Tips for Debaters

Harry Greenwell, Rose Driscoll, Emily Byrne and Madeleine Moss

April 2001


1 Introduction *

2 Overview: how adjudicators make their decisions and how they mark *

2.1 The decision *

2.2 Marking *

3 Speaker roles *

4 An Introduction to Manner, Matter and Method *

4.1 Matter *

4.2 Manner *

4.3 Method *

5 Conduct *

6 Common debating mistakes *

6.1 Definitions *

6.2 Summaries *

6.3 Points of information (for Murray and Douse) *

6.4 Case statements *

6.5 Palm cards *

6.6 Teamwork *

7 Guide for preparing for secret topic debates *

8 Rebuttal *

9 Points of Information (for the Murray, Douse and Crime Prevention competitions) *

9.1 Formalities *

9.2 Typical points of information: *

10 Recognising generic topics *

10.1 Is/ought (or normative/empirical) topics *

10.2 Big red ball topics *

10.3 Prohibition topics *

10.4 ‘X is a failure’ topics *

10.5 ‘That we should fear X’ topics *

  1. Introduction
  2. These notes are intended as a resource for school debaters. They identify a number of specific areas of debating, like rebutting, preparing for secret topic debates and using palm cards. The intention of most sections is to identify the basic principles of good debating that students should be aiming for and, where possible, to suggest some practical ways of addressing these principles. The first section, on how adjudicators make their decisions, has a different role. It is a guide for people new to debating, so that they understand the process an adjudicator is likely to follow in making a decision.

  3. Overview: how adjudicators make their decisions and how they mark
  4. An standard adjudication will provide:

    The following discussion focuses on how adjudicators reach their decision and how they mark. It should be emphasised that these notes are a guide only and that adjudicators may adopt different approaches at times if they feel this is appropriate.

    1. The decision
    2. An adjudicator should take the standpoint of the ‘disinterested average reasonable person’ in assessing the arguments and presentation in a debate. Thus, the adjudicator’s own opinions, specialist knowledge or tastes should not influence how they view the debate. There will usually be more than one feature distinguishing the two teams. Common distinguishing features generally correspond to the components used for marking: matter, manner and method. For example, one team may win because:

      • on critical issues that team presents a superior case (matter); or
      • whilst the two cases are of comparable strength, that team had stronger rebuttal and points of information (matter); or
      • the presentation of that team was more engaging and convincing (manner); or
      • the structure and consistency of that team, either within each speech or throughout the speeches, was superior (method).

      By contrast, ‘technical’ faults are unlikely to be decisive in themselves although they may contribute to decisive considerations. For example, poor timing is a technical fault but it is usually associated with poor structure and prioritisation, which will have an impact on method. Similarly, the absence of a case statement is a technical fault but it is usually associated with looseness in the focus and clarity of arguments, which may affect matter and method.

      In making a decision, adjudicators attempt to weigh up the major substantive features distinguishing the teams throughout the course of the debate. In particular, they will attempt to avoid the ‘crescendo effect’ – the effect a good third speaker can have in making a team’s argument seem much stronger than it previously appeared. Debating is a team effort and can rarely be won or lost by one team member alone.

    3. Marking
    4. The most important part of marking is the result, then the margin, then the speaker scores, then the component scores (for matter, manner and method). Consequently, please do not place too much weight on individual scores and particularly on component scores – feedback from adjudicators is much more valuable.

      Whilst a speaker receives a score out of 100 (40 for matter, 40 for manner and 20 for method), the convention in debating is as follows:

      80 = an outstanding speech, excellent in every respect;

      75 = a good, average speech;

      70 = a poor speech in every respect.

      In the ACT, adjudicators are expected to award marks in the 70-80 range and correspondingly, to mark the components in the range 28-32 (matter and manner) or 14-16 (method).

      There is also a requirement about the margin of victory. Again, debating convention has set certain interpretations for different margins:

      1 = an extremely close win

      2-3 = a close win

      4-6 = a clear win

      7-8 = an emphatic win

      9-10 = the two teams were of entirely different standards

      Margins of 9-10 and individual scores of 70 or 80 are very rare, reserved for exceptional occasions. Where the individual scores suggest too large a margin (given the above interpretations), adjudicators will always fudge the marks. Similarly, if component marks suggest too large a total score, the component marks will be fudged. For this reason, students and teachers should place more emphasis on qualitative feedback than speaker scores.

  5. Speaker roles
  6. These points outline the bare bones of each speech. A speaker who covers all these points will have fulfilled the basic requirements of a good debating speech.

    1) Present rebuttal: thematic rebuttal should address the key issues of the debate, relating the arguments and counter-arguments of the affirmative and negative.
    2) Summarise: third speakers should allow time for a careful and convincing summary their team’s main arguments and the significant issues in the debate.

    Note: third speakers are not allowed to introduce any new matter into the debate.

  7. An Introduction to Manner, Matter and Method
  8. This is a brief overview of the major elements within a debating speech, those being manner, matter and method (for further information regarding the construction of speeches, please refer to section three – Speaker Roles). ACTDU is also currently working on a publication of ‘core competencies’ that will available in the near future, these will offer a much more detailed account of these areas.

    1. Matter
    2. Matter’ refers to the arguments presented by the speaker. Good matter involves convincing, logical arguments supported with clear, relevant examples, analogies or statistics.

    3. Manner
    4. ‘Manner’ refers to the presentation of a speaker’s arguments. The key to good manner is that a speaker engages the audience, thereby making their arguments more convincing. Different speakers may successfully engage the audience in different ways – a variation of styles is encouraged. However, there are some basic techniques that will usually assist the presentation of a speech. Speakers should make eye contact with the audience and the adjudicator. Speakers should speak clearly and should have some variation within their speech. Variation might include changing the pace of delivery, changing the volume of delivery or pausing for effect.

    5. Method

    ‘Method’ refers to the structure of arguments presented by a speaker. For each speaker, good structure involves identifying the key issues, addressing them without repetition and allocating the most time to the most important issues. For the team, good structure involves a series of speeches that present a consistent and coherent set of arguments. Team structure is assisted by a good ‘case statement’ and ‘case division’. Method varies within each of these areas, but ultimately, relies on the principle of being ordered and clear in the way that you present your arguments.

  9. Conduct
  10. It is important that people enjoy debating as much as possible. For this reason there are a number of guidelines that debaters should be aware of regarding conduct within a debate

    1. Swearing in debating is strongly discouraged. If a debater accidentally swears, adjudicators would be unlikely to deduct marks, however, if swearing is frequent or deliberate, adjudicators would be justified in taking off manner marks.
    2. Adjudicators are able to call order. If debates become rowdy or heated, if points of information continue for too long, if a speaker is being harassed by the other team or if there are interjections then the adjudicator may call order. If this occurs, everyone except the speaker should be quiet, in the case of points of information, they should not be offered for, at the least, a few moments.

    Running a case that is overtly sexist, racist or discriminatory is strongly discouraged. It is acknowledged however, that sometimes it can be a fine distinction between running an extreme case and an offensive case. We ask students and teachers to exercise careful judgement in these matters. Furthermore, it must be noted, that if any person, whether a debater, the adjudicator or a member of the audience, finds an argument to be offensive then a complaint can be made to the duty officer which will then be reported to the ACTDU committee.

  11. Common debating mistakes
    1. Definitions
    2. Debaters often define topics word-by-word, even using a dictionary. Occasionally a discussion of key words in the topic may be useful but this should only occur to the extent that it helps elucidate the issue for debate.

      Example One. On the topic ‘That Australia should become a republic’, the affirmative might elaborate on the key word ‘republic’ so that the issue of the debate is argument where the affirmative will support the replacement of the Queen and governor-general with a head of state elected by two-thirds of parliament.

      Example Two. On the topic ‘That we should swim against the tide’ the affirmative is likely to identify the issue as non-conformity. They may then try to create the issue at a general level – that is it better not to conform. Alternatively, they may choose to narrow the topic to a topical issue of non-conformity, perhaps whether Australia conforms to international norms. Thus, the issue would be revolve around the affirmative’s argument that Australia should, in several specific ways, ignore or reject various international norms whilst the negative would argue that Australia should embrace those norms. (Note: this example is more sophisticated than what we would expect from any school debater.)

    3. Summaries
    4. Debaters often fail to summarise or summarise very briefly. A good summary can add considerable cohesion to a speech and a debate.

    5. Points of information (for Murray and Douse)
    6. Debaters new to points of information often fail to offer many points during the debate. They should offer roughly two per opposing speaker. Whenever they hear a bad argument, they should be encouraged to formulate a short response in their head and then jump up and say ‘point of information’. (See section 8 for more on points of information.)

    7. Case statements
    8. Some debaters do not give a case statement, more often debaters give a case statement but fail to it as the focus for their arguments. The case statement should be an all-encompassing reason for the team’s position which serves as a prop for all other arguments. Used well, it provides valuable cohesion and clarity to a team.

      Example Three: The affirmative case statement to ‘That the Greens have failed’ may be that the Greens have failed because the Greens are too radical. The first half of the division might be that the Greens are too radical to win media support and this has meant that they have failed to fulfil their goals. The second half might be that the Greens are too radical to win popular support, again causing them to fail to meet their goals.

    9. Palm cards
    10. Young debaters frequently rely too heavily on palm cards, to the extent that some even type the whole speech out. This should be strongly discouraged as it inhibits successful debating. (See section 7 for techniques for teaching the use of notes.)

    11. Teamwork

    Debaters may often present good individual speeches but not work well as a team. If joint preparation time is limited, it should be concentrated on developing a case statement and case division that team members will stick to and then team members should compare speeches shortly before the debate so that they can summarise one another’s arguments effectively.

  12. Guide for preparing for secret topic debates
    1. Brainstorm definition (5 minutes): What is the issue to be debated? What will the affirmative have to argue on this issue? What will the negative have to argue? Discuss this together so that all team members have the same conception of what the debate is about.
    2. Brainstorm arguments (5 minutes): individually, think of any relevant arguments; scribble them down; if possible, try to group them logically.
    3. Pool ideas, identify main arguments (10 minutes): Run through the arguments by each speaker, trying to identify any similar or common arguments. Group similar arguments together, try to find a natural division. Seek a foundational argument or reason that underpins the other arguments – this will be the case statement. At this stage, the team should also confirm the definition.
    4. Prepare speeches (20 minutes): first and second speakers should work on their speeches, constructing main arguments and developing sub-arguments and examples or analogies to support them. The third speaker should be ready to share ideas and otherwise should be anticipating the possible arguments of the opposition.
    5. Compare (10 minutes): Make sure that each team member understands all the main arguments and that the speeches are all relevant to each other. Prepare case summaries.
    6. Anticipate rebuttal (5 minutes): Discuss possible arguments of the opposition and possible rebuttal.
    7. Fire up! Give yourself time to collect your thoughts and convince yourself of your case.

  13. Rebuttal
  14. Rebuttal is one of the most important parts of debating. It refers to the response that debaters make to the arguments of the opposing team. Different speakers should handle rebuttal slightly differently (for example, the rebuttal by a first negative should be brief enough to allow the negative to develop their own case fully, see section three – Speaker Roles – for more details). However there are some key aspects within effective rebuttal that can be identified regardless of where a person speaks within a debate.

    Firstly, ‘thematic rebuttal’ is always more effective than ‘point-by-point rebuttal’. Point-by-point rebuttal refers to simply responding one by one to the arguments presented by the other side. There are a number of problems associated with this type of rebuttal. Firstly, it is very easy to miss an argument that may become important later on in the debate. Secondly, it can take a very long time to get through all of the arguments presented by the opposition, and this takes away valuable time from the team’s substantive matter.

    A much more effective, fast and comprehensive approach to rebuttal is thematic rebuttal. That is, identify the major themes within the opposition’s case and attack those. In using thematic rebuttal, a speaker can also much more readily identify and address the key issues in the debate. A good analogy for rebuttal is that of a tree. The case statement and relevant themes of a case are the trunk, the arguments are the branches and the examples used are the twigs. If you wanted to knock the tree down, it makes a lot more sense to go straight for the trunk, rather than breaking off the twigs and branches. Indeed, sometimes it is appropriate to ignore the twigs and smaller branches (the examples) to give enough time for attacking the trunk and main branches (the main arguments).

    For example, suppose that an affirmative team presented the following arguments for the topic ‘That physical education should be an elective’.

    1. Students have a right to choose other subjects so why not physical education?
    2. Students are exposed to unnecessary risk of physical injury.
    3. Students can get sporting involvement outside the school in extra curricular activities.
    4. There is poor funding within schools even for maths and science, let alone physical education. These other subject should have priority.
    5. There is a shortage of qualified physical education teachers

    Rather than responding to these arguments one by one, it is better to group them into two themes: for example the interests of the students (arguments 1, 2 and 3); and the concerns of the schools (arguments 4 and 5).

  15. Points of Information
    (for the Murray, Douse and Crime Prevention competitions)
    1. Formalities
    2. Points of information are only offered to opposing speakers. To offer a point of information the ‘offerer’ should stand in her/his place, say ‘point of information’ and wait. The speaker will either:

      • accept the point straight away;
      • ask the offerer to wait, and then accept the point; or
      • decline the point, in which case the offerer should sit down.

      If a point is accepted, the offerer has roughly 10 seconds to make a point that is short, pertinent and possibly witty. Most importantly, it should be short. Points of information afford enough time for one or two sentences only so a significant skill is being able to get a powerful point out briefly. This really is the same skill as the politician’s ten-second sound bite.

      Speakers should usually accept 2 points of information during their speech (more will than two usually interferes with structure, timing and therefore method; less than two will usually look cowardly and may affect matter). Debaters should offer at least 2 points per opposing speech. There is no maximum except for politeness – offering too many points too quickly will be interpreted as badgering and may lose manner marks.

    3. Typical points of information:
    4. Clarification of the definition. Eg, ‘Point of information: what sort of republic do you support?’

      Counter-example. Eg, ‘Point of information: you say that sanctions work but sanctions have been imposed on Cuba for more than 30 years.’

      Drawing attention to a forgotten argument. Eg, ‘Point of information: when will you respond to our argument that the media won’t give the Greens favourable coverage because the Greens are too radical?’

      Bad logic. Eg, ‘Point of information: your first speaker said that we should be tough on dole bludgers but now you’re saying that Work for the Dole is the best way to help them. Surely you can’t have it both ways.’

      Clarification of test. Eg, ‘Point of information: do you have a test for determining whether the Greens have failed or are you just going to give us a shopping list of examples?’

      Clarification of model. Eg, ‘Point of information: are you saying that in your proposal for drug law reform, all drugs would be legal?’

  16. Recognising generic topics
  17. Many topics have a similar structure and therefore the same style of preparation and argument can often be applied to them. The following list is merely illustrative of the way topic types can be analysed.

    1. Is/ought (or normative/empirical) topics
    2. Normative topics are topics about what should be the case, empirical topics are topics about what is the case. Thus, ‘That we should reform the welfare state’ is normative whereas ‘That the welfare state is alive and well’ is empirical (the issue in the latter topic involves an analysis of what ‘the welfare state’ commonly refers to and whether current policies meet this description). Empirical topics often contain a normative component. For example, ‘That Australians watch too much sport’ requires an analysis of how much sport Australians watch and whether this is too much.

      Normative topics often require a ‘model’. A model is a specific proposal, usually to be implemented by an organisation (eg, the Government, the church, the UN, the international community) that provides more detail about the issue to be debated. Thus, in a debate about the republic, it is necessary to introduce a model of what sort of republic is being supported. A negative team should present a counter-model, although often that will just involve supporting the status quo. For example, the affirmative in a drug law reform debate might propose that, to address drug-related problems, marijuana be decriminalised. The negative can just support the current system and say they support the current emphasis on policing. Models are useful because they clarify the issue of the debate. Essentially, they are just an extension of the definition.

      Empirical topics often require a test (or burden of proof, or yardstick). A test is a measure against which a claim can be established. For example, ‘That the Greens have failed’ requires a test of failure. This might hinge on electoral impact, it might hinge on popular support and changes in attitudes, it might hinge on legislative change or it might be a combination of all three. Another example, ‘That Australians watch too much sport’ requires a test of ‘too much’. This might focus on the point where the personal effects of TV watching are deleterious or circumstances where the societal effects of TV watching are deleterious, or both.

    3. Big red ball topics
    4. (eg That the United States is an evil empire)

      To show that something is a big red ball, one must show that the thing is: big, red and a ball. So, ‘big red ball topics’ refer to topics that require the affirmative to prove several points. Often, only one of these points becomes an issue in the debate but the affirmative must begin by arguing all points. Furthermore, the points should not be split between speakers, that is, the team should not set the first speaker to prove the thing is a red ball and the second speaker to prove it is big. This is a ‘hung argument’ and is strategically weak because the case is not proven until the end of the second speech. Case divisions should identify two arguments that independently prove the case.

    5. Prohibition topics
    6. (eg That we should legalise prostitution, That pornography should be banned, That we should legalise marijuana, That we should ban land mines, That we should legalise euthanasia, That abortion should be illegal)

      All of these topics involve banning something or lifting a ban. There are several standard arguments in such debates.

      Argument one. Lifting a ban usually allows regulation of a previously unregulated activity, which could improve safety and allow for taxation (eg regulated prostitution means condoms and information on STDs can be provided to sex workers).

      Argument two. Bans don’t work, they just drive the problem into the black market. Typical example is the prohibition on alcohol in the US in the 1920s.

      Argument three. Bans send a strong moral message.

      Argument four. We don’t legalise things just because bans aren’t totally effective – otherwise we’d legalise murder!

    7. ‘X is a failure’ topics
    8. (eg That the Greens have failed, That feminism has failed, That economic rationalism is a failure)

      These topics ask us what X has achieved (an empirical question) and what X ought to have been able to achieve. The latter component is not really normative, although words like ‘failure’ and ‘success’ have normative overtones. What is important for discussing what X ought to have been able to achieve is a ‘test’ or ‘standard’ of what is achievable for entities like X. For example, on the topic ‘That feminism has failed’, the test of failure might be the inability to achieve substantial legislative or societal change regarding women’s rights. This still leaves the question of what constitutes ‘substantial change’ but the point of a test is to give a guide for interpreting vague terms like failure. A test cannot turn a vague term into a perfectly precise term.

    9. ‘That we should fear X’ topics
    10. (eg That we should fear the rise of Pauline Hanson, That we should fear the collapse of Indonesia)

      These topics ask us to speculate about what events X is likely to cause (which makes the topic similar to an empirical topic) AND to argue that those events are bad (giving the topic a normative component). Like ‘X is a failure’ topics, the normative component does not require a model. For example, the topic on Pauline Hanson does not require a discussion of an alternative to Hansonism. Instead, it requires an analysis of the merits of Hansonism.