How to Be a Good Debater

It doesn’t matter whether you’re debating from a podium or you’re just fighting with your mom at home: a few simple rules apply to arguing like a pro. When you use effective communication, a well placed argument, and really pay attention to what your opponent is saying, you can make just about any opinion sound like the right one.

Communicating Effectively
Follow the form, if debating formally. If you’re going to be debating in a formal setting, such as for a class or for a club, you’ll want to be sure you know how a debate actually works. Formal debates follow a formula, and you’ll want to know that formula like the back of your hand so that you’re prepared. It’s also important because breaking from the formula can lose you points.
Usually there is a statement and two or more teams or single debaters will be assigned to either agree or disagree with the idea. You’ll then take turns making your points according to a set period of time.

There are a couple of different debate styles (which determine the rules and how the debate works), so you’ll need to know which one you’re using in order to be clear on the rules. It’s a good idea to look into this well in advance and do some research online. Look for words like “competitive debate”, “Parliamentary debate”, or “Oxford debate”. These are some of the styles of debate you might encounter.

Keep calm. When you debate, stay calm. Don’t start shouting or get angry. This will show weakness to your opponent. Instead, keep your voice even and keep your facial expression neutral. This makes it much harder for your opponent to find what buttons they can press to make you trip up. If you’re having trouble staying calm, try focusing on your breathing for a minute or two.

Speak clearly. When you talk, speak clearly so that people can understand you. Speaking clearly also makes you sound smarter and more confident. Speak clearly by using a loud enough volume that people can hear you and then enunciate your words. Don’t mumble or slur your words but say each word deliberately and say each syllable carefully.
It’s easy to catch poor enunciation when reciting tongue twisters. Try this one: “How can a clam cram in a clean cream can?”[1]

Explain your logic. When you explain to someone how you arrived at the conclusion that you came to, deliberately and step by step, you’re forcing their brain to think in the same way that yours does. As long as your reasoning is at least good on the surface, this can be one of the most effective ways to bring someone over to your side of the argument.

Be respectful and fair. When you argue with someone, be respectful. Don’t insult them, talk over them, or judge them. Doing this can be seen as a sign that your argument isn’t very good, plus it makes people defensive and much less willing to listen to you or want to agree with you. You should also be fair in an argument. Don’t distort the facts. Use evidence against them that is recent and directly related, not old and “water under the bridge”.
A bad example of debating would look like: “Why should we listen to you? You broke the system last year when you were in charge of the project. You’d probably just ruin this too.”

A good example of debating would look like: “I know you’re really excited about this project but the situation is very sensitive. It would be better to use someone with more experience so that it can be done more efficiently.”

Act confident. Although you don’t have to actually be confident, acting confident can make you and your argument much more appealing and believable. When you don’t act confident, you communicate (even if it’s not true) that you don’t think your argument is a very good one. You can do some simple, easy things to make yourself appear more confident, though. Make eye contact with your opponent, as well as people in your audience if you have one. Don’t fidget, instead using your hands to talk or keep them pinned in front of you. Speak clearly and with purpose, avoiding filler language like “umm” and “ahh”. Just a few adjustments will have you seeming much more sure of yourself.

Choosing Your Arguments
Use arguments based on logic. Arguments based on logic, sometimes referred to as “logos” in the study of arguing, use examples and ideas which are rooted in simple, direct reasoning. These kinds of arguments are especially helpful when debating with someone who considers themselves smart and logical. They are also good for topics that are “serious” in nature, like politics and economics.
Try to use facts, statistics, and real life examples to make logical arguments.[2]
An example argument would be: “Evidence has shown that rates of teen pregnancy have decreased as more comprehensive sex education has become mandatory in schools. You can see in this chart….”

Use arguments based on emotions. Arguments based on emotions, sometimes referred to as “pathos” in the study of arguing, use appeals to people’s heart and emotions. These kinds of arguments are especially helpful when debating with someone who is prone to strong emotions (showing heightened joy and easily visible sadness). They are also good for topics that are “human” in nature, like arguments about social justice, discrimination, or current events with great tolls on society (like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict).
Try to draw on people’s hopes and fears. Use personal stories and try to make a personal connection with either your opponent or your audience by comparing the situation to something that is close to them.

An example argument would be: “Backing out now would pose an infinitely greater danger to us than if we stayed and tried to fix the problem. Untold lives could be lost if we leave but if we stay, then we can save lives.”

Use arguments based on authority. Arguments based on authority, sometimes referred to as “ethos” in the study of arguing, use appeals to your authority and credibility or that of another who supports your ideas. These kinds of arguments are especially helpful when debating with someone who is not as experienced in the field or who has a particularly weak argument. They are also good for topics that are “academic” in nature, like arguments about medicine, science, or history.[3]
Try to establish your credentials and elaborate on your experience when using arguments like these. Make sure ahead of time that your opponent is not significantly more experienced than you.

An example argument would be: “I’ve taught for over 30 years and I’ve seen all of these practices first hand. I know what works in the field and what doesn’t. Ideals and real life are two very different things.”

Winning a Debate
Do your research. The more prepared you are for a debate, the better you’ll do. If you really want to guarantee a win as much as possible, do your research. When you know a topic backwards and forwards and from all angles, you’ll be much better prepared to counter any argument your opponent might dream up. It’s especially important to know the most common arguments for and against both sides of the issue. When you know what your opponent is likely to emphasize, you’ll be able to explain why that’s wrong.
Avoid making websites like Wikipedia your main source of information. It’s a good place to start but you should fill in your facts from sources that are experts in whatever topic you’re trying to cover. For example, if you’re going to debate about economics, don’t quote a Wikipedia fact. Quote Alberto Alesina, one of the economics professors at Harvard and co-editor of a major academic journal on the topic.

Look for logical fallacies. Logical fallacies are when the line of reasoning that someone uses is wrong. Even though the conclusion might be right, the way of getting there is wrong. This can be used to shed doubt on their conclusion, making your argument look better. There are lots of different kinds of logical fallacies and you’ll want to study each one individually in order to learn to recognize and counter it.
One of the most common examples of a logical fallacy is called “ad hominem”, and is about attacking the person making the argument rather than the argument itself. This is often seen in politics. Think of it like “this guy is a jerk” vs. “there is no evidence that this plan will work”.

Another common logical fallacy is called “black or white”. This is when an argument is presented as having only two options, with the outcome they want being presented as the best one. This ignores middle ground and other routes, which may make more sense. Think of it like when you mom says, “You can get married and have children or you can die old and alone.” There’s probably some wiggle room in there, right?

Look for weaknesses in their argument. There are lots of ways in which someone’s argument can be weak. If you find those weaknesses, you can point them out, making your argument look stronger by comparison. Try: Look for places where they’ve not thought their course of action through to its logical conclusion. An example of this is the recent Supreme Court decision that companies can have a religion and that employees should be subject to the rules of that religion. That’s maybe more acceptable if the company is traditional Christian than if it’s outrageous Pastafarians, right?

Another sign of a weak argument is if they skim over a crucial point and use very little evidence to back it up. This is usually an indication that there is no evidence and they’re mainly drawing the conclusion that they want to draw. For example, someone arguing that guns prevent mass shootings and only using one example in favor of their argument is clearly missing how many examples go in the opposite direction. You want to lock in on that and talk about the evidence they passed over.

Keep the topic on track. This is when your opponent starts arguing about a subject separate from the topic you’re supposed to be debating. When a debate gets off track, that can be a sign that your opponent is running out of solid reasoning and beginning to break down. Keep an argument on track and you’ll be more likely to win. Ask yourself if the current argument ties directly back to the topic you’re supposed to be dealing with. If it doesn’t support one side or the other, the the argument is off track.
An example of this would be if you are arguing about whether guns prevent mass shootings and they start arguing that anyone that doesn’t like guns is racist.

Be forceful in turning the argument around. Call them out for changing the topic. This will point the behavior out to your audience and can make you look more confident and correct.

Do not ask “what if” questions. That’s an ancient debate tactic called baiting. And most debaters do not fall for the bait.

Make sure everybody can relate to and understand your argument. Using big words to enhance your argument does not make you appear smarter. It will just make less people understand you. Do not be afraid to use metaphors or everyday events to prove your point. It should be fine as long as you can explain how they relate to the debate.

Debating is not about convincing your opponent that they are wrong. It is about convincing your audience that your position is much more logical than your opponent’s, and showing them information that they mightn’t have known before.

If you are debating on a team, be careful not to make any arguments which will contradict your teammate’s argument, or otherwise place a burden on them.

Learn from your wins and losses.

Take your most important point you wish to prove and back it up with as many arguments as you can. Paint your audience “the big picture”. If you spend your time proving several points, that would mean less substance would go into each of them. Also, it gives your opponent more to work with, and at times it can make your argument seem contradictory. Take one big idea and stick with it throughout the whole debate.

There are a few websites online, which serve as a good practicing ground to perfect your arguments, such as OpenDebate, ConvinceMe, and Volconvo.

Treat your opponent and audience with respect, ALWAYS. They are the reason for debating!

Do not use word-for-word arguments. That would be called nitpicking, and that will confuse the audience of your overall point.

Do not excessively repeat your statements. If you statement did not get through to your audience, it is because you didn’t explain it well enough – not because they couldn’t hear it. If you do repeat your statements, make sure you can convince the crowd why it was worth bringing up a second time.

If your debating style is not working, try a new one. As said by Einstein, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result.

Do not use morality as an argument either. Your opponent or your own morals will not match the morals of audience as a whole.

Always keep a good face on. For example, imagine if you were on a debate with teams. Someone on the opposing team says something, and someone on their team looks like they speaker had made a serious mistake, like their entire argument is ruined. You’d become more confident, even if you don’t completely understand why. So, if a teammate of yours makes a mistake, avoid trying to correct them until they are done. If they are more of an ‘open book type’, then just fix it when your turn comes, so nothing goes wrong. However, you may want to check to see if they had good reason for it.

Avoid using profanities or any other offensive words. They will not prove your points. They will only distract and offend the audience.

Do not only provoke debates, AT ALL. Your arguments only hold merit if your opponent is willing to debate, and the audience is willing to listen. Which means, you should not go into public debates, and start random debates with strangers. They most likely will not know you are just trying to debate for sport, and will take it as a personal attack. If you do wish to debate, join a debate club.

Make sure all of your presented facts are correct.

Things You’ll Need
a notebook, for preparation

Related wikiHows
How to Talk Faster

Sources and Citations
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