The Ultimate Guide to Debating: How to Debate Like a Pro

If you are new to debating, you may not know where to start your journey of becoming a pro-debater who can win any debate. This guide is meant to quell any feelings of intimidation or fear you might have about debating by providing you with everything you need to know about preparing for and participating in a debate.

Definition of Debate

The American Debate League defines debate as “an organized argument or contest of ideas in which the participants discuss a topic from two opposing sides”. A debate usually revolves around a stipulated motion, which usually comes in the form of a statement. The side that agrees with the motion is called the Affirmative side, but may also be known as the Pro side. The side that disagrees with the motion is known as the Negative or Con side. You will usually be assigned to a particular side. To maintain order, a neutral person will often moderate or adjudicate the debate session, and he/she might also call the winning side.

Purpose of a Debate

To a debater, the goal of a debate is to establish and defend your stance with compelling arguments that are supported by robust facts and evidence, even if you may not personally agree with your assigned position. Part of building your own case is challenging the other side’s arguments. This is done by making rebuttals. The team with stronger and more convincing arguments will win the debate.

Benefits of Debating

  • Debating helps you develop critical thinking skills. Through researching and crafting your arguments, you can determine which pieces of information, facts and data are relevant to your case. 

  • Debating allows you to cultivate a profound sense of empathy. Preparing for a debate includes anticipating the opposition’s potential arguments, which requires you to put yourself in their shoes. Furthermore, you cannot always choose which side you are on, which helps you to view and interpret the motion from another person’s point of view.

  • Debating helps you become a more eloquent communicator, allowing you to convey your arguments in a structured and succinct yet impactful manner and to truly listen to what others have to say

  • Debating allows you to become a better team player, as you discuss and collaborate with your teammates to construct a convincing case

Structure of a Debate

There is a wide variety of debate formats, but here is a basic structure that you can use to get started.

  • The debate is based on a given topic. As mentioned previously, this topic is known as the motion and is often given in the form of a statement. The topic possibilities are endless, and could include a policy or idea. For example, the debate could revolve around the benefits and limitations of implementing a new policy or modifying an existing policy, or it could also be about whether a motion is true or false.

  • There are two teams on opposite sides of the aisle (there are usually three people on each side; you may be able to choose or be assigned to one):

    • The Affirmative or Pro team agrees with and supports the motion

    • The Negative or Con team disagrees with and opposes the motion

  • In addition to the speakers, there will also be a moderator or adjudicator who is responsible for timekeeping and listening to the arguments. He/she usually determines the winner of the debate. Instead of an individual, there could be a panel of moderators, and there may be no winners.

  • Prior to the debate, each team will be allocated with a set amount of time for preparation. This generally ranges anywhere from 15 minutes to 1 hour. During this time, you will have the opportunity to conduct research, organize your arguments and coordinate with your fellow teammates.

  • The debate is opened by the moderator or adjudicator reading the motion. It is followed by the first affirmative speaker, and then the first negative speaker. Eventually, the debate is ended by the last negative speaker. Each speaker will be given a set amount of time to speak.

  • Interruptions in the form of Points of Information (POI) may or may not be allowed. If allowed, the speaker being interrupted may choose to accept or reject it.

How are Debates Judged?

The debate adjudicator will often assess the speakers’ arguments based on the following criteria:

  1. Content and substance - this refers to:

    1. What the debaters are saying

    2. The quality and relevance of their arguments and supporting information

  2. Style and manner - this refers to:

    1. How the debaters conduct themselves, such as their posture, body language and eye contact

    2. How the debaters speak, such as their tone of voice, choice of words, and volume

  3. Strategy - this refers to:

    1. The structure and coherence of their arguments

    2. The quality and relevance of their rebuttals

Important Debating Skills

Debaters need to be able to craft convincing arguments that are backed up by the relevant facts and evidence, and to anticipate their opponents’ arguments. This is often a team effort, so they need to collaborate effectively with their teammates. They should also be able to think on their feet in the face of new rebuttals, and deliver their points with finesse.

Tips and Tricks for Beginner Debaters

  • Instead of “I”, use the pronoun “we” to represent your team when conveying your arguments. This conveys that your team has reached a consensus, which strengthens your argument and demonstrates teamwork.

  • Separate your personal beliefs and values from the motion, especially if you are assigned to a side that you may not identify with.

  • Substantiate all of your claims and assertions with reliable facts and figures.

  • Avoid reading from your notes, as this makes you seem less charismatic and confident in your arguments. To help you do this, keep your notes short and organized.

  • Be flexible and ready to come up with rebuttals for arguments. Make sure to avoid these common pitfalls when making rebuttals!

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