The nuts and bolts of debating: how to select, prepare and deliver a great debate

Don’t let the public nature of debating overwhelm you. We’ve rounded up our top tips to help you prepare and deliver a memorable debate, without the angst.

students debating at school
Gillian Birrell BA, Master of Teaching (Secondary) Monday, 4 November 2019

Aristotle once said, “it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Debating offers this very opportunity – to question your views, challenge your thinking and thoughtfully consider other points of view. It is a fantastic activity to gain confidence speaking in front of others, learn to build an argument and develop your critical thinking skills. So, let’s break down the key components of preparing a great debate. 

Step one – topic selection

Select a topic that sparks controversy, has two sides and is relevant to today. Start by engaging in current issues, watching the news and reading the newspaper. The aim of debating is to convince your audience of your point of view. So, select a topic that is accessible to the everyday person. A topical issue makes it easier to find relevant resources. Echo Online is a useful resource for debate topics organised by year. Your school may already subscribe to this service – you can see a sample list of media issues here. Another fabulous resource is,a database of hundreds of debating topics organised by theme. Both of these websites include background information on topics, and proposed affirmative and negative arguments to use as a starting point for your own debate.

Debating organisations, such as The Debater’s Association of Victoria (DAV), also have topic archives which you can explore. The DAV often encourages students to examine a topic’s implied problem and solution. For example, the topic That school uniforms should be abolished implies that uniforms present an issue – they are conformist and prevent students from demonstrating their individuality. The proposed solution is the abolition of this practice. The two debating teams therefore have to consider whether the proposed solution effectively addresses the problem. Is abolishing uniforms the best way to address students’ need to express their sense of self?

The scoring of a debate is typically divided into three areas of adjudication – matter, method and manner. Matter refers to the content of your speech, method is the structure and how you organise your arguments and manner relates to delivery.

 Step two – matter

  • Start by defining the topic. Identify the key terms so that you know exactly what you are arguing. This ensures all team members are on the same page. 
  • Brainstorm all arguments in support of your team’s contention. Consider all the stakeholders related to the topic and who stands to be impacted by your proposal.
  • Research widely. Any argument you make needs to be supported by reliable and convincing research. Without evidence, you are simply offering an opinion which doesn’t carry weight in a debate. Credibility of sources is also important. Name your sources to  give your evidence validity and make it more compelling. While some facts and figures will likely be useful, don’t be limited by statistics. Consider expert opinions, research studies and analogies to other topics.
  • Think about what other persuasive techniques you will use to promote your argument. Appeals to reason, rhetorical questions, inclusive and emotive language are all effective language techniques to persuade your audience. Avoid personal stories as these are not real evidence and won’t be relatable to your audience.
  • Consider a model for your team’s case, particularly if you are the affirmative team. This is a detailed plan of how you would enact your team’s case. Take the example, that school uniforms should be abolished. Ideally, a speech in favour of this topic could include a model of how this abolition will be successfully established, for example, with a clear dress code for students. Explaining how you will implement what you are proposing will give your team’s case more weight.
  • Anticipate what the opposition may say and address these points in your arguments. This will be helpful when it comes time to rebut the opposition’s arguments. It will also show that you have considered counterarguments and may serve to undermine the opposition’s case from the outset.

Rebuttal is your opportunity to respond to the opposition’s arguments and to offer counterarguments. Every speaker in a debate will engage in rebuttal, except for the first affirmative speaker who opens the debate. Ideally, your rebuttal will be somewhat pre-prepared. As a team you should have already considered what the opposition might say and have made notes in response (this will make your job on the day far easier). Remember to not only argue against the opposition’s point but reinforce why your argument is better. 

Third speakers can consider using thematic rebuttal. It’s far easier than it sounds and involves dividing all of your rebuttal points into the key themes of the debate (for example, economic arguments, social arguments, etc). 

Rebuttal takes practice and the more you try it, the more you will enjoy it. Debating is a team activity and you should help each other respond to the opposition. Depending on the rules of your debate, you can often write notes during and pass these ideas to your team members.

Step three – method

The structure of your speech will depend on your speaker role (i.e. first, second or third speaker), and whether you are on the affirmative or negative team. The Debater’s Association of Victoria has a useful resource that outlines what each speaker should cover.

 Regardless of your speaker role, the structure of your speech will be similar to that of an essay. It should include an introduction, body of main ideas and brief conclusion. Make it clear when you are starting a new argument with phrases such as, ‘my second argument is…’

For your opening, use the first moments of your speech to say something captivating. Avoid welcoming every individual in the room. It is far more important to get to your point and use every second available to you to say something meaningful. 

First speaker

If you’re the first speaker, you might begin with a simple ‘good evening,’ state your contention and then briefly define and contextualise the topic. You will also need to outline your team’s split – the key arguments to be discussed by your first and second speakers. Your most compelling arguments should appear first. 

Second speaker 

Begin your speech with your rebuttal points. Then make 2-3 arguments to support your team’s case.

Third speaker 

The majority of your speech will be made up of rebuttal. Third speakers cannot raise new material; your job is to respond to the opposition and summarise your team’s case.

Step four – manner

Just as important as what you say is how you say it. Your delivery is key to convincing your audience of your point of view. Here are some helpful tips:

  • Aim to avoid reading your speech. 
  • Use cue cards with dot points if you feel able, or at the very least make sure that you use frequent eye contact to engage your audience. 
  • Don’t address the opposition directly. 
  • Using pauses and varying volume are both effective ways of getting your point across. 

Confidence and assertiveness are key but go gently on yourself as these are also things that develop with time and practice. It’s more important to adopt a style of speaking that feels comfortable to you. 

The great thing about a debate is that different speakers bring their own character and experience to the floor. Regardless of your topic, try to show passion in your speech. It will be much easier to convince others if you yourself believe what you are saying.

Cluey Newsletter

Our expert tips. Your inbox.

Follow us on Facebook