Like other public speaking arts, academic debate requires dedication and practice to master. Your goal is to advance clear and reasoned arguments that support the side you've taken. However, you also combine your rhetorical skills with an ability to think on your feet, because the overall feel of the debate will dictate whether your team sticks with its prepared arguments or has to pursue a new line of attack that may open up.
Be an Active Listener
Pay attention to your opponents' arguments. The unsaid points are every bit as important as the ones the opposing team verbalizes, asserts world champion debater Connor Campbell in a March 2012 interview for the Toronto Star. Listen for gaps in logic, inconsistent statements or faulty reasoning. These moments often provide an opportunity to discredit your competitors' statements. Conversely, some points matter more than others, so you need not contest every one your opponent raises.
Find Reliable Sources
Scrutinize sources carefully to frame arguments. The more authoritative and recent the source, the more useful it may prove for your team's purposes, asserts the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues' manual "Learning to Debate: An Introduction for First-Year Debaters." Depending on what you find, you can include or eliminate additional sources for bias, relevancy or qualifications. Cite the author, qualification, date, website URL and page number in your notes so you and your fellow team members can easily find and review the material when preparing your arguments.
Monitor All Exchanges
Take detailed notes of all debate interactions. This process of "flowing," as it's called, is critical in framing and adapting your arguments, says former debater and coach Edward Schiappa in his white paper "Debate 101: 10 Steps to Successful Debating." Divide your notebook into four columns of "pro" and "con," respectively. Jot down each statement as the debate progresses, so you know which arguments have been answered.
Polish Your Speaking Style
Run through your arguments before an audience hears them. Crisp, punchy, jargon-free sentences work better than lengthy technical passages, as the association's manual suggests. Watch judges' expressions to determine how you should adjust your vocal tones. Aim for a relaxed, conversational speaking voice and a moderate pace in your delivery. Otherwise, you risk garbling or swallowing important words or phrases, and this can hurt your score. Maintain a firm posture and good eye contact, too, at all times.
Resolve the Issue
Demonstrating how your opponents' arguments fall short against the case you've made is an important aspect of debate. For best results, assign numbers for each supporting point of your case or each series of pro and con arguments, says Schiappa. Whatever source you cite, make sure to explain why it's more credible than the one that your opponent provides to rebut it. Depending on how your team is faring, you can reject the other side's point as false, or you can acknowledge it as true but assert that it doesn't prove your opponent's case.
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab -- Debate 101 -- 10 Steps to Successful Debating
- National Association for Urban Debate Leagues: Learning to Debate -- An Introduction for First-Year Debaters
- The Toronto Star: How to Win an Argument, From Toronto's Teen World Champion Debater
- Brad Calkins/iStock/Getty Images