Debating Resources for the World since 1994



Advice for International Debaters


Alfred C. Snider

Edwin Lawrence Professor of Forensics

University of Vermont


8 May 2002

Universidad Interamericana de Puerto Rico

Segundo Torneo Hispanoamericano de Debate




I feel honored to be asked to participate in this prestigious event. As a teacher with over 30 years of experience I would like to share with you some ideas that might improve your experience as a debater, judge, and coach now and in the future.

Please excuse me if you are already familiar with many of these concepts, but I want to make sure that I reach every student at their level of knowledge. For those of you who are interested in more detailed and advanced approaches to these issues, please see the resources listed at the end of this piece.




It is useful to understand the conceptual processes involved in a debate. Once again, this is a prescriptive approach to what a “good” debate should involve as opposed to the depths to which many debates can sink. These conceptual components are development, clash, extension and perspective.

Robert Branham, one of America’s leading debate proponents, originated this distinction in 1991:

If debate is “the process by which opinions are advanced, supported, disputed, and defended," the fulfillment of these actions in turn requires that the arguments of the disputants possess certain attributes. Thus, true debate depends on the presence of four characteristics of argument:

1. Development, through which arguments are advanced and supported;

2. Clash, through which arguments are properly disputed;

3. Extension, through which arguments are defended against refutation; and

4. Perspective, through which individual arguments are related to the larger question at hand (22).

In a debate ideas and positions are developed. This development involves description, explanation, and demonstration. In a debate about universal health coverage one does not simply state that it is a good idea, there is also an obligation to explain why we need this policy, what that policy will be and how it will operate successfully. Some specificity is always called for in a debate as advocates outline what it is they are in favor of and what it is they are opposed to.

In a debate ideas are refuted. This is the concept of clash. Those ideas presented by opposing advocates need to be examined with a critical eye, locating weaknesses, faults and inconsistencies in these ideas. We call this “clash,” in that opposing advocates must not just disagree, but must demonstrate the specific reason why they reject the specific ideas of opponents. In a useful debate the ideas of the other side cannot be ignored, but must be critiqued.

In a debate ideas are defended. This is the process of extension. When an opponent has criticized an advocate’s ideas, these criticisms should be answered. Arguments against an idea cannot be ignored, but must be answered. This process creates a cycle of critical analysis, where ideas are presented, refuted, defended, refuted again, and then defended again until the debate has concluded. This process creates a rich interchange of ideas that audiences and participants find to be some of the most intellectually stimulating experiences of their lives.

Finally, each debate should call for a decision. This is the process of perspective. The decision is the sum of the arguments and ideas presented. Some ideas are more important than others, and ideas in a debate can relate in complex ways. Debaters should assist the audience in weighing the ideas and issues so that a logical decision can be made.

The danger is that a debater will fulfill only some of these roles, and thus deliver an inferior performance. It is essential to present your ideas, defend your ideas, and clash with the ideas of others. Most importantly, it is essential for the debater, near the end of the debate, to weigh the issues and show that even if there is some merit to the ideas of the other team, the audience and judges should still agree with you.




One description I have found useful for students and judges is a simple checklist of behaviors that distinguish the good debater.  I was asked by several of the New York Urban Debate League coaches to come up with a list of characteristics that describe a good debater as well as those that describe a poor debater.  Since the debate is supposed to be won by the team who did the "better job of debating," these rather abstract and symbolic characteristics very often translate directly into competitive success. I also think they translate into success later in life.

The “Better” Debater

Š      Is a gracious winner and a respectful loser

Š      Gives strong rhetorical reasons for the probative force of his or her arguments.

Š      Makes needs of and benefits to others the focus of the debate through their arguments, instead of focusing on his or her own competitive triumph

Š      Argues through excellent evidence, but always makes argument the focus, not evidence.  These good debaters use evidence to support their own arguments and do not assume the audience recognizes the importance of their arguments.

Š      Debates dynamically, with enthusiasm and commitment

Š      Sees the big picture, is aware of how ideas influence one another, and uses those relationships to enhance analysis in the debate

Š      Knows the value of having a working command of the knowledge base. There is no substitute for knowing what it is you are debating about

Š      Understands the need for organization in order to identify the critical tipping points in the debate

Š      Portrays an image of an intelligent person who is seeking to understand and discover the truth

The “Less Skilled” Debater

Š      Becomes frustrated when debate success isn’t easy or automatic and loses the benefits of debating through lack of determination

Š      Whines that everything is against her or him: judges, situations, other teams, fate

Š      Fails to show respect to all participants -- opponents, judges, audience, and hosts.

Š      Speaks from a position of privilege - demanding that you trust and accept their ideas over those of others without demonstrating why

Š      Fails to make connections between various issues and arguments in the debate

Š      Speaks only in generalities or only in specifics, not understanding that both the big picture and the minutiae are important at all times

Š      Fails to have fun in the debate because of an overly competitive nature or disinterest

Š      Fails to pay rigorous attention to the judge’s critique, learning neither from failure nor successes

Š      Fails to focus during the debate at hand, allowing their mind to wander and be distracted by outside events




The terms “government,” “affirmative,” and “proposition” all refer to the team that agrees with the topic statement, and “opposition” and “negative” refer to the team that disagrees with the topic statement.

Building a case

         Teams advocating the government or proposition side of the topic should conceptualize and organize their research into the format of the case.  The case is a cohesive set of arguments that justify the side of the topic that they have been assigned.  More importantly, the case allows debaters to choose the ground that they would like to defend.  The debate case allows debaters to focus in on the arguments that they think are important and how they get to interpret the topic of the debate to defend these arguments.  The case is important because it sets up the framework for the rest of the debate. 

         Usually the government or proposition team will present their case in the form of three or four major arguments, which are clearly labeled and introduced to the audience in a clear fashion. Making a debate case composed of such major arguments depends in large part on the kind of topic being debated. 

For a policy based topic or when calling for a change or advocating some transformation, then the problem and solution format works best.  In this situation they want to clearly outline the problem that calls upon us to make a change, their specific plan, and the reasons why their solution will solve the problem.  Students may also want to aware of the reasons why the solution is yet undone (ignorance, lack of political will) and be aware of any additional benefits that might stem from their advocacy.

An example is a debate on the topic of “Educational reform is justified”.  An affirmative side might want to argue that the educational system should support same-sex based educational institutions.  If this were their case, then the affirmative team might want to outline the harms of a co-educational system, particularly outlining the damage done to women.  They might propose that the government provide funding for women-only educational institutions.  Then they would want to present arguments that proved that the solution they have chosen would solve the problem they outlined.

For a value resolution, it is generally accepted to have a criteria-based case.  In this case, one would want to provide a way to evaluate the values in the round.  Because debates of value are extremely subjective, it is important to establish a way for everyone to think about the arguments in the debate.  This means providing criteria for judgment.  This might be as simple as suggesting that the debate round be judged on a particular value. 

Consider a debate on the topic “The body is sacred”.  An affirmative team might want to use this to argue that against recreational tattooing and piercing of the body.  In which case they might want to frame the debate using the criteria of bodily integrity.  They would build their case by defining the notion of bodily integrity as the highest value in the debate round.  They would talk about religious traditions that hold the body to be a gift from a higher power, and the practical dangers associated with piercing and tattooing (infection, disease).  A negative team can present a counter-criterion that clashes with the affirmative’s chosen criteria.  In this example, a negative team might want to argue in favor of personal freedom as being the highest value in the debate.  After providing the importance of personal freedom, they would then analyze the debate about tattooing and piercing through the lens of this criterion.

For a resolution of fact, the least common type of debate topic, debaters should organize your ideas to support your position.  Because resolutions of fact contest our perceptions of truth, the debates are most easily conceptualized through a case that might prove the resolution.  Within this framework, debaters might want to organize their arguments chronologically, or based on the topic being debated. 


Critical analysis of opposing viewpoints

         It is vital in a debate that each team is prepared to respond to the arguments made by the other side.  The easiest way for students to do this is to brainstorm the best arguments on both sides and then during the preparation phase use composing answers, keeping track of these ideas. 

Students should make a list of all the arguments they would use if they were on the other side of the debate.  Debaters should put such an opposing argument at the top of an index card or the top of a piece of paper and then they should think of arguments that respond to each one. Then, if and when these arguments are made in the debate, you will already have thought of answers to those arguments.

         This is critical thinking – exposing and challenging an opponent’s ideas. Critical thinking is an inherent part of the debate process. McBurney, O’Neill and Mills describe the components of critical thinking and relate them to debate:

Skill in critical thinking is a fourth general objective which in part comprehends the others. It is useful in speaking, listening, writing, and reading. A critical thinker habitually applies the precepts of argumentation: discerns propositions; discovers issues; knows how to study a subject; is aware of the proof requirements of a proposition; applies the tests of evidence; distinguishes between valid and fallacious reasoning; identifies implicit assumptions; recognizes the non‑logical means of persuasion. This skill in critical thinking is no mere by‑product if the debating is based upon the sound principles of argumentation (266).

Discovery, analysis and preparing to defeat opponent’s arguments are fundamental parts of debate.




In a competitive debate the goal is to gain the votes of the judges. Here are three ideas that might assist you in this task.

Be dynamic

         My consistent experience demonstrates that judges prefer dynamic speakers. A dynamic speaker presents an image of energy, enthusiasm, commitment to an idea, and sincerity. This is usually communicated through changes in volume, tone, and pitch of the voice as well as through active and expansive hand and body gestures. Facial expressions of concern, hope, and determination can also be useful. This does not mean that the presentation is more important that the argument being made, because a very dynamic presentation of a weak argument might damage the credibility of the speaker more than a less dynamic approach.

Weigh the issues

         It is inevitable in almost any debate that each side will have some good ideas and make some strong arguments. The way to win the debate is for the last speaker for each side to weigh the arguments of the two sides against one another and show that when that is done their side of the debate is most advantaged. For example, you might say that “even if” there were some validity to what the other side is saying, the audience would still vote for your side in the debate “because…” .

         When you admit that there is some validity to what the other side is saying, but still show that you have won the debate, you gain credibility with the judges and the audience and you show them an easy way to make their decision.

Show the personal relevance of issues in the debate

         The audience and the judges are more likely to consider an issue to be important if it is personally relevant to them. If you show those personal connections, they will reward you for it. Illustrations of how the issues at hand have an effect on those in the room during the debate can be very useful for this. Also, do not be afraid to indicate a personal relationship with the topic that you, as a speaker, may have. In speech supporting the rights of homosexuals it can be useful to mention friends, neighbors, and family members who are homosexual and should be given their full rights as citizens. Narratives from your own life experience, especially if they build sympathy for you, can also be effective.




         This tournament has an innovative approach to questions and answers to be exchanged by the two teams in the debate. This is an example of how increased international competition can create new and innovative approaches to debating. I applaud the organizers for this format. However, there are certain ideas that the debaters might want to keep in mind so that they can take advantage of this format.

Have a prepared question statement

         The time period allocated for each team to ask a question is considerable, and far longer than it takes to ask a simple question. Therefore, the debaters should prepare the questions statement before the debate, and practice it as well. The question statement should highlight what you believe to be the greatest weakness in supporting their assigned side of the topic.

Structure your question statement properly

         One danger is that the long question statement will be a disorganized and random collection of sentences. The question statement should be properly structured so that, for example, it establishes a favorable background for the introduction of an issue, it explains what the issue is, it explains why this issue is so important, and then it poses this issue to the other team as a strongly worded question. There are other types of organization that could be used, but the important thing is to have an organizational system and to design it strategically to assist your arguments.

Pose the question at the end

         Because this is supposed to be a question statement, it is expected that its ultimate structure should be a question. The final question posed should be powerfully worded and should take advantage of all the comments and ideas that came immediately prior to it.

Begin formulating the answer statement as the question statement unfolds

         The team responding to the question statement should begin formulating their answers to the ideas being presented while the question statement is being made. One partner might want to listen carefully while the other begins to formulate, perhaps in an outline format, the answers to be presented in response. Or, both team members could be preparing an answer while the question is being asked. This will allow the answer statement made to be more complete, more specific, and more organized.

Answer statement should begin with a direct answer

         One of the best ways to counter a long and effective question statement is with a direct and short answer (most often “no”) and then go on to explain that answer at greater length.

Answer statement should offer a variety of arguments

         The answer statement should not only answer the question posed and refute the issue being raised, but should do so convincingly. If an even better answer statement obliterates a strong question statement, the answering team is in a good position to win the ballots of the judges. Too often debaters will produce one answer as to why an argument by an opponent is invalid, when it is far more devastating to provide four, five, or even six reason why an opponent’s argument should be rejected. Do not just answer a question; crush it so that the issue will never be taken seriously in the debate.

Always use all of your time

         One danger is that teams that are poorly prepared or are weak at extemporaneous speaking will not be able to use their complete allotted time for questions or answers. This puts them at a very serious disadvantage because the other team used time to make arguments and they did not. Also, failure to use all allocated time is a signal to judges and the audience that this team is not the better team in the debate.




         I look forward to working with all of you in the future as we expand debating around the world. I look forward to hosting some of you at the World Debate Institute during the summer. I look forward to visiting many of you in your home countries. Together we can promote debate as a powerful force for change without violence or war.






Vea un debate en inglés o en castellano

Liga Nactional Debate Universitario de EspaĖa

Cuaderno “Influencing through argument” (influenciar por medio de argumentos) Texto en inglés de Robert Huber.

Cómo debatir, texto en inglés

Alfred Snider y Maxwell Schnurer, MANY SIDES: Debate Across the Curriculum [IDEA: NY], Mayo, 2002, texto en inglés.