One of the hallmarks of a Classical education is learning how to debate in high school. To be proficient at this, students must learn good debating techniques that help them dissect the topic they’re studying. Good debating skills will give students the confidence to approach many topics and deal with them in an informed way. In this article, we aim to teach students some debating tips to help them learn how to think more critically about many subjects.
Specifically, we’ll talk about:
- Offensive Debating Tactics: Debating Tips to Attack Your Opponent’s Topic
- Defensive Debating Tactics: Debating Tips to Protect Your Topic
- Other Debating Skills
- The Benefits of Learning Classical Debating Skills and Techniques
Let’s get started!
Debating Tips and Techniques
The 10 best debating tips and techniques are:
- Preparation of your topic
- Stay on topic
- Speak slowly, clearly and charismatically
- Be confident with your topic
- Think about your body language and what it’s saying to your audience
- Listen and take notes
- Anticipate your opponent’s questions before they’re uttered
- Tell a story or give an illustration with an example to make your point
- Use a strong conclusion
- Don’t take cheap shots at your opponents
We’ll look at these in more detail below.
Offensive Debating Techniques: Debating Tips to Attack Your Opponent’s Topic
Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
This point is arguably the most important debating skill of them all as it affects many of the other debating techniques. For instance, if you prepare your material well, you’ll be confident and more believable.
You’ll also be less likely to go down rabbit holes, yet more likely to give a clear and cohesive illustration of your point.
If you can, try to jot down three points for your argument and three points against your argument. The latter tip means you’ll also be able to anticipate your opponent’s views and be able to better rebut them when they say them.
Stay on Topic
You only have a limited amount of time to state your case. If you use that time going off-topic, you lose valuable time. Stay on topic by telling your audience your three points, elaborating on them further as time permits.
Another great debating tip is to add three more points to your first three points (again, this is very much time-dependent). This will help you stay on topic too.
Speak Slowly, Clearly and Charismatically
When students are new to debating or public speaking, they often speak hurridly or mumble.
This isn’t very attractive or charismatic behaviour for a speaker and, in the long run, it makes it harder for the audience to like you or want to agree with your points.
When debating, you want to be amicable and likeable. People want to be on your side when you have charisma.
Be Confident With Your Topic
If you look like you believe what you’re saying, your audience will also have confidence that you know what you’re saying and you have a basis for it.
Conversely, if you look nervous or you seem like you don’t really believe what you’re saying, your audience isn’t going to be filled with confidence in you or your message. So, be confident with your message. It’s one of the best debating techniques of the lot!
Of course, you’ll feel most confident when you’ve prepared for your subject well – so don’t neglect preparation. One debate site put it like this: Always act like you’re winning, even if you’re not.
Think About Your Body Language
Another great debating technique is to make sure you’re using your body language to agree with the points you’re making. Make sure your body indicates confidence by:
- Looking at your audience and opponents in their faces (a look, not a stare is what you need here)
- Using your arms to talk
- Smiling (where appropriate)
- Keeping a relaxed posture
- NOT folding your arms
- NOT looking at the ground
When your team member is making their case, make sure you nod and agree with their points.
Your Audience and Judge’s Body Language in Debate
Also, ensure you’re thinking about your audience and judge’s body language. If you do this, you’ll be able to see if are you getting:
- blank stares of boredom – which means it’s time to make an illustration and spice up your argument or make it more cogent
- a look of anger or frustration – which means it might be time to tone down the rhetoric or think about another angle
- rapt attention and interest – which means you’re on the right track. Continue with what you’re doing!
Your audience’s body language can tell you a lot about whether your message is being received well, so definitely want to keep an eye on that.
Defensive Debating Techniques: Debating Tips to Protect Your Topic
Listen and Take Notes
Be careful to listen to the main points of your opponent’s arguments.
Don’t try to take notes on everything; just jot down the major arguments so you’ll be able to rebut this at a future time. Also, note down any weakness in their logic that can be rebutted.
When You’re the Stronger Debating Partner…
When you’re debating on a team where you’re the stronger debater, make sure you’re not trying to answer the points that have been addressed to your weaker partner’s points.
Instead, make sure you compare notes in the interim (while the opponent is speaking), showing your weaker partner how they might best score points.
In this way, you’re teaching your weaker partner to stand up and learn debate skills themselves instead of trying to prop up their argument. If you’re on a team with them in the future, you’ll find your partner is better than they were when you started.
Anticipate Your Opponents Questions Before They Come
If you’re in a debating competition, you want to anticipate your opponent’s questions in addition to the judge’s or audience’s questions.
The Rhode Island Urban Debate League had these debating tips and tricks about considering the thinking about topics comparatively:
Every argument that you make, at the end of the round, will be compared against something the other team said. If you’re affirmative, for example, you should always be thinking in the mindset of “how does my plan compare to the status quo?” [i.e., doing nothing, what the negative frequently advocates]. For both sides, the most effective way to do this is through impact calculus. You should always be weighing the relative importance of arguments, especially ultimate impact claims against each other. A nuclear attack by terrorists because of the collapse of the Pakistani state is undoubtedly extremely bad, but is the spread of nuclear weapons to many more states even worse? If you make comparative claims about why your arguments matter more than the other teams, you can win the debate round even if the other team wins their arguments! A good flow will help you keep track of the arguments.
Other Debating Tips
Tell a Story or Give an Illustration with an Example
If your audience doesn’t look convinced, yet you feel like your argument is convincing and you know the debate topic well, tell a short story (very short) or give a quick illustration to make your point.
Forming a picture in your listener’s eyes can do a lot as ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’.
If your audience is also suffering from a somnolescent attitude, a story might help pique their interest once again and get you in their good books.
Use a Strong Conclusion
Even if a person wanders a little in their debate, a person with good debating skills can finish nicely with a strong conclusion that states their thesis point and main points clearly.
If this is done with confidence, a lot can be forgiven!
Also, if you’re taking part in a debating competition, you want to look the judges squarely in the eye as you send your point home.
When Debating, Don’t Take Cheap Shots
Avoid taking cheap shots at your opponents as the audience might just think you’re a jerk. This also indicates that you’re arrogant and you don’t care for your opponents.
As a debater, we’re not called to agree with our opponents all the time. However, we can still love them and deal amicably with them. After all, your opponent might be on your side one day!
Specifically, don’t take cheap shots by:
- Making fun of a speaker when they’re nervous or they’ve made some fault
- Making racial slurs or commenting on a person’s physique or background
- Don’t heckle your opponent while they’re speaking – this is rude and shows you are ill-mannered
- Taking the other person’s words out of context – this is infuriating to your opponents and your judges may not be too happy when they discover this
This all comes down to being the better man (or woman). Be gracious to your opponent in all situations, even if they’re rude.
But, perhaps this isn’t just a debating tip – it’s a general lesson for life.
The Benefits of Learning Classical Debating Skills and Techniques
The benefits of learning debating techniques are many. Here is a list of the benefits you’ll find when you debate:
- Improved critical thinking skills as students evaluate the topic and research it beforehand
- Debtors acquire better poise, speech delivery, and public speaking skills
- Increased student information retention as students engage in active learning over passive learning
- Improved listening note-taking skills. To rebut well, students have to listen to their opponents closely and take clear and precise notes.
- Increased self-confidence. After debating for a while, students relax and become more confident in what they’re doing. This leads to more self-confidence in general.
- Enhanced teamwork skills and collaboration. Debating is a great way to bond with those around you, especially those in your team!
- Learning better ways to graciously state one’s point with gentleness. While we often find informed minds in society, we don’t always find these people have gentleness. Similarly, we may find gentle minds, but not always informed minds. Having both characteristics is rare and beneficial for all listeners.
- Help students identify holes in their theories and concoct more balanced arguments. When we debate, we have to humbly admit that we’re not always right and that our arguments could use a little change. Debate helps us refine our arguments as such.
- Help students better structure their thoughts. Often we derive arguments based on our emotions, unexamined beliefs, experiences or (even worse) hearsay. Debating helps us put our thesis on the table while other people go to work on picking that theory apart. If we’re humble, we emerge with an argument that stands up more rigorously to testing.
- Debating is lots of fun! Not only is debating another way to educate yourself, but students also get a lot of enjoyment out of the process.
- More confidence to stand up for the truth when a discussion is promoting falsehoods or inaccuracies. This is the ultimate aim that homeschooling parents desire. We don’t just debate for debating’s sake – we debate to teach a skill – and this is it.
You can look at the benefits of debating more closely in the article, 10 Benefits of Debating in the Classroom: Importance of Debate in Education.
A Book With Debating Tips and Tricks
A book with some good debating tips is The Debater’s Guide, Fourth Edition. This book (whose first edition was written in the 1960s) is aimed at students who are debating in a team – that is, professional debating. It shows students how to:
- resolve the key problem faced by debaters
- present arguments forcefully and clearly while answering criticisms effectively
- build a case, step-by-step
- review strategies for refutation and defence
- engage in cross-examination
- do solid research
- think critically about the topic at hand.
It also shows you how to budget your limited time and organize your thoughts with an outline.
The Debater’s Guide is also practical as it gives you engaging examples and graphic presentations. It’s a relevant book as it’s geared towards college and high school debating (which is where formal debating happens most).
Not only can you learn plenty from learning classical debating techniques, but you can also have plenty of fun as you learn how to use your words to their full potential. Debating tips you learn in the classroom can also be invaluable as you learn to navigate the real world and make your points known without giving undue offence to your listeners. Debating skills also weed out your ‘not so amazing’ arguments to help you develop a more rounded worldview.