How to Write a Debate
Whether it was for an English class, as a part of a club, or just for pleasure, almost everyone has had to write a debate at some point or another in their life. However, just because most people have done it before doesn’t mean that writing a debate is easy. There are a hundred different things to consider: should you lead by appealing to your audience's emotions or cut straight to the chase with some cold hard facts? How many arguments should you include in your debate? Do you need to add a conclusion? To help you take away the guesswork, this article demonstrates how to structure and write a debate in six easy steps. By following this method you’re giving yourself the best possible chance at coming out on top in your next verbal sparring match.
Step One: A Strong Opening
Every good debate starts with a strong opening line. If you're dealing with something emotionally charged, as debate topics tend to be, then starting with a similarly emotional opener is the best way to go. For example, if you were arguing for your country to take in more refugees then an opening line might be something like, "Have you ever thought about what it would be like to be forced to leave your home? To be so scared of violence or other persecution that you and your family have to leave behind everything you've ever known and travel to a new country?" Don't get caught up in the idea that facts are completely separate from emotions, either. Adding a powerful statistic to the opening line of your debate can work just as well. For example, if you were arguing that your school should increase suicide awareness you could start with, "Did you know that close to 800,000 people die of suicide every year?" If your topic isn't obviously emotional then sticking to a surprising or concerning statistic can still inject a bit of feeling into your opening line. You should be aiming to make your audience and your adjudicator sit up a little straighter in their chairs.
Have you ever debated before?
Step Two: Defining the Topic
After your opening you need to make the subject that you're talking about crystal-clear to your listeners. To do this, state your topic and your team's position on the topic. For example, "Today we're here to discuss the topic X. As the affirmative/negative side, my team firmly believes that Y." You should also make certain to define any key words in your topic. This doesn't have to be a literal dictionary definition, but could rather be your view on what the word means in the context of the topic or the issue at large. While this may seem pedantic, it's important to do so that you know that you and your opponent are on the same page. It's incredibly hard to debate someone when they have a different idea of what the topic means than you do. If you're not the first speaker in the debate, then you should use this slot to either agree with or contend the definition that your opponent gave. If they didn't give a definition, feel free to provide your own as if you were the first speaker).
Step Three: Signposting
Signposting may seem annoying and unnecessary. If you're a word-enthusiast it can even seem like it's disrupting the flow of your otherwise smooth and lyrical speech. However, it's completely and totally necessary in the structure of a good debate. You may think that you've written the best and most easy to follow debate in the world, but the fact is that the audience isn't you. They don't know the topic you're covering in the depth that you know it and they're certainly not as invested in the debate as you are. They might zone out for a few moments in the introduction and then get completely lost. This is what makes signposting so important; it's a way to simply and effectively remind your listener of what you're talking about and where you're up to in your speech. At the end of your introduction add a few sentences that tells the listener how many points you're going to be making and in what order you're going to be making them. For example, "To begin my case, I'm going to argue X. I'll then move on to demonstrate Y and will conclude by examining Z." At the start of each argument you can then remind the audience of what you're talking about by saying, "Firstly, I'm going to be arguing X." While this may seem simplistic and like you're expecting the audience to have fallen asleep on you, it’s actually completely essential and makes your debate easier to follow.
Step Four: Rebuttal
The phrase 'sometimes the best offence is a good defence' isn't just a cliché. If you've ever watched a professional debate you’ll know that the most compelling part is usually when one side takes one of the arguments of the opposition and then absolutely shreds it to pieces. While it's fantastic to watch, it's also the most difficult part of any debate to execute correctly. Rebutting arguments forces you to think completely on the spot. You have about thirty seconds to take an argument that your opposition has likely spent hours researching and honing and convincingly refute it. Luckily, there are some strategies that you can use while rebutting that make the challenge a little less daunting. These include:
- Pre-research: If you've got your debate topic before the day of the debate then the best asset that you have is time. Use it. After you've crafted your own arguments put yourself in your opponent's shoes and try to anticipate what the arguments that they're going to use are. Once you have a good list write out a rebuttal for each of them. This way when you're in the actual debate and hear an argument from your opponent that you'd already anticipated you can whip out a pre-prepared rebuttal complete with facts and figures to boost your credibility, rather than having to come up with something completely on the spot.
- "What's the point?" If your opposition is arguing for a change to be made there’s a key idea you can focus on when you’re rebutting them. If your opponent is advocating for some elaborate change of a government policy or social ideology but they've neglected to explain what the benefits to the said change are then that's your opportunity to swoop: "My opponent has explained their proposed change in extreme detail. However, they've failed to explain what the point of the change is." If your interlocutor has explained the benefits of the change, but not very well, then you can use the same approach but soften it a little: "My opponent has stated that his/her proposed changes with have the benefit of X. However, given the amount of effort that would be required to make the changes X simply isn't worth it."
- Economic Challenges: Bringing up economic challenges is so useful because it works with virtually every debate topic imaginable. Any topic on social justice, a current issue, a governmental policy or something completely left-field will have an economic link. If your opponent says that your country should be letting in more refugees rebut them by explaining the burden on the economy that it would create to relocate so many more people. If they argue that your country should stop letting in refugees, rebut them by talking about the potential that skilled refugees have to benefit the economy. It's an incredibly durable argument which is why it makes for a great on-the-spot rebuttal.
- Use your own arguments: Twisting your own arguments to rebut an opponent's point is a simple but effective way to mount a defence against your own case. Of course, going overboard and rattling out your entire pre-prepared argument is a huge mistake (what will you talk about later?!) but you can distill the body of your speech into distinct points that you can use to rebut your opposition. For example, if you're debating about tolerance towards refugees and your opponent brings up the idea that refugees can cause societal unrest you can reshape one of your planned arguments, that refugees contribute to multiculturalism and allow the best bits of different cultures to be merged, and say that, "Rather than causing societal unrest refugees actually contribute greatly to society through helping to encourage multiculturalism, which I'll elaborate on in my own arguments later." In one sentence you've rebutted your opponent's argument and also set things up nicely to introduce your own argument when the time comes.
Step Five: Your Arguments
And now we've reached the most important part of your debate; the arguments. To make things easier, I've broken this heading down into four simple subtopics.
- Deciding what to argue: If you get lucky with your debate topic then twenty arguments for and against might immediately spring to mind. If it's more of a niche topic, however, it may require research to come up with talking points. Look into the background of the issue. Read news articles and opinion pieces and even try browsing some debating websites for ideas. Once you have a really good understanding of the topic the right arguments will jump out at you no matter how difficult your position is.
- The layout: Writing an argument for a debate is almost the same thing as writing a body paragraph for an essay. You should begin each argument by signposting, ie. "Firstly, I'm going to argue…" and then follow up with a one sentence summary of your argument. After this you need to elaborate on your point a little, give some facts and statistics to legitimise what you're saying, and then at the end link neatly back to the topic of the debate so it's clear to the audience that you're not just giving a passionate rant, but instead are making a carefully calculated point that ties in with a general thesis statement. Generally in a debate the best way to keep your speech going for long enough is to have three arguments. This is the sweet spot between having enough time to flesh out your points and not having to ramble for too long on the same thing. In regards to what order you should put your arguments in, the general consensus is that you should lead with a strong argument and end with one too. If you have an obviously weaker argument try to sandwich it in between the two better ones.
- Finding evidence: If your topic is one that requires you to dredge up statistics and use experts at every turn then you need to make sure that you're doing it correctly. Inserting the right evidence into your debate makes you more credible, but using the wrong kind of evidence from the wrong kind of sources leaves you vulnerable to attack by the opposition. To find the right sort of evidence to cite the first step is to check the source. If it's a book, is it by a reputable author or published by a reputable house? If it's a website, is it an educational one? A government one? If it's a news article, who wrote it? Secondly, make sure that it's a recent fact or figure. If you're dredging up numbers from the 1980s and your opposition realises it then you're in real trouble. Thirdly, make sure that the evidence is backed up by at least three or more sources. Even if it's a convenient statistic that fits right into your argument it's going to do more harm than good unless you can verify it using other sources. Doing these three things takes time and makes evidence much harder to find, but in the long run it's worth it. Your evidence is the backbone of your argument; if it's not strong enough then the whole thing is going to collapse.
- Persuasive strategies: In English class most students learn about written persuasive strategies; the ways that journalists and authors try to sway their audience towards a certain position by using humour, metaphors, and appeals to logic. What a lot of people aren't taught is that spoken persuasive strategies are pretty much the same. You can be as colourful in a debate as you would be in a written persuasive piece. You can use similes and alliterations to your heart’s content. If you're debating at school then your English teacher will love you for it and if you're preparing your speech for a club or other external debating society you'll still be more well-regarded than people who don't have any 'spark' in their content. It goes without saying that you should keep things respectful- don't insult your opponents and don't use humour where it's not appropriate, but other than the obvious constraints you can (and should) use as many persuasive strategies as you can manage.
Step Six: Conclusion
The conclusion to any piece of writing is one of the most important parts. It sums up the points you've made in the body of your text and leaves the reader with a take home message that should make them feel as if they've gained something by reading your piece. For writing a debate, this rule is no different. Fortunately, aside from being one of the most important bits of your speech, writing a conclusion for a debate is also the easiest part. All you really have to do is sum up the arguments that you've made. Try not to repeat them word for word, but instead rephrase your topic sentences and, if you have the time, include an important statistic or two that you included as evidence. If you're the last speaker in a team debate you need to make sure that you also sum up your team member's best arguments in your conclusion too. At the very end you could choose to firmly restate your position on the subject or perhaps to reiterate to an emotional call that you made in your introduction. Finally, you should thank your audience for listening and your opponent for his or her time. You want to come across as grateful and humble, even if you have just delivered a killer speech.
To Sum Everything Up:
Your speech's structure should read as follows:
A Strong Opening
"Have you ever thought about X?"
Defining the Topic
"Today we're here to debate the topic X. I/my team has defined this topic to mean Y."
"I'm going to argue X. I'll then move on to demonstrate Y, and conclude by examining Z."
"To begin, I'd like to rebut some arguments put forward by my opposition. They've claimed X, which is false because Y."
"Now to move on to my arguments. Firstly, I'll be demonstrating X." "Secondly, I'd like to examine the idea of Y." "Lastly, I'm going to argue Z."
"Today I argued X, Y, and Z. It's for these reasons that I/my team firmly believe/s that X."
© 2018 K S Lane