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Encouraging Public Debates

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A Guide for Participants and Organizers of Public Debates

Originally written by Ken Broda-Bahm, Daniela Kempf and William Driscoll


In September, 2002, as the people of the United States began to consider the possibility of a war on Iraq, students at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, gathered to hear a public debate between two advocates—one, a U.S. Army colonel who favored an attack, and the other, a professor of social studies who opposed military action. The event proved to be lively, with fre­quent interruptions for applause, as well as boos and cheers. Because they were participants in a live event, the audience members became involved in a dramatic way. “Marist College debate coach Maxwell Schnurer, who orga­nized the event, said watching arguments over the issue on television makes ‘people feel as though they’re not invited to the table.’ But ‘public debates are conversational lightning,’ he said.

We wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Schnurer—public debates do affect us. More than that, they are an integral part of any society that is truly open. An open society, as defined by the philosopher Karl Popper, is a society based on the recognition that nobody has a monopoly on the truth, that­ent people have di.erent views and interests, and that there is a need for institutions to protect the rights of all people to allow them to live together in peace. Public debates a unique opportunity for the articulation of different views and interests in a forum that is characterized by reasonable argument and personal respect.

Debate has changed our lives, as it has changed many other lives.

For Ken, debate helped transform a rather shy boy from a military family into a young man who found as a teacher, coach, author, and advocate that he could influence with the power of words, and later into a (yes, somewhat older) man who found, again and in a new career, that a fascination with words, ideas, and audiences continues to serve as a profound calling.

For Daniela, a native of formerly socialist Croatia, debate finally channeled all the previously unsatisfied yearnings for free speech and open public debate, nonexistent in her country and so many others when she was growing up, and made her eager to share this epiphany with others. We can both say with confidence that debate helped to make us and many of our students into more tolerant people and conscientious citizens of the world.

We have had the privilege of seeing firsthand the difference that public debates can make in countries that face past and present threats to the ideal of respect­ful civil discourse—countries like the United States and many transitioning countries in East and Central Europe and around the world.

We owe the idea for this book and its realization to the Southeast Europe Youth Leadership Institute and its staff and students, who all contributed to the project with their insights and who served as our permanent inspiration and focus group. We are thankful to all of our students and colleagues at Towson University and Marymount Manhattan College for shaping us into the teachers that we are and for allowing us to test-run this material.

We are indebted to the International Debate Education Association for promoting debate in the United States and all over the world and for giving this book a publishing home. We would like to recognize and extend our thanks also to Gordon Mitchell, Max Schnurer, Alfred Snider, the Baltimore Urban Debate League and many others who play a role every day in helping to reawaken public debate in America and elsewhere.

Finally, we are grateful to all of our debate coaches, mentors, colleagues, family and friends who contributed to this book by making us who we are.

Public Debate in Context

A Rationale for Public Debates

The community of a medium size town in Lithuania is divided on the issue. The Town Council has announced in its monthly publication that is it plan­ning to introduce a curfew law for young people under 18. The law will make it illegal for any person under 18 to be out on the street after 10.00 pm on weekdays and 11.00 pm on weekends without a company of a parent or an adult guardian. The decision of the Council, according to the town authorities is related to the growing crime rate among young people and is aimed at curbing the increase of anti-social behavior as well as protecting young people against being involved in and being affected by crime.

The announcement has been met with various responses in the local community. Older citizens, especially the ones who live in the areas fre­quented by young people in the evenings (the center of town and surround­ing areas) have welcomed the proposal, since for long now they have felt threatened by groups of young people, congregating in the town’s square and being noisy and, as one of the senior citizens described, “disrespectful and rude”. The proposal has also received some support from parents, teach­ers and local police.

On the other hand, young people of the town feel that the proposed curfew law will be a major infringement on their liberty and that instead of solving the problem of crime it will a.ect negatively young people who may have legitimate reasons to stay out passed the curfew time: e.g. com­ing back from the cinema, gym, or social gatherings at their friends’. They believe that a 17 year-old person (who will be affected by the proposed law) is capable of making rational decisions and being able to take responsibility for his/her action and does not need to be controlled by the government.

During the sitting of the youth assembly of the town, elected representa­tives of young people voiced their and their voters’ concern about the pro­posed law and one of the delegates proposed that the members of the youth assembly should petition the local government not to adopt the law, while another delegate suggested that the youth assembly should approach the ombudsman for the rights of the child with a request to support the young people. The chairperson of the assembly, Valdas, suggested that it would be best if the issue was presented in a public forum, including different inter­ested parties and that it should have a form of a debate, where each of the parties would have an opportunity to present their arguments. Valdas also agreed to approach the local government with the proposal to have a public debate on the issue and represent young people in the debate.

The Head of the Town Council accepted the proposal from the young people believing that an open debate would help the Council make the best decision.

The Town Council has agreed that its side in the debate will be presented and defended by the Head of the Youth Committee and her assistant, while the young people voted that Valdas and Jurate should be presenting their voice in the debate. Both sides agreed on the speci.c format of the debate, giving each side the same amount time to present and respond to argu­ments. Agreeing to debate both sides began preparing their arguments. Arguing in favor of the curfew law, the Head of the Youth Committee and her assis­tant found evidence that in two German towns, the same law decreased the number of anti-social behavior cases among young people. They also devel­oped an argument that it is a duty of the government to protect young peo­ple from any harm and they found evidence that most incidents of crimes involving young people in Lithuania took place in the evenings. Valdas and Jurate anticipated this argument and they were ready to argue that young people are capable of making the right decisions concerning their lives and if the law allows them to drive a car (driving license being issued at 16), it is unreasonable to doubt a young person’s inability to be responsible after 10.00 pm. They also went to the local police station and interviewed the chief of the police about the feasibility of implementing the proposed law (e.g. the number of police patrols on the streets, their workload and addi­tional duties they would need to take on after the law is implemented).

When the day came for debate, the main conference room in the town hall, the traditional place for the meetings of the Town Council was filled beyond capacity. Advertisements for the debate had been placed on notice boards all over the town and it was also advertised through the publication of the local government. The room filled up with students, parents, mem­bers of the public and journalists.

Individuals stood at the back and in the aisles when all the chairs were taken and they were ready to listen to the arguments of the members of the Council and the young people. The debate began with the representative of the Council presenting the rationale for introducing the new law- they were talking about the increase in crime and anti-social behavior and the need for more e.ective policies. They also presented the new proposal and showed how it will improve the situation. Valdas and Jurate, disputed the involvement of young people in serious crimes and demonstrated how the new law will infringe on the personal freedoms of young people. They also pointed to the impracticality of the proposed solution. The participants of the debate did not only made speeches, but questioned each other directly, while several microphones placed in the audience allowed those attending to have a voice as well. The debate didn’t result in a “winner” per se, and may or may not have had an e.ect on the decision of the Town Council to introduce the curfew law, but the best indication of the debate’s success was this: once the debate had formally concluded, easily one third of the audience stayed and discussed the issues- with each other, the participants of the debate The debate repre­sented an ideal example of the role that public debates can play in helping people develop their ideas, share their views, and ultimately reach intel­ligent and responsible decisions.

Definition of Public Debate

While the terms “public” and “debate” are familiar enough, a definition of the phrase as we use it in this text is important. We see public debates as more or less formal events 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. While the chapters to follow will iden­tify a number of specific dimensions and considerations regarding format, content, support, and attention to audience and situation, several common elements can be identified in everything that we consider a public debate:

  • 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.

While these parameters are broad enough to include a large number of diverse events, we would like to be clear in identifying a few events that we purposely do not include. Panel discussions can be considered events in which a number of speakers address a common topic. Without opposition— without participants’ willingness to identify and commit to distinct and incompatible positions on a topic—we cannot term these events “debates.” Most debating that occurs at formal competitive tournaments can certainly be considered debate but not “public debate,” because it generally takes place in front of a specialized judge rather than an audience, and in many to most cases it takes place in relative privacy, with few parties other than the judge in attendance. In addition to requiring a genuine audience, the public debate also requires a commitment to argumentation. The airwaves are presently filled with talk shows featuring controversy and opposition, but because participants frequently oppose each other by shouting, insulting or even throwing chairs, rather than by offering reasons, these events generally shouldn’t be considered public debates either. Finally, an element of engage­ment with the arguments of the other side is important as well.

While high profile exchanges between candidates for national office, such as the U.S. presidency, are commonly called “debates,” critics have argued that because candidates often simply answer questions posed by a journalist/moderator and don’t directly address each other’s arguments, these events are more accurately called “joint press conferences” rather than public debates. Our view is that such events are debates only to the extent that they feature direct engagement in argumentation and direct clash between points of view offered by the adversaries. 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 chapter will develop a rationale for public debates. We intend this rationale to serve not only as a­tion for the subject matter of this book, but more importantly as a resource for individuals who need to persuade others of the value of public debates.

Of course, if you yourself were not already a believer in the value of public debating, you probably would not be reading this book. However, at some point you may find yourself in the position of having to justify the value of a public debate to a student council (as in the example above), a city 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 bene.ts of public debates. In the following sections, we 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

Perhaps the most common justi.cation for debating in all of its forms is the argument that it builds a specific set of very important skills. For the debater, the advisor, the attentive audience member or the moderator/judge, public debates promote skills in both communication and critical thinking.

Communication Skills

In front of an audience of dozens, hundreds, or more; possibly under the glare of television lights; facing an opponent and a situation that are only partially predictable, the public debate has all of the makings for a public speaking experience of the greatest intensity. The pressure of knowing that many eyes and ears will be attending to you and the spontaneity of having to respond to a line of reasoning as it develops both ensure that a public debate is a situation demanding all of your resources as a speaker. The more experience in such a setting that a speaker has, the greater the chance that the speaker will gain the sensitivity and the virtuosity to excel.

The presence of the audience and the likelihood that the public debate has emerged out of a concern for a real issue both raise the stakes for the advo­cate. Public debates demand the development of basic skills such as employ­ing variety and emphasis in voice; developing eye contact with as much of the audience as possible; controlling and employing facial expression, ges­ture and movement; creating and communicating clear organization and comprehensible logical connections; and selecting concise, appropriate, memorable, and vivid language. Public debates also emphasize extempora­neous presentation; this is a demanding 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. The audience is obviously and palpably present and for that reason, they demand adaptation: a speaker’s goals must be based upon what the audience is likely to understand and appreciate.

In addition, the fact that public debates involve a .ow of development from argument presentation to argument conclusion emphasizes the need to think of an overall strategy and not simply a message. Because each speaker in a public debate is confronted by a present and engaged opponent, debaters must anticipate the arguments of others and react accordingly. Finally, the presence of an audience promotes a realization of the importance of good communication habits. Two university debate coaches with long histories of promoting on-campus public debates have observed that “when confronted with an audience that participates in the debate through its questions and comments, students recognize that their ideas must be structured clearly, that their language must be understandable, and that their delivery must be dynamic and their speaking rate comprehensible.”

With all of these considerations, the public debate requires a great deal of grace under pressure. Despite the high stakes, though, some participants may .nd the setting of a public debate easier and more pleasant than other comparable speech settings. Rather than being based on an assigned or casually selected topic, public debates often emerge from timely issues of great salience and importance to speakers, and it is easier to speak about something that is personally important to you. In addition, the competitive elements of debate, and the fact that there is implicitly or explicitly a win­ner, makes it more like a game, and it is more pleasant to engage in a game than to complete an assignment.

Finally, the fact that they are focusing on opponents and a goal makes it possible for nervous speakers to diminish their self-awareness a bit by directing their energies toward their adversaries and not toward themselves.

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. Today of course, many citizens receive their information from the electronic media—small “sound bites” of information from either the radio or the television. It is more chal­lenging to attend to a speech in its entirety, and this experience engages the audience more fully by inviting them to appreciate the speaker’s overall structure and strategy. It is more challenging still to follow a line of argu­ment through several speeches as it is disputed back and forth. In this way, public debates encourage activity and engagement on the part of the audi­ence by rewarding sustained attention.

Critical Thinking Skills

Critical thinking includes the ability to understand the support for claims and to test that support. These skills are involved when advocates fully explore the arguments for their side of the question, and anticipate the arguments of the other side of the question; when debaters research and analyze the reasoning and the evidence that is used to support the claims in the debate—whether to refute or to defend—they are using critical thinking skills. This requires public debaters to be critics not only of the claims of their adversaries, but of their own claims as well. To think like your oppo­nents, it is necessary to see your own weaknesses as well.

Critical thinking is seen as one of the most salient benefits of debate generally. After reviewing the empirical research on the question, there is “presumptive proof,” as one researcher concluded, for believing that debate provides precisely the critical thinking bene.ts described above.2 An addi­tional group of authors concluded, “Many researchers over the past four decades have come to the same general conclusions. Critical thinking abil­ity is signi.cantly improved by courses in argumentation and debate and by debate experience.”3 One of the most recent works on the subject was a “meta-analysis” of nineteen previous studies on the relationship between experience in debate and similar activities and critical thinking, and that review concluded “this summary of existing research rea.rms what many ex-debaters and others in forensics, public speaking, mock trial, or argu­mentation would support: participation improves the thinking of those involved.”

While some of this research has focused on debate as it occurs in a classroom or a tournament context, some confidence in the inference that public debates promote comparable critical thinking benefits can be gained from the fact that the basic elements that constitute critical thinking (ana­lyzing, advocating, evaluating) are as prominent in public debates as they are in any other format. The practitioner of tournament debating may well benefit from the relative frequency of the debates (for some college debaters as many as ten debates on a given weekend). But the public debater might benefit from the proportionately greater attention that is being paid to one setting, one case, and one opponent. The focus on the public debate as a single unique event, rather than just one in a string of debates, encourages the debater to plan more thoroughly and to reason more deeply on the comparatively limited possibilities for argument in this one setting.

At least when it is done well, the public debate—by adding additional elements such as moderator and audience—has the potential to promote a deeper experi­ence in critical thinking. An additional critical thinking bene.t to the public debate must also be added: the bene.t to the audience. Attentive audience members at a public debate will not only hear and appreciate the speakers, but 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 advocates themselves.

Public Debates Contribute to the Public Sphere

The benefits of debate have convinced many secondary schools and univer­sities throughout the world to include debate programs within their activi­ties and curricula. Modern debate, however, focuses much of its energies on preparing for debating tournaments, relatively large gatherings at which students from a number of di.erent schools and programs will compete largely out of the public’s eye. The corollary is that the bene.ts of modern debate are gained largely by participants, not by the public. We see that pub­lic debates can signi.cantly broaden the benefits of debate by contributing to the public sphere.

Interscholastic debate did not always avoid the public eye. Before there were tournaments, the way in which one college or university would debate another was fairly direct: one school’s team would travel to the other school and they would debate in front of an audience. Often teams would string together several such events and go on a debating “tour.” As the debate tour gave way to the debate tournament, teams were able to debate many more schools in much less time at a fraction of the cost. Much was gained, but one thing was lost: the audience. In time, debate tournaments established their own context in their own setting—one in which debates moved from the auditorium to the common classroom.

The new audience—the often solitary judge—quickly became a specialist in possession of a very speci.c way of viewing, structuring, and talking about the debate. Debate developed into a powerful tool for developing skills in analysis, research and criticism. The rhetorical role of presenting ideas in a clear and lively fashion to an untu­tored audience in large part vanished from many debate communities.

The idea of public debate on school campuses is not dead—that much can be seen in international debates, parliamentary debating societies, and the occasional intramural debate tournament. And yet it is clear that the vast majority of the energy of most of the national and international debate organizations is focused on preparing for and planning tournaments. Given the demands of competition, it is also quite likely that a clear majority of program directors’ and coaches’ time is also directed away from the campus and away from potential audiences. Tournament debating can limit the bene.ts gained by the debaters themselves in their capacity as citizens. That is, there is a danger when the educational task of preparing debaters focuses exclusively on tournament preparation. As Gordon Mitchell of the University of Pittsburgh noted, such a focus can serve to distance debaters from the very topics and ideas that they discuss.

Academic debaters nourished on an exclusive diet of competitive contest round experience often come to see politics like a pictur­esque landscape whirring by through the window of a speeding train. They study this political landscape in great detail, rarely (if ever) entertaining the idea of stopping the train and exiting to alter the course of unfolding events. The resulting spectator mentality de.ects attention away from roads that could carry their arguments to wider spheres of public argumentation.

Debate’s movement from an audience-centered forum to a tournament-centered laboratory and its resulting avoidance of the public sphere ought to be viewed in a larger context as well. Numerous social critics have noted fundamental changes in the character of public dialogue over the past few decades. A reliance on one-way channels of information, for example, risks transforming citizens from active partners in the production of knowledge and opinions to mere consumers of information. Membership in a mass audience can have the e.ect of making people feel like witnesses to the dramas of democratic life, and not participants. In addition, there is the risk that a “public sphere” of deliberative decision-making is being replaced on the one hand by the technical decisions of experts and on the other hand by the purely personal experiences and opinions of individuals. Electronic sources have potential for facilitating group dialogue, but even they often find themselves channeling the public’s views in an atomized fashion: as public opinion data or as personal narratives. A proliferation of sources of information—Internet sites, cable television channels, and desktop-published magazines and newspapers—has contributed to a segmentation of audiences, meaning that even as modern communication reaches more and more people, those who are reached are more targeted, more specialized, and less “public.” Northwestern University professor Thomas Goodnight, for example, has lamented that “issues of signi.cant public consequence, what should present live possibilities for argumentation and public choice, disappear into the government technocracy or private hands.”

The consequences of this decline in the public sphere are crucial to any society that prides itself on an active citizenry. Converted to information consumers, citizens become atomized, and begin to lack the psychological capacity that permits them to feel a responsibility for, and an ownership in, the a.airs of their society and their government. “The results of the deterioration of public debate,” two Harvard professors wrote, “include a loss of public faith in democratic institutions, a distrust of government, and reduced public participation.”

Public debates have the potential to play their own part in restoring the public sphere by encouraging 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 a.orded by vehicles of mass communication. While an audience member may choose to be passive at a public debate, as much as they are passive as a television watcher, the dynamics of the public debate provide several incentives for a greater level of involvement. The first is 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. The second reason is evaluation. Even when public debates are televised or otherwise presented to a mass audi­ence, the back-and-forth of the exchange encourages audience members to investigate and re-examine their own views. The third reason is improved information. Public debates provide a better chance to develop arguments fully as well as a better chance to expose shallowness and deceit.

For students as well, public debates opportunities to learn in a new way—a way that is intimately connected to the intellectual life of a commu­nity. As Gordon Mitchell of the University of Pittsburgh noted, by creating forums where salient and pressing contemporary issues can be debated and discussed in a robust, wide-open fashion, stu­dents can lend vibrancy to the public sphere. Public debates repre­sent sites of social learning where the spirit of civic engagement can flourish, ideas can be shared, and the momentum of social move­ments can be stoked.

By promoting a greater number of on-campus debates, university and sec­ondary school programs could serve the functions of teaching advocacy and educating audiences without sacri.cing the argumentation laboratory that tournament debating has become. As a complement to (not a substitute for) current debate activities, programs should expand the practice of on-campus debating. Public debates can be incorporated in argumentation and public speaking classes, integrated into student government and elections, connected to on-campus political clubs, or linked to international traveling teams. Adding a public debate on the Thursday or Friday evening before the beginning of a weekend tournament is an easy and inexpensive way to promote public debates in conjunction with the tournament schedule. Such an addition can also provide a tournament with a “public face” that will allow administrators and members of the general public to develop a posi­tive image of the debate program and the debate activity.

By contributing to interactive public dialogue, public debates can help society at a fundamental level. President John F. Kennedy wrote, “The give and take of debating, the testing of ideas, is essential to democracy. I wish we had a good deal more debating in our institutions than we do now.”

Public Debates Help Organizations Meet Their Goals

We have looked at the benefits of public debates at an individual level (building skills) as well as at a societal level (promoting the public sphere). A final category of benefit relates to the organizations that support debates. Whether they are competitive debating clubs, activist organizations, gov­ernment agencies, educational institutions, or political clubs, any group that seeks to carry a message to the public can benefit from public debates. While potential bene.ts 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.

Promoting Visibility. No matter what other goals an organization has, one basic need is to be seen and recognized. To attract sponsors, clients, audience’s, and partners; to get its message out; to form an identity and to be appreciated for what it does, an organization needs .rst to be noticed. Public debates offer a unique means to attract a form of attention that would be di.cult to obtain through comparable events. Hosting a speaker, giving an award, and issuing a press release are all potential ways to communicate, but particularly for media outlets that focus on con.ict and controversy, a debate is inherently more worthy of attention. For the same reason that an announcement of a new policy is not as newsworthy as a dispute over a new policy, a debate naturally .ts into media priorities and audience interests. “Debate is an activity thick with motivation and laden with drama, mean­ing, and purpose,” Professor Mitchell wrote, and as a result it provides a unique way to capture interest and attention.

Providing Information. Conveying information in some form or other is a common objective for all kinds of organizations. While newsletters, narra­tives, panels, and individual speakers all serve to convey information, the dynamic of a debate has unique bene.ts. Its embedded con.ict promises a more interesting exchange: people who might cringe at listening to a lecture might welcome listening to a debate—even if it conveys essentially the same information. In addition, a debate is unique in not only informing on a particular point of view, but also capturing the diversity of opinions contained in an issue.

Attracting New Membership, Audiences, and Partners. With rare exceptions, school debating clubs and programs are always attempting to find new members. Those of us who coach university programs, for example, can identify with the experience of having long-term, successful, and (we think) visible programs, while still encountering students who say, “I didn’t know this college had a debate team.” Hosting frequent and well-publicized public debates is one way to spread awareness to potential members. Without fail, after every public debate there are a few individuals who will drift toward the stage to chat with the debaters or the coaches about the possibility of joining the team. Organizations other than debating teams bene.t from this attention as well. By bringing together representatives of di.erent organi­zations and by targeting still more organizations in your advertising, your public debate can serve as a ‘networking’ opportunity which allows you to identify new audiences and potential partners.

Leveling the Playing Field. One important element of debate is its formal equality. In most formats at least, speakers receive equal time in which to state their views, with no restrictions on what they say. In many formats, speakers receive a direct opportunity to question the other side. Public debates limit opportunities to introduce unfair elements into the public dialogue. They limit opportunities to monopolize attention by “.libustering” (or refusing to yield to another speaker), by interrupting, or by speaking louder or longer than an opponent. The power of money—so essential for political campaigns that must buy advertising time and send promotional letters—counts for little in a public debate; it is impossible to defeat a debate opponent by spending more money than he does. This element of the public debate not only keeps the exchange civil, it also has the potential to allow smaller, less recognized or less powerful groups to compete on an equal footing with larger, more familiar, or more powerful groups. In the U.S. for example, there is a recent movement to bring debate to urban, inner-city, secondary schools.11 By targeting schools with high populations of racial minorities and needs that go beyond the available resources, this movement seeks to use debate as a method of empowerment. Public debates within a program such as this provide an ideal opportunity to hear the voices of mar­ginalized groups: groups that we are used to hearing about, but not always used to hearing from.

Motivating Existing Membership. A final benefit to public debates can be found in the experience of the debate itself, in its exhilarating and even addictive quality. Hosting public debates is an excellent means to provide members of your organization with an experience that is likely for many to be intrinsically satisfying. For many, in fact, this bene.t may make the preceding pages of this chapter quite unnecessary. Generations of students have embraced debating, not because it is educational (though it is) and not because it improves the life of the polis (though it does), but because it is fun. The game-elements, the need for quick thinking, the unpredictability of the situation, the possibility of winning the capitulation of an adversary or the assent of an audience, can all make the debate experience seem like an end in and of itself.

An Ethical Perspective for Public Debates

As a member of society, you may feel that your life is totally structured by rules—by lists of what you must do and what you must not do. Perhaps that is your attitude toward the subject of “ethics” as well. After reading the chapter heading, you might approach this discussion warily, thinking that it too will just amount to more commands to be good. If that is your fear, rest assured. While we would never play down the importance of being good, our perspective in this chapter is that anything that deserves the name “ethics” can never be reduced to a simple list of what to do or what not to do. Instead, ethics is a perspective, a worldview even. While we will mention several things that should be done, and several things that should be avoided, we believe that such guidelines must stem from a common foundation, and can’t simply be a list of disconnected commands, like the list above. The ethics of public debating in particular, because they relate to communication, have much more to do with relationships than with rules.

What does that mean? Let’s start by considering 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 .nal debate before an audience of more than two hundred students and teachers from twenty-six di.erent countries. The two teams of debaters, who themselves represented several di.erent nations, focused on the issue of cultural rights, with the a.rmative 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 bene.t 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 awry 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, e.ective or worthless, noble or dis­graceful based upon the degree to which the participants emphasize several elements of a good relationship: honesty, respect, and dialogue. As broad as these elements are, a concern for ethics can’t be contained or isolated in just one chapter. For that reason, you will see that we return to ethical considerations at a number of points in further chapters. This chap­ter, however, has the purpose of developing a point of departure for these applications. For the remainder of this discussion, we intend to develop this relational view of ethics by .rst exploring the connection between ethics and public debating, then identifying several elements of an ethical perspec­tive, and finally discussing practical ways to promote and negotiate ethical guidelines in public debates.

Ethics and Public Debating

“Ethics” is a term that reflects the human concern for issues of what is right and wrong, fair and unfair, just and unjust in our conduct and our commu­nication. The term stems from the Greek word ethos which the early Greek teachers of rhetoric saw as an aspect of character. Aristotle, who described the art of rhetoric as “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion,” noted that “character may almost be called the most e.ective means of persuasion.”

The reason that your character may rival the importance of your arguments is found in the simple fact that because they lack the ability to verify every statement independently, audiences must trust, and trust is not given out indiscriminately. “We believe good men more fully and more readily than others,” as Aristotle says, and “this is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided.”

The relevance of this aspect of character to public debating is clear: when presenting your ideas to your audience, you are also presenting yourself. As you decide how to use researched information, how to characterize events and people, how to address your opponent and your audience, all of these choices will re.ect something of your own character. Your knowledge, your trustworthiness, even your likeability are all a part of your message, and it is impossible to fully separate an audience’s reaction to an idea from an audience’s reaction to the source of that idea. To paraphrase Quintilian, the Roman teacher of communication, the e.ective public persuader is not just a good speaker, but also “a good person, speaking well.” 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 speci.c 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 fueled 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. Rather than being a bitter struggle for your view to prevail by any means necessary, a public debate should ennoble you, your opponent, the audience, and the issue.

An Ethical Perspective for Public Debating

Philosophers have long contended with the issue of the origin of ethics. Precisely how do we arrive at a view of what is good and what is bad? Some may turn to religion to answer that question. Others may say that an act’s value depends upon its consequences. Still others would say that you can’t evaluate any human action without considering its intent. Some would say that morality is found in one’s community and would depend on the group and the age in which someone lives. Finally, some would go further and say that ethics always depends on the situation, and that few actions are always wrong or always right.

While each of these outlooks may contribute to one’s personal worldview on ethics, we would like to develop a perspective on public debate ethics that is rooted in the value of dialogue. From a public perspective, the goal of a debate in front of a large audience is to provide a fair and rational hearing of all sides of a controversy. While advocates’ goals may be to win, and orga­nizers’ goals may be to attract attention to an issue, the goal of the debate, seen from the broadest possible perspective, is to introduce dialogue. For that reason, our perspective on ethics should be dialogic as well. One illus­tration of this perspective of ethical rhetoric as dialogue is provided by the father of dialogue himself. Plato’s dialogue entitled Phaedrus uses a familiar metaphor in order to di.erentiate the self-interested arguer from the arguer with a more dialogic intent.5 The attitudes of arguers to their audience can be compared to the attitude of lovers toward those they love.

To Plato, the “evil lover” stalks the target of his a.ections as a hunter stalks his prey—the beloved becomes an objective and hence is reduced to an object, a goal to be won. The parallel to the evil lover is the argumentative “Lothario” who sees the audience as nothing more than a fitting target for seduction. The evil lover in this case is the debater who is driven by the desire for victory and sees other elements of the debate—reason, persuasion, understanding, communication—as means to that end only. Rhetorical misdirection and outright deception may be justifiable in the mind of this “lover” if they increase his chance of attaining his goal and capturing his audience.

One alternative to the evil lover is the “non-lover.” While the non-lover lacks the insidious wiles of the evil lover, the non-lover also lacks passion. As the name would suggest, the non-lover is not invested—she cares little if she is successful or not. As a debater, the non-lover is one who may seek to inform the audience, but lacks an interest in genuinely moving the audi­ence. A non-lover may not distort or deceive, but she also imperils dialogue by failing to attempt persuasion and motivated argument; the non-lover bypasses an opportunity for engagement.

Since we are talking about Plato, an ideal has to be involved, and the ideal in this case is the “noble lover.” By pursuing her intended only in ways that suit their mutual interests and goals, the noble lover embodies the value of dialogue. Its parallel in the setting of a public debate lies in an advocate whose main motivation is to conduct an argument within a dialogic setting. Of course, noble lovers have viewpoints, and they are committed to defend­ing those viewpoints with the best arguments available. But they have also committed to the idea of a debate—they have committed to a process that privileges the exchange of views and rewards the best of each side. In addi­tion, they’ve committed to a view of the audience as a group in possession of independence, rationality and free choice. The noble lover de.nitely tries to persuade, but only by appealing to the audience’s best judgment.

The view expressed in this chapter is that the ethics of a public debate are in large part determined by whether or not participants have taken the dialogic perspective of a noble lover toward their audience. A dialogic perspective on ethics can be captured in the following formula: strategies, attitudes and behaviors that promote reasoned and respectful dialogue are presumptively ethical, and those that do not are suspect.

In writing on the ethics of argument, professor Stanley Rives argued that the debater has three main responsibilities: “(1) the responsibility to research the proposition thoroughly to know truth, (2) the responsibility to dedicate his effort to the common good, and (3) the responsibility to be rational.” To these responsibilities, professors Karyn and Donald Rybacki added a fourth: “the responsibility to observe the rules of free speech in a democratic society.” We believe that a dialogic perspective includes these four responsibilities—which must, however, be expanded in two important ways. The first element, the responsibility to research, should be seen more broadly as a responsibility to prepare fully. Beyond gathering needed evi­dence, advocates have a responsibility to the audience and to the issues to take preparation seriously. The last element, the responsibility to preserve free speech, should be broadened as well. Advocates and audiences should observe free speech because doing so respects individual views and indi­vidual autonomy. So it is really respect—for people and for their ideas and experiences—which is the final responsibility of the public debater. As a result of these modifications, 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 e.ort that it takes to follow a public debate attentively are given in the hope that there is some sort of return or bene.t for the listener. The audience’s reasonable expecta­tion of bene.t 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 interests and engages. A debater who wastes an hour in front of a large audience is wasting more than an hour. Indeed, he is wasting an hour for each member of the audience, and the resulting span of wasted time could be measured in days if not weeks or months. Without full preparation, opportunities for productive dialogue are limited. Thus is born the need for public debaters to commit to full preparation, and this obligation includes a number of elements.

Plan in Advance of the Debate. As much as experienced debaters are tempted to “wing it” or assume that inspiration will arrive in the heat of the moment, 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. In chapter five, we dis­cuss various advance steps to take in preparing for the debate.

Practice. There is no substitute for demonstrating your preparation by con­ducting a dry run of the debate. Ideally, you should practice in conditions that are as close as possible to those you can expect during the debate. In chapter nine, we discuss ways of practicing for the debate.

Know Your Subject. Audiences attend public debates in the hope of hearing, if not experts, then at least individuals with an informed perspective on the 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 take short cuts by relying on what they already know, or think they know, then they are limiting the potential for clash, risking insult to the audience and imperiling the possibilities for genu­inely informed dialogue; solid knowledge is essential for a successful debate. (Even so, we will note that a debate is not a quiz show: no one is expected to know every fact, and no one wins a debate simply by knowing more facts. “I don’t know” is often a perfectly appropriate answer during questioning.)

Make Reference to External Research Material When Necessary. A primary element of the need to prepare is the need to inform yourself on the topic. By researching the subject matter, you are avoiding error and presenting a more comprehensive argument in favor of your side. You will notice in the section above that we developed the responsibilities of the arguer by con­sulting Professor Stanley Rives and Professors Karyn and Donald Rybacki. By beginning with the thoughts of these authors and adding our own, we are participating in a conversation with other scholars—and that, after all, is what research is. Turning to external authorities doesn’t limit your origi­nality; rather, it permits you to participate along with others in an ongoing discussion of the topic. In chapter eleven we discuss more fully the need to provide evidentiary support and the best methods for developing it.

Avoid Representing the Thoughts of Others as Your Own. If, in writing this chapter, we had read the professors mentioned above, and then just pre­sented the four elements of responsibility without reference to their work, we would have committed plagiarism. Plagiarism (originating from plagia­rius, the Latin word for “kidnapper”) is the act of representing the ideas or words of another as your own. It can be global (stealing an entire speech) or partial (stealing a particularly good sentence, or an example). The solu­tion to plagiarism is simply to give credit when you are using the words or ideas of another. Information that is in the public domain (e.g., the fact that Quintilian was Roman) doesn’t need to be cited, but when taking material that is unique due to its judgment, reasoning, phrasing, or structure, you need to be careful to cite the original source of the information.

Identify Your Sources. Instead of saying, “I remember reading somewhere that...” or “Scientists say...” advocates 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. Remember also that oral speeches do not have footnotes: the fact that a reference for your claim exists isn’t likely to be impressive to an audience unless they are given some detail about that source. While you don’t have to give every detail about your source (page numbers and speci.c dates, for example, are often omitted) it is a good rule of thumb to provide the audi­ence with as much detail as they need at that moment to understand and evaluate the source of information.

Ensure That Your References Are Not Exaggerated or Distorted. Because you are a debater, it is natural that you will want to make the best possible case for your side. 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. If an author said, “some would say that globalism is bene.cial, but they haven’t studied the issues,” it would be grossly inaccurate and unethical to quote the author as saying “global­ism is bene.cial.” If an author said that free trade was “a way” to promote international understanding, it would be grossly distorting and unethical to paraphrase the author as saying that free trade was “the only way” to pro­mote international understanding. 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. It should go without saying, of course, but fabricating support by inventing an expert who doesn’t exist or creating a quotation that was never published represent the absolute lowest points of advocacy. 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 advocacy in this context depends on trust. To violate that trust is to in.ict the gravest wound to the dialogue.

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 showcases 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.

An ethical perspective on public debate includes a commitment to these ends. It is impossible to say categorically which motives are appropriately oriented to the common good and which motives are purely personal; nev­ertheless, we six items of advice regarding motivation.

Examine Your Goals. It may sound obvious, but our .rst suggestion is sim­ply to ask yourself why you are participating in a public debate. Are you interested in the thrill of competition? The pride you feel in your ability to defeat an opponent? The glory and admiration you expect to receive from the audience? There is nothing ignoble in any of these motivations, but one goal that should be present, and the goal that should take precedence if it con.icts with any of the previously mentioned goals, is the objective of helping an audience understand a complex issue and make a reasonable decision. A debater wouldn’t ask an audience to vote for her side because “I want to win...” Similarly, an ethical arguer should not expect to sway an audience with appeals that are primarily self-serving.

Ensure That You Would Be Comfortable Having the Audience Know Your Real Motivation. While there is no mathematical test for separating an unethi­cal motivation from an ethical one, one easy way to test your motives is to ask yourself if you would be comfortable being fully frank in sharing your goals with your audience. For example, imagine your discomfort in saying to an audience, “I am hoping that this next example is going to cause you to have so much sympathy that you don’t notice the fact that I’m using some pretty questionable statistics.” That discomfort is a good sign that any such strategy would be suspect.

Address the Debate to the Audience’s Level of Understanding. Many forms of competitive debate are evaluated by technical experts only. If these judges are accustomed to faster speech and technical language, then it seems appropriate to give that to them. In public debates, on the other hand, 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 (speci.cally, 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. In chap­ter nine we consider more fully the question of what information should be shared in what situations.

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 insuf­.cient development and explanation. A few fully developed arguments are always going to be more conducive to dialogue than a profusion of more shallow arguments.

Privilege Content Over Competition. The exhilaration of debating—show-ing your skills, besting your opponent—can be an important motivator. An emphasis on the common good, however, requires you to remember that audiences are rarely interested in personal rivalries and instead want to see debate as a contest in ideas; they don’t go to a debate because they want to see a horse race. Before and after the debate, any public comments you make should emphasize the value of the exchange of ideas, rather than predictions or proclamations of victory. 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. As we will develop in chapter 10, a central factor of argument in any context 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-state-ments, 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. As we will emphasize in chapter 10, 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 there are three practical reasons to provide justification for this premise anyway: it will reinforce the audience’s beliefs, inoculate them against your opponent’s e.orts to change their minds, and demonstrate that you are holding up your end of the debate. The less prac­tical but probably more important reason not to rest too comfortably on audience opinion is to promote the dialectical function of the debate: rea­soning that isn’t made explicit and resides instead only in the minds of the audience is hard to attack or defend, and less likely to lead to understanding or resolution.

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 o.ering an appearance of proof. Other “tricks” of reasoning include bandwagon 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. These fallacies short-circuit the reasoning that should be central to the dialogic function of the debate. In chapters 10 and 11, we review some strategies for identifying, avoiding, and attacking these arguments.

Clarify Arguments and Refutations at the First Opportunity. The public debate on the curfew for young people which was discussed at the beginning of chapter 1 illustrates the need for this standard. In the very last moment of this debate, Valdas, the chairperson of the youth assembly opposing the introduction of the curfew law, introduced the argument that the need to use police to reinforce the law will lead to the increase of more serious crimes, backing it up with a particular study from Poland. Since this was the last speech of the debate, the other side had no opportunity to respond. This tactic, called “sand-bagging” in competitive debate circles, impairs the dialogic function of the debate by robbing one side, and the audience as well, of the opportunity to give a fair hearing to both sides. Luckily in the curfew debate this trick did not pay o.. A member of the audience hap­pened to have information on this study. In the audience comment section, he not only presented evidence criticizing the study’s findings, but he also took Valdas to task for waiting to present the argument only when his oppo­nent could not respond. When debaters hide arguments or delay arguments, rational dialogue su.ers, and for that reason advocates have an obligation to clarify their own arguments and respond to opponent’s arguments at their .rst opportunity to do so. The saying that “silence is consent” implies that if you fail to answer one of your opponent’s arguments, then you have agreed to that argument (which doesn’t necessarily mean that the debate is over—it just means that you grant them that one point). To answer the argument only later, after you’ve had time to think or to realize the implications, is unfair because it denies your opponents their best opportunity to defend their argument against your attack.

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 dialogic function of allowing a comparison of reasoning. In chapter 18 we outline a method of debate evaluation that moves through the process of identifying issues, comparing the reasoning of both sides, selecting the better argument in each case, and .nally putting it together into a judgment for one side or the other. Evaluating a debate in this way takes some practice and patience, but it shows greater respect for rational dialogue than evaluations based on surface characteristics, such as the likeability or wit of a particular speaker.

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. One assumption of this text is that if you did not respect your opponent, your audience, and the process of a reasoned exchange of views, then you would probably not choose to engage in a public debate. In its Statement of Ethical Principles, the American Cross Examination Debate Association notes the need to promote respect, both for people and for the process of debate.

Furthermore, students should remember that debate is an oral, inter­active process. It is the debater’s duty to aspire to the objective of e.ective oral expression of ideas. Behaviors which belittle, degrade, demean, or otherwise dehumanize others are not in the best interest of the activity because they interfere with the goals of education and personal growth. The ethical CEDA debater recognizes the rights of others and communicates with respect for opponents, colleagues, critics and audience members. Communication which engenders ill-will and disrespect for forensics ultimately reduces the utility of foren­sics for all who participate in it and should, therefore, be avoided.

Aside from a simple recognition of respect for all parties 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 speci.c 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 o.ensive—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. The Cross Examination Debate Association, the American organization that promotes policy debate, addresses this balance in its sexual harassment policy in words that are worth quoting and adopting: It is the nature of the academic debate community to provide a forum for the robust expression, criticism and discussion (and for the tolerance) of the widest range of opinions. It does not provide a license for bigotry in the form of demeaning, discriminatory speech actions and it does not tolerate sexual [or, we would add, racial, ethnic, religious, national, linguistic, or sexual-preference] harass­ment... In the debate community, the presentation of a reasoned or evidenced claim about a societal group that offends members of that group is to be distinguished from a gratuitous denigrating claim about, or addressed to, an individual or group such as those enumer­ated above. The former is bonafide academic behavior while the latter may demean, degrade or victimize in a discriminatory manner and, if so, undermines the above principles.

Applying these principles in practice requires no small amount of consid­eration and sensitivity. As a rule, however, public debaters should avoid the use of names or attributes that are considered derogatory, seriously question any argument that is based on generalizations about broad human catego­ries (national, ethnic, linguistic, religious, or gender), and remember that every person, even those whose views we do not share, is entitled to basic human respect.

Appeal to the Best in Your Audience. In his first inaugural address in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln urged his listeners at the time, and generations since, to unite on common ideals, appealing to what he termed “the bet­ter angels of our nature.” In a context of public debate, we focus on these “better angels” when we appeal to an audience’s compassion, intelligence and honesty. We dishonor dialogue, however, when we appeal to vanity, specious nationalism, pure self-interest, or prejudice of any kind. The rhe­torical theorist Edwin Black noted that the ethics of communication can be assessed not only by the persona or character that a speaker conveys but also by a “second persona” that is a speaker’s view of his audience. This second persona is a rhetorical re.ection—an image of the audience as seen by the speaker.

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 speci.c image of the audience—namely that he sees them as people who would applaud the opportunity to cheat. He communicates not only his own persona (some­one who advocates cheating) but also a second persona (an audience that appreciates cheating). Most obviously, he would be o.ering a grave insult to the students, but even if such an appeal were e.ective in a given context it would remain unethical because it appeals to an unethical motivation. Such appeals can corrupt not only the speaker but the audience as well. As Black said, “In all rhetorical language we can find enticements not simply to believe something but to be something. We are solicited by the discourse to fulfill its blandishments with our very selves.”

For this reason, the public debater ought to be evaluated not only for what she presents of herself, but also for what she presents of her view of the audience. An ethical advocate strives to focus her appeals on an audience’s “better angels.”

Preserve the Value of Free Expression. All debates will at least attempt to restrict discourse to a more or less specific topic (see chapter 6, “Crafting A Proposition”), 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 e.ort 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 palatable. In an address in 1994, Colin Powell, later to become U.S. secretary of state, noted that “freedom of speech means permitting the widest range of views to be presented, however controversial those views may be. The [U.S. Constitution’s] First Amendment right of free speech is intended to protect the controversial and even the outrageous word and not just comforting platitudes too mundane to need protection.”12 In promot­ing free expression in public contexts, a distinction deserves to be drawn between the freedom from censorship (a freedom that must be protected) and freedom from criticism (a freedom that ought never be protected). 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.

Avoid Excessive Partisanship. Those serving as advocates in a public debate are obviously supposed to be for one side and against another. Audience members as well are likely to lean more toward one side of the debate than toward the other. In the spirit of showing respect to people as well as ideas, however, audiences should avoid any displays that demonstrate contempt or disregard. Good-natured rooting for your side, of course, can add needed energy to a debate, but refusing to applaud for one side, booing a speaker or heckling in a mean-spirited fashion (see chapter 17, “Moderating the Debate”) all constitute public displays of bad manners. Our assumption here is that if you were not interested in hearing and respecting both sides, you probably would not have come to a public debate.

Promoting Ethical Public Debates

We have attempted in this chapter to provide a relatively complete perspec­tive on the ethical issues likely to arise in most public debates. Still, it is probable that there are other issues relating to speci.c topics, circumstances or participants that will suggest a need for additional application and devel­opment of the principles contained here. Most organizations that promote speech and debate competition have developed ethical guidelines that may be relevant to public debates.13 While sections dealing with tournament procedures, eligibility and rules of competition are not likely to apply to public debates, those that relate more generally to the responsibilities of ethical advocacy can provide a useful additional resource.

One advantage that organizations have in promoting ethical debating is continuity of con­tact. Within a community, regular meetings at tournaments and workshops can help groups of arguers develop ethical norms that are understood and observed. In addition, the governing boards, executive councils and general assemblies of these organizations have the ability to create binding and enforceable codes of conduct in a democratic way. Because they are usually staging one-time-only events, the organizers of public debates face greater challenges in promoting ethical behavior. In competitive contexts, the debater who uses inaccurate evidence in one tournament may well be caught at the next tournament. For public debates, however, there is likely to be no “next time.” Expert judges who are trained to notice and penal­ize faulty logic and rhetorical tricks may not be present at a public debate. Rather than justifying a lighter standard of ethics for public debates, these considerations make it all that much more important for public debaters to commit themselves in advance to ethical advocacy.

When we are dealing with sponsoring organizations and opponents that we know, we can ideally rely on an unspoken understanding. 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 advocates 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 a.xing one’s signature can serve as a strong rhetorical 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 e.ectively criticized for doing so after the fact. The possibility of being criticized for ethical violations is a powerful deter-rent—especially so in high pro.le 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 Ethical Compact for a Public Debate

We, the undersigned, having agreed to a debate on [your topic] on [a given day and time] and having committed ourselves to the belief that a free, fair, and full exchange of rational arguments contributes to a public dialogue that is more important than either of our personal goals, do agree and promise to uphold the following principles of ethical practice during our debate.

1. We see the debate as a forum for rational disagreement, not simply a vehicle for personal expression and competition.

2. We agree to make arguments and to support them explicitly with our knowl­edge, evidence or logical analysis.

3. We agree to state every argument in the clearest possible manner at the earli­est opportunity and to the best of our ability, and not to hide, disguise, or delay arguments for the purpose of trapping our opponent.

4. We agree to address our arguments, in both matter and manner, to the audience’s level of understanding, not allowing technicalities, jargon or rate of speech to interfere with audience comprehension.

5. When relying on factual knowledge, we agree to identify the source of our information whenever possible and to avoid knowingly misrepresenting a fact or in.ating the certainty of our knowledge. At the same time we realize that the debate is not a quiz show and we will not expect our opponent to know every fact or detail.

6. When using evidence, we agree to identify and qualify our sources, and to quote and paraphrase in ways that are accurate and in keeping with the origi­nal author’s manifest intent.

7. We agree that we will to the best of our ability avoid the use of unrepresenta­tive examples, personal attacks, appeals to popular opinions and other logical fallacies.

8. We agree, within the limits of time, to respond to each important argument of our opponent at our .rst opportunity to do so, realizing that an argument not refuted is an argument granted. We will refrain from introducing new arguments into the debate at a time that would deprive our opponents of the opportunity to respond.

9. Whether we believe that the audience agrees with us at the start of the debate or not, we agree to use the debate to advance audience knowledge and under­standing and to challenge and deepen their opinions, and not to simply tell them what we think they already believe.

10. We agree to treat each other with respect and to avoid name-calling and to focus on the arguments at hand and not on the irrelevant personal qualities or the debating skills of our opponents.

11. We agree, through our own behavior and our arguments in the debate, to treat all people and groups with respect and to avoid appeals to broad and unsub­stantiated stereotypes regarding race, ethnicity, nationality, age, sex, sexual orientation or language.

12. We agree, within the constraints of relevance created by the topic, to respect free expression and understand that freedom of expression is not the same thing as freedom from criticism—all views are open to both expression and refutation.

13. We agree to encourage our supporters in the audience to show respect to both sides in the debate and to avoid any disruptive partisan displays.

14. We agree to exchange basic information no later than one week prior to the debate by sharing simple argument outlines and sources of information.

15. We agree that in comments to mass media organizations following the debate neither we nor our representatives or agents will emphasize the contest nature of the event as if it were a sports competition. Rather than declaring a winner or concentrating on debating feats or foibles, public comments will focus on the ideas presented.

Preliminary Steps


We began this book with an account of a public debate held in a town hall. The debate you will recall focused on whether the town council should introduce curfew laws for young people under 18. The debate was successful because the topic, the audience, and the debaters’ objectives combined to form a harmonious whole. The topic was inspired directly by recent events (the increase in anti-social behavior cases and a proposal to introduce a cur­few). The controversy was localized- that is the debate questioned whether that particular law should be passed locally (not whether the law should be introduced nationally). As a result the audience (young people, their par­ents, senior citizens, etc.) had a stake in the outcome of the debate; as inhab­itants of the town they had a reason to care whether young people under 18 will be allowed to walk the streets on the town after 10.00 pm. Finally, the mandate of the debaters was clear: each debater aimed to persuade the audience to adopt a clear position; either for or against the proposed law. In short the debate had coherent internal logic; given the time, the place and the audience, the topic of the debate made perfect sense.

This chapter is devoted to a discussion of preliminary steps that must be taken by anyone who undertakes the organization of a public debate. We have resurrected our original model because we think that it provides a very useful ideal. The curfew debate worked precisely because the organizers carefully considered the audience, the situation, and their own objectives for hav­ing a debate. Such consideration, we believe, is essential if a debate is to be successful. The debate will fail if the organizers look at only one or two of these factors.

Our point may be clearer if we offer some examples of failed debates. Let’s say the organizers focus all their attention on coming up with a good topic for the debate, and they decide that the debate should focus on the role of the European Parliament in the EU and whether it should be given greater powers to, e.g. select the members of the Commission and its President. This issue is important for Europe and genuinely controversial – if only because at the moment the European Parliament is the only pan-European directly elected institution in the EU and its legislative powers are limited. One team of debaters in this debate is ready to argue that the European Parliament should be given broader mandate, while the other team will argue that the current solution is working. It is a fine topic for debate, but it will not lead to a successful debate if the debaters are univer­sity students staging a demonstration debate at an assembly in a primary school. The problem is that the average 13 year old is unlikely to have any knowledge of the relationship between the European Parliament, national parliaments, Council of Ministers, European Commission and national governments. The proposed debate may work well for a university audience – although even then it might need the spur of events to focus the issues and make them immediately vital. Certainly, the debate would .nd suitable audience in a school of foreign a.airs.

A debate would also fail if organizers focused exclusively on the audi­ence, without thinking enough about the situation or their own objectives. Say that the audience is the student body of a high school, and the debate organizers presume that their listeners are interested in rock and roll. After pondering various rock and roll controversies (e.g., whether Eric Clapton is a greater guitarist than Jimi Hendrix), they decide to create a debate inspired by an opinion piece someone has seen in a music magazine: “Rock and roll should acknowledge its debt to rhythm and blues and other forms of African-American folk music.” The problem here is that while this issue may interest musicologists or sociologists, it is unlikely to stir the blood of the average teenager looking for new tracks to load on an MP3 player. It’s also not clear how the organizers want to a.ect the audience: Is the debate supposed to change the behavior of the listeners? Is it supposed to change their attitudes? Is it meant simply to inform them? A debate about the morality of downloading music from the Internet might work very well indeed—but this topic, however sober and well-intentioned it may be, leads to a dead end.

To put it another way, 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 intertwined. 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?”

That brings us to the main difference between public and competitive debates. In a purely competitive debate the primary purpose is winning. The debaters are not concerned with changing the personal opinion of the judge who is listening to them—after all, the judge’s vote is not supposed to be a register of her own personal opinion on the issue; it is supposed to be an assessment of the quality of the debate. The debaters are con­cerned, rather, with presenting a case that is stronger than the case of their opponents; they may even choose to write a case that is boring, but easily defensible. They don’t particularly care if the judge .nds them interesting; winning is all that matters.

In a public debate, by contrast, the debater’s primary focus is on the audience and their response. Of course, the debaters want to do their best and “win” if a winner is to be chosen, but the primary purpose of a public debate is to a.ect the audience in some way.

The speaker’s impact on the audience has been a serious consideration of rhetoricians since classical times. In his treatise De Oratore, the famous Roman statesman and orator Cicero (106–43 B.C.) discusses the speaker’s goals when addressing an audience. A speech, he says, can have three main purposes: to teach or inform (docere); to move or persuade (movere); or to entertain (delectare).2 Speakers can, of course, pursue more than one goal at the same time—it is certainly possible, for example, to teach in an enter­taining way.

The purposes outlined by Cicero are still useful in creating an analytical framework for today’s public debate. In the following discussion, we will subdivide Cicero’s categories, and add few of our own. We see that 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

Sometimes the goal of a debate is simply to give the audience the informa­tion they need to assess an issue for themselves. This goal is re.ected in the motto of the Fox News Network: “We report, you decide.” (Many critics, of course, claim that this is untrue, given the conservative bent of Fox’s news coverage.) When they adopt this goal, debaters 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 e.orts 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. Even though the ultimate goal may be persuasion, in a case where the audience is not even aware that a problem exists, debaters may want to start with that limited goal in mind .rst. For example, if a school is having its budget cut by the government, the general public might not even know about the issue. Having a debate about whether cuts are justi.ed might at least raise awareness and get people to read about it with more interest; it might even get people involved in resolv­ing the issue. Similarly, a debate on whether the United States should ratify a treaty on the ban on land mines may be aimed at raising awareness about the issue with the general public. The debate may spur their interest and prompt them to get involved by making donations to organizations con­cerned with land mines and helping land mine victims, or by writing letters to their senators and to newspaper editors, or by contributing in some other way. Sometimes just raising awareness can do wonders for a cause.

To Persuade

Aristotle defined rhetoric as “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.”3 In other words, the primary task of rhetoric is to persuade the listener. This is all the more true in debate, speci.cally; debate has been seen, ever since the time of Protagoras (cf. chapter 2, on the history of public debates), as a .ght of ideas, where debaters try to convince the audience to adopt their proposition, and not the one of their opponent. More often than not, persuasion will be the primary goal of a public debate. Persuasion is paramount when debaters choose an issue on which most people have been following “conventional wisdom.” For example, if most people are in favor of a war but are in favor without even analyzing the issue, then having a debate on whether the war is a good idea may force listeners to reconsider their positions. If the conventional wisdom says that the war makes sense, then the population is likely to hear the pro-war side of the debate every day. Putting the repressed antiwar message on an equal footing might itself be successful in persuading people to take the opposite view.

Other persuasive debates may start with a common core of agreement— and persuasive e.orts can be focused on plans and policies. Both sides in a debate, for example, may agree that homosexual couples have legal rights comparable to the rights of heterosexual couples, but the debaters about the form those rights should take. One side may argue that the state should recognize marriage between homosexuals; the other side may argue that civil unions—similar but distinct—should be recognized. In any case, the goal of the debaters would be to persuade the audience about the merits of each policy.

To Move

When Cicero cited movere as one of the three main duties of the public speaker, he meant the term broadly; the speech should not only move the listeners emotionally, but it should also in.uence their will. That is, it should move them into action. Public speaking is an art that 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 in.uential 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 .rst thing they need to do is to move that audience (see discussion of audience analysis later in this chapter).

To Entertain

At one extreme, there are debates that have little purpose other than to entertain. Comedy debates are quite common, especially in British Com­monwealth countries, where one university tradition is to hold “Pub Debates.” The designation “pub” recognizes that the debate is “public”—but it also acknowledges the debate’s location: pub debates are held in a pub! (They are, accordingly, raucous a.airs.)

At another level, however, all debates must 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 you are recruiting new members for your debating society or debate team, or if you are coaching novice debaters, or if you are using debate as a teach­ing tool in the classroom, the debate is an end in itself, not just a means to achieve some of the goals mentioned above.

In sum, the debate organizers and the debaters themselves must carefully consider their goals and objectives before they do anything else; all of the other steps in a public debate should stem from the primary goals of the debate. At the same time, it is important to recognize that goals cannot be set without a due consideration of the other factors that must be analyzed. As we will discuss in the pages that follow, the audience—a “given” element in many public debates—will shape the possible objectives.

Analyzing the Situation

Everything takes place in a context. The debate is not an isolated event, but a response to a broader sociopolitical world and its context. Russian linguist and philosopher Michael Bahtin said that every utterance, every sentence (either spoken or written) is always geared toward an anticipated answer and is, indirectly or directly, an answer to something itself; it is in a dialogue with previously uttered and anticipated utterances; it interacts with the social context. The audience will always listen to the debate within this broader context.

It is critical for debate organizers to understand the historical, cultural, social and political context of the audience, the setting and the topic. Timing a.ects the way that a topic is understood; debates about terrorism were very di.erent before September 11, 2001.

Similarly, the issue of tax cuts would be debated quite di.erently during an economic boom than during an economic slump. Organizers must ask themselves: 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 salesmanship? More important, 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? (For example, most listeners outside of Africa would not be passion­ate about whether the European Union should support the new government in the Ivory Coast.) Is the topic something that would strike most people as so implausible that it would be a waste of time to listen to it (e.g., “Should the European Union adopt a communist system of ownership?”)? Or is the topic a “hot button” like abortion or religion? The analysis of the situation will determine many aspects of the debate.

First, the debate organizers have to consider whether a proposed topic is worth debating. They must ask themselves whether anyone would be inter­ested in a debate about the con.ict that has been formulated in the resolu­tion. It may be true that most people care about the environment, but they might not care whether a riverside park should be managed by the state government or by the federal government. A topic might also fail if it seems that everyone would agree too readily with one side (for example, “Children should not be beaten for no reason.”). Some topics might simply bore the listeners, no matter how much the issue is dressed up (“Should the Angolan government charge a 3% or 5% tari. on imported zucchini?”)? Here, it is worth remembering the words of Lloyd Bitzer, who said that debate should spring from an exigency, which he de.ned as “an imperfection marked by urgency; it is a defect, an obstacle, something waiting to be done, a thing which is other than it should be.”5 Debaters need to analyze the situation in order to identify topics that call for urgent resolutions.

Second, debaters and organizers should carefully consider whom to invite. As discussed later in this chapter, the audience dictates how a debater should present the topic. But the topic also dictates which audience should be recruited.

Finally, organizers and debaters should think about how to market the debate. A hot button issue of the day needs no fancy marketing—for exam­ple, “Should we go to war?” But in other instances the audience might think that (1) the issue is resolved anyway, so there is no reason to care about the debate or (2) no matter how the issue is resolved, it will have no e.ect on them. When promoting the debate, organizers must make it a primary concern to answer the likely misgivings of the target audience. (For further discussion, see chapter 8, “Attracting Attention.”)

Analyzing the Audience

A public debate preparation should be based on thorough audience analysis. Every public utterance is always a joint creation of meaning between the speaker and the audience, even if the audience is silent. In a public debate, there is always a mental give-and-take; the audience members listen to the debaters critically and participate in the debate actively, either by making speeches and asking questions from the .oor, or by arguing with the speak­ers silently in their seats. The outcome of the debate will ultimately depend on its effect on the audience.

The audience is the most important “ingredient” of any public debate. Without the public, it would not be public. Some debates have more and some less audience participation, but whatever the format, knowing some­thing about your audience, being able to anticipate how they would react, and adapting to their needs, attitudes and interests, is the key to success.

Debaters can seek information about their audience through many dif­ferent channels, depending on what is available to them. The most reliable is direct observation—if possible, it is best to get to know the audience from previous similar (or even di.erent) settings, and to learn about their attitudes and interests .rsthand. If direct prior observation is not an option, the systematic collection of data through opinion surveys and question­naires can be a good starting point. Sometimes it is even possible to conduct selected interviews, focus groups or opinion polls. (In today’s world, most election campaigns depend on polling results for determining their direc­tion and crafting their messages.) A good resource for this type of informa­tion could also be the contact person of an organization or a group that is expected to attend the debate. If all else fails, reasonable assumptions based on intelligent inference and empathy can help. The important thing is to keep the central role of the audience in mind in every step of the debate preparation process.

Demographic Characteristics

Sometimes knowing even basic demographic information about the audi­ence can be a useful aid in predicting their orientation. (Not every type of information will be relevant in every single instance, however.)

Age/Generation. Will most of the audience be younger or older? What gen­eration do they belong to? A debate on social security will likely be more interesting for the Baby Boom generation than for a group of teenagers. By the same token, Generation Y (twenty something-year-olds) will probably .nd the issue of student loans from the government more riveting than would an audience of retirees.

Sex/Gender. Biologically speaking, gender di.erences are rarely relevant for debates. What matters, however, is our socialized roles—how we think about masculinity and femininity in our society. These roles, of course, have a great deal to do with culture, and they from one society to another, from one community to another, even from person to person within one family. Although it is important to avoid stereotypes and hasty generaliza­tions, it is also wise not to disregard these di.erences; 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/Ethnicity. 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 speci.c interests and needs, and debaters need to be aware of them in order to respond to them adequately. In the U.S., one is especially likely to encounter a racially and ethnically diverse audience. In order to avoid o.ending and alienating the audience, it is important to be culturally sensitive, while avoiding stereotypes, and to adapt the topic to the interests of a heterogeneous group.

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 a.ected by the debate.

Anticipating Audience Expectations, Needs and Interests

Why is this audience here? What do they expect to get out of this debate? What will they leave with? These questions should be asked before the debate is even planned. Aside from being crucial information for promo­tion purposes (this is discussed in a later chapter), knowing your audience’s expectations, needs and interests is crucial to choosing the topic and con­structing the case.

It is also important to .nd out how much the audience already knows about the topic. Debaters should beware of overestimating or underes­timating their audience’s knowledge. The best results will most likely be achieved if the information is kept just beyond their level of understand­ing. Remember the rule of the carrot and the mule: if you keep the carrot too close to the mule’s muzzle, the mule will not move because there is no reason to; if you keep the carrot too far, the mule will not bother to move because it is out of reach.

What the audience thinks and knows about the debaters (what they have heard, read, assumed) will also a.ect the e.cacy of their arguments. This is because the speaker’s credibility is inevitably linked to his or her mes­sage. Aristotle discussed the importance of the speaker’s character (ethos) at length in his book on rhetoric: Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible. We believe good men more fully and more readily than others: this is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided . . . the speaker’s character may almost be called the most e.ective means of persua­sion he possesses.7 It is important to anticipate and understand the audience’s assumptions in order to address them in the debate.

Determining Audience Attitudes Toward the Topic

Since debate is by and large about persuasion, anticipating the audience’s attitudes about the issue on the table 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 a.ected the audience—without knowing where they stood on the issue before they heard a debate on it. Many television polls commit this mistake because they poll the audience only after the event. These results say noth­ing about the debate’s e.ectiveness because there is no basis for compari-son—we do not know what the audience’s attitudes were before the debate, so we do not know how or if they have changed. Of course, it is hardly pos­sible to change listeners’ minds completely with one debate, but a slight and instantaneous shift in the level of their conviction may happen. Sometimes a simple audience “before and after” questionnaire would do the trick, like the one below that shows a continuum from strong agreement (1) to strong disagreement (7).

Favorable Audience

It seems unnecessary to try to persuade an already favorable audience, one that already agrees with us completely on an issue. However, believing that something is true and doing something about it are not the same. 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.

Moving the audience usually requires an increased use of emotional arguments and appeals to what the audience cares about: their basic needs and core values. (Such arguments are what Aristotle termed pathos.) Debaters could ask the audience for personal involvement by showing them how their lives will be a.ected, or how their actions will create a di.erence. 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. It is also a good idea to provide the audience with several speci.c and easy alternatives for action. 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 counterarguments. By lis­tening to the debate, they will learn how to do it themselves.

Since the goal is to give the audience a sense of active participation, arguments are often presented in a compact form, where something is left out: either a major/minor premise, or a conclusion. This kind of reasoning uses enthymemes, or shortened syllogisms, which were recommended even by Aristotle in situations where speakers seek to create meaning jointly with the audience, thus making the audience feel much more involved in the process. (For a fuller discussion of enthymemes, see chapter 10, “Reasoning with Your Audience.”)

Neutral Audience

The audience can be neutral for several reasons: a) they could simply be uninterested, b) they could be uninformed about the issue altogether, or c) 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 a.ects 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, de.nitions, examples, and restatements. Debaters should use a lot of visual aids, keep their language simple, and be exceptionally well organized. If people in the audience are undecided on the issue, debaters need to make a greater e.ort at establishing their cred­ibility (Aristotle’s ethos) 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 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. Even making the audience reexamine their convictions can sometimes be considered a big success. 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 .rst 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 counterarguments 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. One common mistake is to be overly conciliatory; debaters should be firm, although they must avoid patronizing and being arrogant or sarcastic.

Analyzing the Medium

Marshall McLuhan, whose book Understanding Media was one of the seminal texts of the 1960s, wrote that “the medium is the message.” In other words, the medium through which a message is sent is an essential part of the message itself. More than that, the medium shapes the message. Politicians, for example, typically craft their remarks to .t the medium of television news. They know that if they give a 30-minute speech, the news broadcast will not include the entire speech, or even a 5-minute excerpt from it. Instead, the speech will get 30 seconds, enough for a “sound bite”— a brief statement used by the networks to summarize what the speaker has said.

As a result, politicians and their speechwriters work hard to come up with one pithy, entertaining, well-phrased statement to include in the speech. They often spend more time on this than on everything else in the speech. The bottom line is that they change what they say in order to suit the medium of television. (If, on the other hand, the politician was being interviewed for a magazine article, the importance of sound bites would recede; the politician might still want to provide a string of pithy quotes, but he would presume that his remarks would be quoted more extensively than on a TV broadcast.)

In the same way, debate organizers must analyze the medium through which their debate will be conveyed. Will the debate take place in an audi­torium before a live audience? Will it be broadcast from a radio or television studio? Or will it take place before a live audience and also be covered by the broadcast media? We have emphasized above that debate organizers must analyze their audience, their situation and their goals. Here, we note that this analysis must be complemented by an analysis of the medium. A debate that would be ideal in front of a live audience might not work well at all if heard only on the radio.

At a minimum, the medium will a.ect the way that debate practitioners perform and interact with the audience. In a live debate, it is important to keep in mind the size of the audience and the setting. For example, is everyone seated around a table, or at least at the same level, or are the debaters up on a stage behind formal tables and podiums? Is the sound enhanced with microphones? Are there arti.cial lights that may “blind” the debaters and prevent them from seeing the audience (in which case they cannot “read” and adapt to the audience’s nonverbal feedback)? A small group seated around tables calls for a less formal debating style. Grand hand gestures and a booming tone might strike the audience as pompous and arti.cial. Debaters should strive to be more conversational, as if taking part in an ordinary, private dialogue. At the opposite extreme, if the debaters have microphones and are positioned on stage in front of a large audience, a more exaggerated style may be appropriate—bigger gesture and more dramatic variations in pitch and tone are needed to “hold” the audience in such a setting.

If the debate is on radio, hand gestures obviously won’t make much of a di.erence, and visual charts and diagrams must be left at home. More emphasis has to be put on voice and vocal interpretation. A lower voice register is generally perceived as more pleasant, especially on radio; there is an even greater need than usual for vocal in.ections, a slower pace, clear enunciation, carefully placed emphasis, etc. (For a broader discussion, see the section vocal delivery in chapter 15, “Delivering Your Arguments E.ectively.”)

Television simulates a “live” situation, but viewers tend to expect a more polished, professional performance. Also, despite the fact that thousands (millions if you’re lucky!) may be watching, it is in a strange way a very “per­sonal” medium. Debates appear on a small screen in someone’s living room, where the viewer may be watching in her pajamas, all by herself. This is why playing to a TV camera in the same way that you would play to a large live audience does not work: your presence on the screen will be out of scale with the intimacy of the surroundings. The TV audience will see a standard “live” performance as exaggerated; they will think that the debaters are lec­turing to a wide group somewhere out of their range of vision, instead of having a nice casual one-on-one with them, the all-important viewers.

Combinations of di.erent media are di.cult to adapt to, because debat­ers have to appeal to di.erent audiences for di.erent media. For a lesson in this, it may be useful to attend a studio recording of a television talk show. This is a wildly di.erent experience from watching the show on TV. In fact, the placement of cameras and stagehands sometimes makes it impossible for the “live” audience to see what is really going on. For the most part, the TV producers do not even care. The audience in the studio comprises a few hundred people, and they are not even watching the commercials. The TV audience may be hundreds of thousand or millions. The producers want to make sure the live audience laughs and claps when appropriate (pretty easy in our celebrity-obsessed culture), but this is where their interest in the live audience stops. For debaters, the experience would likely be di.erent. In a debate, the live audience would be just as important or even more impor­tant than the broadcast audience—so debaters must .nd a way to play to them and the TV audience at the same time.


Without considering preliminary steps in debate preparation, like analyzing the motives, the situation, the audience, and the medium, even the most painstakingly researched and enthusiastically presented debate can be a failure. What exactly are we trying to achieve in this day and age, with this particular audience? And what do they have to gain from this? How are we going to convey this message most e.ectively? These questions should be on the minds of every public debater and debate organizer, from the minute they decide to have the debate until the very end of the process. Where you end is indeed determined by where you begin.

Crafting a Proposition

Engineers have plans, scientists have hypotheses, writers have thesis state­ments, and debaters have propositions. A proposition is the subject you debate, expressed as a statement that one side supports and the other side opposes. De.ned more formally as “a claim that expresses a judgment that decision-makers are asked to accept or reject”1 propositions (also called res­ olutions) from “topics” by de.ning more precisely the judgment that is sought. While “gun control” is a topic, the statement “this nation should expand restrictions on gun ownership” is a proposition.

Propositions come in several di.erent forms. In tournament debates, propositions are often but not necessarily preceded by parliamentary or legislative language (e.g., “Resolved that...”, “Be it resolved that...”, “This house would...” or “This house believes...”); whatever its formulation, the proposition is a clear statement that forms the heart of the debate.

One of the starting points for any public debate is crafting a proposition that clearly captures and communicates the basis for your intended debate. We say “crafting a proposition” rather than “picking a proposition” for an important reason. While it is common—certainly in tournament debate circles—to talk about “picking a proposition” for debates and speeches, that phrase suggests that there is a great stock of propositions out there and event organizers simply have to look over the list and select one. While it is possible to choose a proposition this way, and we do include a large list of potential propositions at the end of this chapter, we feel that good proposi­tions are made rather than found. That is, taking into account the audience, the advocates, the situation, and the desired content for the debate, your best proposition will be crafted to meet those needs and won’t simply be selected.

While you might think at .rst that it is natural to start with the propo­sition and then work your way to the arguments that each side is likely to make, in the case of a public debate the reverse method is probably more e.ective. Start by thinking about the kind of argument you would like to have. Considering those most likely to attend, what sort of exchange would they be most interested in seeing? Considering those who are likely to be advocates, what sort of themes would they be likely to sound, and what arguments would they see themselves making?

Working from this expected outcome, a clear proposition can be fashioned that neatly communicates the themes addressed and the distinction between the two sides.

For example, a committee in charge of drafting a debate proposition for a summer youth conference in Slovenia approached the matter as follows. Considering that participants would come from more than thirty countries and that any potential sponsor would have to be interested in global issues in order to become involved, the planners envisioned practice debates and larger audience debates in which debaters grappled with the role of inter­national institutions in building a global civilization. In the wake of severe terrorist attacks in the United States and subsequent military action, the planners also thought it .tting to include the question of whether justice through law could ever be successfully and consistently applied at a global level. Envisioning that one side’s emphasis on human rights and justice would contrast with the other side’s emphasis on principles of sovereignty and respect for other cultures, the committee saw a proposition begin to take shape. After reviewing recent literature on these general themes, the plan­ners found that one of the most important con.icts centered on the recent criminal tribunals formed to address crimes against humanity in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia, as well as plans to ratify a convention bringing into being an International Criminal Court in the Hague. Believing that partici­pants as well as audiences would bene.t from a discussion of both general principles as well as practical applications, the planners decided that the question of an international criminal court served as a useful focus, with the arguments for human rights and internationalism on one side and the argu­ments for sovereignty and cultural distinctiveness on the other. Capturing and communicating this division, the planners settled on, “Resolved: That the nations of the world should support the creation of an international criminal court.” In short, the process of crafting a resolution began with considering what the audience would care about and continued by focus­ing on broad themes and con.icts. In other words, the committee did not begin by putting a speci.c topic .rst and saying, “Let’s do something about the criminal court”; rather, they settled on the topic of the court because it crystallized the con.ict between human rights and national sovereignty.

This chapter will provide practical advice on developing a clear and useful proposition for your public debate. After discussing a few ways of selecting a subject for your debate, we will identify the functions of the proposition in a public debate, consider several elements of any good proposition, and then discuss some of the speci.c requirements of more particular types and modes of propositions, before .nally concluding with a list of sample propositions.

Selecting a Subject for Your Public Debate

Many who have reached the planning stages for a public debate already have a topic in mind. Indeed, it is likely to be a concern for that topic area that motivated the decision to have a debate in the first place- that is what happened in the story with which we opened this text: a con.ict in a town in Lithuania about the plan to introduce a curfew for young people led directly to a public debate that centered on the issues of crime and public safety, young people, personal freedom and local government’s roles and responsibilities. In many instances, though, the goal of having a debate may precede the identi.cation of a speci.c subject for the debate. For those, the question “so what do we debate about?” is an important one. Before crafting a speci.c proposition, they will want to select a general topic area.

There are, of course, an in.nity of possible topic choices and we will not even try to make a full listing. Depending on your own interests and those of your likely audience, the “right” topic is the topic that allows you to address issues that are important and worthwhile in a debate that is relevant, informative and entertaining to your audience. Selecting such a topic is the result of your own re.ection and brainstorming. We can’t suggest a formula for that, but we can suggest that you begin by asking yourself a number of questions:

  • Have there been any recent events that are dominating public discourse right now?
  • These days when acquaintances meet, and .nish talking about the weather, what do they talk about?
  • What are my country’s political leaders currently arguing over?
  • Are there any new or proposed laws that 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 that the debaters already know a great deal about?
  • Are there any subjects that the debaters have an interest in learning more about?

If brainstorming along these lines fails to yield a topic, then another alterna­tive is to visit the library and simply browse the current periodicals. An hour spent with recent publications should reveal a wealth of timely controver­sies. In addition, consulting the list of debate propositions at the end of this chapter might spark some ideas. One thing seems true: as long as ours is a world of many peoples, many cultures, and many priorities, there will be many subjects to debate.

Functions of the Proposition in a Public Debate

Texts on argumentation and debate often begin their description of the debater’s role with a call for an analysis of the proposition, suggesting that debaters terms, identify issues, and predict likely arguments. In call­ing for analysis following proposition selection, this advice assumes that the proposition has been delivered to the debaters by some outside agency; that it is has come down to them from those who have selected it. The debaters need to .gure out what it means (or decide what it means.) While this may be the case for some public debates (for example, those that come at the end of a tournament and use the tournament’s assigned proposition), more often a proposition will be selected with a speci.c public debate in mind and planners and the advocates themselves will be involved in crafting the proposition for their debate. Thus, in the case of a public debate, analysis by the debaters frequently precedes rather than follows proposition selec­tion; the .nal proposition is not a matter of mystery that requires research, analysis and interpretation. Granted, our earlier example, recounting the creation of a proposition about the International Criminal Court, showed a proposition being crafted by a committee, rather than by the debaters themselves—but that example is still apposite here. Advocates who are plan­ning for their own public debate could follow the same essential process described in the example; that is, they could begin with a consideration of the audience and the situation, move to a development of theme and pre­ferred arguments, and .nally craft a proposition that captured the con.ict between those arguments.

In the setting of competitive educational debates, the function of the proposition is chie.y to “divide ground” by separating the argumentative responsibilities of one side from those of the other side, to limit the scope of the dispute, and to focus the judge’s decision at the end of the debate. While these functions exist in some form in public debates as well, there are important di.erences.

Dividing the ground and limiting the scope of the debate, for example, are not necessarily the main purposes of a public debate proposition. Remember that a public debate is generally the product of speci.c planning (not a product of a randomly generated and assigned match-up); there are often other and better means for clarifying the content of the dispute. Joint planning and discussion (addressed in chapter 9) are often more e.ective since a negotiated agreement will do more to determine and clarify the goals and responsibilities of the two sides than the single sentence of the proposition. In tournament settings, the proposition itself is often a matter of contention—not surprising, given that it must be analyzed and inter­preted, and each side can arrive at di.erent conclusions about what the proposition “means” or what it is meant to include. (In competitive contexts, the proposition is often appealed to directly in order to rein in opponents who are seen as straying beyond the bounds of relevance—so-called topical­ity arguments.) Public debate audiences though, would be likely to see argu­ments about the proposition as bickering and the result of poor planning. In general, the public debate proposition is a communication device rather than an instrument of control. As a communication device, the proposition should be clear, 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 debaters, the occasion, and the topic are the three main factors that generate interest in a public debate. For audiences seeking to attend in order to add to and focus their own understanding of important political and societal issues, it is likely that the topic is the most compelling element. In the wake of a terrorist attack on one’s coun­try, for example, the proposition “terrorists deserve justice delivered by soldiers, not by courts of law” is likely to be one that arouses 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. Finally, 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 Elements for E.ective Propositions

A public debate proposition should embody elements of good communica­tion which are essential in this context. Given the importance of language and the centrality of the proposition, crafting its speci.c 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 identi.ed controversy. Although one of the purposes of debate may be to inform the audience (see chapter 5), the mere transmission of information does not constitute a debate. For a debate to occur, there needs to be controversy. There must be a question that reasonable people would answer di.erently. “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. Since the entire point of a proposi­tion is to distill a controversy into a clear and comprehensible statement, 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 modi.ers 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).” Phrasing a proposition as a question might be intuitive (especially since propositions are sometimes called “questions”) but is not advisable because there may be too many possible answers, o.ering in no clear con.ict of stances. “Is euthanasia ethical?” might be answered by neither a “yes” nor a “no” but with an

“it depends.” It is better to make the proponent’s stance more certain by converting the question into a statement: “Euthanasia is unethical.”

  • 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. The burden of proof, a concept covered in greater detail in chapter 10, is the burden borne by the side that logically and psychologically has the .rst and greatest need to proof. Because those accused of crimes are usually presumed innocent, at least formally, the prosecution has the burden of proof. Similarly, in a public debate on the acceptability of world government, the side proposing that government would be seen as carrying a heavier burden by most audiences. That is, because of the current primacy of national governments, we would expect to hear why we should have a world government before needing to entertain reasons why we should not. Thus the proposition would make more sense if it supported world government, because that is the side that bears the heavier burden. It may be helpful to think of the burden of proof in terms of the con.ict between change and the status quo. There is a pre­sumption in favor of the existing situation, or status quo (the accused is innocent and “free”); 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). In the same way, we do not currently have a world government; the side with the burden of proof must show why that situation should change.
  • Phrasing that includes a desired outcome, not just a disposition. The prop­osition should let the audience know exactly what the side supporting the proposition is seeking. The proposition that states “Resolved: That the United States should change its policy toward Cuba” o.ers the dispo­sition or attitude of the proposing side, but it does not say exactly what the proposing side wants to happen—it indicates that the proposing side is in favor of a change in policy, but it does not say precisely how the policy should be changed. If, however, we alter the proposition to read “Resolved: That the United States should remove economic sanctions on Cuba,” then we have a clear sense of what outcome is desired by the proponents.
  • Phrasing that includes a conclusion only, not reasons. The reasoning behind a conclusion is of course essential in a debate, but in order to promote clarity and add .exibility, 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” would be better addressed as simply, “This house believes that the death penalty is unacceptable.”
  • Two or More and Reasonable Sides to the Issue. Productive debate occurs when two (or more) opposing perspectives exist and both (or all) are capable of being supported by reasonable arguments. A state­ment like “The European Union should respect the rights of women” would be quite easy to support, but it is hard to imagine what argument, short of a call for outright male chauvinism perhaps, could be used to oppose it. Particularly if you are a party with an interest in one side of the proposition, before proposing it you should ask yourself, “would I be able to .nd reasonable arguments on the other side?” If not, chances are it is not a well-balanced proposition.
  • Neutral terminology. While it is di.cult to conceive of language as ever being truly and completely neutral, in crafting a proposition, you should strive to avoid terms that appear to slant the evaluation one way or another. “This house would oppose the heartless and vicious exploi­tation of animals by science” is better replaced by “This house would oppose the use of animals by science.” Those opposing that proposition could conceivably justify “use” but would probably be hard-pressed to justify “vicious exploitation.”
  • Avoidance of ambiguity. Those crafting public debate propositions should make every attempt to select clear and concrete words, and to avoid formulations that leave unanswered questions. The proposition “the per­sonal is political” in the right context may communicate quite a bit, but in other contexts would leave audiences scratching their heads about what is meant by “identity” or “personal” in this case. In addition, a formula­tion such as “Resolved: That nuclear weapons should be declared illegal” raises a question: “by whom should they be declared illegal?” The answer to that question would make a big di.erence in the ensuing debate. If this debate has been well prepared, of course, there would be no ambiguity in the minds of the debaters—in other words, they would not have left such a large question up in the air and would have agreed who would be making the declarations of illegality. There would be no reason, then, to create ambiguity for the public by leaving this mutual understanding out of the resolution. Finally, we note that the active voice (“The European Union should declare nuclear weapons illegal”) is generally stronger and more direct than the passive voice (“Nuclear weapons should be declared illegal by the European Union.”).

Types of Propositions

Beyond focusing on the common elements of any e.ective proposition, advocates may also be advised to consider the type of topic they are select­ing. Various forms of debate as practiced in tournament settings focus on particular resolution types. For those settings, an analysis of topic-style is critical. Those involved in the planning or execution of public debates are less likely to require a topic of a speci.c type, but a consideration of the various styles of topic composition may yet be heuristic: it may lead you to consider alternative ways to package the content and theme of your debate. Debate propositions can be roughly grouped into three general types:

  • Propositions of policy relate to actions by governments or by organiza­tions: The nations of the world should implement the Kyoto Protocollimiting the e.ects of fossil fuels on the global environment.
  • Propositions of value relate to evaluative stances taken by individuals or societies: The world’s current dependence on fossil fuels is environmen­tally irresponsible.
  • Propositions of fact relate to the truth of some condition or relationship: The world’s dependence on fossil fuels is causing global warming.

These three types can be seen more simply as statements of action (it should be done, it should not be done), statements of worth (it is good, it is bad), and statements of existence or classi.cation (it is, it is not). The distinctions between these three general types are not always perfectly clear. Propositions of value like “The death penalty is immoral” are often di.cult to di.erentiate in practice from propositions of policy like “The death pen­alty should be abolished.” The dashed-line in the model below that it is di.cult at times to distinguish where one category ends and another begins. For example, it is hard to say where the analysis of values ends and the advocacy of policies begins. Still the three general types do represent real di.erences in level of analysis and highlight the important relation­ship between dependence and responsibility. As we will explain at greater length below, the following diagram indicates that dependence decreases as responsibility increases—and each of the three types of proposition can be situated on the spectrum of change in those values.

First, we must consider the relationship of the three types in terms of depen­dence. As the diagram indicates, policy claims are the most dependent of the three, because policy claims depend upon value claims, which in turn depend upon factual claims. The claim that “the nations of the world should implement the Kyoto Protocol limiting the e.ects of fossil fuels on the global environment” (a proposition of policy) is likely to rest on a number of value claims, including potentially the claim that “the world’s current dependence on fossil fuels is environmentally irresponsible” (a proposition of value), which in turn would require that we had reached a number of fac­tual conclusions, possibly including the conclusion that “the world’s depen­dence on fossil fuels is causing global warming” (a proposition of fact). For this reason, there is an interdependence among these various proposition types: policy claims are supported by value claims, which are supported by factual claims. We seek a guaranteed livable wage (policy) because the free market is unfair (value) because large numbers of working citizens are unable to meet basic needs (fact). The base (factual claims) in this model is broader than the tip (policy claims) because for any given policy proposi­tion there are likely to be several value claims supporting it, and for each value claim, there are likely to be several factual claims. For example, the policy claim that the “United Nations should expand protection of cultural rights” is likely not only to rest on the value claim that “cultural rights deserve protection” but also the value claim that “cultural rights are­tively protected by law” and even the value claim that “the United Nations is a legitimate organization.” Similarly, the value claim that “cultural rights deserve protection” will depend on several factual claims: “language rights are threatened,” “religious rights are threatened,” “religion and language are critical to culture,” etc.

Next, we must consider the relationship of the three types in terms of responsibility—and here, we are talking about the responsibility of the advocates who are making claims of these types. To start with the top level, policy claims: as we have just noted, policy claims depend upon the value claims and the factual claims that support them. In other words, the claim made at the policy level cannot be established, or proven true, unless the claims underneath it are also established or proven true. To use a simpli­.ed example: you cannot establish the claim that the world should endorse the Kyoto Protocol to reduce global warming unless it’s factually true that the use of fossil fuels causes such warming. In other words, advocates are responsible not only for claims at the level of their proposition, but also for all levels below it. Advocates of a value proposition will be responsible for supporting the factual claims that undergird it as well, and advocates for a policy proposition must support both the underlying value claims as well as the underlying factual claims. If responsibility is taken to mean an advo-cate’s logical need to account for related issues, then responsibility is highest for policy propositions and lowest for factual propositions. To illustrate, the proposition “immigration weakens EU economic performance” is at base a factual proposition, insofar as economic “weakening” can be measured in relatively objective terms such as the nation’s gross national product and standard of living. In order to meet her responsibilities, the supporter of this proposition could be logically expected to show that such weakening occurs (the fact), but she would not be expected to show that immigrants are harmful to the nation on balance (the value) or that immigration should be restricted (the policy). A proponent could say, “Personally, I believe that the multicultural bene.ts of immigration outweigh any economic harms, but that is not the subject we are debating today. I am just charged to show that their economic e.ect is negative.” Along the same vein, the proponent of a value proposition like “immigration is undesirable” would be expected to demonstrate actual harms (the facts) but could not be called upon to defend a particular action in opposition to immigration (the policy). Granted, anyone who criticizes the e.ects of immigration might be presumed to be calling for a limit on immigration, but other possibilities exist: improved immigration policy, a regulation of the types of immigrants admitted or the types of work made available, etc. The advocate of that proposition could reasonably say, “My role in this debate is to demonstrate the harms of immigration. Presuming that it is found to be harmful, then the next step would be to think about what we ought to do about it, but that would be another debate.” Needless to say, the advocate of a policy proposition could not escape responsibility in that way. Thus, one important step in matching the proposition to your goals is to determine the extent of argumentative responsibility that advocates seek and select the proposition accordingly.

Another element in proposition selection relates to di.erences within each of these three general categories. There is another dimension to the proposition formed by the fact that di.erent types of statements can be made within each of the three proposition types. Referring to this dimen­sion as the proposition “attitude,” we note that each of the proposition types can simply address the nature of something (descriptive), call for something new (imperative) or pose a contrast between two real or potential elements (comparative). These three possible attitudes combined with the three proposition types create the possibility for nine proposition styles.

The Importance of Proposition Type to the Public Debater

All of this, of course, must have some relevance to the public debate advocate or planner. Naturally, most general public debate audiences are likely to be unaware of these distinctions. Debaters in front of an audience are thus likely to get nowhere by claiming that “since this proposition is value descriptive, rather than value imperative, your arguments don’t really apply.” A taxonomy such as this is not useful as a tool to use in debates, and doing so would simply introduce terminology and distinctions that would be too expensive in the time their explanations would consume. That doesn’t, however, mean that the distinctions are unimportant. We see the following bene.ts that can come from considering proposition styles in your public debate.

  • Proposition styles should be used to generate ideas. The heuristic function of the proposition styles is that you might use the table above to consider di.erent ways of addressing the same basic idea. For example, work­ing with a topic like “freedom of expression” you might .nd that the subject is most interesting and most debatable when it is addressed as a comparative: e.g., “When the two con.ict, the right to free expression is more important than the right to privacy.”
  • Proposition styles should be .t to the type of arguments that advocates anticipate making. Your sense of the debate should begin with an image of the types of clashes you expect would be most important to your debaters and most interesting to your audience. If you would like to focus on the subject of international human rights and justice and debaters plan to focus on the e.ectiveness or ine.ectiveness of interna­tional treaties and institutions, then a policy imperative or comparative proposition is most appropriate.
  • Proposition styles should be .t to audience decision-making at the end of the debate. If you expect your audience to vote or in some way indicate their stance at the end of the debate, then the proposition should be designed to facilitate that. For example, propositions that seek the most clear and direct response from the audience may be imperatives, e.g., “community service is an obligation for all citizens.” For some audiences, actions may be easier to conceptualize than judgments, and the use of imperative propositions may be most advisable for planners seeking a clear audience decision at the end of the debate.
  • The construction of arguments, or “cases,” should proceed from the proposi­tion style. The content and structure of arguments for or against a propo­sition will depend, to some degree, on the proposition style. Propositions that simply a judgment (like value descriptive propositions for example) will call for the articulation of some sort of standard of judg­ment followed by an argument that this standard is met. Propositions that call for some sort of change (like policy imperative propositions) on the other hand will encourage advocates to .rst indict the present poli­cies and then move on to show the superiority of the changed policy.


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 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 .t 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. Nonetheless, an analysis of several di.erent proposition types may be useful in helping planners to consider multiple ways of approaching their intended subject of dispute.

Developing a Format

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 speci.c 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 .ght for time.

Basic Format Elements

While several standard and time-tested debate formats exist, as a public debate developer you have the opportunity to design a format that best .ts your needs. You don’t have to be a debate expert to do this, but you should do it with an eye toward meeting the basic functions of a debate format and including the di.erent elements of argument construction, evaluation and defense.

E.ective public debate formats should address the following concerns.

  • Your format should be adapted to the attention needs of the audience, the subject matter, and the advocates. As we discussed in chapter 5, 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? Di.erent answers will yield di.erent format choices.
  • Your format should promote the orderly development of arguments. Arguments in a debate develop though predictable phases. After the debater articulates the basic thesis of her argument and supports it with reasons (the “construction” phase), her argument is subject to the responses of her opponents (the “evaluation” phase); she then answers these responses and rea.rms her position (the “defense” phase). While public debates are not locked into any speci.c sequence, they should allow time for each of these phases. We feel that public debates should incorporate questioning periods and audience participation as part of the evaluation and defense phases.
  • Your 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.
  • Your format should provide the .rst 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 (see our discussion of the burden of proof in chapter 6). 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 di.cult 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.

The remainder of this chapter will consider a number of di.erent debate for­mats that embody these principles in di.erent ways. Some of the formats are designed for tournament competition but could be easily adapted for public debate. Other formats are more speci.c to an audience situation.

A Taxonomy of Debate Formats

The basic principles outlined above can be satis.ed in many di.erent for-mats—and we will descriptions of a number of possible formats in the pages that follow. Before going into particulars, however, we would like to outline some of the basic decisions that debate organizers must make before choosing or adapting an existing model.

  • Teams or individuals? In tournament settings, most debates are con­ducted by teams—that is, there are two or three individuals working together on each side of the debate. (In some formats, there are actually four teams in all, two teams on each side of the debate, working more or less independently.) But there are also tournament categories—most notably, Lincoln-Douglas debate—in which individuals compete (that is, there is only one debater on each side). Electoral debates, too, are almost always conducted by individuals. Either the team model or the individual model can work well in a public debate. One advantage of the team model is that it allows more people to get involved in a debate—and that can be a major consider­ation if the debate is being presented by a debating club or society. A team debate also o.ers more variety to the audience—they see­ent styles, personalities, and argumentative strategies, and so may .nd a team debate more interesting or entertaining. The individual model, however, may greater clarity: one debater, arguing a position from start to .nish, is likely to be more consistent in language and style than two or three debaters who switch roles as they go along. But these tendencies are not absolute: it’s certainly possible for a solo debater to be entertaining, and a well-coordinated team can be consistent and clear. The organizer’s decision for one model over the other will usu­ally be based on human resources—that is, who is available and who is involved.
  • Two sides, three sides, or more? We recognize that our habitual perspec­tive in this book has assumed that there are two sides to a debate. When a debate is centered on a simple, straightforward proposition, it invites two responses: agreement and disagreement. This binary opposition is central to virtually every kind of tournament debating. In the world of politics and policy, however, there are often more than two choices. Voters, certainly, usually, have more than two candidates to consider (during one presidential election in Poland there were over 10 candidates and they debated in a many-way debates). Citizens also face more than two options when deciding policy issues: for example, when debating on the best use for development areas, some advocates may argue that o.ces and services should be built, while oth­ers may argue for residential areas and other yet may advocate for the recreational use. In a public debate about this issue, all three perspec­tives should be represented. Debate organizers have a choice, then, about the number of sides that will be part of their debate—and their choice will be shaped both by the issue being debated, and the nature of the audience for whom the debate is intended.
  • Audience participation or debaters only? We have argued throughout this text that the audience comes .rst in a public debate—and it is only natural for the audience to become involved with the debate in a tangible way. We recommend that your public debate should include some com­ponent that allows audience participation—although we recognize that sometimes there are logistical or strategic concerns that make debate organizers choose to limit participation in the debate to the debaters themselves. At this point, we simply want to emphasize that this is one of the most fundamental choices that organizers must make before opting for a particular format. We would also note that almost all of the formats discussed below—many of which were developed for tournament set-tings—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 “a.rmative” 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 (see chapters 17 and 18).

The Policy Format (team debate with two sides)

Currently associated in the United States 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 .rst speaker from the a.rmative side delivers both the .rst a.rmative constructive as well as the .rst a.rmative rebuttal. The basic case for the proposition 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 you’ll notice that 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.

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. A simple design, this format accom­modates three speakers per side and provides just one speaking opportunity for each speaker (although four of the six speakers also conduct question­ing). As such, its strengths are that it includes a greater number of speakers and provides a gentle introduction to debate for less-experienced speakers. (You’ll notice that 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 8 minutes apiece.)

One challenge of this format is to maintain continuity between the speeches. The third speaker needs to defend the same arguments that were extended by the second speaker and introduced by the .rst speaker. This need for continuity is present in other formats as well, but when speakers make only one speech each, there is a correspondingly greater need to communicate among the partners. The .rst speech from the a.rmative side has the goal of laying out the team’s main arguments. The .rst negative speaker follows, developing not only that team’s case but also their refutation of the a.rma-tive’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 .nal speech from each side provides an opportunity to com­pare and summarize.

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

The parliamentary format is probably one of the most recognized formats the world over. 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 honori.c titles of a European-style parlia­ment: the team usually referred to as “A.rmative” 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. (Say, for example, that the proposition states that “the United States govern­ment should ratify the Rome Treaty and become a party to the International Criminal Court.” In a parliamentary format, the “Government” team would be called to a.rm that proposition, which the federal government in Washington would oppose.)

This format lacks speci.cally set-aside times for questioning, but includes the possibility for questions o.ered throughout the .rst phase of the debate. Once a constructive speech has completed its .rst 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 .oor 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 o.ers 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. This method of questioning is considered at greater length in chapter 16. Another advantage of this format is that it allows for audience participation in the form of “.oor speeches”—audience members may make challenges or ask questions of the debaters. (This format requires a .rm-handed moderator to keep the .oor speeches and responses within appropriate limits.)

A variation on the parliamentary format that is used at the World Debating Championships involves four teams at a time, two government teams and two opposition teams. While such a format permits the involve­ment of a much larger number of debaters, it also takes substantially more skill in order to maintain clear argument development and refutation.

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

Most of the formats considered thus far have focused on teams of debat-ers—two or more individuals working together on each side of the ques­tion. While team formats have the advantages of promoting a little more variety and in fostering the creativity that comes from teamwork, a one-on-one format has the advantage of promoting a simpler, shorter, and more personal contest. Getting its name, but not much else, from the famous debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas for the U.S. Senate seat from Illinois, the Lincoln-Douglas format o.ers a one-on-one debate including constructive speeches, rebuttals and questioning time in less than 35 minutes.

Though the total speaking times are equal, the a.rmative speaks three times (beginning and ending the debate) while the negative speaks twice. Each begins with a constructive speech to lay out his principal argument, with the negative debater’s speech being a bit longer so as to include both case development and refutation. The a.rmative debater has two short rebut­tals in which to refute the negative’s case, defend his 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 favor.

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 .oor (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.

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 the kernel of a debate, the fundamental give and take on the central controversy, in far less time. The following format requires only 10 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 brie.y communicate the gist of the controversy.

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 con.icts 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 we move from a debate to a discussion. Still, it is possible that three parties at least could engage in meaningful debate. For example, consider the proposition, “Resolved: That military action is a superior policy toward rogue nations than either economic sanctions or diplomatic engagement.”4 Debate on such a proposition would involve one a.rmative (defending military action) and two distinct negatives (one defending economic sanctions, and one defending diplomatic engagement). Each side would have a responsibility to show that its solution was better than the other two. A debate accommodating three positions might be structured as follows.

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.

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 that 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 di.cult to achieve. Particularly in a debate in which the two sides have strongly con.icting interests and perspectives, self-regula-tion can quickly turn to bickering. However, 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 con.ict over procedure and keeps the con.ict 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.


The format, of course, is not the content of the debate. Audiences attend debates to learn about their government’s policies, to evaluate international relationships, to consider fundamental issues of civil rights, and a thousand other issues. They generally do not attend debates in order to learn about a format. While debate arrangements preoccupy organizers and experts, they rarely receive much notice from the audiences themselves. As a background consideration, though, the format is essential. If audiences leave the debate feeling that they have seen an exchange that was full and fair and allowed all sides to express their own views, to react critically to the ideas on the other side, and to summarize their positions, then it is probably the format that has allowed that. In developing a format for your own debate, the best advice is to keep it simple, clear, and fair. A good format should .t your purpose and should encourage e.ective debate without calling attention to itself.

Attracting Attention


The organizers of any activity involving an audience have one task first and foremost: to attract audience attention. A public debate is public only if it actually has a public. What good is it to prepare and deliver a great debate if nobody is there to hear it? Finding an audience and publicizing the event are therefore crucial for assuring the debate’s success.

The first step, which we discussed in chapter 5, is to analyze the audience: who are they, and what are their concerns? This analysis helps to shape the topic of the debate, and plays a role in crafting the proposition. When it comes time to publicize the debate, organizers should be sure to phrase the proposition in a way that will appeal most directly to the target audience; this may mean choosing a negative statement over a positive one—or vice versa. If you hold a debate with the proposition “Universities Should Not Charge Their Students Tuition” at a university that already o.ers free tuition, chances are that nobody will come because the natural audience in this setting—the University’s students—will not see it as an issue. Their tuition is already free, so why would they care to hear someone argue in favor of the status quo? However, if the same issue were to be worded di.erently— “Universities Should Charge Their Students Tuition”—the debate might attract the attention of those same students since it proposes a change that would a.ect their pockets, if adopted. In this case, the positive statement (“should”) is clearly preferable to the negative statement (“should not”).

Why Me to You?

The first question that needs to be answered in planning and promoting any debate is this: why ME to YOU? In other words, why do I feel compelled to bring this issue to the table and debate it in front of an audience, and, perhaps more important, why would YOU want to hear it? The audience needs a good reason to come and spend two hours of their time listening to a debate.

Why ME?

The importance of answering this question in any public address has been known for centuries, ever since Aristotle’s Rhetoric, in which he de.nes the three types of proof that belong to the art of rhetoric: logos, pathos and ethos. Logos is the appeal to reason; pathos is the appeal to emotion; and ethos is the persuasive appeal of the speaker’s character, or credibility. (For further discussion, see chapter 5, “Preliminary Steps” and chapter 11, “Making Your Arguments Compelling.”) The audience always wants to know whether a speaker is quali.ed (professionally and personally) to address the issue being debated, especially if that issue is highly controversial or requires some level of expertise. It is therefore a good idea, for promotion purposes, to include some information about the debaters themselves and why they are participating in the event. This should be an important consideration even in the planning stage, when debaters are being chosen; inviting experts on both sides of an issue to debate, either as individuals, or as members of a team, may be a good promotional move.

Why to YOU?

This is the ultimate question. Why should the audience care? What is in it for them? In a public debate, the audience comes first. Their needs, their interests, their expectations and their attitudes should determine the choice of topic, venue, medium, debaters, format, proposition wording, timing and—promotion. In your publicity, you must tell them what you are going to tell them during the debate, and why. In other words, you must tell them what they will gain by attending or participating in your debate. Will they learn more about an issue, simply to satisfy their intellectual curiosity? Or do they have interests at stake—such as their money, their health, or the well-being of their families? Should they expect to be entertained? Moved? Inspired? Relieved? Whatever the case may be, any publicity campaign should make one thing clear: the audience should know what they will take with them when they walk out after the debate. The bene.t may be as intan­gible as an enlightened mind, or an exalted heart, or an energized will—but the bene.t must be promised.

All the aspects of thorough audience analysis required for preliminary steps and debate preparation (see chapter 5, “Preliminary Steps”)—geo-graphic, demographic, psychographic and behavioral characteristics— should be used for promotional purposes as well.

Finding Your Natural Audience

The audience is what makes a debate an event; it is what makes debate rel­evant, worthwhile, and potentially an important force for e.ecting societal or political change. The audience is what makes or breaks the debate. This is why the audience has to be the primary concern every step of the way in preparing and publicizing a debate. Publicity is not about attracting any audience—it is about attracting the right audience. The right audience is the audience you want; it is the audience that needs to hear the debate you are o.ering. If you organize a debate at a nearby pub and provide free beer, you may attract a lot of people, but what for? It is important to get people to come for the right reasons and to participate as willing and concerned agents of change.

Directly Affected Audience

People who are personally a.ected by the issue being debated have the greatest incentive to attend and are the most important components of any audience. There is a reason why the public tunes into politicians when they talk about taxes: taxes a.ect their pocketbooks. A debate on whether universities should charge more tuition would be likely to attract students if they thought the outcome of the debate would a.ect what they pay. A debate about whether there should be a nationwide military draft would probably be most interesting to those who would be drafted if such a requirement were instituted. (It would appeal as well to their parents, spouses and anyone else who would, in turn, be a.ected by such a require­ment.) The relevance of the topic has to be made very clear in advance and there should be a conscious e.ort to reach out to those who would be directly a.ected, because it very often happens that those people aren’t fully aware of a controversial issue. In a suburban setting, for example, citizens do not usually pay much attention to the rulings of the town zoning board, even though the board’s decisions may allow for the construction of new housing developments that would have a signi.cant impact on local traf­.c and local schools. Even national issues are sometimes not grasped fully by the a.ected public: citizens may not recognize the long-term impact of a change in tax policy, or the e.ect that a trade agreement will have on manufacturing jobs.

Again, publicity is vitally important and must be used to reach even those people who are most directly a.ected and have the most to gain from watching the debate.

Friends and Families

Even debaters have friends and families (contrary to popular belief)—and friends and families are a natural part of the debate audience. They go to the debate event just to see the debaters in action, the same way they would go to see friends or relatives perform at concerts, recitals, plays or sporting events. They .nd it exciting to watch a daughter (or son or brother or sister or friend or classmate) debating in front of an audience; because they have a personal connection with the debater, they have a greater investment in the outcome of the debate. Friends and family are naturally supportive, and can create good energy in the room. But even this audience can expand with a little outreach—family members can be encouraged to bring their own friends, and friends can be encouraged to bring their families. The inner circle of friends and family can help with promotion as well, by forwarding e-mails, making phone calls, and talking about the event in casual con­versations. Friends and family are both a guaranteed audience and a great resource for attracting other audiences—so use them!

The Intellectually Curious

In every community, big or small, there are plenty of people who care about issues that do not a.ect them directly or immediately, and they should be recruited as part of the debate audience. You can call them “intellectually curious” or “socially committed” (or both). The size of this subset of the audience will depend on the topic, and on how “hot” the topic is among the general public. Debates on cloning or a pending war are likely to attract larger audiences because these topics are part of the buzz of everyday life, both in the media and around the o.ce water cooler. The only di.culty in attracting an audience for such hot topics is that they may be “overexposed” in the media. In today’s world of 24-hour cable networks, saturation is more the rule than the exception. As a result, your potential audience of the curious and committed may feel bored or frustrated by an issue; they will tune out, literally and .guratively, if the debate seems like it will be “yet another bunch of talking heads rehashing the same topic.” In situations like this, it is important to .nd a special niche, a twist, or a unique quality in your approach to the issue that will set your debate apart—and should be a major theme in your publicity. People who care about issues are often eager to speak about them and to ask questions—so it is a good idea to include audience participation in your debate as a way of attracting this group. Of course, the chance to participate should be highlighted in all of your pro­motional materials—if you want to use something as an attraction, you can’t keep it a secret until after the people come in the door!

How to Publicize a Public Debate

Publicizing a debate is no di.erent 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 promotion2—apply. The product is the debate event itself, of course. 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 e.ort invested in the preparation and publicity, as well as any real monetary costs—for the venue, refreshments, .yers, posters, travel expenses and fees for experts, etc.). The place is the venue of the public debate; the location a.ects not only the size of the audi­ence, but the character and mood of the event as well. A university setting will be likely to attract the university community and have a more academic character, whereas a public debate at a town hall meeting will have a much more real-life, pragmatic .avor. (There is no need to discuss what kind of debate results when the venue is a local pub!) Finally, 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.

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 university settings in particular, outside funding is usually limited, and it is common for debate groups or clubs to organize debate events from start to .nish, doing everything from planning and promotion to the actual debating. The task of event promotion, therefore, often falls on moderators, questioners, respondents, coaches—and, as we mentioned before, on the friends and families of debaters who are willing and able to become involved.

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 “o.cial” 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.

Promotional Tools

There are many di.erent vehicles suitable for publicizing a public debate: newspapers, television, direct mail, radio, magazines, the Internet, e-mail, newsletters of various organizations, bulletin boards, posters—you name it. But 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 .ve 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.

For your press release to be e.ective, you must follow the standard format that news organizations expect. The release should be written on an organizational letterhead (if you are associated with an organization), or a news release form, with a name, address, phone number, fax number, and an e-mail address included. In the top left corner of the page there should be a date for release to the public, or the boldfaced phrase “FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE.” In the top right corner, there should be the name and phone number of the person who can be contacted for additional information. This should be followed by a short headline in bold capital letters, and the text itself should begin with the release date and location (city) of the release (see the example at the end of this chapter). The text should be typed, dou-ble-spaced and printed on only one side of the sheet. The ideal press release is only one page long; when there are additional pages, it is customary in the United States to write “MORE” at the bottom of the first page, and the end of the release is marked with “END” or “###”. The standard conventions vary somewhat in di.erent countries, so you should be sure to familiarize yourself with the expected format before sending your release.


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. You should direct your release to the person who is most likely to be professionally interested in the debate topic or event. Depending on your topic, that person might be the science editor or a medical correspondent or the city editor; newspaper reporters and editors also have speci.c “beats” that may include your event or debate topic (some reporters, for example, always cover legal or judicial stories, and others handle any stories about schools and education). After the press release has been sent, you should follow up with a call after a week or so, to make sure that the contact person indeed received the release and to answer any questions about the event. If the debate event includes some expert debaters or guests, you can to arrange for an interview with some of the experts for the paper prior to the event. Interviews and interest­ing stories that provide context for a debate help to create a “buzz” in the media and can greatly increase the size of the audience.

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 you can a.ord it, advertisements are, of course, one very e.ective option. But if funds are restricted (or unavailable), it is worth spending some time and e.ort in trying to get some free exposure with Public Service Announcements (PSAs) or through talk shows. You 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 your event may suit their needs. The first step with the broadcast media is the same as it is with newspapers—you must create a good press release and make sure that it gets directly into the hands of the right person. And then—follow up, follow up, follow up.

Public Service Announcements. Whether made for radio or television, Public Service Annoucements should be an exact length of time—usually 10, 20 or 30 seconds. They should answer the basic .ve 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 your written text without charging you; some will accept tapes that you have prepared yourself; others will simply have an anchor, newsreader or announcer read your copy live. (See the end of this chapter for a sample PSA designed for radio.) Television PSAs, because of the visual nature of the medium, require fairly sophisticated production values, and are best done by professionals. You may .nd that local cable companies allow the public to use their production facilities, with acceptable results; but a videotape made with a home camera, without high quality sound and lighting equipment, will inevitably look amateurish when broadcast—and that can do your event more harm than good.

Talk Shows. Talk shows, whether on television or radio, are very appropri­ate vehicles for promoting a debate. If the show editor is convinced that your debate event is potentially relevant and interesting for their audience, you may be able to secure a talk show appearance for the debate organizers or for key expert speakers. Again, the press release should be mailed to the right person well in advance and should be followed with a call and a meet­ing with the director of the show.

Direct Mail

One common and cost e.ective marketing tool is mail directed at targeted audiences. Direct mail can be tailored to particular segments of the popula­tion and involves 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 like the U.S.), and even when it’s opened, a direct mail piece may get less than a minute of the reader’s attention. On the whole, though, direct mail is still considered quite e.ective; direct mailers just take it for granted that not every piece will hit its target.

Mailing Lists. The first requirement for direct mailing is a mailing list—the names and addresses of your potential audience. Mailing lists can be devel­oped “by hand” or acquired from other sources. Building a list by hand involves research, and good record keeping. Like charity, a good list begins at home: you should start by assembling information about the people in your organization, adding to that the names and addresses of friends and family that they provide. (Perhaps this seems redundant—why do you need mailing information for people you see regularly, or for people who will know about the debate via word of mouth? Think of it as planning for the future: if you are running a college debate club, sooner or later your debaters will graduate—but you want to keep them, and their friends and families, on your mailing list.) The next step is to gather information about local leaders: your mailing list should include the names of people who head civic groups, organizations, clubs and societies.

You may be able to take a shortcut by consulting directories or membership rosters, which are some­times available to the public. Organizations such as professional groups and associations, cultural and historical societies, sports clubs, community colleges and resource centers may provide these lists on special request. It is a good idea to send mail to key people with broad contacts in the .eld or in the community. Accompanied with personal notes, these mailings can be especially e.ective; if these leaders make announcements to their own membership, either at meetings or through their mailings, there is no cost to you as the debate organizer, and your event gains credibility. (Remember that direct mail does not always hit the intended target—but think of the return on your direct mail investment if your debate is about the legality of antiterrorism statutes, and the head of the local bar association decides to publicize the event to the association membership.) Finally, mailing lists can be built by hand at the debate event; it is a simple matter to ask attendees to provide their addresses if they want to hear about future events.

In commercial direct marketing, it is quite common for mailing lists to be sold or otherwise shared. Supporters of the local symphony orchestra, for example, will often .nd that they start to get mail from repertory theatres and dance companies—they have been identi.ed as supporters of the arts, and artistic organizations are keen to reach them. It probably isn’t practi­cable for debate organizers to start buying mailing lists, but it may be pos­sible to borrow or share lists on an ad hoc basis. Say, for example, that your debate club is sponsoring a public debate about environmental legislation; you may .nd that a local environmental organization is willing to share its mailing list to publicize the event.

In any case, mailing lists must be maintained and updated when addresses or contact people change. (By the way, it is crucial for names on the list to be spelled accurately; nothing consigns a direct mail piece to the trash more quickly than a mangled name or title.) Mailing lists can be stored easily with commercial software, such as Microsoft Excel; mail merge pro­grams allow for the production of personalized letters, labels, and envelopes. Personalized letters always work better than letters that begin “Dear Friend” or “Greetings, Fellow Debate Lover,” and they will reward the extra time and e.ort required to produce them. What to Include. Direct mail can include postcards, letters, photographs, .yers, brochures, or anything that can be (legally) stu.ed in an envelope. Design and the careful crafting of content are essential. The materials have to be visually appealing, easy to read and understand, and generally atten-tion-grabbing. They also have to answer the basic who, what, when, where and why questions, with a particularly strong emphasis on why. Why should the audience come? What is in it for them? You should stress how the debate event will address their needs and interests and why the topic is relevant to their lives. Sell the bene.t of the debate to the audience. Bene.ts com­mand attention and induce action, so always mention them first. Another marketing mantra in promotion is: “Sales start on the cover.”

Posters Design. Similar rules apply to designing posters—except that posters can handle less text and are meant to be teasers, designed to catch attention quickly and brie.y. An e.ective 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. Either A3 (European) or 11x14 (U.S.) paper is a good size for most venues.5 Where to Post. Posters should be placed in high-tra.c 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, 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, o.-campus hangouts (pubs, cafes, bars, clubs), etc. You do need to make sure, however, that posting is allowed in your desired locations, and you should check from time to time to see that the posters have not been removed or covered with other posters.

Internet. More and more people get their information on the Internet, and many people rely on the Internet exclusively, making it an increasingly 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 .ve Ws (who, what, when, where and why) still applies; you 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 (Microsoft FrontPage, 1st Page Web Editor, HotDog Professional and Macromedia Studio Program Suites like Dreamweaver MX and Macromedia Flash MX, to name just a few).

Final Notes

The above-mentioned tools and venues by no means exhaust the list of pos­sible promotion vehicles. You can also publicize your event through direct e-mail, list serves, announcements in bulletins, newsletters, magazines, journals, and word-of-mouth. You are only limited by your imagination, the time and resources available to you—and the law. Make sure that, whatever you do, you get proper permission and authorization from all par­ties a.ected in the process of promotion. The last thing your event needs is legal di.culties which may jeopardize your credibility or endanger the event altogether.

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 consultant working for one side or the other, 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 speci.c elements of coaching, such an accounting (by individuals more experienced than ourselves) would .ll 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 con.dence 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 .eld of sports. Craig Cli.ord and Randolph Feezell, two philosophy professors whose 1997 book, Coaching for Character,1 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:

1. Be a good role model. Demonstrate good preparation habits, good advo­cacy practices, and a good attitude toward the event.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. Talk about the relationship between the success of the event, and the debaters’ personal success. It is a cliche 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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.

8. 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.

9. Clearly deal with anything not suited to the goals of the event. When something goes wrong, .x it right away.

10. Reinforce good practice and good performance. When something goes right, make sure that everyone knows it.

11. 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.

12. Promote re.exiveness 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!”

13. 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.

14. 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 impor­ tant, the coach has to be sure that it is important and to convey that in words and deeds.

15. 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 in.exible 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, our purposes will relate more to the success of the event as a whole than to the success of any of the individual participants. For example, an educational group that is hosting a public debate in order to generate interest in debating programs would have the most to gain by a debate that is successful for both sides, a debate that shows the give and take of positions, a debate that o.ers strong arguments on both sides, a debate that showcases the idea that dispute can occur peacefully and reasonably, a debate that demonstrates that there can be strong and credible aspects to both sides of a question. Given a purpose of that sort, if one side had all of the good arguments, or if one side were able to surprise the other with an argument that they had not planned, then the purpose of the event would be undermined. In this setting, both sides will be comfortable only if they know what to expect from the other side and are prepared to answer it. 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. This sort of preparation would, perhaps, feature one coach who is coaching both sides rather than one coach for each side. While debaters using this model would certainly discuss many elements of their preparation as a team or as a side, much of the communication would occur at the level of the entire group preparing the debate. Several elements characterize this method of preparation:

  • Meetings that 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

While cooperation has its advantages, there are clearly public debate set­tings in which it makes less sense. Imagine that a local environmental group opposes the development of a major shopping center in an environmentally sensitive area. They enter a public debate against individuals representing the development interests in the hope of championing their side of the question. Viewed from that group’s perspective, an interest in creating the most powerful argument against development de.nitely exceeds their inter­est in making sure that the overall event is balanced. If both sides worked together and shared information, it would result in a more fair, comprehen­sive, and reasonable exchange—but it would also have the e.ect of helping the development interests, which is precisely what the environmental group does not wish to do.

Thus, this group would be likely to do the bulk of their preparation on their own. They would be likely to receive coaching and facilitation from an individual who was working only for their side. 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 e.ort to analyze and make predictions about what the other side will argue
  • The use of role-playing in practice

Which Model Is Best?

Depending upon how you as an individual value “competition” or “coopera­tion,” it is possible that you already see one or the other model as being natu­ral and superior. Some individuals undoubtedly believe that a debate, by its nature, is always a competition and any sort of cooperative work decreases the value, the spirit and freshness of the exchange. (This vision is, of course, fairly prevalent in the world of tournament debating.) On the other hand, there are doubtlessly individuals who view any communicative enterprise as a cooperative one and would see any limit upon cooperation as a limit to the value and the reasonability of the exchange. However, the question of which model “.ts” your debating situation can’t be boiled down to a universal pref­erence for one value or the other. There are times when cooperation makes sense and there are times when competition makes sense. And most impor­tant, there is a spectrum of possibilities between the two that could best .t the situation of your public debate. More speci.cally, the model that you use would depend absolutely on the goals of the event, speci.cally the extent to which educational values and advocacy values apply. (And these goals, of course, are shaped by the nature of your audience, and your own identity—if you are an advocacy group, you are likely to espouse advocacy values.)

Debaters who are most interested in education are seeking to equip the audience with the resources to make their own judgment about an issue, or to provide the audience with a greater understanding of the debate process. Debaters with a high interest in advocacy, on the other hand, are seeking to persuade the audience to agree with their preferred point of view. Some could argue, of course, that there is a false distinction between advocacy and education, but the di.erence depends upon the degree of autonomous judgment that you are expecting from your audience. Clearly, it is not an absolute distinction, but there are some settings in which interest tends more toward the goal of the audience receiving the information to permit them to make their own judgments, and there are other settings where the debate centers more heavily on the message itself and the goal is to have the audience make a greater commitment to a particular idea after attending the event.

The principle that we are proposing is that the higher the interest in advocacy, and correspondingly, the lower the interest in education, then the more we would prefer a competitive model of preparation. Conversely, the higher the interest in education, and the lower the interest in advocacy, the more we would prefer a cooperative model of preparation.

This model acknowledges that there are gray areas, or instances in which our interests in education will be high, but our interests in advocacy will be high as well. In those settings it only makes sense to use a mix of cooperation and com-petition—for example, each side would disclose their main points without sharing complete information on what their responses and extensions were likely to be.

Keeping these two general tendencies (advocacy versus education) in mind, the .gure below provides a visual representation of the situations in which a competitive or a cooperative focus would most appropriate.

A high stakes debate with two sides of antagonistic interest, like the envi­ronmental debate discussed previously, may have the highest commitment to advocacy and the lowest commitment to a broad education on both sides (though of course, each side would seek to educate the audience on their side). In contrast, a debate in which a student group that has picked a cur­rent issue mostly because it would allow them to demonstrate a lively and interesting debate, not because of any particular personal commitment to the issues, would indicate a high interest in education and a lower interest in advocacy and would suggest a cooperative approach. One may ques­tion whether any debate that is both low in advocacy and low in education should occur, but such a debate could simply have the goal of entertainment. A much more common setting would be one in which advocacy interests and educational interests may both be high. For example, the event organiz­ers could have a high interest in the educational aims of the event while the advocates themselves could have an interest in maintaining and defending their point of view against the opposition. In a case like this, a mixed model would be most appropriate and some elements of cooperation (sharing general argument content) and some elements of competition (avoiding joint practice and speci.c sharing of arguments prior to the event) may be present.

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 in.uence 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.

Phase One: Establishing Common Goals and Procedures

Any cooperative enterprise risks losing a great deal of valuable time at the beginning if e.orts are not undertaken to establish a priori understandings on common objectives and common ways of getting there. A public debate is an act of coordinated communication, and its planning requires a com­mon focus. Everyone involved must ask: whom do we want to be talking to? For how long? About what? For what purpose? Even if a group believes that everybody is on the same page, so to speak, it is essential to make these understandings explicit. Where disagreements emerge, they need to be settled before the planning moves to the next phase. 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, that 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 .nd the point of controversy or divide the issue? (see chapter 5)
  • How do we express that controversy as a proposition that would be meaningful to our target audience and clear to the advocates? (see chapter 6)
  • 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?

As we move through these and several other basic planning questions, it is predictable that some disagreements might arise. For example, imagine a group of university students jointly planning a debate on the possibility of a tuition increase: one participant mainly wants an educational experi­ence for the audience; another participant is most interested in showcasing his own public speaking and argumentation skills. Still another debater is adamantly against tuition increases and wants, more than anything, for audience members to agree with her at the end of the debate. Clearly, some discussion and coordination of goals should occur before this group does very much planning for this debate. That said, this scenario of con.ict is not necessarily a disaster. The goals of participants do not have to be absolutely consistent in order for the debate to be a success. Debate is, after all, an activity of con.icts. For example, if opposing sides want the audience to walk away convinced of the superiority of their positions, and the moderator wants the audience to walk away exposed to the best of what each side has to, the goals are not identical, but they are surely complementary. It is important to go through this first phase of planning to ensure that the goals are consistent, not necessarily with each other, but with the overall purpose of the event. In simple and informal debate, this planning may occur in a basic face-to-face meeting, or (less ideally) in a series of contacts and letters. In more formal and more adversarial contexts and when these stakes are at their highest, these debate elements may be the subject of more than simple negotiating. In U.S. presidential campaign debates, for example, it has become common practice for the campaign sta.s of the two contenders to meet and draft long and detailed “Memoranda of Understanding” which spell out every conceivable element (yes, right down to the size and shape of the lectern) and function like a contract for the event.2

Phase Two: Exploring the Issue, Re.ning the Focus

Once the parameters of the debate have been laid out, the next phase is to delve 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 will 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, work­ing in concert.

For example, if a group of young people is working on a debate focus­ing on whether their country (e.g. Romania, Bulgaria, etc.) should pursue negotiations to join the European Union by year X, then an initial search may focus on the factual background:

  • What type of international organization is EU?
  • What does the process of accession involve? What countries have acceded the EU? Which not? Why?
  • What is the scope of integration of EU into the political, economic, social and cultural life of a member country?
  • What are the conditions on which country X has been granted acces­sion and what will be the implications for that country?

These and many other questions could be asked and together they would establish the factual foundation – viz., a grasp what the court is and what it does – that the advocates need before they can even think about building arguments. Once the factual foundation is laid, however, the investigation should turn to an identi.cation of the ways in which the subject may be important:

  • What does the audience already know about the EU?
  • Is there any way in which disputes about the EU might a.ect them or might relate to their experience?

An investigation might reveal that most citizens of acceding country in 2004 know that the accession is scheduled for year X, but do not know what stage of negotiations their country is in, what these negotiations focus on and what the implications are for their country. The debate organizers might determine that the potential audience for their planned debate had a similar understanding. Advocates would thus be encouraged to explore these lines of argument: why should their country aim at joining the EU? Advocates of the scheduled accession might .nd that:

  • The accession will speed up the economic development of the country due to EU structural funds.
  • The accession will provide better educational opportunities for the young generations of the country X.
  • The accession will provide political stability, facilitate the rule of law and good governance.

Those who oppose the accession to the EU in the next couple of years might in contrast .nd that:

  • The accession may lead to the collapse of small and medium business enterprises which will not be able to compete with EU companies.
  • The accession may lead to the “brain drain” as a result of opening of new and better opportunities in EU countries.
  • The accession may endanger to sovereignty of the country in the politi­cal, economic and cultural spheres. Having gained a broader understanding of the issues surrounding the acces­sion to the EU, advocates may .nd the debate focusing on the following questions in particular: will the accession to the EU improve the economic situation of the country in a short/long term?

Will the membership in EU pose a threat to the nation’s sovereignty? Will the EU membership have an immediate impact on the lives of ordinary citizens? These questions, then, would serve as a common structure for speeches, with each advocate turn­ing to each of these issues in turn.

This process of constructing arguments for e.ective delivery is covered more comprehensively in chapters 10. But the coach’s role in the process is to guide the participants through it. The most important element of this guidance is the coach’s role in ensuring that participants don’t rely just on their “top of the head” thinking and instead commit to investigate and research the issue fully. Especially when working with students who are very e.ective “brainstormers,” as many students skilled in public debate tend to be, coaches need to get public debate advocates to look beyond the argu­ments that they can generate without much thought, and to explore issues more fully. The coach can accomplish this by making a list of questions that the debaters don’t know the answers to, questions that might matter to the dispute, background that must be looked up. In this way, the coach focuses on material de.ciencies that can only be resolved by a closer analysis and exploration of the issues. There is no upward limit to the amount of research that can be done. For more formal political debates, research can include community attitude surveys and focus groups as elements of audience and issue analysis, and it may involve commissioning investigation of speci.c questions.

Regardless of the level of the debate, the outcome of this phase should be a greater understanding of the issue and the available arguments. If the sides and the speaking positions have not already been established during phase one, then the information gained in phase two can be used to make a .nal determination of who is on what side and who is giving what speeches, according to the format that was developed (see chapter 7).

Analyzing the Opponent

As we will discuss in later chapters, one important part of developing an argument is “anticipation”—debaters must try to anticipate how their opponents will respond to the arguments that they make. To some degree, this is a matter of logic: debaters examine the structures of their own argu­ments, and identify vulnerable points. (For an extended discussion of this process, see chapter 14, “Refutation.”) But anticipation also involves taking the measure of the people who will be debating on the other side; debaters must analyze their opponents in order predict what kinds of arguments they are likely to make. This tactic will no doubt seem familiar to anyone who follows competitive sports: in baseball, for example, professional teams pro­duce reams of analytical studies, so that the pitcher on the mound knows what kind of pitch the opposing batter “likes to hit,” and what kind he “can’t hit”—and throws the ball accordingly.

Before going on, we should note the obvious: analyzing opponents is far more important in a debate emphasizing competition than it is in a debate emphasizing cooperation. But even in a cooperative debate, it is not a bad idea to develop a systematic understanding of what to expect during the debate, and knowing how an opponent is likely to argue is an integral part of that understanding.

In some instances, debaters will be familiar with their opponents’ styles through past experience—this is the case when the debaters are part of the same club, or have faced each other in tournament competitions. But famil­iarity can also be gained through research, by looking up past speeches or writings by the opponent—especially when the subject of the pieces at hand is the debate topic or something similar. Research can allow debaters to get a sense of their opponents’ political views or predilections: if the opponent has made a politically conservative speech about the death penalty, it is reasonable to predict a conservative perspective on civil liberties. At a deeper level, this conservative approach to the death penalty might suggest a habitual position about the role of government when in con.ict with indi-viduals—a position that might emerge in the context of a planned debate about reforming the tax code.

The analysis of opponents should also include a consideration of their style. Is the opposing debater serious, pompous or funny? What kind of rapport does he have with an audience? One-on-one encounters reveal a lot about a person’s style, so engaging in a conversation with an opponent before the debate may help to predict his likely behavior during the debate.

After analyzing their opponents, debaters can prepare substantively. First of all, they can make educated guesses about what their opponents’ arguments are likely to be, and they can prepare appropriate responses. When it comes to style, the rule is to play to your strengths and your oppo­nents’ weaknesses. Or, even better, you can use the philosophy of judo—use your opponent’s strengths against her. What does this mean? If, for example, your opponent is known as tremendously charismatic and funny, and you’re not exactly Jerry Seinfeld, then it probably would not be a good idea to try to win by developing a slick presentation. Instead, you should try to use your seriousness as an advantage, appealing to the audience by saying, “My opponent may make you laugh—she makes me laugh, too—but the bottom line is that we are dealing with a serious issue that requires a serious, logical analysis. And what’s missing from my opponent’s argument is logic. Here’s why...”

Phase Three: 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 speci.c preparation of individual speeches and questioning periods. At this phase, the work will become more individual and the role of the coach will re.ect more one-on-one, person-to-person, counseling. How the coach proceeds will depend a great deal on his own personal style—and more important, on each debater’s working style. A part of the preparation of the coach will be to get a sense of that style. Is one of his debaters waiting for guidance or is she pressing ahead? Does her teammate need a lot of close work on content, or does he just need the coach to be a sounding board for his ideas? Obviously, the approach used by each person, and to each person, will vary.

Nonetheless, once attention begins to turn to individuals, several pre­dictable challenges may result: Problem: The script-driven debater. This debater insists upon creating his speech word-for-word and he doesn’t feel com­fortable doing it any other way. In all likelihood, his delivery is wooden and he fails to react to developments and nuances in his opponent’s arguments because he is “sticking to the script.” Solution: Extemporaneous delivery. Emphasizing the need for fresh delivery and at least the appearance of spontaneity, the coach should ask the debater to practice using key word notes (see chapter 15) and reassure him by emphasizing that “it is only practice.” Usually the speaker will become more natural and (gradually) more comfortable speaking from key words than he would be speaking from a script.

Manuscript delivery is only called for when two conditions are met: 1) the exact wording is so critical that a single word out of place would be a disaster, and 2) the participant has suf­.cient delivery skills that he can pull o. a scripted or memo­rized delivery and still make it sound conversational. In most cases, one or both of those conditions will not be present and the best bet will be to go with extemporaneous delivery.

Problem: The over-con.dent debater. This debater is so sure of her knowledge and abilities that she does not see a need to practice or to plan in advance. She’ll do .ne, she believes, and too much practice may just decrease her natural spontaneity.

Solution: Demonstrate inadequacies, encourage teaching. Coaches should respond by demonstrating to this debater (and not simply telling her) that there are inadequacies that could be improved. This may involve handling some of the questioning and refutation personally, making the debater see that there are points in her own argument that she cannot defend. Second, the coach can emphasize for this debater the importance of being involved in practice as a bene.t to the other (and presumably less experienced and talented) participants in the debate. In that way, the overcon.dent debater becomes a mentor for the others involved in the event. As many teachers can attest, there is no more e.ective way to get a student to recognize her own weak spots than to have her try to teach someone else.

Problem: The in.exible planner. This debater needs to know everything the other side will be saying and can’t embrace the .exibility called for in the situation. Not knowing exactly what the other side will say becomes a reason to not prepare.

Solution: Contingency planning. Not being certain of the other side’s approach becomes a reason to plan more not less. Assuming that it is impossible or inadvisable to give this debater as much information as he seeks, the coach should play the role of the opposition and generate a number of dif­ferent argumentative strategies; the debater can then prepare “briefs” against each (see chapter 14, “Refutation”).

Problem: The ghostwriter coach. This coach, like the ghost­writer who writes books that famous people then put their name on, would much rather write the speech for a partici­ pant than help that participant develop her own content. To this coach, his own arguments are better, more original, and more strategic than any that could be developed by the advo­cates themselves.

Solution: Stick to coaching or become a debater yourself. A track and .eld coach isn’t able to run the race himself, and he wouldn’t be helping the team much if he did. In a public debate, writing a speech for someone else to deliver can lead to a wooden performance, can leave the debater vulnerable to attacks and questions from the opposition and can lead to passivity—since debaters end up waiting for a coach to supply the content, rather than developing it themselves. If coaches feel that competitive spark and the need to create arguments and speeches of their own, they can always become debaters as well. Unlike track and .eld, and unlike tournament debat­ing, there is no prohibition against participation by those who also advise and coach. However, coaches (whether they are also debaters or not) need to be clear on their role: as debaters, they should employ the skills and attitudes of an advocate, but as coaches, they should realize that their help is best o.ered by facilitating the development of an advocate’s work, not by substituting for it. For participant-coaches, this creates the responsibility to prepare fully for their own role, while simul­taneously encouraging and promoting preparation by others.

Phase Four: Practice

There is no such thing as a “practice debate”... All commu­nication is in.uential. Still, any learning process involves a certain amount of trial and error, so provision for trying out ideas and techniques under conditions where “damage control” is possible has to be part of a systematic training program.

Any debate performed before a live audience is by nature a spontaneous event. Directness in expression and .exibility in ideas are valued qualities for the public debater. The goal of the public debate, the desired outcome, is a moment of understanding, a transaction between a thinking speaker and a reacting audience; this outcome can never be achieved by a simple perfor­mance of something that has been prepared earlier, like a prerecorded tape.

But the inherent liveliness of a public debate should not be seen as a reason for avoiding practice and preparation in advance. Avoiding a stale presenta­tion does not require that we present our ideas o.-the-cu. or o. the top of our heads. There are several reasons why practice before a public debate is an essential element. First, practice allows you to identify your own .aws. Elements that may be incomplete or not fully developed may not be dis­covered until you practice. The argument that an opponent makes that you are not able to answer illustrates a critical weakness that can be corrected before the debate. Second, practice is a way of demonstrating to yourself your own capability for performing; in e.ect, practice is self-persuasion, a way of convincing yourself that it is something that you can do. Third, practice is an important way of smoothing out your performance. Anytime somebody is doing something new, from playing a sport to preparing a new recipe, the first couple of tries may be rough and unsteady, and the third or the fourth or the .fth are going to be better. Practice provides us with an opportunity to recognize .aws, smooth our performance, and convince ourselves that we are ready. Research, of course, indicates the advantages of practice, showing that even the quiet mental imagining of an event in our heads can substantially improve performance by conditioning our brain to respond e.ectively.

In addition to smoothing our performance, practice also provides the ideal setting for constructive feedback. Perhaps the most obvious image of a “coach” is someone who plays the role of a critic, pointing out .aws, weak­nesses, and inadequacies in one’s performance. While criticism is undoubt­edly a part of a coach’s role, our view is more holistic; we see the coach as someone who not only and .nds weaknesses, but also and builds upon strengths and contributes to the overall development of both content and attitude on the part of the debaters. There are several things that a coach should remember in giving feedback to public debaters:

  • Don’t forget 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 con.­dence as well.
  • Wrap your criticism in compliments. Some call this the “hamburger” approach: start with something soft and complimentary (the bun), then add an element of critical commentary (the meat), then end with some­thing complimentary again (another bun): “Sasha, 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 .nd 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 doesn’t look con.dent enough, there is a reasonable chance that you may be making him even less con.dent (now he has one more problem to worry about and that is his lack of con.dence). Instead of identifying it as a failure, rephrase it as a solu­tion: “You know, you would look much more con.dent 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 insu.­cient 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?” In this way you are avoiding the defensive shield that pops up whenever we hear criticism and promoting the possibility that the speaker is actually going to reconsider his own views.
  • Discourage participants’ tendency to treat a speech or an argument as a .nished piece of work. When practice is seen as a performance or as a dress rehearsal rather than as a laboratory for testing and re.ning 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 con.dence or push you o. 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 your perception is simply di.erent from that of the advocate. The advocate’s investment in her own performance is going to cause her to disagree, and given the fact that she is operating within the mindset of debating, her brain will be ready to argue. The result is that a reaction from you will produce a denial or a rebuttal from her. The coach should resist the temptation to engage at that point. Since coaches are often former or present debaters themselves, it is often hard to resist. A better course of action, however, is to 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 has done better. Just hearing that something is wrong or could be better is not enough. It is the process of .xing and rediscovering that leaves the greater impres­sion. For this reason, coaches can’t assume that just speaking about a problem constitutes improvement. It is essential whenever you identify something that can be .xed immediately, you ask the advocates to .x it immediately: “Why don’t you try giving that speech, making that argu­ment, asking that question, again?”


Coaching requires many of the same skills as those required of the advocate. E.ective counselors and advisors have to size up the situation, and evaluate the advocate they are working with; they must select from a repertoire of strategies and apply the ones that seem to be the best .t. It is a responsibility that requires as much listening and learning as it does speaking and teach­ing. While all of the chapters of this text emphasize elements of preparation and public debate construction, it is the unique responsibility of the coach to bring them together in order to promote a debate that starts with a direction that is clear and agreeable to everyone involved, moves through a thorough analysis of issues and careful construction of individual speeches, then proceeds to comprehensive and constructive practice sessions and .nally to a public debate that leaves audiences, participants, and organizers fully satis.ed.

Reasoning With Your Audience

In our title for this chapter, the preposition “with” is important. There is a di.erence between reasoning to your audience and reasoning with your audience. While the former might suggest a demonstration of your own forethought and logical prowess, the latter suggests that you are inviting audience members to become partners in the process of developing,­ing, and ultimately accepting or rejecting the reasons that underlie your claims in a public debate. This chapter will focus on this task of developing your arguments, which in many ways can be seen as the heart of your public debate. Through the use of argument, logic, and evidence, advocates in a public debate seek to convince the audience of the superiority of their side in the debate. While argument, logic, and evidence are doubtlessly com­plex topics that have been comprehensively addressed in other sources,1 this chapter will address the elements of public reasoning and support that are most basic and most important to those who are debating before a large audience. We will begin with the step of uncovering and using the audience’s existing beliefs and attitudes, then move through the stages of gathering information, and .nally conclude with speci.c advice on devel­oping and employing successful patterns of reasoning in the arguments that you develop for your speeches.

  • First, arguing is not “.ghting with words.” When your friend says “I had an argument with my boyfriend” she may well be describing a con.ict, but not necessarily a rational one. That is, one may have an “argu­ment” without necessarily making any “arguments.” Communication researcher Daniel O’Keefe explained this distinction between what he called “argument1,” which is something that one person can make, and “argument2,” which is something that two or more people can have.3 In other words, an “argument” conceived as a claim with reasons isn’t the same or even necessarily associated with “argument” conceived as a verbal con.ict. Because public debate is a cooperative venture designed to explore options and enlighten an audience, it is far more likely to be characterized by arguments1 rather than arguments2. As Canadian logi­cian Douglas Walton has noted, “the quarrel is no friend of logic and frequently represents argument at its worst.”
  • 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., “The International Criminal Court is justi.ed . . .” does not rise to the level of argument until it is accompanied by a reason, e.g., “ . . . because past examples show that it can be an e.ective means of deterring human rights abuses.” No mat­ter how many times a statement is made, and no matter whether it is shouted or accompanied by .st-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 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 e.ective 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, con.dence, and dynamism are all essential aspects of good communication, but to the extent that they do not 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 justi.cation. A visual way to con­sider the relationship between argument, logic, and persuasion is contained in the following .gure:

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 own public debate.

Informal Logic: The Role of Reasoning

When we first hear the word “argumentation” or especially the word “logic,” we may be tempted to envision a formal and mechanical application. Indeed formal logic aims toward a mathematical precision such that truth claims can be represented something like this:

This construction represents formal logic, which carries a consistency and a certainty that permits us to talk in absolute terms about the truth or falsity of claims. Formal logic uses symbols, labels and forms that convert words into abstractions.

Formal logic does not, however, capture the more common elements found when humans give reasons for something. These elements are often captured in the phrase informal logic, or the search for the general rules of good reasoning that people use, or ought to use. By calling logic “informal,” we don’t mean to suggest in any way that it is casual or sloppy, but only to sug­gest that it eschews mathematical precision in order to include the subjectivi­ties and probabilities that characterize human thinking and reason-giving in most situations. For example, if I make the argument that the death penalty is unjust, there is no way that I can represent my argument in a way that is true in any formal sense. Our willingness to see something as unjust is more than a mathematical calculation; it is of necessity a human judgment. But while I can’t say that a claim like this is true in a formal sense, I can say that it is more or less assertable based upon the arguments that I have supplied in front of a speci.c audience. I could, for example, provide the testimony of a respected jurist: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun concluded that America’s experience showed that the death penalty could never be imposed fairly and consistently and said, as a result, “From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.”5 Alternatively, I could cite examples from the number of individuals who have been put to death only to subsequently be considered innocent based upon new evidence.6 Or I could present a moral argument that killing is only philosophically justi.ed in immediate self-defense, and as long as life in prison remains an option, the state need never kill a captured prisoner. Any of these arguments in the right situation and before the right audience could provide a reasonable basis for the audience to attach greater belief to the claim. The arguments do not make the claim “true,” but by adding justi.cation, they make the claim more likely to win adherence. Because e.ectiveness depends not upon an absolute truth standard but upon an audience-won sense of reasonableness, an emphasis on the public dimensions of logic is especially suited to a focus on debates before a large audience.

Enthymeme: The Role of the Audience

E.ective argument in a public context involves more than “a connecting series of statements to establish a proposition”; to be e.ective it must also involve the integration of the advocate’s reasoning with the preexisting 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 and audience. As we will argue below, the enthymeme is especially .tting for certain types of argument.

Getting More Specific: The Components of an Argument

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 speci.c 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 de.nes an argument as a claim that is warranted by data. Each of the central terms in this de.nition, 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 o.ered to provide the audience with a jus­ti.cation for the claim. For example the information that marijuana has been shown to have only moderate health risks might be used as data to buttress 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 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.

This represents a sample of approaches that could be taken in testing the weaknesses of an argument. Once a particular element of argument is called into question, then it would require further support if the argument is to remain standing. For example, if an opponent challenged the backing for the data (the W.H.O. study), then that backing would have to have backing of its own (a demonstration that this study agrees with other studies, for example). The process in theory could continue inde.nitely (each backing being challenged and each challenge met with yet another backing . . .) but this in.nite regression is checked by the opponents, the situation, and the audience. Opponents do not have in.nite time and creativity, not all claims can be reasonably disputed, audiences will likely grant some premises as being true without the need for further backing, etc.

In summary, a successful argument is a claim that is reasonably war­ranted by good data and capable of surviving all reasonable challenges. Because of the central role played by the notion of “reasonability” in this formula, our next subject is to consider the ways of locating and using the premises which underlie that sense of reasonability.

Locating and Using Audience and Opponent Premises

A premise is an element of your argument that the particular audience and opponent are likely to accept without explicit reasons. At first, this notion might seem counterintuitive: “Willing to accept? But if the other side is willing to accept it, then how are we having a debate?” But the fact is that opponents do not have to disagree about everything in order for a debate to take place. All debates, and all public argument generally, require some starting points. Two arguers may disagree on whether there should be an international criminal court, but still agree that the world needs a way to discourage crimes against humanity. They may agree that the government has a responsibility to regulate harmful products, but disagree over whether marijuana is a harmful product or not. These areas of agreement are likely to be found in all arguments. As Professor Robert O. Weiss noted, “If two individuals agree about everything, they don’t need to debate; if they disagree about everything, they can’t debate.”10 Clarifying where the agree­ments and disagreements lie, then, is essential to good debate. The issue of locating and using premises is a practical matter of separat­ing the claims you’ll need to support from the claims that you will simply need to invoke or imply. One perspective on public advocacy might say that, “since this is a public debate, then nothing should be taken for granted—all arguments and claims should receive full support, whether we think that our audience or our opponents will grant them or not.” That perspective may sound appropriate, but a bit of thought will quickly reveal that it is logically and practically impossible to support all potential elements of any argument.

For example:

The nations of the world should agree to reduce carbon emis­sions, because that will limit greenhouse gases.

So, why do we want to limit greenhouse gases? Because that helps us limit global warming. So, why do we want to limit global warming? Because that helps us save the polar ice caps. So, why do we want to save the polar ice caps? Because that prevents the sea from rising. So, why do we want to keep the sea from rising? Because that will protect population centers and save count­less lives. So, why do we want to protect population centers and save countless lives? Because human life is important and we have an obligation to defend it. Why?...

Of course, this exchange could continue inde.nitely. But if your opponent is reasonable, the need for further justi.cation will stop at some point. Why? Because the advocates will have reached a premise, a point that will be conceded by the advocates and their audience. Exactly where the premise lies will, naturally, based upon the situation. In some situations, the premise in the above exchange would be reached long before the opponent asked why it’s important to defend human life: at a scienti.c conference on climate change, for example, it would probably be conceded by all that signi.cant global warming would be a disaster and attention would focus instead on the means necessary to control it. In other words, the premise would be reached after the first question above.

The essential step in locating premises, then, is to .gure out exactly what your audience and your opponent would be likely to concede without fur­ther argument. While nothing can substitute for a speci.c analysis of your own audience, opponent, and situation (see chapters 5 and 6), there are a few general considerations that apply here.

  • Use all available signs. In most cases, you won’t be able to read the minds of your audience and your opponents, and you also will not be able to poll them in advance on all of the speci.c elements of your argument. However, you can employ your best e.orts to consider the motivation for the event (“Why are we holding it? Why did the audience come? What does that tell us about their opinions on this situation?”), the demographics of those who will be there (age, race, sex, etc.), the situa­tion and any recent events that may in.uence their understanding and their commitments. It is also helpful to ask whether you are debating before an organized group or before an “accidental group” that is drawn together just by virtue of the debate itself. In the former case, it is pos­sible for you to consider the history of decisions that the group has made and stances that it has taken in determining the premises that it will likely hold.
  • Check your assumptions. Predict carefully and with a knowledge that you might be wrong. Neither demographics nor situation nor personal inter­est necessarily determine one’s point of view. The rich man may support tax increases for the wealthy. The black woman may oppose a.rmative action based on race. While we should be sensitive to the likely and predictable stances of our audience and opponents, we should never blithely assume that they hold for each person. The questioning period can be a good time to check and see what premises your opponent is likely to concede (“So, saving money is a good idea, right?”). Even in cases in which we have a good reason to believe that a given premise is reliable in a speci.c situation, it makes good sense to check that assump­tion verbally by referring to it in your speech: “ . . . and I believe that we all agree that a rising sealevel covering Venice, Miami and Amsterdam would be a bad thing.” Explicitly stating that agreement can serve as a reminder as well. For example, if you were debating in front of members of the National Academy of Sciences, you could note, “just last year, this body concluded that rapid climate change could have dramatic and far-reaching implications for both human society, and the ecosystem.”11 In this way, you signal that you don’t .nd it necessary to spend time justify­ing a premise that has already been established.
  • When in doubt, justify. If you are not sure whether a given premise will be conceded or not, then you are safer o.ering the argument anyway. Time will naturally prevent you from justifying everything, but if you have a good reason to suspect that some in the audience may .nd a premise controversial, then turning it into an argument can’t hurt. In addition, if you think that your opponent might challenge you on a point, then it makes strategic sense to beat them to the punch by provid­ing an argument for your stance before they get a chance to challenge it.
  • No premise is guaranteed to remain a premise. One of the most positive, but also most unpredictable, aspects of a debate is that anything can be open to challenge. As long as the debate is being conducted in a setting that allows freedom of expression to its advocates, the debaters can at any time challenge a view that the other side has assumed to be an unassailable premise. They may even challenge a view that the audience would never have expected to need justi.cation. Say, for example, that one team of debaters presumes that their audience and their opponents would support the legal concept of a right to privacy. They believe that the debate will center on the question of “how much privacy?” and not on the question of whether privacy itself is a good thing or not. The audience too, they assume, will think that privacy is a good thing. In the debate, however, they are surprised to learn that the crux of their opponent’s case is that “privacy” is a negative concept overall: it breeds a philosophy of isolated individualism and harms the spirit of community. Once questioned, the team’s premise that “privacy is good” now has to become an argument in answer to their opponent’s challenge. Pressed, they have to think of reasons why the existence of a private sphere might be compatible with community, maybe even essential to community. So: even though premises serve as a foundation for our disagreements, that foundation is never 100 percent reliable. A premise represents our best e.ort to .nd a starting point or an ending point for our argumentation, but once challenged, all of the participants who are committed to a debate need to defend their assumptions.

Finding, Analyzing, and Using External Support (Evidence)

The reasoning process begins, then, with the articulation of claims (what you want your audience to believe), and the development of claims into argu-ments—that is, the identi.cation of the warrants and data that support your claims. As we have just discussed, some parts of your argument can be iden­ti.ed as premises—that is, as points that do not need to be argued but that will be accepted by both your opponents and your audience. But that leaves the claims that do need to be argued and that require support. The next stage is to begin the process of developing that support. There are two distinct yet complementary sources that we can turn to in developing our arguments: ourselves and others. The use of our own resources of logic and reasoning is essential, but so too is the use of support from others. The use of external support (sometimes called “evidence” or “research”) is an important comple­ment to our own knowledge and reasoning in many situations. This section will focus on the question of when and how to use external support.

Step One: Know When to Use External Support

Few of us are experts on everything on which we speak. For that reason we frequently need to .nd material support for our own ideas by researching the ideas and knowledge of others. Citing outside sources that are neutral and authoritative can also build our own credibility. Some speakers feel that by using external support or evidence they are somehow silencing their own voices 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 your own assertions when you don’t have the knowledge or expertise to back them up. The e.ective use of external support can be represented in the following diagram:

Some claims (matters of logic, perspective, or the application of common knowledge) may be supported through our own knowledge and reasoning. Other claims, however, require that we turn to outside resources. When we lack the knowledge, the experience, or the expertise to fully support a claim, or when we need to build our own credibility for an audience, then we would help our own case by turning to external support. One communi­cation researcher reviewed the substantial body of research on the question and concluded that, as a general e.ect, the use of evidence enhances persua­siveness for all sources when the evidence is presented with named sources and with identi.ed source quali.cations.12 And the more involved the audience is with a topic, the more the use of evidence matters, not only for its probative and informative e.ects, but also as an essential way of build­ing credibility for the speaker. Thus, there are two reasons to use external support: 1) to support your arguments and 2) to signify outwardly that you have prepared, and are therefore worthy of belief.

Step Two: Brainstorm Prior to Research

Before beginning the search for useful sources, it helps to take a few moments to clarify what you are looking for:

  • Analyze the proposition. Identify the main issues and terms contained in the topic for the debate.
  • Identify your thesis. Make sure it can be expressed in a single, clear, and simple sentence.
  • Generate a list of synonyms and related words for the key words in your thesis and your proposition.
  • Make a list of the questions that you will need answered (information that you don’t have at present).
  • Make a list of the controversial claims that you expect to make that would most likely require external support in order to convince a skepti­cal audience.
  • Identify the timeframe 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 have less of a requirement for currency.

Step Three: Find Useful Material Sources

The next step in gathering external material is to locate sources (books, articles, Internet Websites, etc.) that will be relevant and appropriate to your topic. At this stage, it is important to use whatever is available to you at local libraries, newsstands, or universities. Using the widest variety of sources will also ensure that you are not just receiving information from one particular (and limited) perspective or area of expertise.

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

1. Authoritative. It is from someone who is an expert on the subject or who has investigated various facts and opinions.

2. Timely. It is recent enough that the facts haven’t substantially changed since it was written.

3. Clear. It makes understandable claims supported by reasons.

4. Pertinent. It supplies information relevant to the points that you would like to make.

Step Four: Locate Useful Information and Quotations Within Your Sources

The next step is to locate and record the information that you may use in the debate. If you have secured a photocopy, a computer printout, or a personal copy of a text you would like to use in your debate, then you can mark that text indicating the beginning and ending of useful quotations and sections.

The sections that you decide to keep for potential use should meet sev­eral criteria. The selected portion should:

1. Support or inform a clear argument for your 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.

2. Include claims as well as reasons, not just the author’s assertion. “Space­based missile defense will never work” is a powerful statement, but it remains just a statement and not an argument unless it is accompanied by a reason—no matter who said it.

3. Be quoted “in context.” When you use the words or ideas of another, you need to ensure that you are not employing those words or ideas “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 his or her words, including your selection, emphasis, and implication?” Fair representation demands that your best answer to that question be “yes.”

The sort of arguments that you are likely to .nd in external material paral­lels the forms of reasoning that we may .nd in any argument. These forms of reasoning are covered in the next section. In selecting and evaluating the worth of the information that you’ve found, you may wish to keep in mind the following uses and considerations:

Step Five: Record Your Information in a Useful Format

Once you have found a clear, well-supported, useful, and in-context section that you would like to keep, the next step is to save it in some fashion so that you can .nd it easily when you are preparing your 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 you to use the material in an argument. Your note card should include the following information:

1. A label. One short sentence, phrased as an argument, that your 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.”

2. The source. Include all information necessary for you to locate this source again (to check for errors or to .nd additional information), to reference the material during your speech, to provide information to others (e.g., if you are quoted in the media), or to build credibility for the information if that credibility is challenged. This section should include the name of the author, his or her quali.cations, and if pub­lished, the name of the article, the name of journal, newspaper or book, its publication date, and the page number of the speci.c 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 . . . ” that do not carry much if any credibility.

3. The quotation or information itself. If you are quoting, then be careful to reproduce the text exactly as it appeared in print (it is easiest just to cut it out of the article, presuming you have a photocopy).

Step Six: Use Your External Material in Your Speech

The ultimate purpose for collecting evidence is, of course, to use it in a speech. When presenting the information, remember that it is not the exis­tence of the material but how it is used that best promotes persuasion. A great deal of empirical research has focused on the extent to which evidence promotes persuasion. Researchers long felt that the results were mixed: sometimes the evidence seemed to help the speaker, and other times it did not.

Argumentation researcher John Reinard, however, analyzed the major studies to date and found a consistent result: when advocates identi.ed and quali.ed their sources, then the use of evidence enhanced persuasion, but when advocates instead simply named a source without qualifying it (e.g., “Daniel Denning said . . . ”), or used no evidence, then persuasion was reduced.14 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?” Answers like “ . . . because this source uses an example” or “because she references data,” or “because he provides particularly powerful language,” or “because this organization will be seen as highly credible to my audience” are all good answers.

Finally, advocates should remember that their time is .nite 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. Those familiar with com­petitive debate may have noticed that in some formats debaters rely on very long quotations and spend much of their time reading rather than speaking.

And, how it would sound in your speech:

If we were to make policies against marijuana more liberal, we would see an increase in drug use and crime. This was the experience of the Dutch. Former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, Joseph Califano, observed that “In the Netherlands, anyone over age 17 can drop into a marijuana ‘ shop’ and pick types of marijuana like one might choose .avors of ice cream. Adolescent pot use there jumped nearly 200% while it was dropping by 66% in the U.S.” Thus greater freedom means greater abuse.

That style may be appropriate in a setting that places a primary focus on policy analysis rather than on communicating to a common audience, but in a public setting debaters should try to avoid any quotations that require them to read for more than a couple of sentences or so—unless the impact of a longer quote is likely to be very powerful. One useful technique is to alternate between paraphrasing and quoting (being careful, of course, to convey the author’s intent accurately and not to represent as a quotation something that is actually a paraphrase).

The example on the previous page shows how we might move from .nding material in an article, to placing it on an index card, to .nally using it in a speech. This evidence would carry an appreciable weight in a public debate. Not only is it from a former government o.cial at the Cabinet level (the equivalent of a European minister) with experience in drug policies, but it also contains a clear international comparison and concrete numbers (“a 200% increase”) along with a discussion of the implications of those numbers (increases in crime and declining quality of life). Finally, notice that the quotation as expressed in the speech is “framed” by the advocate’s own words. Instead of just saying, “Here is what the former o.cial has to say . . . . ,” the debater begins with his own claim (“If we were to make policies against marijuana more liberal, we would see an increase in drug use and crime”), and then supports that conclusion with the data from the former o.cial, before ending with a reiteration of his own claim (“Thus greater freedom means greater abuse”). In this way, we get the sense that the advocate has remained an advocate. Instead of letting Mr. Califano do all the talking on this point, the phrasing makes it clear that the advocate’s argument is primarily and ultimately an argument that he is making him­self, with the support of Mr. Califano’s testimony.

The conclusion to be drawn is that while evidence plays a supporting role, and can never fully replace the reasoning of the debater, there are many instances in which the authority and the of quoted evidence can add to our understanding of the issues and make for a better and more persuasive argument.


In the musical comedy Annie Get Your Gun, Annie Oakley and Frank Butler are stars—and rivals—in a Wild West Show. Annie begins her song by claiming that she is a bigger attraction than Frank, and then goes on to list her superior abilities: she can shoot better, sing louder, buy cheaper, dig deeper, and drink faster than he can. Every verse of the song ends the same way: when Frank refutes her (“No you can’t), Annie reasserts her position (“Yes I can”)—and she always gets the last word.

Theater audiences have always enjoyed the volleying contradictions in Irving Berlin’s song, but audiences for a public debate expect something more when it comes to refutation. It isn’t enough for advocates to contradict their opponents and repeat their original positions. A public debater needs to deal with the substance of an opponent’s arguments and must reshape his original argument to respond to what his opponent has said. In this chapter, we will discuss the basics of refutation and rebuttal.

Definition of Terms

When you refute an argument, you are saying that the argument is either untrue or inaccurate. In debate, it’s not enough just to say that an argument is untrue; rather, you have to prove that an argument is wrong, either with evidence or your own argument; you must show why the argument is false and erroneous. Refutation is, to borrow a term from competitive sports, an o.ensive maneuver; it is an attack on an opponent’s argument. As a debater, you enter the public forum with your own set of arguments either for or against the designated resolution, and part of your job is to present those arguments; but it is also your job to show why your arguments are better than those o.ered by your opponent.

In a public debate, both sides will engage in the o.ensive maneuver of refutation; the corollary is that both sides will have to defend themselves. This defensive maneuver is called rebuttal—it is, in e.ect, a refutation of a refuta­tion. When Debater A is attacked by Debater B, Debater A needs to respond; she needs to show why the refutation o.ered by Debater B is false or errone­ous. In a broad way, she must reassert her original position, but she cannot simply repeat what she said in the first place; she must deal with the speci.c attacks that have been made upon her argument by her opponent.

Types of Refutation

There are four basic types of refutation: denial; reversal; minimization; and outweighing. The first two are sometimes grouped under the heading of direct refutation, meaning that both types .atly deny the truth of an oppos­ing claim. The second two are sometimes grouped under the heading of indirect refutation, meaning that both types admit that an opposing claim is true, or partially true—but, nevertheless, should not be considered as signi.cant or critically important.


A denial is a straightforward contradiction of a claim:

Claim: The legalization of marijuana leads to an increase in crime. Refutation: The legalization of marijuana does not lead to an increase in crime.

We recognize that this example does not seem much more sophisticated than the contradictions we saw in Annie Oakley’s song—but if we put the example in a fuller context, denial will be seen as a valid type of refutation. Let’s say, for example, that the debater making the claim about the increase in crime has supported that claim with statistics about crime in the Netherlands, where marijuana has been decriminalized. The debater’s opponent refutes this claim by denying it, and then o.ers his own evidence showing that the Dutch crime statistics are inaccurate, since they show no direct link between marijuana use and crime increase; the crime increase, in fact, can be attrib­uted to other factors instead. Denial is e.ective if it is supported.


In a reversal, or turnaround, the debater accepts part of her opponent’s argument as true, but then shows how the part she has accepted supports her own position. In e.ect, the debater claims the point for her own side.

Claim: If the government recognizes the validity of gay mar­riage, it will weaken society’s respect for traditional marriage. Refutation: I agree that if the government recognizes the validity of gay marriage, it will weaken society’s respect for traditional marriage—but that is exactly what I want to hap­ pen. It is unfair and discriminatory to judge that heterosexual unions are better than homosexual unions; traditional mar­riage does not deserve the respect that it has now.

Here, the refuting debater is accepting the causal chain o.ered by her oppo­nent, but she is reversing the value of his conclusion. To use a fuller form, the first debater is saying this: “We should not recognize the validity of gay marriage because it will weaken society’s respect for traditional marriage— and that would be a bad, undesirable result.” The refuting debater accepts the first part of that sentence—yes, recognizing gay marriages will weaken traditional marriage —but claims that the result is good and desirable.

A reversal is similar to a denial, in that it contradicts part of what the opponent is arguing; but the reversal goes farther than a denial. A debater making a denial is, to put it metaphorically, kicking out one of the props supporting her opponent’s argument; the debater making a reversal kicks out the prop, and then picks it up to use for support of her own argument.


A minimization is a refutation of a claim that admits that the claim is true or partly true—but says that the claim is insigni.cant. Claim: The legalization of marijuana leads to an increase in crime. Refutation: The legalization of marijuana may lead to an increase in crime—but that increase would be so small that it should not shape policy. Again, this example may seem unconvincing without a context—after all, how could any increase in crime be deemed insigni.cant? But suppose that the debater shows that crime rates, as a rule, are subject to .uctuation: crime rates go up and down all the time, sometimes apparently for reasons that are totally out of the control of policy makers. It has been shown, for example, that violent crime rises when there is an extended period of very hot weather and declines when the temperature changes. Some statistics may suggest that legalization will increase crime rates, but the potential increase shown is very small and would have no more impact on society as a whole than the usual seasonal .uctuations.


Like minimization, outweighing admits the truth of the claim—but it counters the claim by showing that the bad would outweigh the good if the argument as a whole were to be accepted. Claim: The legalization of marijuana leads to an increase in crime. Refutation: The legalization of marijuana leads to an increase in crime—but it is worse to deny the rights of the majority of marijuana users, who do not commit crimes.

In this type of refutation, the debater puts the claim in the context of the argument that it supports. The claim that “the legalization of marijuana leads to an increase in crime” is, obviously, meant to support the position that marijuana should be illegal. In refuting this claim, the debater puts it in a balance with his own claim, and shows that his own claim is more important. Statistics suggest that it is only a tiny percentage of marijuana users who commit crimes (excepting, of course, the crimes of buying, grow­ing, or using marijuana). The vast majority of marijuana users, who are law-abiding, should be free—indeed, they have a right—to use a product that does no harm to others. So even if the legalization of marijuana leads to an increase in crime, that increase is a small price to pay for the greater good of giving ordinary citizens their rights. (As Shakespeare’s Portia puts in The Merchant of Venice: “And I beseech you... To do a great right, do a little wrong.”)

Strategic Considerations

Elsewhere in this book, we have emphasized the structure of arguments. Argumentative theory o.ers us many di.erent models—from the syllogism of Aristotle to the claim-data-warrant model of Stephen Toulmin—but all of these models, whatever form they take, are analytical. That is, all of these models break arguments down into their component parts. What is more, the models delineate the relationships between the component parts.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s look at the classic deductive syllogism as de.ned by Aristotle.

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

Aristotle argued that the truth of the conclusion depends on the truth of the two premises. IF it is true that all men are mortal AND IF it is true that Socrates is a man, THEN the conclusion must be true. The corollary is that if either of the premises is shown to be untrue, then the conclusion is not proven to be true. For the sake of argument, let’s say that Socrates is a dog, not a man. We can no longer conclude, on the basis of these premises, that Socrates is mortal. (To prove that, we’d need to construct a new syllogism with a new major premise: that all dogs are mortal.)

For the purposes of this discussion, the point is simply this: if one of the component parts of the argument fails, then the argument as a whole fails. Debaters should begin the process of refutation with an analysis of their opponents’ arguments. What are the component parts of the argument? Which of those parts are signi.cant? Which of those parts can be disproved? If the debater plans and executes his attacks strategically, then the opposing argument, like the walls of Jericho when Joshua fought his biblical battle, will come tumbling down.

We note in passing that in some forms of educational debate, arguments are often delivered with the parts clearly labeled. Lincoln-Douglas debaters, for example, typically an oratorical packing list that­tions, criteria, value premises, and contentions. As a result, the business of refutation is somewhat simple: opposing debaters can run down the list, and decide where they want to aim their attacks. A public debate, however, since it is directed at an “untrained” audience, is not likely to include such a clear diagram of the component parts of an argument. Even so, the compo­nent parts are there, and it is the debater’s job to listen carefully, to analyze, and to refute with precision.

At the highest logical level, debaters can refute an opposing argument by attacking the claim itself. By attacking the claim, rather than the data or the warrant, the refuting debater isn’t really addressing the truth of the claim; rather, he is attacking its relevance or its logical status in the argument as a whole. Let’s say that the resolution is about the legalization of marijuana, but the debater has made a claim about the failure of needle-exchange programs set up for heroin users. His claim may be true—but it is irrelevant, given that the resolution is about marijuana. The refuting debater can attack this claim as “non-topical.”

A claim can also be attacked if it is inconsistent with other claims that are part of the debater’s argument. Suppose that the debater argues at one point that the legalization of marijuana will reduce marijuana use (this is the so-called forbidden fruit argument, which postulates that marijuana is attractive to many users only because it is illegal and would lose its appeal if legalized). It does not make sense for her to argue, at another point, that the government will be able to collect tax revenues from legal marijuana sales and that those revenues will increase as more and more people smoke marijuana. Both arguments cannot be true—so they can be refuted as inconsistent.

Most of the time, debaters will refute an argument by focusing on either the data or the warrant. To return to the model above: in order to refute the claim that adults should be free to choose whether to use marijuana, the first option for the refuting debater is to attack the data by o.ering evidence that shows that marijuana does not have “only moderate” health risks, but in fact causes long-term mental impairment. So even if the warrant is true, marijuana is ruled out because it cannot be classi.ed as one of the moderate risks stipulated in the warrant. The second option is to attack the warrant itself. When the warrant says that adults “should be free,” it is implicit that adults should be free to pursue this choice without the intervention of the state. In other words, the warrant is making an assumption about the proper role of the state itself. In order to refute the claim, a debater could argue that the state has a di.erent role—viz., that the state has a responsibility to maximize the health of all of its citizens, and should eliminate health risks to the greatest extent possible. So even if we accept the validity of the data, the claim is disproved because even moderate health risks should be seen as unacceptable.

We should be clear that the debater mounting a refutation is by no means constrained to only one target: it is possible to attack both the warrant and the data, if both of them seem vulnerable. It is tactically wise to attack more than one target: if the audience remains unconvinced by the attack on the data—or if the debater who o.ered the data is able to rebut the attack successfully—they may be swayed by the attack on the warrant.

In the expanded model, backing denotes additional information o.ered in support of the data or the warrant. The exception is an admission, on the part of the debater, that the claim is not true in all possible cases. The inclu­sion of modality follows from the introduction of an exception; here, the word “probably” and limits the claim. The backing of the data can be refuted if the opposing debater is able to challenge the validity of the backing (e.g., “the W.H.O. study was small, and did not include a valid control group”) and/or is able to introduce contradictory evidence (e.g., “a study by the National Institutes of Health concluded that marijuana use has signi.cant and serious e.ects on health”).

The backing for the warrant above is similarly vulnerable. It could be argued, for example, that marijuana, as a psychoactive drug, is distinctly di.erent from alcohol and tobacco, and those substances cannot be used as models to support the warrant. Alternatively, the refuting debater could argue that the state does not (and should not) citizens free choice about alcohol and tobacco; in fact, the state is publicly committed to reducing and elimi­nating smoking.

The exception in the above model opens the door for a refutation. The debater making the claim has admitted that adults should not be free to choose marijuana if that choice harms society or nonusers. If the refuting debater is able to establish that harm to society, and nonusers, is a general rule, rather than an exception to the rule, the claim will not stand up.

Refuting Patterns of Reasoning

So far, we have discussed refutation in terms of its targets—that is, we have looked at where a debater can direct an attack. Now, we would like to turn to methods of refutation. In chapter 10, we described di.erent patterns of reasoning that can be used in constructing arguments and mentioned some of the weaknesses that should be avoided. Here, we will review those pat­terns in the context of refutation.

Deductive Arguments

A deductive argument is an argument that begins with known, general truths and draws a conclusion about a particular instance. Deductive argu­ments are inherently strong because they are self-contained: if the premises are true, then the conclusion has to be true—there is no need to consider any other evidence. In order to refute a deductive argument, you 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; only Red Sox fans know the true meaning of pain. A general truth can be disproved by pointing to signi.cant exceptions, and establish­ing that “all” should be replaced by “most” or “some.” Say, for example, that a debater makes the following remark: “Politician X is a Conservative, and that means that he cares only about the rich.” There is actually an unspoken premise that leads to this conclusion:

Unspoken premise: All Conservatives care only about the rich. Spoken premise: Politician X is a Conservative. Conclusion: Therefore, Politician X cares only about the rich.

There is no way to refute the spoken premise – Politician X is a Conservative (he in fact is the head of the Conservative Party)- but the unspoken premise is vulnerable because it contains two absolute terms. The refut­ing debate r needs simply to show that the statement is not true about all Conservatives.

Inductive Arguments

An inductive argument is an argument that begins with known, speci.c truths and attempts to draw a general conclusion. Inductive arguments are weaker than deductive arguments because they are not self-contained. The speci.c truths with which an inductive argument begins are only part of a broader range of truths; you may base your conclusion on a dozen di.erent examples, but there will always be examples you did not include or consider in your reasoning. This is not to say, of course, that inductive arguments are bad and should be avoided. Indeed, most of the arguments you will hear in everyday life are inductive—a doctor considers speci.c symptoms, and makes a general conclusion with a diagnosis; a jury considers speci.c pieces of evidence in a courtroom, and concludes whether the defendant is guilty or innocent; even the weather reporter considers data received by various scienti.c instruments and concludes that rain will fall in the afternoon. The scienti.c method itself is inductive: researchers conduct the same experiment a .nite number of times and always gets the same results; they conclude that if the experiment were repeated in.nitely, the results would stay the same.

Nevertheless, inductive arguments are always vulnerable to refutation. The refuting debater needs simply to introduce matters—e.g., other exam­ples, other signs, other causes—that were not considered by the debater when she drew her conclusions. Reasoning by Example. When a debater reasons by example, he draws a general conclusion from speci.c instances. Again, let’s say that debate is about legalization of soft drugs in UK. In support of legalization, the debater cites the instances of countries that have legalized the drug, and shows that there has been no meaningful increase in crime or health problems, and that countries have bene.ted by freeing up police and courts to do other work. The debater concludes that because legalization has had only positive e.ects in the countries he cited it will have a positive e.ect in UK.

There are a few ways to refute this kind of argument. One is to adduce examples that do not support the conclusion; the refuting debater might argue that legalization has had disastrous e.ects in some countries. Another way is to challenge the quality of the evidence presented: the first debater has argued that there are no deleterious e.ects on public health, but his statistics come from a short-term study. The bad e.ects of using marijuana take years to appear, and it is wrong to conclude that there are no bad e.ects just because they haven’t shown up yet in public health surveys; this is like arguing that smoking doesn’t cause lung cancer because no one gets cancer the day after they smoke their first cigarette. A third way to refute this argument is to reject the applicability of the conclusion to the instance being debated. The evidence may suggest that the legalization of marijuana has no bad e.ects but that is true only in the sample countries—which have small populations, and where only a very small percentage of the popula­tion smokes marijuana.

Reasoning by Cause. A debater who is reasoning by cause is trying to establish causal links between events: something happened or is happening because of something else that happened first. In the physical world, causal chains are common and often seem irrefutable: the car stopped because you forgot to put gas in it; the roof collapsed because the tree fell on it; you broke your hand because you punched a concrete wall. But as any student of his­tory knows, it is much harder to determine the causes of a particular event in the social world. Why did the communist system collapse in the Soviet Union? Because the government bankrupted itself trying to build weapons? Because the Russian people wanted democracy? Because the Russian people wanted money? Because the Soviet satellites wanted freedom? Because President Reagan approved development of the Strategic Defense Initiative? Because glasnost destroyed the system of secrecy on which the communist system depended? All of the above? Some of the above? The point is that, when it comes to causal chains, there are many roads that can lead to the same end—and the debater who wants to refute a causal chain can simply show one of the other roads. Say that the issue in the debate is unemployment. It is an incontrovertible fact that there are more unemployed people in the post-communist countries then before the col­lapse of communism. A debater may argue that the rise in unemployment is the result of the policies of governments that are pro-market oriented and privatization of many sectors of industry. The debater who wants to refute that argument needs to another cause: she might argue for example that the loss of manufacturing jobs is the result of the fall of the Soviet markets, and global slow downs in economy.

Sometimes, the refutation of reasoning by cause may completely reject the cause proposed by the first debater (“The federal decision to deregulate the phone industry has nothing to do with the increased use of cell phones in this country . . . ”). But it is also possible to accept the cause proposed, while minimizing or outweighing it (“The rise in child obesity may be partly attributable to the high fat content found in meals from fast food restaurants, but the biggest causes of weight gain are the poor quality of the lunches o.ered by the schools themselves, and the broad decline in children’s physical activity”). Reasoning by Analogy. An analogy is a comparison between two di.erent 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 di.cult concepts; in debate, they are often used to make connections between controversial issues (e.g., the legalization of marijuana) and noncontroversial issues (e.g., the legalization of alcohol).

There are two basic types of analogies: literal and .gurative. A classic literal analogy is the one just mentioned, which compares alcohol and mari­juana. The two substances are alike, according to the analogy; the corollary is that if it is unwise or impossible or unethical to make one of them illegal, then it is also unwise or impossible or unethical to make the other illegal. Alcohol is legal, and that means that marijuana should be legal, too. A .gurative analogy does not focus on physical similarities between two items; instead, it proposes that two physically dissimilar things are similar in nature or function. In order to explain the restrictions on its software licenses, Microsoft compares them to airline tickets—some of the licenses are basic and restricted, like a low-cost economy class airline ticket.

The analogy is meant to explain something that is not understood (a software license) by comparing it to something that is well-known (a plane ticket). The simplest way to refute an analogy is to reject the validity of the com­parison being made. Given the above analogy about alcohol and marijuana, a debater could say, “Yes, alcohol and marijuana are somewhat alike, but they are not identical—neither in the way that they a.ect the body chemi­cally nor in their psychoactive e.ects. Therefore it is a mistake to construct public policy that presumes that they are identical; di.erent substances demand di.erent policies.” A .gurative analogy is even easier to refute because the proposed simi­larities are more tenuous and are vulnerable to a literal approach: computers aren’t planes, and software licenses are not something you buy so that you can travel for one day. Ticket pricing may be reasonable but that doesn’t mean that software pricing is reasonable, too.

Reasoning by Sign. Reasoning by sign is a method that uses independent indicators in order to support a claim. If you walk into a house and see a pair of size 14 sneakers in the hallway and an opened carton of milk on the kitchen counter, and you hear the sound of a stereo blasting metallic rock through the ceiling, you may conclude that there is a teenage boy somewhere in the vicinity. You do not have conclusive proof but experience suggests that the presence of these indicators correlates highly with the presence of adolescent males. In debate, the signs that are correlated are often statistical: for example, a debater may argue that a rise in unemployment correlates with a rise in drug use. The debater may not have any hard causal evidence—that is, there may be no evidence that establishes that it is the newly unemployed who are taking drugs—but experience shows that one statistic is a good indicator of the other.

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 debater, there are other ways to interpret signs. Teenage boys are not the only people who wear large sneakers (grown-ups wear them, too); they are certainly not the only people who drink milk; and heavy metal is also the favored choice of some girls, some preteens, and some middle-aged men. Unemployment may seem to correlate to drug use, but there may be a stronger correlation between drug use and the quality of the local police force. Statistical correlations are also vulnerable in that they do not have pre­dictive force. In the absence of causal links, it cannot be said with certainty that the future will be just like the past; proverbs to the contrary, there is always the chance that history will not repeat itself.

Delivering Your Arguments Effectively


A badly delivered speech is like overcooked broccoli with no salt or pep-per—it may be nutritious, but you wish you didn’t have to eat it. How many great ideas and interesting thoughts have been wasted because they were presented with the enthusiasm of a dead .sh? How much good informa­tion and persuasive argumentation have fallen on deaf ears because of poor speech delivery?

Samir, a neophyte debater, knows this all too well. He used to think that what you say is what really counts—if you have good arguments and sup­port them well, why should it matter how you deliver them? After all, he had always gotten good responses to his articles in the school paper. He knew he had good ideas, did his research thoroughly and wrote well; that much was clear to everybody. Yet when he and his classmates decided to organize a public debate at his school about the hot issue of the day—school uniforms—the audience thought his carefully prepared speech was about as interesting as a lecture from the school nurse outlining the principles of personal hygiene. As he was explaining his case (and wishing it was all over already), he could hear people talking; he could see them shifting in their seats, eyeing the door, and generally looking bored by what he had to say. Needless to say, this discouraged him quite a bit. He didn’t understand what went wrong; why wouldn’t the audience listen to him? Didn’t they care if their school introduced uniforms and tried to infringe upon the students’ self-expression? Perhaps he should have just written about it in the paper... The guys from his media class happened to record the whole debate on video; even though it pained him to re-live his failure again, he decided to watch the tape and see for himself what had happened. And there he was, slouching behind the lectern, head buried in his notes, reading o. the paper as fast as he could (he remembered thinking: “If I read this fast enough, it will be over sooner”). He hardly looked up during the entire speech, and his into­nation was as .at as a can of Coke that’s been open a week. He was clutching his notes and speaking under his breath as if he was trying to keep the whole thing a secret. As he was watching, Samir had a hard time understanding what he was saying on the tape, even though he knew the speech almost by heart. If he couldn’t understand himself, how could the audience? The moral of the story became clear to him: having good ideas, doing your homework and being a good writer certainly help, but these things are not enough unless you can deliver your thoughts with enthusiasm, clarity and poise.

A few weeks later, Samir and his friends decided to stage another debate, and Samir promised himself that he wouldn’t act like that timorous bore he had seen on the tape. When he took the lectern, he tried a few things: he slowed down, made a conscious e.ort to look up at the audience, put down his notes so that he could gesture freely, projected his voice more, and actu­ally thought about what he was saying and how it might sound to someone else. After the first few sentences, he noticed that everyone was looking at him and a few people were nodding in agreement. Nobody else was talking. It was just his voice and his ideas, making their way slowly but surely into the minds of his audience. Samir felt strangely excited, as if he were hear­ing his own arguments for the first time; he started liking this whole public speaking business. He’d have to do it again sometime soon.

Styles of Delivery

There are many di.erent styles of speech delivery—and each is appropriate (or inappropriate) as determined by the occasion. As Aristotle noted cen­turies ago, the kind of oratory to be employed by the speaker is determined by consideration of the audience, and its expectations.1 Take, for example, the American president’s State of the Union address. The speech and the occasion are highly formal; in fact, the speech is delivered in order to satisfy an obligation stipulated in the Constitution, which says that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union.” The speech is broadcast all over the world and every word counts. Every utterance provides an opportunity for a hot debate among news anchors, pundits and politicians: What exactly did it mean? What new policies will be translated into action? Typically, the president speaks for about an hour from a prepared manuscript. (For many years, presidents have read their speeches from a teleprompter, which scrolls the projected manuscript on transparent screens visible to the speaker but invisible to the audience.) There is nothing casual or spontaneous in the speech; every word is scripted and rehearsed. The situation is ritualistic: the speech is studded with lines that are designed to elicit applause, and even standing ovations. (The leadership of the Congress is given the opportunity to preview the text before it is delivered, and they plan the responses of their parties—they determine when they will sit silent, when they will clap, and when they will stand and holler.) The speech and the response may seem somewhat stilted—but formality is what the audience expects; no one wants to hear a State of the Union address that sounds made up on the spot, or that is .lled with o.-the-cu. remarks.

The style used in the State of the Union address, however, would be entirely inappropriate and impractical for, say, a classroom debate on the advantages of Plato over Aristotle. In that case, a more extemporaneous, spontaneous style would be the right choice, because the students listening are sitting in a familiar setting and would expect their classmates to use “everyday” language. In our view, the appropriate style for a public debate will almost always be somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of styles—not as formal as the State of the Union and not as casual as an interview on talk show. To provide a theoretical framework for this discussion, we will describe three basic styles on that spectrum:

Memorized or Read

In the most formal style of speaking, the text is memorized or read in its entirety. The speech is written in advance and presented exactly as written. Often the manuscript is distributed to the press and the audience in advance; delivering the speech serves only a ritualistic function. Some examples are the already mentioned State of the Union address, inauguration speeches, and the Queen’s Address in the British Parliament.


At the other end of the style spectrum, we have impromptu delivery, also known as ad hoc or “o.-the-cu. ” speaking. (The word “impromptu” comes from the Latin phrase in promptu, meaning “in readiness.” The expression “o.-the-cu. ” dates from the days when men wore sti. linen cu.s on their formal shirts; a gentleman who anticipated being asked to speak, say, after a dinner would pencil some notes on the end of his sleeve ahead of time and then surreptitiously read “o. his cu. ” as he spoke.) The impromptu speech is given with no advance notice. It is created completely on the spot, on the spur of the moment—improvised rather than prepared. Some speech tournaments include the category of impromptu speak-ing—and most speakers would rather wrestle an orangutan on a high wire over a piranha tank than stand up before an audience and improvise a speech about a topic that seems to have dropped from the sky. It’s worth noting, however, that impromptu speeches are fairly common in everyday life: whenever you are called on in class or at a meeting or during a meal with a group of friends and asked to speak; whenever you feel compelled to “say a few words” because it somehow seems appropriate or necessary, even though you did not plan on it beforehand; whenever someone sticks a microphone in your face and asks you what you think; then you are making an impromptu speech.


The extemporaneous style of speaking lies midway between reading a pre­pared text and impromptu delivery. Extemporaneous speaking is not plot­ted fully ahead of time, as with the first style; neither is it something that is composed fully on the spot, as with the latter. Extemporaneous speaking does require preparation; the speaker focuses on preparing ideas, doing research, and assembling evidence. But the speaker does not prepare every word that will be said—and in that respect, it is similar to impromptu speak­ing. The extemporaneous speaker works freely from an outline, rather than a fully written-out manuscript. As with impromptu speaking, the bene.t is that the speech sounds lively and fresh—and avoids the occasional stilted­ness that comes with reading a text.

The extemporaneous style is the best choice for most public debate occasions. While debaters should have their cases well thought out and researched in advance, they should let their words and sentences be created freely on the spot, especially when responding to their opponents’ ideas. There is nothing worse than a static debate, composed solely of the exchange of previously prepared speeches—it’s worse than watching a pop star lip-synch her way through a “live” concert. Good debates demand spontaneity, with advocates responding to what they have just heard, and changing their arguments as needed. An event that is scripted and unchanging does not properly deserve to be called a debate.

Vocal and Physical Delivery

Nonverbal communication is any kind of communication that does not use words. Researchers about the exact percentages, but most agree that the verbal part of any message on average conveys only 35 percent of the speaker’s meaning, while nonverbal communication conveys the rest.2 Some think that nonverbal behavior a.ects us .ve times more strongly than verbal messages, and, if they contradict each other (as they sometimes do), we are more likely to believe the nonverbal message rather than the verbal one.

Nonverbal communication can be divided into two major categories: vocal and physical. Vocal delivery includes anything that has to do with the use of voice: volume, speed, pitch, in.ections, enunciation, pauses, stress. Physical (or kinesic) delivery refers to the body and its relationship to its surroundings: posture, head movements, body movements, gestures, facial expressions, eye contact, proximity, orientation, appearance.

Vocal Delivery Pitch is the tone frequency of human voice. Pitch is determined by the speed at which vocal cords vibrate when air (breath) is forced through them by the abdominal muscles, thereby producing tone. If the vocal cords vibrate faster, the pitch will be higher; if they vibrate slower, the pitch will be lower. When we are nervous, we often breathe and speak faster—and, as a result, our vocal cords vibrate faster, and our voices sound higher in pitch than they normally do. A corollary is that most listeners equate a high-pitched voice with nervousness. Not surprisingly, speakers who want to sound calm and authoritative—for example, newsreaders and radio announcers—often train their voices to sound lower.

Volume is how loudly or softly one speaks. Though sometimes speaking in a softer, steady voice may make the speaker seem calm and collected, more often speaking too softly is associated with the lack of con.dence and cred­ibility. Aside from this perception, projecting one’s voice is important in public speaking for purely practical reasons as well: a message that can’t be heard is not going to persuade any listeners. Speakers have to reach every­one in the audience, even the man with the hearing aid sitting in the last row of the balcony. If the listeners have to strain to hear what is being said, they will soon get frustrated and give up trying, and the speaker’s message will evaporate into thin air.

Enunciation has to do with the movement of speech organs. Good enuncia­tion depends on the proper use of tongue, teeth and lips to produce sounds of vowels and consonants clearly. In the mouth of a speaker with unclear diction, “What is the matter?” becomes “Wassamadder?” Words are slurred together, and consonants are replaced with lazy substitutes, or disappear altogether. (Most English speakers .nd “t” harder to say than “d” or “s” because they must take the trouble to press their tongues against the back of their teeth to make the sound.)

In public speaking, good enunciation is important simply because clear diction is easier to understand than unclear diction, and listeners will never agree with someone that they can’t understand. But good diction has other positive connotations as well. Listeners perceive that clear diction is a re.ection of clear thinking; what is more, good enunciation connotes a higher level of education—and that connotation can add to the speaker’s credibility. Speed is the rate at which words are spoken and is another aspect of vocal communication that a.ects the audience’s perception of the speaker. Speed is not interpreted independently; listeners perceive it in combination with all the other nonverbal signs and interpret it accordingly. So a fast speaker may be seen as nervous, if other factors contribute to that impression; alter­natively, a fast speaker may be seen as passionate or excited. Similarly, slow speech may indicate con.dence, if other factors point that way; but in some cases, it may indicate the opposite, that the speaker is uncertain.

So it is impossible to say in an absolute way how a debater’s rate of speech will be perceived by the audience. Nevertheless, we would advise debaters to speak somewhat more slowly than they would in a regular con-versation—if only because slower speakers are easier to understand. This is especially true when the content of a speech is complex, and the ideas o.ered are unfamiliar to the audience. In o.ering this advice, we are con­scious that speaking slowly is not common practice in many tournament debates. Beginner debaters especially tend to speak too fast, partly because they are nervous, and partly because they try to cram as much information into the time allotted as possible. But even experienced policy debaters are prone to fact-cramming, and speaking very fast has become the norm in American Policy Debate style (even though unpracticed listeners will some­times .nd such high-speed debates to be literally incomprehensible). In public debates, however, speakers should adapt to the needs of the audience and focus on good communication. Sometimes squeezing in more informa-tion—as opposed to communicating and explaining well the information already there—is not always the best idea. Pauses are very important in public speaking. They can be full of mean-ing—thus the terms “pregnant pause” and “poignant silence.” Beginning debaters are all too often afraid of silence and .ll it instead with so-called vocal pauses, such as “like,” “um,” “okay,” and other words and sounds that do not convey meaning. Minimally, these vocal irruptions are perceived as indications that the speaker is not as ease; sometimes, dis.uencies like “er” and “um” are taken to mean that the speaker is being dishonest. (Think of police shows or courtroom dramas on television: a broken pattern of speech is usually meant to show that the witness is lying.) It is far better, then, to create a moment of silence, rather than a moment of babble. A silence can be used to give the audience time to digest what has just been said, or to mark a moment of transition in the speech, before a new point is launched. Psychologically, a silence underlines the last words spoken and makes them resonate in the listeners’ minds in a lasting way; similarly, a silence can create anticipation for the next point that is to come. Pauses are a powerful tool.

In.ections are changes in tone within an utterance. In a regular conversation, we naturally change our intonation to express our mood, meaning, or indicate a question. In public speaking, we should do the same to make our messages sound natural and to convey their meaning e.ectively. It is for this reason that we discourage debaters from reading their speeches. Speakers reading from a script very often fall into a monotone; when intonations are .at and in.ections are absent, the audience .nds it much harder to grasp the meaning of what is being said. In.ections help to tell the listener what is important in what is being said.

Stress is similar to voice in.ection. A stressed word is spoken somewhat louder than the other words in a sentence; this change in volume draws attention to what is important. Stress can also change the meaning of a sentence completely. If you say, “I love Peter,” stressing the word “Peter,” it means that you love Peter, as opposed to John. If you say the same sentence stressing the word “I,” your emphasis indicates that you may have a rival, and it is you who love him, not someone else. Let’s try saying the same sentence stressing the word “love”: this time you may have been challenged about your feelings for Peter, and you want to make the point that you do indeed love him and do not hate him. Stressing a certain word can have two purposes: either to indicate which word or phrase in the sentence is the most important or to distinguish a particular concept from its implied opposite (as in the examples above). Vocal stress is another very powerful tool to convey your meaning e.ectively.

Physical Delivery Posture is the way one stands or sits: upright or slouching, relaxed or erect. The posture used by the speaker can weaken or strengthen the message being delivered. A slouching posture is perceived as weak and will make even the most forceful words seem less emphatic. An upright, .rm and open posture, however, conveys strength: it visually reinforces a power­ful verbal message. Perhaps more important, posture conveys an attitude toward the audience. By slouching, covering his body with his arms and shifting his body away from the audience, a speaker sends the message that he doesn’t want to be there, compromising his credibility and his ability to communicate. A speaker who plants herself .rmly and faces the audience, however, tells her listeners that she wants to be there and is eager to com­ municate with them.

The speaker can stand still, pace around the podium, or make a few steps here and there during the speech for emphasis. These are an impor­tant part of the speaker’s nonverbal communication. Ideally, movements should be tied to meaning: the speaker can take a step, or change her position, when she is introducing a new point or making a transition in her speech. Movements that do not relate to the verbal message, however, can be distracting. If the speaker is continually pacing back and forth, the audience can end up paying attention to the pacing (“Will he turn now?” “Is she following a pattern?”) instead of to the speech. Pacing also suggests nervousness and the inability to concentrate. It is equally distracting when speakers adopt a swinging or rocking movement during their speeches, often unaware that they are doing so; again, this kind of movement does nothing to reinforce meaning. And of course, standing stock-still does nothing to reinforce meaning either; no movement whatsoever can also look static and unnatural. Our recommendation, then, is that speakers should move a little, if only to seem natural—but their movements should always have the purpose of emphasizing the verbal message.

Gestures (arm and hand movements) are used to extend verbal message in many ways. Sometimes, gestures are used to illustrate people, objects, con­cepts or feelings—e.g., “Dennis is tiny—he comes up to about here”; “A typi­cal land mine is about as big as this”; “Freud’s theories explain only about this much of human behavior”; “I love you soooo much.” Gestures can underline important words (when the speaker bangs his .st on the lectern and says, “This is outrageous!”), or they can serve instead of words (when the speaker gives the thumbs up sign). Gestures can reinforce the logical structure of an argument, or the internal structure of a paragraph (“on the one hand . . . on the other hand”). In everyday communication, most people use gestures extensively, albeit not consciously. In front of an audience, however, many speakers freeze, since they become acutely aware of every movement—and every gesture feels awkward. The problem is that using no gestures at all is even more awkward (and can leave the audience wondering, “Is she ever going to move her right hand? Is there something wrong with it?”). Just as we noted above with respect to movement, the other extreme—too much gesturing—is also bad, especially if it is repetitive (“How many times is he going to jab his fore.nger in the air?”). The solution is to .nd a happy medium: speakers should use gestures to reinforce what they are saying, but the gestures must not be overdone or arti.cially choreographed. We know that this is easier said than done, but the secret is to stop thinking about gestures and to let them come naturally, just as they do in ordinary conversation. This will happen if the speaker concentrates on the speech as an important message he wants to communicate to the audience. If gestures remain problematic, a videotaped performance can provide a kind of shock therapy; the camera lets the speaker see how her gestures would be perceived by an audience, and she can identify bad habits that require correction.

Facial expressions are to the face what gestures are to the whole body. They can speak louder than words. Facial expressions can replace words (raising an eyebrow, blowing a kiss), support them (smiling, frowning), or frame them (indicating whether something is supposed to be funny, serious, important, etc.). They are largely used to communicate attitudes and emo­tions; many emotional facial expressions appear to be culturally universal and instinctive—no one needs to teach a baby how to smile or what a smile means.2 A smile means the same thing in every culture. It is also a great way to handle new situations and begin interactions. Head-nods usually act as reinforcers, which acknowledge and encourage the speaker. They also play a crucial role in .oor apportionment; a head-nod gives the other debater permission to speak.3 When a debater gets a ques­tion from the audience or his opponent, giving a head-nod means that the questioner can continue. Generally, a head-nod means, “I am listening, go on.” Head-nods can also mean agreement—although not always. In the Bulgarian culture, for example, a nod up-and-down means “no,” not “yes,” as in the American culture. Eye contact generally plays an important role in communicating interper­sonal attitudes and establishing relationships. In public speaking, it is criti­cally important because it establishes a connection between the speaker and the audience and enables communication. With no eye contact, there is no connection. Eye contact also serves to reinforce the message and lets the speaker check whether a point has been understood. Good speakers learn how to “read” an audience by observing their nonverbal behavior; the best speakers are able to adapt their styles and their messages when audiences seem unreceptive. There is no chance of adaptation without eye contact; a speaker who focuses on the lectern, or the projection screen, or the middle distance is not able to read the signals being broadcast by his listeners.

Proximity is the distance between speakers or between the speaker and the listeners. This distance depends largely on the occasion and our relation­ship with others. We all establish certain “zones” around ourselves—the space that we need between us and other people in order to feel safe and comfortable. There are public, social, personal and intimate zones each of us intuitively creates. The closer we feel to someone else, the less space we require to separate us. In most personal and social situations, the size of the required zone is determined largely by culture. Zones in personal situations can range from 40 cm to 1.2 m (for nonmetric readers, that’s from about 16 inches to almost 4 feet); zones for social situations can range from 1.2 m to 3.5 m (almost 4 feet to 11.5 feet).4 Northern cultures tend to have larger proximity zones—that is, Northern people require more space to feel com­fortable than do people from Southern cultures. (This is not an absolute dis­tinction, however: an American standing in line at a bank is likely to stand at least one and half feet behind the person in front of him; a Russian on a similar line will close to a distance of about 2 inches.3) In public situations like debates, a distance of more than 3.5 m is common between the speak­ers and the audience, depending on the size of the room, the audience and the level of formality (more distant is more formal). Debaters should also be aware that the audience is sensitive to the proximity zone surrounding the speakers on the podium; when senatorial candidate Rick Lazio walked across the stage and up to the lectern of opposing candidate Hillary Clinton during an electoral debate in 2000, it was widely perceived as rude and an invasion of his opponent’s personal space.

Orientation is similar to proximity, but measures angles rather than dis-tance—that is, a person’s orientation is a description of the angle at which he sits or stands relative to another person or to the audience. Orientation varies with the situation. Those who are in a cooperative situation or who are close friends tend to adopt a side-by-side position; in a confrontation, negotiation or similar situation, people tend to sit or stand face to face; in other situations a 90° angle between individuals is most common.5 (There are, of course, cross-cultural variations in these patterns as well.) In a debate, it is common for debaters to face the audience directly (especially when speaking). Typically, debaters sit side-by-side with their teammates, and at an angle to their opponents. Usually a sort of a triangle is formed with the audience as its base; the debaters sit at 90° to each other, and at 45° toward the audience. Appearance speaks too. Debaters should not feel obligated to spend a month at a spa before any debate or to surgically alter the faces that they were born with. But much of our appearance—most notably, dress and hairstyle—is within our control, and it sends a message to the audience. It’s true that Einstein was not a great dresser, and dress does not always spell success (to counter a phrase from the literature of self-help). Nonetheless, a pleasing appearance is one more factor that can help a debater to make a positive impression on an audience.

We would be foolish if we tried to prescribe a fashion standard for debat-ers—although we will go as far as to say that male debaters should probably not appear with a three-day beard (cf. Richard Nixon in 1960, discussed in chapter 11), and long-haired debaters of either sex would do well to secure their tresses away from their eyes. Beyond that, the way that we choose to present ourselves depends on the occasion and on our self-image. The only thing to keep in mind is that the debater’s appearance should not distract from the message, and the way to avoid that is to dress appropriately—in other words, to meet the expectations of the audience. A good rule of thumb is to dress slightly more formally than the audience; it shows respect for the occasion and the listeners.

Adapting to the Setting and the Medium

A perfectly good speech can be easily ruined by the mishandling of visual aids, props or equipment that were meant to help it. Hiding behind the lectern, gesturing wildly with a microphone or fumbling with complicated visual aids do not exactly help communicate the message. There are some ways that the speaker can adapt to the setting and the medium and use them to her advantage.


Lecterns and stands are useful if handled appropriately—they are, obvi­ously, a good place to keep notes. Sometimes, however lecterns serve as a crutch; they become barriers behind which the speakers hide defensively, consciously or not. The speaker’s desire for such a shield is only natural, since standing in front of an audience, completely visible from head to toe, is an emotionally vulnerable position. But there is an advantage to taking such a position: when the speaker is “exposed” (in full view, with no bar­riers), the .ow of communication between speaker and audience is more open and unobstructed as well; as a result, the message exchange is that more e.ective. A lectern is best used as a place for resting notes, so that speaker can leave both arms free for gesturing. When the lectern is big, or the speaker is small—or both—gestures need to be larger and higher so that they can be seen. It is up to the speaker whether to stand behind the lectern the whole time, or to step in front of it or next to it at times. It is even up to the speaker whether to use the lectern at all, and that choice should be based on his own personal preference and the occasion. Using the lectern indicates a higher level of formality, and sometimes that is more appropriate than not using it. The important thing to remember is to use the lectern not as a crutch, but as an aid.


In some settings, the audience is just too large to be reached by a plain, unaided human voice. It is true that in distant times, the power of a speaker’s voice was an essential ingredient of his e.ectiveness—historians tell us that Demosthenes, the famous Greek orator from the 4th century B.C., trained his powerful voice by shouting over the sound of waves with pebbles in his mouth. Only a hundred years ago, successful orators addressed crowds numbering in the thousands in outdoor settings.

These days, of course, we have microphones and tools to extend the human voice, and the ability to reach the top tier of a football stadium does not need to be part of the debater’s vocal repertoire. Even though it is still important to be able to project well, sometimes it is not necessary to strain ourselves if we have microphones at our disposal. Microphones come in all shapes and forms, but the biggest distinction can be drawn between the larger stick-shaped ones, and the little bug mikes that can be attached anywhere. Larger microphones are usually more­tive, but they pose certain restrictions on the speaker. If the speaker holds the microphone in her hand, she is able to move freely around the podium, but she can gesture with only one hand, and has to be very careful to hold the mike close to her mouth whenever she is speaking. The usual pitfall is that the speaker starts gesturing naturally with the hand holding the mike— forgetting that it must remain close to her mouth—and her voice fades in and out as her hand moves (which drives the audience crazy). Putting the microphone on a stand (or attaching it to the lectern) improves matters somewhat because then the speaker is free to gesture with both hands; it creates other restrictions, however, because the speaker cannot move freely on the podium, and even head movements (turning to look at an opponent, for example) can cause her voice to fade out momentarily. (This is a particu­lar problem with unidirectional microphones, which are designed to pick up sound only from the direction in which they are pointed. Omnidirectional microphones pick up sounds from a wider range; their disadvantage is that they can pick up unwanted noises.) The small “bug” microphones can be attached with a clip to a piece of clothing close to the speaker’s mouth. They are far less conspicuous than stick microphones, and they allow speakers to move as freely as they wish; the problem with bug microphones is that they can pick up unwanted sounds (like the rustling of paper notes against clothing) and they must be properly placed to pick up voices without inter­ruption.

Although sometimes necessary, microphones can add to the anxiety of inexperienced speakers who feel awkward about using them—but familiar­ity will overcome that awkward feeling. We know it sounds silly, but it helps to practice at home with any similarly shaped object (a phone, a water bottle, a stick), making sure that it is always close to your mouth whatever you do. For public debates, technology is good—when it works. Sometimes it doesn’t, and the prudent debater will take some precautions. Minimally, all technical equipment should be tested ahead of time; that will at least eliminate any surprises (“Hello? Is this thing on?”) when the event begins. Debaters should test microphones to see if there is any feedback (a high-pitched wail that will send most listeners running for the exit). Feedback is a particular danger for debaters who like to move around the podium with the microphone; the mike may sound .ne when used at the lectern, but a few steps in the direction of a loudspeaker can create a sonic loop that will deafen a dog. Another problem that will emerge in testing is echo; this sometimes happens if the equipment is not very good or if the space for the event is highly reverberant (churches and other stone buildings usually are).

Echo is very distracting for listeners, and debaters need to compensate for it by speaking slowly, making more pauses, and enunciating even more clearly and deliberately than usual.

Visual Aids

Visual aids can enhance, explain or clarify an argument. They include every­thing from overhead transparencies, slides, videotapes, PowerPoint presen­tations and simple blackboards, to objects, models, photographs, drawings, or even the speakers themselves.6 Many people think of themselves as being more “visual”; that is, they understand information better when they see it (through charts, pictures, photographs), than when they simply hear it. Even for nonvisual learners, pictures have an impact; if the speaker wants to evoke sympathy for starving children, one picture may be more e.ective than whatever description the speaker might Numbers, too, are more easily grasped by most of us when they are presented in charts and pies, especially if the graphics are colorful.

There are a few general guidelines to follow. Prepare the visual aids in advance, keep them simple, and make them large enough for everyone in the audience to see. Display them so that they can be seen from any part of the room—but display them only when you are discussing them. (A visual aid that is on permanent display is an invitation to look at something besides the speaker.) When using visual aids, you must be careful to keep your attention on the audience, and to maintain eye contact with them. Finally, you must practice. There is nothing potentially more distracting and damaging to an otherwise perfectly good speech than a poorly handled visual aid. This is why visual aids should be well thought out and prepared in advance, along with the speech itself.


Sometimes public debates are videotaped for internal purposes, and some­times they are even broadcast on television for a larger audience. The chal­lenge for debaters is to balance the di.erent media and audiences—they must decide how much attention they will pay to the immediate audience in the room and how much to the audience watching the debate on tape or on television. If a debate is being videotaped simply to allow for post-debate analysis, or to be .led in someone’s archives, then it is clear that the focus of the debate should be on the people in the room, not on the camera. If, however, the debate is being recorded for broadcasting purposes, debaters need to have a much larger audience in mind and must play to the camera as well as the room. (Of course, all the guidelines we have articulated about audience analysis and argument adaptation apply to the broadcast audience as well as the immediate audience.) In terms of delivery, speaking for the camera has some special chal­lenges. One should be aware of framing issues: the closer the camera gets to the speaker, the more obvious every facial expression and gesture will be. Because the space around the speaker is limited by a screen frame, every movement seems larger than it would be in reality. Therefore, all facial, head, hand, and whole body movements should be reduced and made less abrupt, to avoid the “jagged” look. This is especially true if the debate is shot in a studio. Smaller spaces call for smaller movements. Another thing to consider is eye contact: it helps to treat the camera as just another member of the audience—it is a good idea to speak to it directly every now and then (but not all the time, because that will leave the immediate audience feeling excluded). If there is no other audience present, then the camera should be treated as the only listener. Earlier in this chapter, we discussed proximity and zones in the context of nonverbal communication. When the camera is running, sometimes the lines between zones get blurred: public zones shrink to become the size of social zones, or even personal zones. Even though any broadcast utterance is of course public, viewers often feel that they are being addressed person­ally, because they are watching in the intimacy of their homes, often alone, and usually seeing a close-up of the speaker. So even if your broadcast audi­ence numbers in the millions (if you are, say, running for president), you should not act as though you are addressing a vast crowd in a large arena; you should talk to the camera as if you are talking to one person, sitting in the living room at home.

Speaking Notes

“Preparation outlines” and “speaking notes” are di.erent things, in reality as well as in name, and should not be confused. Preparation outlines serve the purpose described in their name—preparation. Once all the material for the case has been gathered, and all ideas brainstormed, the case is then outlined in a sequence of arguments and constructed in the form of a speech. In this process, the relationships between ideas start to emerge, and the case starts to make sense (or not, in which case further revisions are in order). The preparation outline is for the speaker’s eyes only; its purpose is to help formulate every thought and argument.

Unfortunately, debaters often use their outlines during the event, only to discover that it is virtually impos­sible to navigate these notes and return to the right place again if they ever look up at the audience (and so they keep their eyes well glued to the page, eliminating all eye contact). The preparation outline needs to be adapted and completely rewritten for use in the actual debate; in other words, the preparation outline must be turned into speaking notes. The first step is to read the preparation outline aloud several times, to see what it sounds like. The next step is to run through the text several times, adapting it to a speaking style (with short sentences, simple syntax, repetition as needed, and .gures of speech), using the basic information of the outline but speaking extemporaneously every time. (Each time through, the speech should sound somewhat di.erent.) After several such “runs,” it is best to put the preparation outline aside completely, and to write a speaking outline from scratch, following the same basic structure (the introduction, the sequence of arguments, the conclusion), but including only key words and phrases, labels of arguments, crucial pieces of information, numbers and quotations. The rule is: no full sentences (except for quotes), no unnec­essary information, no clutter. Less is more: the less there is on the page, the easier it will be to use the outline e.ectively during the debate. You should leave a lot of blank spaces in between lines, use a large font, underline or circle more important words, and include cues for delivery (like “PAUSE!” and “BREATHE!”).

Handling Anxiety

Shallow breathing, shaky knees, perspiration, heart palpitations—all are clear signs of fear. Whenever we are in danger, our body automatically starts releasing adrenalin, or the “.ght or .ight” hormone as it is some­times called. Adrenalin gives us a sudden boost of energy that allows us to .ee from the source of danger or .ght it, as the case may be. We share this characteristic with many other species: it is not uniquely human. However, in modern civilization, we rarely .nd ourselves in the life-threatening situ­ations for which this hormone equips us. The closest some people ever get to real fear is—speaking in public. One of the reasons why people generally feel such anxiety about public speaking may be that it exposes speakers to the judgment of others and makes them vulnerable to their scrutiny. This exposure grows exponentially with the size of the audience and the level of unfamiliarity with the situation. Expectations are high and the pressure is strong. It is normal to feel some anxiety about public speaking. Even the most experienced speakers do. Some speakers say that if they don’t feel any, it is a clear sign that they don’t care and their performance usually su.ers. The trick is to channel this anxiety into positive energy and excitement about the event—an excitement that usually transfers successfully to the audience as well.

The best way to manage anxiety is to be very well prepared. If you are con­.dent about what you want to convey and know the information inside out, if you have a good grasp of the structure of your case and can visualize every argument without looking at your notes, if you have practiced your delivery and have a good idea what you will look like and sound like, then you should be in good shape. There is no reason to fall apart, even under a lot of pressure. Experience, of course, helps too: once you’ve gotten through a few debates without dying, you realize that the chances are good that you won’t die in your next debate, either. There are also some relaxation exercises one could do to reduce the physical symptoms of stress, like slow and deep breathing, vigorous physical activity just before the speech, and vocal exercises.


Speaker: For all of its imperfections, international law is the world’s best hope for having a just and lasting world order. Just as individuals gain a better and longer life by forfeiting some of their freedoms to a government, nations would gain a safer and more secure existence by surrendering some of their sovereignty to a global system.

Question: Your argument by analogy seems to presume that nations are like individuals. Does that analogy hold? Aren’t there important di.erences between nations and individuals?

Question: Your factual assumption seems to be that individu­als gain a better life by forfeiting some freedom in exchange for government rule. Do you have support that indicates that life is indeed better with a government?

Question: Your argument seems to presume that the system of international law is fair and just and applied equally to all. But what if it isn’t? What if international law is used as a tool by more powerful countries against less powerful countries? Is it still fair and just?

Question: There seems to be an in.nite regress to your argu­ment. You are saying that governments themselves need to be ruled—that the rulers themselves need to be ruled. Fine, but who rules the international rulers? What would we do if the international rulers were just as oppressive and resistant to popular control as some national governments are?

Question: Your argument sounds good in the abstract, but let’s consider a concrete case like the International Criminal Court. Aren’t there some powerful nations, like the United States for example, that have asked for and received special treatment? Is a system of law still just and fair in that kind of situation?

Question: I don’t think I quite understand the implication of your argument. You are saying that the governments should give up some parts of their sovereignty. Speci.cally what parts?

Question: As you know some nations believe in democracy and others don’t. How would an international world order function without interfering with one culture or the other?

Question: Can you think of an example in which international law has solved a con.ict in a way that was fair for everyone?

All of these questions could no doubt be answered by the careful advocate of the original argument, and those answers would, no doubt, lead to more questions; in this way, the introduction of questioning into a public debate can grab attention and lead to the development of new ideas. Questions have a natural advantage over speeches in leading to a faster and more immediate development of responses and positions. By allowing a direct, side-by-side comparison of advocates and arguments, questioning periods also capture the spontaneity and quickthinking that public audiences prize. If the most negative image of a “public debate” is a boring speaker lumber­ing his way through an interminable speech, then one of the most positive images involves a spirited and direct exchange between two or more quick-thinking advocates who are challenging, re.ning, and developing their thinking and adding the element of wit through the process of asking and answering questions. Viewed from another perspective, though, the questioning period does more than add interaction and spark to the debate. Questioning can actu­ally be a means of seeking and revealing a sort of truth or knowledge. In his famous dialogues, for example, the philosopher Plato used questions as a means of encouraging all of the participants in a discussion to their points of view for critical analysis. More than just being a way to seek information, the question is a method of inquiry and testing in which both advocates participate in a search for a more reasonable argument. Certainly in public debates, this questioning between adversaries is not always likely to be cooperative, but still the element of participation persists. It is one thing to hear the statement made that “you can’t support your point” and it is another to see that the advocate is unable to support her point after her opponent has posed the right question. Because it has been demonstrated openly, the weakness in this case is more forceful and more in.uential than a weakness that is merely mentioned. In this way the questioning period is particularly important to public debates. Rather than just helping another person, or a judge, to explore an issue or an argument .aw, your question in a public debate context showcases the problem, inviting your opponent and a room full of listeners to participate in the unfolding of a claim and the undermining of an idea, to follow along with you in the steps of tracing a line of argument to its conclusion. Another advantage of the questioning period is that, by pulling speakers away from prepared speeches, it o.ers the chance to see the speakers think­ing and advocating in the moment. As long-time debate coaches Maridell Fryar and David A. Thomas wrote, “On the one hand, a debater is probing another’s mind for weaknesses and errors, and on the other hand, another debater is attempting to avoid making admissions which would weaken the arguments advanced in his speeches. The expression, ‘thinking on your feet,’ becomes a tangible reality.” The purpose of this chapter is to explore questioning as an important and lively component in public debates. Though it is possible to imagine public debates without questioning1 it is hard to imagine why public debate planners would opt not to include an element that is likely to lead to the most dynamic engagement of the issues and the advocates. While­ences in the way that questioning periods are included is one of the more obvious features that distinguish di.erent debate formats, this chapter will focus first on the act of questioning itself, and not the speci.cs of individual formats for questioning. That is, prior to considering “cross-examination,” “points of information,” or “expert panels,” we will address the practical, strategic and even philosophical considerations in the act of inquiring and interrogating through the asking and answering of questions. After explor­ing general goals for the questioner and general goals for the respondent, we will look at some of these speci.c ways of including questioning in the debate and some of the speci.c demands of each of these formats.

General Goals for the Questioner

Never ask a question that you don’t know the answer to. If you don’t know, ask. While these two statements seem to be in direct contradiction, they more accurately re.ect two di.erent goals of the questioning process. The first statement comes from the .eld of law; during the act of “cross-examina-tion, “ when a witness is questioned by the opposing attorney, it is strategi­cally important for the questioning attorney to avoid being surprised or undermined by the witness answering the question. The second statement, perhaps the more intuitive of the two, simply re.ects our interest in using questions to add to our own knowledge. These basic platitudes re.ect merely some of the purposes that advocates have for asking questions. While debaters will not always know the answer to the question that they are asking, they should always know the reason why they are asking a ques­tion. There are at least .ve basic reasons for questioning.

1. To Clarify Your Opponent’s Arguments

The first goal of questioning, at its most basic, is to clarify information. In order to react to and refute an opponent’s arguments adequately, you need first of all to have a clear understanding of what that opponent is saying, and what that opponent isn’t saying. In particular, you need to know the claim, and you need to know the support being o.ered for it. You need to know the implications of that claim, and you may need to know how that claim ties in to other claims.

Do you have any evidence for your second point, that global trade hurts local business? Now, you make the argument that population is increasing dramatically, but how does that tie in to the rest of your argu­ment? Is that a reason for more economic development, or less? I’m sorry, I missed the third reason you gave for your argu­ment that capital punishment is ine.ective. Could you tell me again what that reason is?

All of these elements may need to be clari.ed through questioning, both for our own sake—when we ask about elements of the argument that we may have forgotten or failed to notice on first presentation or that may have been unclearly presented—and for the sake of the audience. Particularly if our preparation stage has involved cooperation with the other side (see chapter 9), then we may have a su.cient understanding of our opponent’s arguments. Still, we may seek to clarify for the bene.t of the audience. We may know the backing for a point, for example, but in order to reinforce the audience’s ability to appreciate the arguments that we will soon be o.ering, we want to clarify for them exactly what our opponents are saying and why. Such clarifying questions not only allow the advocates to know clearly the claims that they are answering, but also, in the context of a public debate, they permit the audience to have a better understanding of the exchange as a whole. In public events, the advocates can sometimes forget that they are much more involved in the contest than the audience and for that reason they are understanding arguments, appreciating nuances and grasping distinctions at a level that is greater than that of most audience members. Because they are clearly participants, they are listening more carefully and they are drawing connections more easily. Audience members, on the other hand, because they spend large portions of their time as observers in the public debate, may not immediately see the connections and the implica­tions of the arguments they are hearing. For this reason, questioners can pursue a strategy of clari.cation because they want the audience to under­stand the debate more fully; that understanding will be essential for audi­ence members to appreciate upcoming arguments and refutations.

2. To Commit Your Opponents to a Position

Besides needing to understand clearly what our opponents are saying, we sometimes need to extract a promise from our opponents that they will indeed stick to supporting the position that we believe that they are sup­porting. Before investing precious time and attention in attacking a claim, we need to ensure that we understand, and be sure that the audience understands, that we are indeed attacking a position that our opponents are de.nitely, clearly, and unalterably supporting.

So, your argument has been that international economic trading blocs always make things worse. I just want to be clear—in this debate you will defend the idea that we should roll back all such economic partnerships, like the European Common Market, and the North American Free Trade Agreement, correct? Now, you say that the death penalty is immoral. So what you are saying is that it is never ever justi.ed, no matter how heinous the crime; it is never appropriate to take someone’s life—is that right?

Questions of this sort can be viewed as a type of insurance. In addition to making sure that we are correct in our assumption about where an oppo­nent stands, the question also acts as an open and public promise to the audience that the opposing side will not shift or modify their position once they are faced with an attack. The debate, after all, will never reach a point of clash if we are not able to predict and to count upon the stances that our opponents will be taking. The debater who answered “Yes” to the second question above would not be able to say, at some later point in the debate, “Well, we are not saying that the death penalty is never justi.ed, we are just saying that our current reliance on the death penalty is unjusti.ed because it is infected with racism. If we could remove the racism, then the death pen­alty could be justi.ed.” Obviously, an answer like that could instantly make irrelevant an argument from the opposition. For that reason, questioning designed to commit your opponent to a position makes good sense.

3. To Expose Flaws

Perhaps the most familiar reasons for questioning are to directly undermine the arguments of an opponent, to open up avenues of criticism, and to promote the realization on the part of the audience that a weakness exists. Eliciting the weakness through a question is more powerful and more dramatic than simply stating the weakness in a speech. The good advocate is able to do both: after eliciting the weakness through questioning, she reminds the audience of the weakness in a subsequent speech. Exposing .aws is most powerful when the individual being questioned is forced to acknowledge a weakness or reveals an inability to rebut an attack on the weakness e.ectively. The question then serves as a means of highlighting the weakness, so that when the point is made in later speeches, the audience is able to remember and attach signi.cance to the problem.

Now, you say that free speech can lead to violence, yet you give only one example. In support of your argument that the United Nations is­tive you provide the testimony of Ko. Annan, but Mr. Annan really wouldn’t have an interest in admitting that he is secre- tary-general of an irrelevant organization, now would he?

To use the question as a way to undermine the claims of an opponent is to engage in a form of refutation; that is, a form of weakening or denying your opponent’s argument (see chapter 14). All of the methods of refutation have a counterpart in questioning. For example, those seeking to minimize a claim could ask, “So, how many people are a.ected, as a percentage of the entire population?” Those seeking to outweigh could ask, “Isn’t our survival more important than our privacy?” In each of these cases, advocates would need to anticipate the refutations that they will make later; the questions are used to set up the refutation by drawing attention to the weakness that will be attacked.

4. To Respond to an Argument, Before it is Even Made

The fourth purpose for the questioner is to gain advance knowledge of what an opponent’s argument or response is likely to be. This foreknowledge is useful because it can allow you to incorporate your opponent’s response into the initial presentation of your argument. For example, if you are defending limitations on free speech and you anticipate that your opponent will say that the best cure for bad speech is more speech, you can use the questioning period to force that argument out into the open, even before you have delivered your own speech; when it’s time for you to give that speech, you can note that “ . . . some limits are needed because the e.ects of hate speech cannot always be cured by more speech.” The result is that when you are making the initial presentation of your argument, you are including a defense against an attack that you know is coming.

Question: So, you believe that speech should be absolutely free? Response: Yes.

Question: What about something like hate speech, directed against a speci.c racial group? Response: Well, the e.ects of damaging speech can be ad­dressed by more speech . . . speech that defends the group and responds to those attacks.

As discussed in chapter 14, incorporating the opponent’s response in your own argument is a preemptive move and psychologically there are reasons to believe that a preemptive argument is going to be more powerful than simply waiting for the argument to occur and responding to it. There is some evidence to indicate that o.ering a response to an argument before an opponent has a chance to make the argument may have an “inoculating” e.ect. That is, because the audience has already heard reasons to oppose an argument, they have built-in defenses once they hear that argument.2 In addition, it puts your opponents o. balance by requiring them to defend their argument before they have even had an opportunity to make it.

5. To Elicit Concessions that Will Bolster Your Own Argument

The .fth and .nal purpose of questioning is similar to the fourth, in that it is anticipatory; that is, the questions are used to set up something that is to come. The fourth purpose was to anticipate your opponent’s upcoming arguments; the .fth purpose anticipates your own. The goal of this kind of questioning is to get your opponent to agree to a point that will support the argument that you intend to make. Say, for example, that the topic of the debate is the legalization of mari­juana, and your position is that marijuana should remain illegal. One of your arguments is that the government has the right to keep citizens from hurting themselves (and you anticipate that your opponent will deny that the government has that right, and that government interference in per­sonal choice constitutes an unwarranted intrusion on personal liberty). You know, of course, that your opponent is never going to agree to anything that is obviously a part of your argument—so it would be pointless to ask, “Do you think that the government has the right to keep citizens from hurting themselves?” You might gain a toehold, however, if you took an indirect approach, as follows:

Question: I’d like to explore the question of governmental responsibility with you. We hear all the time about people committing suicide in public places—you know, someone jumps o. a bridge, or from the top of a building, or dives in front of a train. You know what I’m talking about? Answer: Of course.

Question: And very often, in these situations, we hear about police o.cers or .re.ghters being involved—they’re trying to get the guy to come down from the bridge, or surrender his gun, or whatever. My question is whether you think their involvement is justi.ed. Should they be trying to stop some­ one from killing himself? Answer: Yes, if it’s a public situation. Law o.cers have to main­tain public order, and the person committing suicide may pose a risk to other people, particularly if there’s a weapon involved.

Question: So it’s acceptable—it’s even an obligation—for gov­ernment o.cials to intervene to keep a citizen from doing something he wants to do. Answer: In very particular and public circumstances. Question: What if it’s private? What if a cop drives by and sees some guy standing on his own front lawn with a rope around his neck, and he’s tying the other end of the rope to a tree limb? Should he just keep driving, or should he stop it?

In this exchange, the questions are intended to elicit a concession from the opponent that can later be used—e.g., “My opponent admitted herself that the government has not only a right but an obligation to keep citizens from harming themselves—and that is what antidrug laws are intended to do.” If the opponent is savvy, she won’t admit much, and her admissions will be carefully quali.ed (as in “In very particular and public circumstances”). She can also make her own distinctions in response at a later time (“It’s one thing for the government to stop someone committing suicide when the prospect of death is imminent; it is something completely di.erent to stop citizens from taking drugs that are not lethal, or even particularly harm­ful”). Nevertheless, questioning aimed at de.ning points of agreement can be e.ective.

General Advice for Questioners

No matter which purpose an advocate has, there are several additional pieces of advice that should be kept in mind.

  • Establish the context or the necessary explanation before asking the question. “Now, you say that gun crimes are highest among the lowest economic classes, right? But how are the poor able to a.ord their guns?” The first statement establishes the necessary context and may be more e.ective than just launching into “How do the poor a.ord their guns?”
  • Think of the components of a good line of questions as a series. A good analogy here is volleyball: the ball is first “set” or positioned for attack, then there is the “spike” as the ball is sent swiftly over the net, and .nally there is the prepared reaction to the return shot. Similarly, a good attack should be preceded by several possible set-up questions and followed by a reaction.

Set-up 1: So one of the rights that international law tries to preserve is the right to self-determination, right?

Set-up 2: And what is self-determination? Is it the notion that if a distinct group of people does not wish to be governed within a system of law, then they have the freedom to form their own?

Set-up 3: In an international system of law, presumably there would be a single international system—a single global sys­tem of law, right?

Set-up 4: And it wouldn’t be possible for a group to simply go o. and .nd another world, would it? . . . Attack: So, wouldn’t a system of truly international law prevent self-determination in the sense that it prevents people from being able to go voluntarily outside of that system and found their own?

If the format permits it, then such a series could be executed through separate questions (for cross-examination); alternatively, or it could be built into a single question (for points of information or panel ques­tions) through concise phrasing. In either case, the most strategic use of questioning is to build from conceded points to a point of challenge.

  • Try to anticipate where your opponents are likely to go. Unless you are simply seeking clari.cation, you should have a sense of the likely answers that your opponents could reasonably supply. Having a sense of where you would like to end up allows you to react more e.ectively to your opponent’s answers.
  • Avoid treating the questioning period as a quiz show. A debate is a contest of ideas, not a test of knowledge and recollection. You don’t “win” by simply coming up with a question that your opponent can’t answer—e.g., “You said that NAFTA was a bad for Mexico. Could you tell me the median income in Mexico in 1990 and compare it with the

median income in 2000?”

  • Don’t overrely on “trap” questions. Often the question that seems to trick an opponent and deprive them of any possibility of a reasonable answer is simply employing a logical weakness or taking advantage in an ambi­guity of language: “So, are you still a heavy drinker? Please answer yes or no.”
  • Avoid aggression. Remember that it is a clash of ideas and not personali­ties. More strategically, the questioner should remember that adopting a more subdued and less confrontational style may cause the respondent to open up a bit more.
  • Practice questioning just as you practice other parts of the debate. Given that speeches are seen as the more “controllable” parts of the debate, it is possible that a disproportionate amount of preparation time can go into speeches rather than questioning time. In order to keep the exchange fresh, a questioning period should not be planned out word-for-word and need not be executed the same way in the event as it was executed in practice. But practicing likely themes for questioning can ensure that once the speech is over, the speaker doesn’t simply relax and “switch o..”
  • Work on developing concise questions, and avoid the appearance (or the reality) of speech-making while you are constructing or setting up a question.
  • For the audience, begin with a question that captures their attention. Remember that the audience is likely to see the side-by-side comparison and the direct interpersonal exchange as one of the most exciting parts of the debate.

General Goals for the Respondent

It is less common to think of the question respondent as having a purpose. After all, they are “just answering the question,” right? Actually, as long as respondents are maintaining their roles as advocates and not just passively submitting themselves to interrogation, then they are likely to have pur­poses that are just as vital as the purposes of their questioners. There are three main goals of the respondent.

1. To Provide Clari.cation.

Some respondents mistakenly believe that clari.cation is not their friend, and that making their arguments plain will only help their opponents. What these advocates don’t realize, however, is that in keeping their opponents in the dark, they are keeping the audience in the dark as well; if an audience doesn’t understand your argument, then they are unlikely to appreciate your side of the debate.

Question: So, are you saying that all of development is bad? Response: No, certainly we are not, and I am glad you asked that. We are saying that we cannot stop developing, of course, but our position is simply that we have to develop in ways that are environmentally sustainable, in ways that add to and don’t detract from the health of the ecosystem. The opportunity to answer a question is an opportunity to provide your audience (and, yes, your opponent as well) with the understanding neces­sary to appreciate your side in the debate.

2. To Extend and Amplify Your Remarks.

Just because you are the one answering the questions, it does not mean that you cannot continue to build your case assertively. One way of looking at it is that by being asked a question, you are being handed a miniature speak­ing opportunity. In that mini-speech, you can add arguments and add sup­port, both illustrating and extending your speech.

Question: So you say that attempts at international justice are unlikely to work? Response: Yes, that is exactly what we said, and more than that, attempts at international justice have not worked in practice.

In the former Yugoslavia, the UN Tribunal has left parties on all sides dissatis.ed and has been perceived politically. And in Rwanda the vast majority of perpetrators have gone unpunished. International courts have simply failed to live up to the challenge.

While it is a good idea to add information and extend your case when you can, this should not be taken as a license to disrespect the time of the individual asking the question. Depending upon the format that has been chosen, there will be more or less time for you to answer, but in all cases you should resist the temptation to “.libuster,” or to keep talking until a moderator or an opponent is able to shut you up. There is an art to handling this, of course. Your goal as a respondent is to fully use the time that you have been given, without appearing to intrude or trample upon the time of others.

3. To Counterattack

In order for the questioning period to have spark and life, the person answering the questions needs to respond not meekly, as if he is being inter­rogated, but .rmly, re.ecting his continuing role as an advocate.

Question: So, in support of your claim that the United States shouldn’t go to war in Iraq, you quote the opinion of a general, but he is retired isn’t he? Response: Yes, that is right, the former commander of NATO forces in Europe with the entire weight of his career behind him. In response, it seems like you are quoting, let’s see, a newspaper editor, a political adviser, and a president who has never served one day in the military overseas.

One advantage of the counterattack response is that it puts the questioner on the defensive. The questioner would like to move on to another ques­tion, but a good counterattack can create an implied need to respond to the attack that has just been made.

In all cases of responding to questions, the advocate should keep a num­ber of additional pieces of advice in mind.

  • Provide any necessary qualifying statements prior to providing an answer to the question. Sometimes questioners will seek a “yes” or “no” response, and may exert control over time and may cut you o. before you’ve provided the full context. Thus, the audience may hear “Yes, the death penalty is moral . . . ” and miss “ . . . but only if we have a certain means of determining if someone is guilty.” The better way to phrase the answer would be “If it could be shown that we have a certain means of establishing guilt, then I would say that the death penalty is moral.”
  • Try to anticipate where your opponent is going, but only answer the question being asked, not the question that you think will be asked in the future. It is important to think about your questioner’s purpose in order to provide the best clari.cation and to avoid a misstep. However, you risk giving arguments to the other side if you answer a challenge that you think they are making before they actually make it.
  • Take your time. As long as you are not stalling the process, you should feel free to think about your answer and to deliver it at a reasonable pace. You do have to respect the time of the audience and the questioner, but you don’t have to rush into an instantaneous response.
  • If you don’t know the answer, say that you don’t know, and then return to your argument. You are not in the debate just to display an encyclo­pedic factual knowledge of the issue. Some facts you won’t know, and rather than drawing attention to this gap by trying to guess or to dance around the answer, the quickest way out is an honest admission.
  • When in doubt, bridge back to your own argument. The strongest response is generally one that takes you back to one of the arguments that you are making. Even if you are not entirely sure where a questioner is going, you should keep in mind where you are going and seek oppor­tunities to return to your main arguments.
  • Avoid defensiveness. The audience needs to see you as a con.dent advo­cate who is explaining, extending, and defending your case. You should not present the picture of a criminal suspect who is being questioned about where he was last night. Eye contact, a strong clear voice, and a willingness to talk and to explain all communicate that you appreciate the opportunity to take on these points.
  • Practice potential lines of questioning in advance. Before the debate ask yourself, “If I was on the other side, what would I ask?” and think of likely responses to those questions. You are your own best critic in the sense that you are in the best position to see all of the avenues of possible weakness and attack.
  • Answer concisely, and then expand upon that answer if the time or the format permits. Avoid the appearance (or the reality) of trying to steal time from the questioner.

Forms of Questioning

While many of the practical and strategic considerations in asking and answering questions apply independently of the process by which question­ing is included in your debate format, some aspects of questioning depend upon how that feature is included in the debate. In this next section, we will consider several common ways by which questioning can be added to a public debate and the strategic considerations that apply in each of these settings.


Cross examination is an element of public discourse that .nds its roots in the Anglo-American legal tradition. That legal tradition is based on an adversarial model in which one side is pitted against the other. One of the elements of this system is the right to confront witnesses. Thus, when a witness presents information for one side, the other side has the opportu­nity to question that witness. This questioning is called cross-examination because it is an examination by the other side (this is in contrast to direct-examination, which is questioning by the lawyer representing one’s own side).3 This element of legal communication has been incorporated into competitive debate for several decades; it is appreciated as a debate element because of its ability to allow a sustained face-to-face exchange during a speci.c period of the debate and to allow positions to be developed and explored through a series of questions and answers. There are a few essential elements of cross-examination:

  • The questioner controls the time. The entire span of the cross-examina-tion—not just the time in which they are actually speaking—“belongs” to the questioners. They are the ones who are charged with using this time to develop ideas for future speeches. Thus, the questioner has full authority to decide the subject and sequence of the questions and, importantly, to decide how long the answer to each question will be. In practical terms, this means that once a reasonable opportunity to answer a question has been provided, a polite “thank you” should signal the questioner’s intent to move on to the next question, and the respondent should take the hint and cease speaking. Particularly when ampli.cation equipment is being used, it is unlikely that the audience will be able to hear either party if they attempt to speak over one another.
  • Civility is critical. Certainly this is true of all questioning situations (not to mention the debate as a whole), but because of the sustained back­ and-forth nature of cross-examination, the format permits anger an avenue to escalate more quickly than in other formats. For that reason, both the questioner and the respondent have a responsibility to keep the exchange calm, clear, and focused on the audience.
  • More than in the case of other questioning formats, cross-examination should be used to develop support and positions for later speeches, not simply to gain a momentary advantage. For this reason, questioners during cross-examination will often avoid asking a question that draws the .nal and most important conclusion (“. . . so, you really don’t have any support for this point do you?”). Rather than risking the possibility that the respondent will come up with a great answer when her back is to the wall (“Well . . . we certainly do have that support, and you’ll hear it in our next speech!”), a questioner will be wiser to wait and draw that conclusion during his own speech (“and remember when I asked her about her support for this point? She was able to come up with none”).
  • Cross-examination is done for the bene.t of the audience. Because it involves just two people for a sustained period of time, cross-examina-tion can have the appearance of a private conversation. It is crucial to keep in mind, though, that all questions and all answers are ultimately for the audience’s bene.t. That recognition leads to one feature of cross examination that some audiences may .nd odd—that is that during cross-examination the questioner and the respondent will often stand side-by-side, both facing the audience rather than each other. This is done to allow both speakers to keep their attention where it belongs.4
  • A series of questions is preferable to a disconnected set of questions. The questions are typically asked in a series in which one question builds upon another. Because cross-examination formats typically allow sev­eral minutes (most often three) for the exchange, the investment of time into developing a line of questioning can be substantial.

Points of Information

One advantage of cross-examination is that it permits a sustained exchange within a dedicated time period. But one disadvantage is that the questioner needs to wait until her opponent’s speech is .nished, and does not have the freedom to ask a question when the moment is ripe. One format style that allows questioning during an opponent’s speech is called “point of informa­tion” and it is most associated with the parliamentary format for debate (see chapter 7). This debate format is modeled on a British-style parliament and for that reason contains some of its elements. Most typically, members of the team that is not currently making a speech are allowed to ask ques­tions at any time other than during the .nal summary speeches and during the first or last minute of any other speech. In order to ask a question, the speaker will generally stand (sometimes raising one hand and placing the other hand on top of his head5), and say something like “will the speaker yield?” or “on that point . . . ” When this occurs, the individual giving the speech has three options: she can agree to the question, she can decline the question, or she can say that she will take the question later. It is not consid­ered rude to refuse or delay a question, particularly if you are in the middle of explaining an argument or providing a reason. The speaker is in control of her time while she is speaking, so formally at least, she is the only one to say whether she will or will not entertain a question. On the other hand, it may be considered rude or (worse) defensive to turn down all requests for questions. In a typical six- to eight-minute speech, a speaker may wish to entertain two or three questions. If fewer, it could look like the speaker is afraid of whatever the other sides wants to ask. If more, there is a risk that the speech will turn into an interview.

Panel and Audience Questioning

A .nal way to introduce questioning into a public debate is to allow the audience or an invited panel to question the advocates. At a speci.c point in the debate (during or after), the moderator will invite questions and direct them to one or more of the teams debating. This method of questioning is less familiar to individuals who are experienced in tournament formats of debate, but can be an excellent way of including an another perspective that is likely to be distinct from that of the advocates.

The format for panel or audience questioning is naturally going to be less technical than that of other means of questioning. Still, some advance planning and communication are essential. In the case of panelists, once they have been invited or otherwise designated, the next step will be to give them some practical advice on how to generate and prepare their questions. Panelists might be encouraged to do a little bit of general investigation if they don’t already possess expertise in the subject and to think of a couple of potential question themes without locking themselves into speci.c ques­tions. Then, when they are hearing the debate, they can and focus their questions to make them potentially reactive to something that was speci.cally said during the debate.

In the case of general audience questioning, there are two advance steps that could be taken. First, you may want to identify speci.c individuals who could be counted on, and who have agreed in advance, to ask a good ques­tion in order to get the ball rolling. These “icebreakers” may be necessary in the event that the moderator opens it up for questions only to discover that no one wants to go first. Particularly when the debaters are very good, members of the general audience may be less con.dent in their ability to speak up and they may need to be coaxed into it by a couple of “planted” audience-member questions. Second, the moderator should let the audi­ence know at the very beginning of the debate (or even earlier, on the post­ers) that there will be a questioning period. In this way, audience members can be thinking about likely questions as the debate progresses and will not be surprised by the announcement of a questioning opportunity. Eliciting general audience questions may be the most challenging way to promote a successful interchange. The reason for this is that audience members, unless they feel comfortable really challenging the speaker, may simply ask infor­mational questions or request additional detail. This does give the speakers additional chances to explain, but it doesn’t really challenge their arguments in any way. For this reason, it will be essential for the moderator to explain, prior to the questioning period, what sort of questions can and should be asked (see chapter 17). The emphasis here is that the audience can both request information and challenge the advocates.


We have considered the role of questioning in a public debate, the purposes for the questioner and the respondent, and the speci.c demands of­ent formats for questioning. The speci.c way in which questioning is used in a given debate should be based upon the purposes and the situation for that debate. Certainly, combining various formats for questioning is pos­sible (for example, allowing points of information during the debate, then panel questions after the debate). The many advantages of questioning in promoting and showcasing quick thinking, wit, and argument development have led to it being a nearly ubiquitous feature in public debates. In fact, several American presidential debates are constructed almost entirely out of candidate reactions to either panel or audience questions.6 In most contexts, however, the balance of speaking time and interaction time is likely to be suited to the situation. With all of the advantages that questioning provides, perhaps the only time when a questioning period is not included in a public debate is when debate organizers feel that they need absolute control over a message and do not want to risk an unexpected question. In those situations, debate is itself probably not the best model. But the fundamental point is that for planners who are looking for lively opportunities to develop content and show interaction, the only question left is: “Why not ask questions?”

Moderating the Debate

This chapter will focus on the role of the moderator (also known as the master of ceremonies or as “Madame Speaker” or “Mr. Speaker” in British debating). We will examine the responsibilities of the moderator before discussing the best way to choose an individual to ful.ll this role. We will also review the moderator’s tasks, both before and during the debate. The Moderator’s Role

As we noted in chapter 7, the primary purpose of any debate format is to ensure fairness: formats are designed so that all participants are given an equal chance to be heard. It might be said that the moderator of a public debate has a similar purpose: he or she is there to ensure fairness. In part, that means that the moderator is the guardian of the format who must see to it that rules are followed—but there is more to the job than that. The mod­erator must also ensure fairness when addressing the audience, introducing speakers, and explaining the structure of the debate.

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 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 con.ict in an evenhanded way. Compare the following examples:

A. Ladies and Gentlemen, we said we’d start at 8 o’clock, so let’s get started. Let me introduce our first speaker...

B. Of all the important issues facing this country right now, there is none more important than the question of our security. We need to protect ourselves, but the security of the country sometimes comes into con.ict with individual freedom. Can we protect ourselves without losing freedoms? Or is that impossible? Because we want to address these ques­tions, we have arranged this public debate...

C. The most important con.ict in this country is about the future of our environment. On the one side, there are the people who are committed to protecting the environment for future generations, and on the other side there are the greedheads who would rape the Earth for the sake of their pro.ts. We have both sides here tonight . . . It is obvious (we hope) that the second example is the best of the three. The first example represents a missed opportunity; it does nothing to introduce the topic or set a tone. The third example fails because it is biased; it shows a clear prejudice toward one side in the debate. The second example, in contrast, is balanced, and helps to orient the audience toward the topic of the debate.

The moderator, of course, is not a participant in the debate itself and does not take a position of advocacy. 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 .nd 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. As for names and job titles, it is critical for the moderator to have full and accurate information about each participant. It would not do to introduce Ko. Annan as “somebody who has an important job in the UN” Ko. Annan is the Secretary General of the United Nations. Many speakers who are well-known or famous customarily provide their own biographical information to debate organizers; in any case, the mod­erator must assemble appropriate information for all of the participants involved—whether they are well-known or obscure. And 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

As we noted in chapter 7, public debates can take many shapes and forms. The corollary is that the spectators at a public debate do not know quite what to expect; they are not like spectators at a baseball game, who enter the stadium knowing that there will be nine innings and that each side gets three outs. The public debate audience 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. In other words, it is not enough to say, “Tonight, these advocates will argue about the con.ict between security and personal liberty.” Rather, the moderator should say something like this: “Tonight’s debate is focused on the following statement: ‘Resolved: individual civil liberties should not be abolished for the sake of national security.’ The team seated to my right agrees with that statement and will support it tonight; the team to my left disagrees, and will negate that statement.”

We should emphasize that 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. That means it is not an attempt to give the audience a set of judging criteria; when listening to the debate, they should not be trying to determine who did the best job of following the rules. Generally, public debates should be judged on the basis of substance, rather than on the basis of form. (The rare exception would be a public debate that was designed to showcase debating skills—in that case, performance and adherence to form would be elevated in importance.)

Maintaining Order

We take it as a given that any public debate is governed by a set of rules that create time limits, establish speaking order, and delimit the content of speeches—and that these rules have been approved by both sides in the debate. It is part of the moderator’s job to make sure that those rules are fol­lowed.

We do not mean that the moderator is supposed to act like an umpire or a referee, ready to impose punishments for any infractions of the rules. The moderator is, rather, more like a tra.c controller—that is, someone who manages the .ow 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 e.cient to have another person keep time and display it in a way that is visible to both teams and to the modera­tor. (In the excerpt from the debate above, Lehrer mentions the use of lights; time cards are also e.ective.) Violations of time limits are not necessarily cavalier or malicious; even with knowledge of the rules and an awareness of how much time is passing, debaters can get so caught up in a thought that their words spill over the border. We don’t think it does much damage to the principle of fairness if a debater’s response takes 35 seconds instead of 30 seconds, and there is little to be gained for the moderator to interrupt if he or she judges that the debater is .nishing a thought. But when the debater’s violation is substantial, the moderator may interrupt.The moderator may also interrupt when other rules are violated. 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 .nal responsibility—to facilitate interaction and engage-ment—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 signi.cantly involved, both formally and substantively. Say, for example, that audience participation is incorporated into the design of the debate. In that case, 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. Imagine that the debate resolution is the one that we used above: “Resolved: Individual civil liberties should not be abolished for the sake of national security.” It would be fair—and would promote direct “clash” or con.ict—if the moderator asked this: “You have both spoken in broad terms about civil liberties and the Patriot Act, but I would like to hear what you think speci.cally of the provision that allows the government to access borrowing records at public libraries. Is this a signi.cant invasion of pri­ vacy? Is it for the sake of national security?”

Choosing a Moderator

In describing the role of the moderator, we have emphasized the importance of neutrality: the debate cannot be fair if the moderator favors one side over the other. That does not mean that debate organizers need to .nd a moderator with no personal opinions or no involvement with controversial issues; even a person with passionate beliefs can adopt a neutral position for the course of a debate. Nonetheless, we recommend that the moderator be someone who is publicly neutral about the issue at hand.

The moderator’s job also requires public speaking skills. The moderator should be someone who is comfortable in front of an audience and who will be able to introduce the debate and the speakers with con.dence. Moreover, the moderator should be a person with .exibility and good judgment: main­taining order requires the ability to respond to situations as they unfold, as well as su.cient assertiveness to control the situation when necessary. It is also important for the moderator to 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. In this context, we a caveat about choosing a moderator on the basis of prestige or celebrity. It very often happens that highly respected o.cials—or professors, or writ-ers—do not have good public speaking skills. So even if they have expert knowledge of the matter in question, they do not make good moderators because they cannot execute some of the job’s main responsibilities. The moderator should also be familiar with the topic and with the pro­cess of debate. Without understanding the topic, the moderator will not be able to provide an e.ective introduction; neither will he or she be able to take on a more substantive role in the progress of the debate, if that is allowed by the format. A moderator does not have to be an experienced debater in order to be familiar with the process but should at least have wit­nessed enough debates—either educational debates or public debates—to understand how debate formats actually work.

When searching for a moderator, debate organizers should consider people who are used to speaking for a living: teachers, litigators, and people who work in the media are all good candidates. People who have had expe­rience as debaters or debate coaches can also do a good job as moderators.

Finally, debate organizers should look for someone who is happy to play a secondary role. In a public debate, the spotlight is on the debaters them-selves—not on the moderator. The event requires an individual with the sensitivity and humility to step aside so that others may shine.

The Moderator’s Preparation Before the Debate

Because the moderator must introduce the participants in the debate, it is important for her to gather necessary information beforehand from the participants. The introductions should also be prepared before the debate, so that their accuracy and appropriateness can be checked with the partici­pants. (A participant might say, for example, “I don’t think it’s necessary for you to tell the audience where I went to college—but I would like you to mention that I have published articles about global economics in Foreign A.airs.”)

The moderator should also prepare her opening remarks before the debate. Here, we would acknowledge one of the time-honored principles of oratory: the shorter the speech is, the longer it takes to prepare it. (As President Woodrow Wilson once remarked, when someone asked him how long it took him to prepare a speech: “It depends. If I am to speak ten min­utes, I need a week for preparation; if .fteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”1) The opening remarks should be short—just long enough to set the tone and establish the purpose of the event. The moderator needs to remember that she is the host, not the main event; her job is to introduce other people, rather than herself.

This is also the right time for the moderator to review the debate sched­ule and format. Presumably, the parties involved have agreed on the format as one of the first steps in setting up the debate, but it is important for the moderator to review that agreement and make sure that everyone involved understands it the same way.

Finally, it is important for the moderator to check on the facilities where the debate is being held. 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. (If, for example, lights are used to cue debaters to the passage of time, the moderator should make sure they are clearly visible.)

The Moderator’s Participation During the Debate

After ascertaining that the house is settled (i.e., there are no long lines of people milling about in the lobby of the auditorium), and the sound system is functional, the moderator begins the debate. We will recapitulate the responsibilities we outlined above. Step Sample

1. Welcome the audience. “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to...

2. Identify the event. ...the first of a series of debates sponsored by the Youth Services of Sussex County Council...

3. Identify yourself and your role.

4. Identify the topic and justify its importance.

5. Identify the participants and build credibility for them. My name is Peter Brown. I am the head of Youth Services, and tonight I will be serving as moderator of the debate. Of all the important issues facing this country right now, there is none more important than the question of our security. We need to protect ourselves, but the security of the country sometimes comes into con.ict with individual freedom. Can we protect our­selves without losing freedoms? Or is that impossible? Because we want to address these questions, we have arranged tonight’s debate, which is focused on the following statement: “Resolved: individual civil liber­ties should not be abolished for the sake of national security.” Seated to my right is Mr. James Sloane, who agrees with that statement and will support it tonight; on my left is Ms. Elizabeth Davidson, who disagrees, and will negate that statement. Mr. Sloane is the vice director of UK Civil Liberties Association. He was formerly… Ms. Davidson is an analyst at the Security Department at the Ministry of Defense. She has written…

6. Explain the format.

7. Highlight any particular audience involvement. The first part of the debate will last sixty minutes following a format and rules worked out by the two debaters. There will be two-minute opening and clos­ing statements. In between, a series of questions, each having three parts: a ninety-second answer, a sixty-second rebuttal, and a thirty-second response . . . After the conclusion of the first hour, the .oor will be opened to questions from the audience. Those of you who wish to address a question to Mr. Sloane should come forward to the microphone at the front of the left aisle; questions for Ms. Davidson will be made from the right aisle . . .

8. Introduce the first speaker. On the basis of a coin toss, the first speaker tonight will be Mr. Sloane, defending the resolution that individual civil liberties should not be abolished for the sake of national security.”

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 .nished, the moderator would introduce the next step (as in the example given above from the presidential debate, the moderator would say, “Ms. Davidson, 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 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 .oor for questions.”). The moderator should choose his model of participation to suit the occasion. If the audience consists of debate practitioners, or other people who are familiar with debate practice, the regular and automatic announce­ment of speeches would probably seem unnecessary. For an audience of neophytes, however, the signposts o.ered by regular introductions might be entirely appropriate.

It is also up to the moderator whether to use a gavel to maintain order. In some ways, the gavel presupposes the possibility of an unruly debate or an unruly audience—it is a simple machine designed to make a noise that will carry over the sound of people talking or shouting. It is not quite as loud as a starter’s pistol, but it serves the same purpose. So the gavel can be an e.ective tool for crowd control. At the same time, it should be recognized that the gavel can have a provocative e.ect—if it is used too zealously, the audience may act up just for the fun of watching someone pound a desk with a piece of wood. The gavel must be used judiciously.

Dealing with Problems

We have already discussed the moderator’s role in dealing with infractions committed by the debaters: the moderator must ensure that time limits and rules are respected or else the debate can quickly spin out of control. We have not, however, discussed the moderator’s role in controlling the audience.

There is no universal law governing the behavior of audiences at public debates; rules and standards need to be determined as appropriate for each particular situation. At the presidential debates, for example, the audience members are enjoined to silence. They are allowed to laugh, of course, if something seems funny, but they are prohibited from applauding to show support for a particular statement by the candidate. For some public debates, that kind of restriction may be appropriate; in other situations, that kind of silence may seem deadening. (Just think of a sports event where the spectators seem to be “out of the game.”) In most cases, 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.


To put it simply, heckling means speaking out of turn: while the recognized speaker—that is, the speaker who “has the .oor”—is talking, the heckler yells out a question or comment. This doesn’t mean, however, that a heckler is necessarily a disruptive agitator who should be hustled out the door by the security force; indeed, heckling is an accepted practice in the British House of Commons. Members of Parliament often voice their approval or disapproval without being “recognized” by the House Speaker. (One corol­lary is that heckling is also encountered in the competitive debate format known as Parliamentary Debate.) In a public debate, then, it is possible to allow heckling by the debaters—it is more likely to be seen when the debate is conducted by teams, rather than individuals. But the other possibility is to allow heckling from the audience; some debate organizers feels that it makes the event livelier if debaters are challenged directly by the people whom they are trying to persuade.

We do not think it is possible to prescribe a universal rule about heck­ling; we would neither ban it, nor proclaim it an essential component of a good public debate. The appropriateness of heckling depends largely on the context of the debate and its participants. We will note, however, that the moderator’s responsibilities increase almost exponentially when heckling is permitted: the moderator must decide, in a disinterested way, when the heckling has become excessive. (Generally, this will be when the heckling is so loud or so insistent that the speaker cannot be heard.) In this case, the moderator must use his authority (and his gavel) to silence the heck-lers—and that may be as easy as putting the genie back in the bottle or the toothpaste back in the tube.

Closing the Debate

We noted that the moderator generally opens the debate; not surprisingly, the moderator generally closes it as well. 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.

In our next chapter, we will discuss the incorporation of judgment into the model of the debate—that is, the incorporation of 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 .nal farewell.


In sum, the moderator can be seen as one of the unsung heroes of public debate. The moderator isn’t the star of the show; it isn’t often that spectators will .ll a hall just because they want to see someone moderating, and you will not hear many members of the audience murmur as they leave, “What a great debate! That was the best moderating I’ve seen in the past twenty years!” But it’s clear that the moderator .lls a vitally important role—by set­ting a tone for the event, by explaining ground rules and procedures to the audience, and by maintaining order and promoting interchange between the debaters and between the debaters and the audience. If the modera­tor is weak, the debate can devolve into a chaotic shouting match; if the moderator knows his business and does it, the debate can be an interesting, enlightening and rewarding experience.

Ending the Debate

In the political world, debate is usually part of the decision-making pro­cess; debate is followed by a vote. That is the procedure in the General Assembly of the United Nations as well as in the European Parliament; the same sequence was followed in the ecclesia of 5th century Athens, and in the tribal councils of the Ibo in precolonial Nigeria. Political leaders argue with each other because decisions must be made. “Winning the debate” and “winning the vote” are almost synonymous terms. But public debates—as we have de.ned them in this book—are not set in legislative chambers, and it is only rarely that spectators have the power to cast votes that determine policy. In other words, the link between debat­ing and decision-making is not as strong in public debate as it is in political debate. Does that mean it is meaningless to talk about “winning” a public debate? Hardly. Even when there is no vote to win, there are ways to gauge results—and this chapter will discuss various methods of incorporating such assessments into the fabric of a public debate.

Evaluating Persuasion

Before launching our discussion of evaluative systems, we would like to reit­erate a few simple truths about public debate. The first thing to remember is that debate is a persuasive activity. The debater’s job is to persuade the audi­ence, by means of her arguments, that she is right about an issue. In practi­cal terms, that means that she agrees (or disagrees) with a statement—the resolution—and she wants her listeners to share her position.

On one level, this makes the evaluation of debates seem like a simple business: did the debater persuade the audience? Or did her opponent?

But if we stop to ponder the meaning of the word “persuade,” it will become clear that evaluating debates is not that simple after all. There are situations where persuasion has a binary clarity: in a court of law, for example, a juror will listen to the words of the prosecutor and the defense attorney and will be persuaded to vote guilty or not guilty. But the court­room is meant to be an antiseptic, controlled environment: the jurors enter the jury box with no prior knowledge of the case before them; they decide on the basis of carefully delimited evidence. Contrast that with the situation found at a typical public debate. Say that the resolution is about the legaliza­tion of marijuana. Does the audience enter in a state of ignorance? Do they enter without their own ideas and opinions? No—the auditorium is part of the real world, not a clinical lab.

What, then, does it mean to persuade the audience? There may be some spectators, no doubt, who are changed immediately and completely by the debate; they are the ones who leave saying, “I used to think it was OK to legalize marijuana, but after what I’ve heard tonight, I think it would be the wrong thing to do.” In our experience, converts like these are in a distinct minority. But we do not believe that they are the only people who have been “persuaded.” It is much more common for the e.ects of persuasion to be delayed or subtle. Listeners may .nd that they have a new way of thinking about a problem or a di.erent attitude toward it; they may .nd that they have to modify their own positions to take account of opposing arguments. And these shifts in thinking may not happen during the debate or imme­diately afterwards; very often, a debate provides a proverbial shock to the system, and the accommodation of new information or new ideas may take hours, or days, or weeks. What is more, the listener’s thinking may change in ways that are signi.cant, yet partial—rather than thoroughgoing. A sup­porter of abortion rights may decide that partial-birth abortion should be banned; an advocate of gun owners’ rights may decide that mandatory trig­ger locks are a good idea; a civil libertarian may concede that government surveillance of bank transfers is a means of tracing the money that supports terrorist organizations. Such subtle changes are not surpris­ing, given that debate often deals with complex issues that call for complex responses (even if the structure of debate creates a dichotomy between two starkly opposed sides).

It is our own belief that debates should be evaluated on the basis of substance—that is, on the quality of the arguments and counterarguments o.ered by the debaters. But even this is a complicated business, because the typical listener .nds it easy to separate the dancer from the dance. That is, the listener is able to separate the debater’s position from the debater’s per­formance and say, in so many words, “I don’t agree with the arguments that she made, but I think she did a better job of presenting her position than her opponent did.” (Or, conversely, “I agreed with what he was trying to say, but he did a poor job of getting his points across.”) The point is that the listener, in evaluating the debate, can make two distinct—and contrary—judgments. The listener may decide that she is not persuaded—by the person she thinks did a better job of debating.

Evaluating Performance

In raising the matter of performance, we have recognized that it complicates the process of evaluating debates because it utilizes a criterion other than persuasion. Furthermore, we recognize that evaluating performance is a complicated business in and of itself—performance can be understood as skill in argumentation, or .uency of delivery, or ease of manner. Performance can be evaluated, first of all, on the basis of debating skills. Using this basis, the listener pays close attention to the following:

  • the quality of the debater’s main argument;
  • her success in asking questions that weaken her opponent’s arguments, or else set up an attack on those arguments;
  • the thoroughness with which she refutes her opponent’s arguments;
  • her success in defending her argument against her opponent’s attacks. In short, the listener who evaluates on the basis of debating skills is judging the debater’s success in the opening speech, in cross-examination, in refuta­tion and in rebuttal.

More narrowly, performance can be evaluated on the basis of speaking skills. Here, the listener would judge:

  • the volume and clarity of the speaker’s voice;
  • the fluency and articulation of the speaker’s delivery;
  • the speaker’s use of vocal variety (contrasts in pitch, volume, rate, stress and tone);
  • the speaker’s success in making eye contact with the audience.

Finally, performance can be evaluated on the basis of less tangible criteria. Listeners judge debaters on the basis of whether they sound sincere; whether they seem relaxed and con.dent; whether they seem respectful and avoid mean-spiritedness. One of the most famous presidential debates—that between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon in 1960—was judged by many viewers on the basis of just such intangibles. Nixon—pale, sweating, his .ve o’clock shadow poorly covered by a product called “Lazy Shave,” and wearing a gray suit that blended into the studio background—seemed weak and uncomfortable. With his tanned face and his navy blue suit, Kennedy exuded youth and vigor (even though he was actually in poor physical health and only four years younger than his opponent). Again, we will register our own beliefs about this issue: we think that if debates are to be evaluated formally, the greatest weight should be given to argumentation. If “performance” is to be considered, it should be construed to mean debating skills, as outlined above.

Options for Evaluation

Given the complexity of evaluation—that is, given the coexistence of persua­sion and performance, and the multifarious nature of performance—some debate organizers elect to dispense with formal evaluations altogether. This is not an act of cowardice or convenience; rather, it is a recognition that evaluative systems can create a false impression of accuracy. Telling an audi­ence to vote for the “best debater” is a bit like taking a poll to determine who is the “entertainer of the year”—when the possible candidates include opera stars, rock guitarists, actors, comedians, pop princesses, country western singers, classical violinists and professional wrestlers. In the end, there may be one person who wins the title, but it’s hard to say exactly why. In the same way, the “best debater” may be chosen by obscure and con.icting criteria, and so is best left uncrowned. But there is no reason to think that a debate without a declared winner is fundamentally incomplete; a good debate o.ers listeners its own rewards.

If, however, debate organizers decide to include evaluation as part of the process, there are more choices to be made. The first task is to choose the evaluators. In the foregoing discussion, we have talked about the audience doing the judging, and that is one possibility. But another possibility is to create a panel of judges to evaluate the debate.

The Panel of Judges

Debate organizers can have di.erent reasons for creating a panel of judges. They may feel, for example, that it is either cumbersome or impossible to survey the reactions of the audience as a whole; surveying the reactions of a modest number of judges is undoubtedly more practicable. In this case, the panel would be composed of audience members, either a random sample or a representative sample. (A representative sample would be chosen with regard for the various constituencies of the audience.) Alternatively, a judg­ing panel can be assembled for the sake of providing expertise that the aver­age audience member does not have—and that can be expertise regarding the topic at hand or expertise regarding debate. 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; debate practitioners certainly know more about refutation and rebuttal than the ordinary citizen.

Whatever the reason for assembling a panel of judges, there are choices to be made about their function. We realize that the use of the word “judge” may imply that the panel will make a decision designating a winner—but that is not necessarily the case. (After all, in many courtrooms, the deci­sions are made by juries, not judges!) Instead of designating a winner, the panel of judges may be asked simply to provide evaluative commentary on the debate: 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.” (This is analogous to the model used by television networks after a presidential debate: typically, they seek the reactions of three or four com­mentators, but they do not tabulate their votes and announce a victor in the debate.) This model presupposes that the judges will be able to talk directly to the audience at the close of the debate; there is no point in keeping evalu­ative commentary private.

Alternatively, the panel of judges can be asked to declare a winner of the debate—and this process can be closed or open. A closed process will be familiar to anyone who has ever watched a Miss Universe pageant: the judges make their decisions, and the results are announced by the master of ceremonies; individual decisions, and the reasons supporting them, remain secret. A closed process has the advantage of being dramatic, as well as clear and decisive—but it o.ers no educational bene.ts for the audience or for the debaters. To put it another way, no one bene.ts directly from the judges’ expertise; there is no opportunity to learn why a debater’s performance was good or bad.

The bene.ts are greater if the judging process is open. An open process combines the de.nitive judgment of the closed process with the evaluative commentary approach described above. The judges cast their votes, but those votes are explained publicly to the audience, either by each of the judges individually or by someone chosen to speak for them. These explana­tions have a constructive value for the debaters and can help to clarify the debate for audience members. Criteria for Judging With a Panel. One of the advantages of creating a judging panel is that it allows for greater control over the criteria for judging. It is true that judging remains a complex and complicated business, even with a panel, but the small scale of the panel makes it easier to articulate and explain the criteria that should be used. These criteria should not be treated as privileged information for the judge, however—the audience should also be told how the judges are expected to make their decisions.

When a panel of experts on the topic is asked to judge, their evaluation will, of course, include their assessment of how well the debaters mastered the issues under consideration. Because they are experts, they will be able to say with some authority whether the debaters have been thorough, fair and accurate; experts will not be swayed by a skilled debater who has distorted or misrepresented facts.

A panel of judges is also able to adopt a formal position of neutrality. It is a common perspective in judging competitive educational debate that judges should disregard their own opinions about the topic being debated. That is, judges are asked to imagine themselves as blank slates, who can respond only to what they hear in the course of a debate. Practically, this means that a judge who has a membership card for the National Ri.e Association in his pocket must vote for the debater who advocates the abolition of private handgun ownership—if, that is, the antigun debater has done a better job debating than his pro-gun opponent. More than that, competitive debate judges are constrained from engaging in a private shadow debate with the contestants. It may happen, for example, that the a.rmative debater pres­ents a case with an egregious logical .aw that the judge notices; although the judge may note this .aw in his comments, he cannot hold the debater accountable unless the debater’s opponent has pointed out the .aw in the course of her refutation. To put in another way, the debate is supposed to take place between the two contestants (or the two contesting sides)—not between the contestants and the judge.

It is implicit in the foregoing that a panel of judges adopting a stance of neutrality will put more weight on debating skills; they will consider “per­suasion” formally, rather than personally. They will not consider whether the debate persuaded them or changed their minds in a real way; rather, they will consider whether they would have been persuaded if they were someone else who had no personal opinions. In a sense, this makes the debate similar to one of those computer simulations that television broad­casters use when they can’t get actual pictures of an event. The debate still has value, but it is more arti.cial than real. Summary. The following table summarizes the formal possibilities dis­cussed above. We note that there is further variety possible within each option—no matter what the composition, the function, or the mode of operation, a judging panel can be instructed to judge holistically or to con­sider speci.c aspects of the debate; the weight given to speci.c aspects (e.g., debating skills, speaking skills) can also vary.

Evaluation by the Audience

As we have argued throughout this book, the audience is an integral part of any public debate. Public debates are not held for the edi.cation and the amusement of the debaters themselves; the debaters take the .oor because they want to change the minds of the people who are listening to them.

It is right and .tting, therefore, to give the audience the task of evaluat­ing the debate, even if the audience members can claim no special exper­tise in debate or in the topic under consideration. Public debates are not designed for the ears of experts; any person with an open and attentive mind is quali.ed to be a judge. In the discussion that follows, we are presuming that the audience is actually rendering a decision, and designating a winner of the debate. Before discussing the logistics of e.ecting and communicating this decision, we will consider some of the ethical dimensions of audience voting.

We noted above, in our discussion of persuasion, that the audience members at a public debate are very likely to have their own opinions about the controversial issue that is being addressed. Furthermore, we think it is unlikely that a public debate will radically change a substantial percentage of opinions that are .rmly held. We may want to take these facts into con­sideration in designing our method of evaluation.

The di.culty facing us is best explained with an example. Let’s say that the resolution is our now familiar example that marijuana should be legal­ized. And let’s say that the audience for our debate is composed of college students; 50 percent of them .rmly believe that marijuana should be legal­ized, 30 percent of them .rmly believe that marijuana should remain illegal, and 20 percent are undecided. What results might we expect in a vote after the debate? It is possible, of course, for the audience members to adopt the ideals of the expert judge and to vote strictly on the merits of what they have heard—meaning that the president of the organization supporting the legalization of soft drugs sitting in the audience would vote against legal­ization if the antilegalization debater did a better job. And the corollary is that either debater could win. But what if the audience members cannot or will not assume a neutral position? What if they vote for what they really believe? In that case, it is clear that the legalization side will win, even if there are a few defectors, and even if the antilegalization debater captures most of the undecided voters. Starting with a base of 50 percent in favor of his position, the legalization debater does not have to gain much ground to win a majority; for the antilegalization debater, however, the odds are all but insuperable. There are two primary techniques for eliminating bias in choosing a winner. One technique is to exclude the partisans on both sides of the prop­osition and give voting rights only to the undecided. (This is the method used in some presidential debates: the audience in one of the Clinton-Dole debates was limited to voters who had not made up their minds about which candidate they preferred.) In this scenario, the winner of the debate is the advocate who captures the greatest number of undecided votes. There are, of course, practical di.culties 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. The second technique—and in our view, the most appropriate one—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 debater who gained the most votes would be declared winner—even if his supporters were in a statistical minority. Say that the antilegalization debater gained most of the undecided votes in the above example, and increased support for his position from 30 percent to 45 percent; he would win, even though the legalization debater had the support of the majority of the audience.

Granted, it would not be easy to tabulate the results of such a survey by hand, but if the appropriate computer technology is available, you should certainly consider using this model because it is capable of capturing more subtle shifts in opinion. It would show, for example, if support for a propo­sition had weakened, even if the number of supporters for the proposition remained unchanged. (Before the debate, there might be 50 audience mem­bers who placed themselves to the left of the neutral line, with an average rating of 1.8; after the debate, there might still be 50 people on that side of the neutral line, but their new average of 3.1 shows that they do not agree as strongly as they did before.

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. (We are assuming that the voters have no reason to keep their votes secret.) For larger audiences, some kind of paper ballot is more practicable. We would recommend against using a ballot where voters have to check o. a debater’s name; ballots like this take too long to sort and count. (We would also caution against any kind of ballot likely to produce hanging chads.)

It is much faster and easier to use colored index cards. With this method, each spectator entering the auditorium is given two di.erently colored cards; at the end of the debate, he is told to submit the blue card if he wants to vote for the a.rmative or the yellow card if he wants to vote for the negative. Even a large number of cards can be sorted and counted quickly—and speed is important, given that the debate is over, and the only business left is the announcement of the decision. The cards can be printed with “a.rmative” and “negative” labels, if time and budget permit, but that isn’t absolutely necessary. We’d note that this method can be used for the double polling procedure described above; it is necessary only to add a third color repre­senting “undecided.” Whether two or three cards are used, debate organiz­ers need to provide card collectors, each with the responsibility of gathering votes from a .nite segment of the audience (100 or so spectators).

We will mention two more methods, one utopian and the other less than ideal. The utopian method is to count votes electronically. If the audience members are able to register their votes by punching buttons at their seats, or by tapping computer screens, the results will be available almost instanta­neously. Most debate venues do not come rigged with such equipment, how­ever, and it is probably prohibitively expensive to install electronic devices for only one debate. Nevertheless, debate organizers are encouraged to consult information technology personnel; it may be feasible to set up a low cost system. (Given the almost universal prevalence of cell phones, it may be possible to set up a “vote by phone” system without breaking the bank.) The less than ideal method is to let audience members vote with their feet. At the end of the debate, listeners can be instructed to move to one side of the room if they favor the a.rmative and to the other side if they favor the negative. Then the respective groups are counted. The problem is that this process is messy and doesn’t work well if the vote is lopsided. The other podiatric voting method makes the exits from the room critically signi.cant: when they leave via one exit, audience members are counted as voting a.rmative; when they leave by the other, they are counted as voting negative. The problem here is obvious: when the decision is announced, there’s no one left to hear it (except the debaters).


We began this book by describing the public debate that took place in a town hall of one of towns in Lithuania after young people expressed their concern about the proposed curfew law. We will close the book by return­ing to this story. As we noted in our earlier discussion, the curfew debate did not end with a vote- but it ended with the best possible outcomes: listeners remained in the hall after the debate ended and kept discussing the issue. In other words, debate did not close the issue; rather, the debate inspired further dialogues. More then that, the debate helped to shape those dialogues: the imposition of curfew was understood in the context of the con.ict between public safety and the rights of young people, among other things. We believe that the curfew debate did what public debates do best: it promoted understanding, the respectful exchange of ideas, and the peace­ful resolution of di.erences. In doing so, public debates strengthen the very foundation of democracy.

About the Authors

Ken Broda-Bahm spent eighteen years teaching debate and argumenta­tion, the past eight at Towson University in Maryland. Since 1994, Dr. Broda-Bahm has been a consultant for the International Debate Education Association and has presented seminars in debate and advocacy in seven­teen di.erent countries. As a founding developer of the Southeast Europe Youth Leadership Institute, Dr. Broda-Bahm helped to design one of the first youth institute programs designed to teach public debate. Dr. Broda-Bahm is currently a Senior Litigation Consultant with the .rm Persuasion Strategies, a service of Holland & Hart, LLP. In that capacity, Dr. Broda-Bahm conducts research and provides communication advice and coach­ing to attorneys preparing for trial. Dr. Broda-Bahm holds a doctorate in Speech Communication from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.

Daniela Kempf has taught debate, advocacy and argumentation for ten years: abroad, for an international debate education program to students and teachers from over twenty countries from Albania to Mongolia, and in the United States, at Emerson College and Marymount Manhattan College, where she currently teaches advanced public speaking and debate. Ms. Kempf also served as public debate curriculum codesigner for an interna­tional youth leadership program and now promotes the worldwide land mine cause for a nonpro.t organization dedicated to advocacy on interna­tional issues. Ms. Kempf lives in New York City with her husband, whom she met debating and teaching debate. Ms. Kempf holds a master’s degree in Political Communication from Emerson College in Boston.

William Driscoll earned a master’s degree in English Language and Literature at Oxford University before beginning a career in education. He has taught English, classics, theater, history and political philosophy at various high schools in the New York City area and served for many years as a debate judge at Regis High School. He also worked for ten years as a college counselor and college admission officer. He is the author of Discovering the World Through Debate, and has edited two collections of essays in the series of IDEA Sourcebooks on Contemporary Controversies.

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