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! Clues for the clueless.

Debates have always been political reality.  Televised debates between candidates began with JFK and Nixon, and are now a staple of any election campaign (in case you haven’t noticed). More widely, the format has found favour and gained popularity so that we’re seeing much more debating in public and corporate life than we did a decade ago.

I’m a dedicated believer in debating as a life skill, but the problem is that not everyone has had the chance to acquire it.  Especially if you’re over 35 (and even more especially if you’re female) you may have shunned school debating in favour of sport, because back then debating was for dags. When your CEO, or the head of your industry association asks you to debate at the corporate retreat, or the next big conference, you can’t very well say  “sorry chump, I’m no dag”, you have to say “thanks” while you fight inner panic because  it’s your first time and you haven’t a clue where to start.

So what do you 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.

1. How the game is played

Debates are a series of speeches designed to prove a proposition or make a case. Speakers alternate so that Pro and Con take turns and are heard more than once, the arguments developing and being refuted as the debate proceeds.

There are different formats – like the “Town Hall” style we see in the US Presidential debates, or  British Parliamentary (2 sides, 4 speakers). In Australia we generally debate three to a side.

The 1st speaker for the affirmative (sometimes called the Government, or the Proposition) opens with a speech which argues the case for something or other. They are followed by the 1st negative (Opposition), who counteracts those arguments and makes their own case against something or other . This is in turn rebutted by 2nd affirmative who is rebutted by 2nd negative, the 3rd speakers (if there are any) repeat this process and the final speaker summarises the debate overall. Zig Zag Zig Zag.

Think of it as  verbal tennis. Affirmative serves and Negative returns. If you let a point go un-adressed, you’ve lost that point. If you’ve rebutted it effectively, you’ve won that point.

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

Debating is NOT a thoughtful exploration of issues. It’s an argument.  You must be  looking out for the clash between your views and  your opponent’s, and you must be unafraid of a (verbal) head-on tackle. You cannot win by asserting opinions. You must use logic and reason and evidence to  substantiate those opinions because without these you are not convincing.

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 will really tell the story. People love them, so have plenty.

2. How to prepare

To get ready, think about three things: content, process and being ‘on’. For now we’ll just deal briefly with content.

Content: Unless you’re a political candidate, in a public debate you are usually meant to be amusing yet also to make a real point. 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. So figure out your main thesis or key message. Select themes on the basis of what your audience will be interested in. Refer to my 6 step series on how to develop a script for more specific ‘how-to’ details.

Depending on time you can make up to three points – not more. People can’t retain much – 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.

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

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.

In my next post I’ll talk about how to get yourself and your team mates organised, and how to handle yourself up front or on stage.


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This entry was posted on 18/10/2012 by in Debates, Political speeches, Preparing a speech, Presenting a speech, Public speaking and tagged .

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