Speak for Yourself

Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!

Help! I have to be in a debate

Since JFK and Nixon got it started, TV debates are a political reality. They’re now also becoming common in public and corporate life.

I’m a  great believer in debating as a life skill, and I am thrilled to see it happening so much, but if you’re over 35 (especially if you’re female) you may very well have shunned school debating (too emBARRAsing). So When your CEO, or the head of your industry association asks you to debate at the corporate retreat, or the next big conference, it might be your first time.

So what are you going to do? This is a cry for help  I’ve received a few times lately.

Here is the first of two posts to get you started.

How the game is played

Just settle in and bear with me – it’s not as complex as it sounds. It’s basically just a series of speeches where the ‘Pro’ alternates with the ‘Con’. A bit like tennis, if you don’t counter a point made by your opponent, you have  lost that point. It’s  exactly as if you’d failed to return the ball in a tennis game.

The 1st speaker for the affirmative (sometimes called the government, or the proposition) opens with a speech. They are followed by the 1st negative (opposition), who is in turn rebutted by 2nd affirmative, who is rebutted by the 2nd negative. The  3rd speakers (if there are any) repeat this process and the final speaker summarizes the debate overall.

Each speaker (except 1st Affirmative) should spend about one third of their speech refuting the opponent who spoke before them. The rest of the time is for putting forward your own case.

Once you know how debating works, my advice is to think about three things:

  1. the content,
  2. the process and
  3. being ‘on’

Content: Unless you’re a political candidate, in a public debate you are usually meant to be amusing yet also to make a worthwhile point. So first figure out your main thesis or key message. Select  these  on the basis of what your audience will be interested in.

Depending on time you can make up to three points – not more. People can’t retain much in their heads– a few points will be plenty. The extent to which you elaborate on each point is at your discretion. You can be brief or go in-depth depending on whether you have ten minutes to fill or two.

Like any speech you need some good facts and information, and a conviction or point of view. It may sound obvious but you need to have something to say.

You need an arresting opening. Try telling them something they don’t know – statistics and ‘hey martha!’ style tidbits are very impressive and will shock people into paying attention.

Use ‘PRE’ as a structure, that’s Point Reason Example. You make a point, give some reasons for it and discuss it, then exemplify it. Examples  illustrate and in a sense prove the  point. People love them, so have plenty.

To attack your opposition takes skill , you have to listen and think on your feet. However, usually you can predict at least some of what they will say, so ‘pre-cook’ your arguments ahead of time and keep them up your sleeve, ready if needed.

Open your speech with a summary of what the previous speaker said but from an angle that shows they are wrong. Point our the flaws and the fallacies, and the awful consequences of what they want to do. The extent to which you are witty, or ridicule or make fun of them is entirely up to you, depending on the nature of the occasion.


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This entry was posted on 14/09/2011 by in Confidence for Speakers, Debates, Preparing a speech, Presenting a speech, Public speaking and tagged .

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