners are. In a public debate, the job of judging can also be done by the panel of judges but it can also be delegated to the audience themselves or a mixture of these two solutions can be employed.

The Panel of Judges

The panel of judges can be composed of audience members (either a random sample or a representative sample) or it can be assembled for the sake of providing expertise that the average audience member does not have (e.g. a panel of politicians and social policy activists, for example, could be expected to know more about public housing issues than a randomly selected group of college students). A panel of judges can perform different functions after a debate:

  • Instead of designating a winner, the panel of judges may provide evaluative commentary on the debate (e.g. they may say what they think was good or bad, and successful or unsuccessful, without taking a formal vote to determine a “winner” and a “loser.”)
  • The panel of judges can declare a winner of the debate (in a closed or open process)
    • In a closed process the results are announced by the master of ceremonies; individual decisions, and the reasons supporting them, remain secret.
    • In an open process the judges cast their votes and they are explained publicly to the audience, either by each of the judges individually or by someone chosen to speak for them.

The Audience

If the organizers of a public debate decide to render the audience responsible for evaluating the debate there are two primary techniques for eliminating bias in choosing a winner:

Letting the Undecided Decide

One technique is to exclude the partisans on both sides of the proposition and give voting rights only to the undecided. In this scenario, the winner of the debate is the advocate who captures the greatest number of undecided votes. There are, of course, practical difficulties with this method, beginning with the challenge of identifying who is truly undecided. It is also problematic to make partisans feel that they have been disenfranchised.

Determining the Audience Views

The second technique is to poll the audience twice, once before the debate and once after it. The winner of the debate is decided on the basis of the shift in audience opinion; the debaters who gained the most votes would be declared winner—even if his supporters were in a statistical minority. For example, if in a debate on legalizing marihuana an “anti-legalization” debaters gained most of the undecided votes, and increased support for their position from 30 percent to 45 percent; they would win, even though the legalization debaters had the support of the majority of the audience. The shift in opinion does not need to be measured in binary (“yes” or “no”) terms- the attitude can be measured in degrees such as:

A questionnaire may be given to participants (and collected) before the debate and a show of hands can be conducted after a debate (see logistical considerations below) Appropriate computer technology may have to be used with this model to tabulate the results.

Logistical Considerations

The method used to tally votes will be determined largely by the size of the audience. If the audience is small—fewer than 100 people—it is possible to determine a winner by a show of hands. For larger audiences, some kind of paper ballot is more practicable (where members of the audience can “tick off” the debaters they support. In some case (especially with debates directed at mass audiences: radio and TV debates, the organizers can use a more technologically sophisticated medium, e.g. sms voting, etc.)


Some debates may end with a vote by a panel of judges or audience, yet some other debates may conclude with other best possible outcomes: the listeners remaining in the hall after the debate to keep discussing a given issue; debaters and their audience brainstorming ideas for another debate or discussing further solution to an existing problem. In other words, debate do not need to close issues; rather, a public debate may inspire further dialogue and better shape this dialogue- by putting issues in a context, clearly outlining different aspects of a given issue, providing information and support for arguments, etc.

We believe that public debates promote understanding, the respectful exchange of ideas, and the peaceful resolution of differences. In doing so, when organized in the context of a local community or a neighborhood, public debates strengthen the very foundation of local democracy and understanding among people from different backgrounds.

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