Prepared Debate

Organizing a Prepared Debate

Select Debate Format

You select a format for a prepared debate early because it dictates the number of debaters that you recruit. In turn, you choose the format based on the time available in your meeting for a debate. Before selecting, you should know that there is no correct format. Various organizations, such as for college and high school debaters, designate their "official" formats for national competition, but those formats suit them. The formats below suit us and, we believe, will suit other Toastmasters clubs. As we did, you are free to adapt.

Two-Debaters Format. Our usual format is the "Lincoln-Douglas" format, though it is not historically accurate. It mirrors the four-debaters format, but omits the Second Affirmative and Second Negative parts. Obviously, you could use this format for a short meeting when only two speakers can be scheduled.

Affirmative Constructive Speech (8 min.)
Cross-Examination by Negative (3 min.)
Negative Constructive Speech
Cross-Examination by Affirmative
Summary/Rebuttal by Negative (4 min.)
Summary/Rebuttal by Affirmative
This format pressures the debaters somewhat because they must switch roles abruptly, going from speaker to examiner and back to speaker with little pause. To be kind, you might extend the pause before the first summary/rebuttal to a full minute.

Four-Debaters Format. The ideal format requires two teams--Affirmative and Negative--of two members. All make initial constructive speeches and question an opponent in the cross-examinations, but only the first speaker of each team does a summary/rebuttal.

First Affirmative Constructive Speech (8 min.)
Cross-Examination by Second Negative (3 min.)
First Negative Constructive Speech
Cross-Examination by First Affirmative
Second Affirmative Constructive Speech
Cross-Examination by First Negative
Second Negative Constructive Speech
Cross-Examination by Second Affirmative
Summary/Rebuttal by First Negative (4 min.)
Summary/Rebuttal by First Affirmative
Though not included above, we give each team about to speak or examine the option of a 30-second preparation pause. Pauses slow the pace of the debate, but they allow teams to collect their thoughts. To compensate, we take away the 30-second "grace period" that extends a standard Toastmasters speech from eight minutes to eight and a half.

The format above is found also in the sample agenda. It embodies several principles that you should understand, especially if you want to adapt it. First, the affirmative team speaks first and last, which is to help offset the burden of proof. As explain in the section on stating the proposition, that burden is heavy. Second, the member who does not speak next does the upcoming examination, which relieves pressure on her partner. Finally, the times are not absolute. To shorten the entire debate, for example, you could trimmed a minute off each part; however, the debaters will need as much time as possible to present their arguments and evidence. If possible, the extra time should come from other parts of the meeting, such as eliminating the business session. Six-Debaters Format. We also offer this format for teams with three debaters each. We do not use it in MCDS, but we see it used successfully with New York City high school competition. Its advantages are that more members split the research and more participate in a prepared debate. Its disadvantage is that only one team member does both cross-examinations. The timing is the same as the four-debaters format.

First Affirmative Constructive Speech (8 min.)
Cross-Examination by Third Negative (3 min.)
First Negative Constructive Speech
Cross-Examination by Third Affirmative
Second Affirmative Constructive Speech
Cross-Examination by Third Negative
Second Negative Constructive Speech
Cross-Examination by Third Affirmative
Summary/Rebuttal by Third Negative (4 min.)
Summary/Rebuttal by Third Affirmative

Select a Topic

In an impromptu debate, selection of a topic is not that important because the debaters do no research. Only the Impromptu Debate Master must think about the topic before the meeting. With a prepared debate, however, debaters spend much time gathering evidence, thinking of arguments, and building their cases. They deserve to debate an issue worthy of their effort. To find such a topic, we use the following process:

  1. Generate topics before and during a planning session
  2. Nominate candidate issues
  3. Distinguish between policy and non-policy issues
  4. Decide on type of issue
  5. Vote on qualified issues
In MCDS, we are democratic in selecting an issue to debate; however, it speeds the process and stimulates members' thinking if they receive a list of topics beforehand. Sometimes they choose an item on the list; sometimes they choose an item that they add. For your initial list, you need only 6-8 items. To help you construct a list, here are some policy propositions that MCDS has debated in the past. Another source is Austin Freeley's text, Argumentation & Debate (Wadsworth Publishing Company, Belmont, CA). He lists the National Intercollegiate Debate Propositions. His book is often found in libraries and college book stores.

Recruit and Instruct a Debate Master

Your Debate Master needs no experience in debating. However, she must be willing to learn enough to help the debaters prepare and to help the audience appreciate the debate. Essentially, she has these tasks:

  1. State the proposition
  2. Recruit and guide debaters
  3. Prepare and deliver an educational talk
  4. Manage the debate
  5. Elicit audience comments
  6. Credit the hard work of the debaters
Stating the proposition is quite involved and thus is explained below and in a separate section. Recruiting debaters can be done by the Debate Master, debate organizer, educational vice president, or whoever. Once the teams are formed, the Debate Master helps them to prepare, as discussed below. She also prepares and delivers an educational talk.

She will tell the audience about debating just before it will see one. Obviously, she should steer clear of the debate topic, but she can discuss general aspects of policy debating. Especially, she should explain and illustrate stock issues, as described in the MCDS Debate Manual. She will thus help listeners to comprehend the structure of the upcoming debate. She can also explain the affirmative's burden of proof, but then she should pair it with the negative's burden of refutation. Whatever aspects she chooses, her talk should take no more than five minutes.

Managing the debate is also quite involved and so is explained below. After the debate and during the judges' deliberation, the Debate Master elicits comments about the debate from the audience. This session is not a continuation of the debate but is an opportunity for the debaters to hear how they did. Often, these comments help as much as the individual evaluations that they will hear from the judges.

After MCDS debates, it is the Chief Judge, rather than the Debate Master, who announces the winning team. Therefore, it is the final task of the Debate Master to credit the hard work of the teams before she turns control of the meeting over to the Chief Judge. Only one team can win, but both can enjoy recognition for their accomplishments.

State the Proposition

Much thought goes into transforming a barely defined topic into a clearly articulated debate proposition. It is the responsibility of the debate master, with help by the debaters and others, to state the proposition precisely before the debate. She can borrow a polished resolution from the MCDS or Freeley lists, and save much work. However, your members may select their own topic. You then need to transform it. Here are principles and techniques for stating a debatable proposition, as explained in Austin Freeley's Argumentation & Debate.

Recruit and Guide Debaters

Recruit Debaters. To allow them to prepare, you must recruit your debaters as early as possible. All your members are eligible to debate. They need no experience debating; they need only to be willing to learn debating and to research the topic. If you use a four- or six-debaters format, then they will work together on teams. If one has experience debating, then she can guide a teammate who has none. An experienced Toastmaster can also lead an inexperienced Toastmaster on a team, but if they are both novices at debating, then they must learn together.

As for your debaters believing in the side that they argue, it is not necessary -- unless they cannot argue against their convictions. Skilled debaters can argue both sides with equal zeal and persuasiveness, sometimes on the same day in a tournament. The purpose of our club debates is to learn to argue persuasively, not to convert other Toastmasters. When we really need to argue our convictions and persuade others, then we have the skills.

Guide Debaters. The Debate Master should direct all debaters to this Web to download their guides from the MCDS Debate Manual, according to their roles. Or, she should supply them with paper copies. If there is only one debater on each team, then each should get guides for both first and second affirmative or for first and second negative, respectively. If there are three debaters on a team, then the third member should get sections on cross-examination and summary/rebuttal.

For debaters who want to know more about debating, then they should purchase a debate book or borrow one from their library. We recommend strongly The Debater's Guide by Jon Ericson and James Murphy (Southern Illinois Press, P.O. Box 3697, Carbondale, IL 62902-3697). It is well-written, small, and cheap.

For debaters who have access to our Web, then they might use its links to research resources. They may find so much that trips to the library may be superfluous. Whatever they find, electronic or paper, they should share it with their partners. Research of the topic is solely the responsibility of the debaters and is essential to their preparation. However, the Debate Master or anyone not debating can contribute topical material, but they must give all such material to all debaters.

Recruit and Guide Judges

Our judges have two roles: they decide the winning team and they evaluate the debaters individually. To do both roles well, they need to know what they are doing. In other words, they need guidance. First, they need instructions as to what they will do during the debate and afterwards. Second, they need the appropriate guides and evaluation forms of their respective debaters, as they would with regular Toastmasters speeches. Third, they need any general material, such as Questions & Answers about Debates, on this Web that would help them. Fourth, they might read debate texts, such as The Debater's Guide, but only if they want to understand debating thoroughly. (Such thoroughness is not necessary for judging, but is not to be discouraged.)

If there are not enough judges for each debater to have an evaluator, then each side should have one. In other words, there will be two judges rather than four. Along with the Chief Judge, there should be an odd number of voting judges; there cannot be a tie.

Prepare the Audience

Your debate should intellectually and emotionally involved your listeners. It should not confuse them. The way that you avoid confusion is to tell them about debating beforehand. On the positive side, the more they know about the debate, the more they will enjoy it. So, how do you prepare them? One way is to give one or several educational talks leading up to the debate. Earlier, we suggested how the Debate Master could give such a talk. If you want something more elaborate, then you might arrange a series of talks or even a workshop, such as the kind that MCDS has sponsored successfully. Another way to inform your listeners is to mail them brief explanations of debating, such as the Questions & Answers about Debates that MCDS has prepared for its debate tournaments.

Managing the Debate

Explain Timing

The Debate Master has the Timer explain the timing to insure that he understands it. Also, the debaters should understand that they have no grace period and should not rely on it to argue their cases.

Announce Proposition and List Participants

The Debate Master says nothing about the debate topic except to give the proposition in its final wording. Any explanation should come from the debaters. She then gives the names and roles of the debaters and judges.

Start Debate and Introduce Debaters

The Debate Master begins the debate when she introduces the First Affirmative for the first constructive speech. Her introductions should be functional and nominal. They should say who is about to do what, such as "Fred Turner will now present the first affirmative constructive speech." She does that for every segment, including the cross-examinations. For them, she might say something like "Sylvia Johnson will now question Fred."

Direct "Traffic," Honor Pauses, and Watch the Timing

The Debate Master says little but gets the right people to the lectern at the right time. She must watch the program, especially for cross-examinations. Who questions whom is logical, but not obvious. She also must remember the pauses. She asks each team about to send a member to the lectern whether it wants a 30-second preparation pause. And, she keeps quiet during the pause. Her void-filling chatter would not help a team trying to salvage its case.

Judging the Debate

Judges Deliberate and Audience Comments

Generally, debaters work hard to prepare and present a debate. They deserve careful evaluations and sound judgment as to the winners. Therefore, their judges, who are also their individual evaluators, should compare their observations before deciding. Immediately after the debate, the Chief Judge ushers the Judges, usually four, outside for five minutes to deliberate. Outside, they take turns, in the order of debaters, to give their observations. No judge should talk for more than two minutes. After the Chief Judge talks, he calls for a vote.

If the judges split in a tie vote, then the Chief Judge votes. They must decide on a winner. If there is no decisive winner, then they award it to the negative because the affirmative did not carry the burden of proof.

If the Chief Judge does not want individual Judges to announce their decisions, then he instructs them explicitly. In MCDS, individual judges do not tell how they voted.

Judges should remember that the burden of rebuttal falls on the debaters, not the judges. They should not judge as if they were the debaters. For example, a judge can fault a team for not bringing up an argument or some evidence that she herself would have brought up. Unless the other side exploits the omission, she cannot penalize the team in her judging, though she can mention it in her evaluation. Similarly, if she believes a team presents a flimsy argument or evidence that could be easily rebutted but the other side fails to attack it, then she cannot penalize the team for presenting something weak. Weak or not, it wins the point by default. However, it can be mentioned in the evaluation as a potential danger.

While judges deliberate outside the room, the Debate Master calls upon guests and members who did not debate to comment on the debate, but not on the issue. Their brief comments will help the debaters know how they did.

Judges Evaluate Individual Debaters

As with all Toastmasters evaluations, judges accent the positive while helping debaters to understand how they did and what they could improve. If the judges use the appropriate forms in the MCDS Debate Manual, then their evaluations will touch upon all important parts of the debaters' performances.

Chief Judge Evaluates Entire Debate and Announces Decision

In his evaluation, the Chief Judge tries to capture the dynamics of the debate, primarily the clashes or lack of clashes. He also takes the long view, the overhead perspective. He can trace the main arguments through the debate. If key arguments appeared early in the debate, what happened to them? Did the teams rebut, extend, or drop them? He can also appraise the teams' coordination? Did the members defend and buttress each other's arguments, or were they in separate debates? And, he can evaluate their resilience. When their cases were damaged, could they mend them? He should balance his evaluation in two ways: he says nice and critical things, and he devotes equal time to the teams.

The Chief Judge can give a one-sentence rationale as to why judges selected the winning team, which is reasonable but is not necessary. Or, he can simply declare the winner. He does not tell the vote count.

If you ordinarily present awards to winners, then the Chief Judge could then, or the Debate Master could, or together they could. You decide.

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