Notes on debating


  1. General principles
  2. The five basic gestures
  3. Tasks of speakers
  4. Six main types of rebuttal
  5. six main categories of debating topics

General principles

Basis of debating is the ability to communicate orally. Same general principles as for normal public speaking. Key aspects include:


speed of delivery


clarity of expression



use of the pause


use of humour

choice of language

sentence approach


use of repetition

use of notes

eye contact


facial expression


The five basic gestures

(Note. The original document contained images illustrating the following five points.)

1. The open hands on the crucifix (both hands): Hands are open to the audience and held at shoulder height, with elbows tucked into the body. This is often the most appropriate gesture to adopt at the outset of a speech. The body is open to the audience and the hands show that they are not hiding anything, other than perhaps some notes.

2. The test for rain (one or two-handed) The hand is open to the audience, held at waist height, and in front of the body. It is a 'hands out in front' appeal to the audience for their support. This inclusive gesture seeks to make the audience feel you are at one with them.

3. The light bulb point (either hand): One hand is held up at shoulder height with one finger pointing upwards and the rest of the hand clenched. This is a powerful gesture implying insight and conviction. It can be used to reinforce a strong point, with the finger waved in a confident fashion.

4. The fine thread extrusion (either hand): One hand is held up at shoulder height with all fingers forming an arc to the thumb. This is a precise gesture implying a mastery of the detail and technicalities of the particular argument. It can be used to explain complex details or to point out opponents' errors.

5. The clenched fist (either hand): One hand is held up at shoulder height in the form of a clenched fist. Without doubt, this is the most overused of the gestures. While it can be used to imply conviction and force, it should be used sparingly throughout a speech and is generally most appropriate for moments of aggressive refutation.

Tasks of speakers

First Affirmative

This speaker has three main duties:

(1) Introducing the subject. This should include such elements as what might have inspired the subject and why it should be debated.

(2) Defining the subject. The affirmative interpretation should be clearly set out and justified. The team case should then be outlined, followed by a clear allocation of what the first two affirmative speakers will consider.

(3) Presenting substantive material. The first affirmative should then present their own substantive material

First Negative

This speaker has four main duties:

(1) Dealing with the affirmative definition. The affirmative definition should either be expressly accepted or rejected. If it is rejected then a reason for this must be given, followed by the negative's alternative definition and justification. The use of the 'even if' technique will usually be appropriate.

(2) Examining the affirmative case. The structural flaws in the affirmative's case should be analysed and the substantive material rebutted.

(3) The negative case. The negative team case should then be outlined, followed by a clear allocation of what the first two affirmative speakers will consider.

(4) Presenting substantive material. The first negative should then present their own substantive material.

Second Speakers

(1) Addressing issues in dispute. If there is any disagreement about the definition this should be dealt with first, followed by a general analysis of the other side's case and rebuttal of its main points.

(2) If necessary, rebut any rebuttal of one's own case that was provided by the other side. Speakers should be wary of spending too much time on this task, however, in that it may make them appear to be on the defensive.

(3) Presenting substantive material. The second speakers should then present the substantive material which they have been allocated.

Third Speakers

The third speakers must compare and contrast both cases, highlighting the strengths of their own case and the weaknesses of their opposition. Third speakers must not introduce new material.

Six main types of rebuttal

(1) Error of fact

This rebuttal involves demonstrating that an opposing argument is based on an error of fact, or an erroneous interpretation of fact.

(2) Irrelevancy

This rebuttal depends on showing that an argument that has been made by the opposing team is irrelevant to the issue under debate.

(3) Illogical argument

This type of rebuttal involves showing that the opposing argument is illogical (that is, its conclusion does not flow logically from its premise). The key to this type of rebuttal is to apply clear, simple, logical analysis.

(4) Unacceptable implications

Sometimes you may be willing to accept that an opposing argument is logically correct but should be rejected because it involves unacceptable implications. This style of rebuttal often arises when a debate calls for a comparison of unlike things (most often comparing something with an intangible value - like someone's life - with a dollar cost).

(5) Little weight

Sometimes you can undermine an opposing argument by showing that, while it might be correct, it should be accorded little weight.

(6) Contradictions and inconsistencies

A common form of rebuttal involves pointing out contradictions, changes in definition and case and inconsistencies between speakers. This category of rebuttal is central to debating. It is essential to listen to every word of every opposition speaker. Crucial aspects of their speeches should be recorded word-for-word (for example, the definition, justification and case) so that later inconsistencies and contradictions can be shown. Few teams will flagrantly contradict themselves so it is essential to 'listen between the lines' to ascertain exactly what they are saying.

[In all of the above, always consider the following questions:

Is what the opposition seeks to prove the same as what we believe it must prove?

Are the opposition's arguments true on face value?

Do these arguments prove what the opposition seeks to prove?

Are there counter-examples that disprove what the opposition seeks to prove?

Have they been consistent in their argument?

Even if what the opposition is saying is correct, what flows from that? Have they proved what the subject requires of them?]

Six main categories of debating topics

(1) 'Too' subjects, paradoxes and literally true subjects


That the press is too free.

That too many cooks spoil the broth.

That we take sport too seriously.

That there is too much violence on television.

(2) 'Better than' and other comparisons


That it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.

That a carrot is better than a stick.

That it is better to steal than to beg.

That sport is better than school.

That pollution is worse than unemployment.

That the Olympics would be better if they were always held in Athens.

(3) Identity subjects: X is Y


That tradition is the enemy of progress.

That television is the opiate of the masses.

That feminism is at a dead end.

That old age is death.

That freedom of the individual is a myth.

(4) Conformity subjects, analogies and the word 'should'


That we should rock the boat.

That we should sit on the fence.

That we should go with the flow / swim with the stream.

That we should go in the doors marked 'out'.

That we should kill Dr Marten.

(5) Subjects discussing failure


That feminism has failed.

That the United Nations is a failure.

That democracy is failing.

That the sexual revolution was a flop.

(6) Negative subjects


That Uncle Sam should no longer be our uncle.

That truth no longer matters in advertising.

That the public service isn't.

That there is no case for terrorism.

That men are not to be trusted.

Taken from: The Sport of Debating: Winning Skills and Strategies by Jeremy Philips and James Hooke UNSW Press 1998

Back to Rostrum 4