Structure of debates

I used to be a keen debater during my college days, and recent email exchanges with one of my debating buddies reminded me of the good old days.

My debating skills vastly improved when Dr. Pramesh Ratnakar, one of my favorite professors taught me about the structure within which a debate should be written.

I thought it would be a fun post to write about this structure, and some of you who need to give presentations will find this structure useful because most presentations fit quite well within this structure.

My favorite debate was one organized by Hindustan Times, and the topic was: Should Sensuality Always Mean Sexuality.

To me the obvious answer to this is No, so I took it upon me to do the opposite, that is — defend the topic. I spoke in favor of the motion, and didn’t win any individual prizes, but our team did win the third prize, which, considering the colleges that participated, was not bad either.

I’ll use this topic to detail out how we used to structure our debates at that time.

1. Definition: The first thing to do was to define the concept, here the key terms are sensuality and sexuality. At the very beginning — you want to define what you mean by those two concepts, so the audience is on the same page as you for the rest of the debate.

2. Phrase the topic in your words: One of the key things to do after you define the important elements of the topics is to phrase it in your words. Often, this will be a means to narrow down the topic or take the sting out of something. In this example: “always” is a very important word. If you go with the literal meaning of “always”, — defending the motion becomes very difficult. In my case, I think I said that the literal meaning of always should only be used for facts such as the sun always rises in the east, — things that we know to be true — and about which there is not an ounce of doubt. That changes the way you can approach the topic because now you have more room to work with.

Phrasing the topic sets the tone in your favor, and gives you a chance to condition the audience to what you are about to say. I don’t remember the exact phrase that I used at that time, but I do remember the focus on the word always.

3. Draw a parallel: Drawing a parallel to something which your audience can relate to makes your job much easier. A romantic dinner is sensual, a moonlit night is also sensual, and most people can easily picture such scenes. I felt that it was always better to use such words instead of using sensual. So instead of saying sensual, I would say “bed of roses” or some other phrase like that.

4. State your case clearly: State your points on why you feel your argument is right. These points should be distinct and easily tied back to your parallels and definitions. This is fairly straightforward so I won’t elaborate this a lot.

5. Qualification: Stating your points is not good enough though, you need to list out a few points on why the other side is wrong too. This gives real weight to your arguments. I spent the maximum time on this, — partly because it was fun, but also because it used to have a big impact on how decisions were made.

6. Conclusion: Conclude crisply, and present a brief summary of what you just said. To me, this was the hardest thing to do. I found that condensing 4 minutes into 30 seconds was much much harder than stretching 30 seconds to 10 minutes.

This was the structure I followed, and it worked reasonably well for me. There were debaters who were a hundred times more talented than I was, and some of them didn’t need any preparation at all. I wish I was one of those guys, but in absence of all that talent, this structure worked quite well for me. I use this in presentations, and occasional reports, and you can give it a try to see if it works for you too.

I really enjoyed writing this post because it is quite different from what I normally do, and brings back many sweet memories from a long time ago. I hope you enjoyed it too, and I’d be interested to hear what you have to say, so do leave a comment below.

5 thoughts on “Structure of debates”

  1. This is way off from your usual posts and made it a pretty insightful read. I have one Q though..what made you defend the topic instead of go against it when you yourself thought that the obvious argument to the topic was “No”?

    1. I used to enjoy taking stances that were difficult. That’s not good for winning prizes but used to be a big kick for me. At one other time there was a controversy about a South African umpire who gave a very biased decision on five or six Indian cricketers and we had a debate about that. Out of the 15 or so people in that debate I was the only one who defended that umpire even though I felt he was wrong. That was just the thing I enjoyed most.

  2. Very different topic to write on. Takes me back to the debating days… ofcourse i was just one among the audiences but I always enjoyed a good one. Keep them coming…. its very refreshing. and thank you.

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