What Is a Debate?
A debate is a formal discussion on a specific topic. Two sides argue for and against a specific proposal or resolution in a debate.
Debates have set conventions and rules that both sides or teams agree to abide by. A neutral moderator or judge is often appointed to help regulate the discussion between the opposing sides.
Debating is a form of persuasive communication. We complete a complete guide to persuasive writing, which will form the backbone of your debating speech that can be accessed here.
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How Is a Debate Structured?
Debates occur in many different contexts, and these contexts can determine the specific structure the debate will follow.
Some contexts where debates will occur include legislative assemblies, public meetings, election campaigns, academic institutions, and TV shows.
While structures can differ, below is a basic step-by-step debate structure we can look at with our students. If students can debate to this structure, they will find adapting to other debate structures simple.
1. Choose a Topic
Also called a resolution or a motion, the topic is sometimes chosen for each side. This is usually the case in a school activity to practice debating skills.
Alternatively, as in the case of a political debate, two sides emerge naturally around contesting beliefs or values on a particular issue.
We’ll assume the debate is a school exercise for the rest of this article.
The resolution or the motion is usually centered around a true or false statement or a proposal to make some change in the current state of affairs. Often the motion will start, ”This House believes that….”
2. Form Two Teams
Two teams of three speakers each are formed. These are referred to as ‘The House for the Motion’ or the ‘Affirmative’ team and ‘The House Against the Motion’ or the ‘Negative’ team.
Preparation is an essential aspect of debating. The speech and debate team members will need time to research their arguments, collaborate, and organize themselves and their respective roles in the upcoming debate.
They’ll also need time to write and rehearse their speeches too. The better prepared and coordinated they are as a team, the more chance they have of success in the debate.
Each speaker takes a turn making their speech, alternating between the House for the Motion, who goes first, and the House Against the Motion. Each speaker speaks for a pre-agreed amount of time.
The debate is held in front of an audience (in this case, the class), and sometimes, the audience is given time to ask questions after all the speeches have been made.
Finally, the debate is judged either by moderators or by an audience vote.
The aim of the teams in a debate should be to convince a neutral third party that they hold the stronger position.
How to Write a Debate Speech
In some speech contest formats, students are only given the debate topic on the day, and limited time is allowed for preparation. Outside of this context, the speech writing process always begins with research.
Thorough research will help provide the student with both the arguments and the supporting evidence for those arguments.
Knowing how to research well is a skill that is too complex to cover in detail here. Fortunately, this site also has a detailed article on Top Research Strategies to help.
There are slight variations in the structure of debate speeches depending on when the speech is scheduled in the debate order. But, the structure and strategies outlined below are broadly applicable and will help students to write and deliver powerfully persuasive debate speeches.
The Debate Introduction
As with many types of text, the purpose of the introduction in a debate speech is to do several things: grab the attention of the audience, introduce the topic, provide a thesis statement, and preview some of the main arguments.
1. The Attention Grabber
Securing the attention of the audience is crucial. Failure to do this will have a strong, negative impact on how the team’s efforts will be scored as a whole.
There are several tried and tested methods of doing this. Three of the main attention grabbers that work well are:
a.) Quotation From a Well-Known Person
Using a quotation from a well-known person is a great way to draw eyeballs and ears in the speaker’s direction. People love celebrities, even if that celebrity is relatively minor.
Using a quotation to open a speech lends authority to what is being said. As well as that, usually, the quotation chosen will be worded concisely and interestingly, making it all the more memorable and impactful for the audience.
Numbers can be very convincing. There’s just something about quantifiable things that persuades people. Perhaps it’s because numbers help us to pin down abstract ideas and arguments.
The challenge here is for the speaker to successfully extract meaning from the data in such a way as to bolster the force of their argument.
c.) The Anecdote
Anecdotes can be a valuable way to ease the audience into a complex topic. Anecdotes are essentially stories and can be used to make complicated moral or ethical dilemmas more relatable for an audience.
Anecdotes are also an effective way for the speaker to build a rapport with the audience, which, in turn, makes the task of persuading them an easier one.
2. Introduce the Topic
Once the audience’s attention has been firmly grasped, it’s time to introduce the topic or the motion. This should be done in a very straightforward and transparent manner to ensure the audience understands the topic of the debate.
For example, if the topic of the debate was school uniforms, the topic may be introduced with:
“Today, we will debate whether school uniforms should be compulsory for all high school students.”
3. Provide the Thesis Statement
The thesis statement should express the student’s or the team’s position on the motion. That is, the thesis statement explains which side of the debate the speaker is on.
This statement can come directly after introducing the topic, for example:
“Today, we will debate whether school uniforms should be compulsory for all high school students. This house believes (or, I believe…) that school uniforms should not be compulsory for high school students.”
4. Preview the Arguments
The final part of the introduction section of a debate speech involves previewing the main points of the speech for the audience.
There is no need to go into detail with each argument here; that’s what the body of the speech is for. It is enough to provide a general thesis statement for each argument or ‘claims’ – (more on this to follow).
Previewing the arguments in a speech is especially important as the audience and judges only get one listen to a speech – unlike a text which can be reread as frequently as the reader likes.
After explaining the different types of attention grabbers and the format for the rest of the introduction to your students, challenge them to write an example of each type of opening for a specific debate topic.
When they’ve finished writing these speech openings, discuss with the students which of these openings works best with their chosen topic. They can then continue by completing the rest of the introduction for their speech using the format as described above.
Some suggested debate topics you might like to use with your class include:
- Homework should be banned
- National public service should be mandatory for every citizen
- The sale of human organs should be legalized
- Artificial intelligence is a threat to humanity
- Bottled water should be banned.
The Body of the Speech
The body paragraphs are the real meat of the speech. They contain the in-depth arguments that make up the substance of the debate.
How well these arguments are made will determine how the judges will assess each speaker’s performance, so it’s essential to get the structure of these arguments just right.
Let’s take a look at how to do that.
The Structure of an Argument
With the introduction out of the way, it’s time for the student to get down to the nitty-gritty of the debate – that is, making compelling arguments to support their case.
There are three main aspects to an argument in a debate speech. They are:
1. The Claim
2. The Warrant
3. The Impact
The first part of an argument is referred to as the claim. This is the assertion that the argument is attempting to prove.
The warrant is the evidence or reasoning used to verify or support that claim.
Finally, the impact describes why the claim is significant. It’s the part of the argument that deals with why it matters in the first place and what further conclusions we can draw from the fact that the claim is true.
Following this structure carefully enables our students to build coherent and robust arguments.
Present your students with a topic and, as a class, brainstorm some arguments for and against the motion.
Then, ask students to choose one argument and, using the Claim-Warrant-Impact format, take a few moments to write down a well-structured argument that’s up to debate standard.
Students can then present their arguments to the class.
Or, you could also divide the class along pro/con lines and host a mini-debate!
This speech section provides the speaker with one last opportunity to deliver their message.
In a timed formal debate, the conclusion also allows the speaker to show the judges that they can speak within the set time while still covering all their material.
As with conclusions in general, the conclusion of a debate speech provides an opportunity to refer back to the introduction and restate the central position.
At this point, it can be a good idea to summarize the arguments before ending with a powerful image that leaves a lasting impression on the audience and judges.
The Burden of the Rejoinder
In formal debates, the burden of the rejoinder means that any time an opponent makes a point for their side, it’s incumbent upon the student/team to address that point directly.
Failing to do so will automatically be seen as accepting the truth of the point made by the opponent.
For example, if the opposing side argues that all grass is pink, despite how ridiculous that statement is, failing to refute that point directly means that, for the debate, all grass is pink.
Our students must understand the burden of the rejoinder and ensure that any points the opposing team makes are fully addressed during the debate.
When preparing to write their speech, students should spend a significant proportion of their team collaborating as a team.
One good way to practice the burden of the rejoinder concept is to use the concept of Devil’s Advocate, whereby one team member acts as a member of the opposing team, posing arguments from the other side for the speaker to counter, sharpening up their refutation skills in the process.
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Debate: The Keys to Victory
Research and preparation are essential to ensure good performance in a debate. Students should spend as much time as possible drafting and redrafting their speeches to maximize their chances of winning. However, a debate is a dynamic activity, and victory cannot be assured by pre-writing alone.
Students must understand that the key to securing victory lies in also being able to think, write (often in the form of notes), and respond instantly amid the turmoil of the verbal battle. To do this, students must understand the following keys to victory.
When we think of winning a debate, we often think of blinding the enemy with the brilliance of our verbal eloquence. We think of impressing the audience and the judges alike with our outstanding oratory.
What we don’t often picture when we imagine what a debate winner looks like is a quiet figure sitting and listening intently. But being a good listener is one of our students’ most critical debating skills.
If students don’t listen to the other side, whether by researching opposing arguments or during the thrust of the actual debate, they won’t know the arguments the other side is making. Without this knowledge, they cannot effectively refute the opposition’s claims.
Read the Audience
In terms of the writing that happens before the debate takes place, this means knowing your audience.
Students should learn that how they present their arguments may change according to the demographics of the audience and/or judges to whom they will be making their speech.
An audience of retired school teachers and an audience of teen students may have very different responses to the same arguments.
This applies during the actual debate itself too. If the student making their speech reads resistance in the faces of the listeners, they should be prepared to adapt their approach accordingly in mid-speech.
Practice, Practice, Practice
The student must practice their speech before the debate. There’s no need to learn it entirely by heart. There isn’t usually an expectation to memorize a speech entirely, and doing so can lead to the speaker losing some of their spontaneity and power in their delivery. At the same time, students shouldn’t spend the whole speech bent over a sheet of paper reading word by word.
Ideally, students should familiarize themselves with the content and be prepared to deliver their speech using flashcards as prompts when necessary.
Another important element for students to focus on when practising their speech is making their body language, facial expressions, and hand gestures coherent with the verbal content of their speech. One excellent way to achieve this is for the student to practice delivering their speech in a mirror.
Debating is a lot of fun to teach and partake in, but it also offers students a valuable opportunity to pick up some powerful life skills.
It helps students develop a knack for distinguishing fact from opinion and an ability to assess whether a source is credible or not. It also helps to encourage them to think about the other side of the argument.
Debating helps our students understand others, even when disagreeing with them. An important skill in these challenging times without a doubt.
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The content for this page has been written by Shane Mac Donnchaidh. A former principal of an international school and English university lecturer with 15 years of teaching and administration experience. Shane’s latest Book, The Complete Guide to Nonfiction Writing, can be found here. Editing and support for this article have been provided by the literacyideas team.