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20 Tips for Debating Like a Boss



A debate is a formal discussion or argument that often takes place in a public forum. Rules for debates can vary, but the most basic objectives are to present points and rebut an opponent's points.

Tips for Presenting Your Points

1. Have zingers ready. Think up a few dramatic one-liners and jot them down on a note card. Save a few for rebuttal time.

2. Prepare for sweating and shaking. If you are worried about sweating, shaking, or stammering your way through your debate, prepare by identifying your biggest potential weakness and taking steps to minimize it. You can dress in layers to keep from sweating too much or purchase extra strong anti-perspirant. You can avoid soft drinks and caffeine and take other measures to avoid dry mouth. Keep a pencil in your hand if you are worried about the shaky hand look.

3. Use eye contact. Even if you have to look down at your notes, be sure to look up once in a while and look your opponents right in the eye.

4. Use statistics that you can defend and cite. It’s easy to find statistics to support your cause. You can’t make an impressive argument based on feelings alone. Some science will make you come across like a real pro.

5. Be ready to defend your sources. You must use sources that are reliable and respectable, and be prepared to highlight your quality sources if your statistics are challenged.

6. Use organized notes with large headings.  Prepare your notes so that you can go back to a certain topic quickly when your position is challenged. You can use color coding or large headings to help you consult your notes quickly as necessary.

7. Save the best for last. It’s good practice to use your strongest points at the end of your presentation. Start strong and end strong, just as you do in any speech.

8, Practice your timing. You don’t want to make the mistake of ending too quickly or droning on too long. Practice stating your points beforehand and use a timer to make sure you don’t end up with dead air time or you don’t get cut off before using your best points.

9. Prepare a clever opening and a dramatic closing. It’s pretty common knowledge that speeches are considered to be successful if they have the following traits:
  • Start strong.
  • Don’t go on too long.
  • Finish strong.
This means that it’s in your best interest to prepare a great start and a great finish first. Then fill the middle with points that you can back up with research.

10. Avoid dry mouth. Keep a bottled water on hand if it’s allowed, and avoid carbonated drinks before the debate to avoid dry mouth. There are plenty of tricks to looking cool when your knees are knocking.

Tips for Rebutting Their Points

11. Research the opposition. Your opponent will be making some very predicable points, so you should research those points thoroughly long before your event. Come with a stack of rebuttal note cards. Use them to address his/her points one by one and point out the weaknesses and back them up with statistics, when possible.

12. Predict their zingers. The other side is always going to come with a good, solid argument. A zinger is a one-liner that highlights your opponent’s best point (or your biggest weakness) in a dramatic way. Try to predict potential zinger material and prepare for a comeback.

Be totally prepared to respond to challenges. In addition to preparing your own zingers, you should also prepare to respond to zingers that take you off guard. Here are a few things you might say when you’re caught off guard:
  • I’d like to see your source for that information
  • I think you’ve misinterpreted your data
  • That is an opinion and not a fact
  • You have misrepresented my point
  • It sounds like you have cherry-picked your evidence
  • That topic requires more research for a fair assessment
13. Recognize Common Fallacies.  Fallacies are are statements based on false logic, or arguments that just don’t add up and don’t stand up to logic. As you prepare to debate issues with an opposing side, you should study common fallacies and be prepared to call them out when you hear them. A few examples include:
  • Appeal to Authority: You must believe X is true because the principal thinks X is true.
  • Hasty Generalization: The new rule created by the school board is unfair. Therefore, all rules that come from the school board are unfair.
14. Don’t panic and give yourself time.  There is no reason to speak quickly, although you may feel pressured to complete your sentences when all eyes are on you. To the contrary, you should become comfortable with pausing. If you need time to process your thoughts, simply pause and think. then proceed. A pause can actually be a very effective tool.

15. Practice admitting you’re wrong. It is very possible that you will get something wrong. If you can go into a debate knowing this, you will be much calmer as you speak, and much calmer when someone points out an undeniable fault in your claims.

It is not the end of the world if you are wrong on a point. It is inevitable, in fact, that your opponent will say something that suggests your are wrong (and in the heat of a debate, you may not be able to defend yourself).

Prepare for the moment when your opponent points out a real flaw in your argument. Here are a few suggestions for handling this situation with grace:
  • My research suggests something very different from what you are suggesting, but I will certainly look into your claim.
  • Obviously, we have a difference in opinion on this topic. We must agree to disagree.
  • I challenge the credibility of your sources. 
  • I acknowledge your concerns, but I don’t believe you have all the facts on this topic.
  • Do you have any sources for your claims? 
  • Even if you are correct on (whatever they are challenging), the fact remains that I am right in my position.
16. Scour your own weaknesses. Face it: every positing has its controversial or weak points. Do your homework when it comes to any potential weaknesses in your stance. Prepare yourself to defend the challenges that you are sure to face. 

If you are a supporter of the death penalty, for example, be prepared to address the common problems that are associated with this position—like the fact that some innocent people receive this sentence. Consider how you would respond to popular challenges to your position.

17. Don't make funny faces. You may be tempted to frown or look shocked at something your opponent says. Funny faces just make you look funny. 

18. Look confident and speak with confidence. Once in a while we all stop and think "What am I saying?" You may find that you're wandering into the weeds or you're trying to say something that doesn't even make sense to you--it happens when we speak under pressure. If you find yourself in this situation, just move ahead, get out of the weeds, and look confident. 

19. Be polite but firm. This is good advice for any time you disagree with somebody. You'll look like a winner if you manage to keep your cool.

20. Enjoy yourself. You will win some and you will lose some. Don't get too tied up in the result, or you'll just make yourself more nervous. 


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