The Basics of Debating


It is better to debate

The Basics of Debating


This article sets out what is expected of speakers in a debate and how the adjudicator assesses their effectiveness in arguing their team’s case. The article, by the late Freeman Derek Walker, originally appeared in the Informer in 1996. It is reproduced here, with minor modification, as an acknowledgment of Freeman Derek’s contribution to Rostrum and as an aid to the speakers involved in the Humorous Debate at Club 15’s Comedy Night on 2 May.

Debates are held between two teams (one for the ‘affirmative’ and one for the ‘negative’) each consisting of three speakers. The topic to be debated is always couched as a statement, e.g. ‘That modern man is insignificant’ with the affirmative team arguing for the proposition and the negative team against it. Each speaker has a specific function to fulfill in order to achieve a convincing argument that can successfully refute that of the opposing team.

The following notes are from Freeman Kevin Myers’s Guide to Debaters and Adjudicators. (Kevin Myers was a life member of the WA Debating League, captain of the WA state team 1972-76, and President of the Australian Debating Federation 1977-82.)


First Affirmative

  • Should introduce the subject to the audience, define any difficult and technical words and phrases and if the subject proposition is capable of two or more meanings or interpretations, indicate which meaning or interpretation the affirmative’s side proposes to adopt; reasons should be given.
  • Should then outline briefly but clearly the team’s case and indicate which aspects it is proposed shall be covered by the team’s second and third speaker.
  • Should develop his/her own point and conclude with a brief summary and concluding remarks.

First Negative

  • May commence with a relevant introduction which should be followed by an acceptance or rejection of the first affirmative’s definitions and interpretations.
  • If modified or rejected should put forward the definitions and interpretations which the negative team considers should be adopted; reasons should be given. Where the team considers that all subsequent arguments will depend on the interpretations adopted, may be content with dealing with that issue, otherwise should strongly attack the essence ‘if disputed’ of the first affirmative speech and any other major point of the same which the negative team contests.
  • Should not indulge in detailed criticism of lesser or minor points.
  • Should then outline his team’s case and proceed as for the first affirmative.
  • Should not, however, allot a point of the case to the third negative because that speaker cannot introduce new Matter.

Second Affirmative

  • May commence with a relevant introduction which should be followed by a taking up of the main point in issue and not be content with criticism of lesser or minor points.
  • Should endeavour to re-establish or consolidate the affirmative interpretation and the team’s main points if they are in dispute.
  • Otherwise, should strongly attack the essence or the major point or points ‘if disputed’ of the first negative speech.
  • Should then develop in detail the point or points allotted to him by the team leader and finish with a brief summary and concluding remarks.

Second Negative

  • May commence with a relevant introduction which should be followed by taking up of the main points in issue; could endeavour to re-establish or consolidate the negative interpretation and the team leader’s main points if they are disputed.
  • Otherwise, should attack the main points, if disputed, of the affirmative case so far and in more detail than the team leader.
  • Should then proceed as advised for the second affirmative.

Third Affirmative

  • May commence with a relevant introduction.
  • Should then take up the main points in issue, whether on interpretation or otherwise. Should strongly attack the opposition case with or without specific reference to the individual members of the opposing team.
  • May introduce new Matters in support of the affirmative team’s case. If allotted a section of the affirmative case, should develop it.
  • Should summarise own team’s case and opposing case and should compare and contrast the two and endeavour to show his team’s case is superior.

Third Negative

  • As for the third affirmative, except that cannot introduce a new Matter, unless it be by way of rebuttal. It is emphasised that there need not be a sharp line of demarcation between criticism and the development of new Matter. Criticism, defence, and new Matter may be interwoven.
  • Further, it is not essential that the third affirmative speaker be allotted a point of the team’s case.


The system of marking for debates is completely different from that used by critics in judging competition speeches. The adjudicator has to decide which of the two teams performed better by allotting a mark to each team out of a maximum of 300, of which 100 marks are apportioned to each speaker on the following basis:

MATTER – maximum 40 marks.  Matter is the substance of the speech (what is said).

MANNER – maximum 40 marks.  Manner is the style of the speaker (how it is said).

METHOD – maximum 20 marks.  Method is the form of the speech (how it is set out).

While Matter is a major consideration, it is not the only one. Two speakers may use exactly the same words, yet one may be impressive and persuasive and the other dull and uninteresting. Again, one speaker may use the same arguments, but the one who sets out his work in an orderly and clear fashion and relates his argument to his team’s case will be more easily understood.

Each of the sections is important and collectively they cover all aspects of a debating speech that need to be considered by the adjudicator. The team which puts forward the better argument is not necessarily the winner because although it will have better marks for Matter it may be weaker in Manner and Method. In the same way, the best speaker may be in the losing team because that team as a whole was inferior.

MATTER is the substance of the speech – the facts, arguments, and examples which a speaker uses to support his case. The adjudicator is looking for cogent, logical reasoning, based on any or all of the following: common sense, general knowledge, ordinary beliefs, attitudes or feelings, and quoted authority.

Although a speaker may use any Matter that he feels will help prove his point, he should make sure that it is logical, relevant, and seen to be relevant. There are three useful tools a debater may use as supporting material but they each have pitfalls.

Examples and illustrations. These are an important part of a debater’s Matter as long as they are used correctly and make his argument more convincing. But beware! While an example may be used to illustrate an argument it should not be used as a basis for an argument. It is incorrect to draw a conclusion from an example; for instance, because all cats have four legs and a cat is an animal, it does not follow that all animals are cats!

References and quotations. A speaker should also be careful when quoting authorities. Basing a whole argument on quotations is a trap some debaters fall into. A quotation often only proves that the person quoted shares the debater’s beliefs and it is quite possible to find wide differences of opinion between experts in the same field. To be effective keep quotations brief and from authorities that are acceptable to an audience with reasonable general knowledge.

Analogies. These should be chosen carefully, and once they have served their purpose of illustrating the debater’s argument should not be extended. For instance, an analogy likening a government to a ship or state foundering on the rock of distrust is reasonable; however, to extend it by describing government politicians who vote with the opposition as taking to the lifeboats brings the debater into dangerous waters (pun intended!) where the temptation to extend the nautical analogy even further can completely confuse the audience.

The criterion that an audience applies in deciding whether Matter is acceptable is whether or not it would appeal to and be understood by the average reasonable person – the man or woman in the street. Any argument relevant to the subject and which would appeal to the average person is given credit by the adjudicator. An adjudicator who happens to have expert knowledge of the subject and can see a flaw in the argument should not allow this to influence his or her judgment. The debate is between two teams, not between the teams and the adjudicator.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Matter is that it should be relevant. The most logically argued point is of little use if it is not relevant to the topic being debated. Adjudicators will condemn Matter which is irrelevant, vague or contains unsupported statements, assertions, or sweeping generalisations.

Following on from this, an argument which may be logical and relevant is of no use if it is not seen by the audience to be relevant. This occurs when a speaker leaves the audience to draw its own conclusions from the argument; almost invariably it won’t or they will be the wrong ones!

Finally, the opposition team should answer any relevant argument; if it doesn’t, the argument is presumed to have been conceded. However, a negative team should realise that it cannot rely solely on a refutation of the affirmative team’s case. It has to put up an argument of its own proving that the topic under debate is not true. Unlike in a court of law, the onus of proof is on both the affirmative and the negative teams.

Equally important is the MANNER of a speaker – how he or she delivers a speech. Here the adjudication of a debating speech is on common ground with that of a Rostrum competition speech, where ‘Impact on the Emotions’ considers the visual and vocal impact on the audience and the speaker’s empathy with, and appeal to, it.

Of these probably the most important is the vocal impact, the use the speaker makes of his/her voice. The speaker should be audible to the whole audience, which doesn’t mean deafening those at the front to ensure those at the rear can hear.

Clarity of speech, in articulation and pronunciation, is essential; too many speakers tend to drop their voices on word or phrase endings and a speaker’s credibility with audiences slips when words are mispronounced.

The speed of delivery should be at a normal conversational rate, with variations to keep it interesting. An unvarying pace, especially too fast or too slow, leads to audience confusion or boredom. Speeches delivered like bullets from a machine gun give the audience no time to take in what is being said, while too slow a pace can send it to sleep in between phrases.

Pauses and emphasis should be used to highlight important points; a flat monotone delivery with no highlights risks the audience missing the points that are important.

Should a speaker use notes? No adjudicator will penalise a speaker for using notes as long as they are used effectively and don’t distract the audience. Ideally, if a debater has prepared his case thoroughly, notes could be dispensed with, but if notes are required, they should be in the form of palm cards, consisting only of keywords or phrases to jog the memory. Adjudicators will penalise debaters who read large parts of their speech from notes and for too frequent reference to them. While this applies equally to judging both competition speakers and debaters, there are certain factors that make it vital for debaters not to have large portions of their case written out.

First, the need for rebuttal of an opponent’s argument often needs to take preference over a pre-written speech; second, a speaker reading from notes loses the spontaneity that makes for a convincing argument; third, too great a dependence on notes means the speaker loses eye contact with the audience and hence loss of empathy with it, and it’s the audience (including the adjudicator) that the debater is trying to persuade with his argument.

Other critical aspects of Manner are stance and gesture. A debater’s stance should be comfortable (which doesn’t mean hands in pockets) and should convey a look of confidence (but not arrogance!) It’s also advisable to forget any thoughts of striding about dramatically à la Geoffrey Robertson conducting a Hypothetical – it may look good on TV but it doesn’t translate to either a debate or a speaking competition. All it does is distract the audience. Gestures should be used naturally to emphasis particular points. Meaningless and repetitive gestures should be avoided at all costs – they too only serve to distract the audience.

The third element of a debater’s speech is METHOD. Because Method only attracts a maximum of 20 marks compared to 40 each for Matter and Manner, it tends not to be regarded with so much importance. However, those marks on the adjudicator’s sheet are vitally important, because without good Method, Matter will suffer.

Method is the form of a debater’s speech, i.e. how it is set out and covers its basic structure, how it fits into the team structure and how it responds to the exigencies of the debate. The adjudicator has to judge whether the speaker‘s arguments were set out in a logical and orderly fashion and whether they had an organised plan for development, with an effective introduction and conclusion. Did the speaker carry out the tasks expected of him according to his position in the team; did he take up the points at issue and apportion his time wisely among those various points; above all, were the main issues duly emphasised?

Debaters should always remember that they are members of a team and not there to give unconnected individual speeches. A debate is between two teams, where teamwork is vital, so the speeches should complement one another and lead to a presentation of a total case.

Adjudicators will judge individual speeches in this framework.

From Rostrum Informer March, 2017.

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