How To Be a Great Debater

Debating is one of the purest forms of intellectual activity. It involves a topic, normally a contentious one, and can be debated by two parties who disagree with each other. At times, the disagreement may come in the form of “For” and “Against,” though this may vary based on the nature of the debate.

This activity may seem daunting, as even the preparation should border on maniacal obsession and mastery of your argument. As such, those who engage in it—debaters—are perceived to possess noble character and are morally and intellectually capable enough of doing it. What constitutes such an individual, should one ask about how to be a good debater?

Foremost, how to be a great debater? A good debater is characterized by three main components: composure, form, and substance.

What makes a great debater?

Composure

Composure is concerned with how he delivers himself, the manner in which he conducts himself when delivering his argument and even when listening to his opponent. Of course, the former two are much more significant to the integrity of the debater. Composure, however, is almost as vital because it is a reflection of the personality of the debater himself—thus, another key trait on how to be a good debater. An often forgotten key to acquiring an edge in a debate: it is not entirely about what is said, but how it is said. 

Without sufficient composure, the debater may fall victim to stuttering and ineffective speaking, two of which, though they are not critically integral to a debater’s argumentation, impact it negatively. The audience, the judges, the opposition, and the debater himself are all human. Debating is a primarily persuasive ordeal, and persuasion is just as deeply rooted in the delivery of the message as the message itself. 

Confidence in oneself

How to be a great debater? A good debater must be confident in his abilities. The moment he grabs hold of the microphone, he must be able to speak and effectively voice his side and against the other. He confides in his skills, determined that he will be able to debate effectively and efficiently with the other party.

Confidence is the primary launchpad of the debater. A person may have encyclopedic knowledge of a topic, but too nervous to be able speak out what he knows. Confidence enables the debater to take to the podium and to speak out his arguments with courage. 

Propriety in presentation

This pertains to confidence evidenced by body language. To exercise propriety is to have elegant, dignified motion during a debate. This manifests, basically, in posture—how well and straight the debater stands behind the podium. Also central is the gestures of the debater, how he moves to place emphasis on a particular claim, for instance. Lastly, instrumental is eye contact, how the debater looks at his audience in the eye unapologetically and with unshakable conviction. This shows how the debater has nothing to hide and is ready to give it all.

Propriety means to be proper. Of course, this would mean the proper way of presenting oneself. A very strict posture may seem robotic, too many hand gestures, distracting, and too much or too little eye contact, disingenuous. In sum, lack of propriety in presentation creates the impression of little to no preparation, even if the debater is actually ready.

Improving on propriety not only allows the debater to present himself well. Psychologically, this gives the debater additional confidence. Knowing how to be a great debater entails mastery of his own gestures and mannerisms. 

Eloquence in speaking

It is not an exaggeration to say that good debaters are eloquent, because they truly are and must be. Eloquence is a show not only of confidence but of knowledge. When a debater speaks with eloquence, it makes him seem much more trustworthy because he exhibits mastery of his stance on the topic.

Lack of eloquence, on the other hand, puts distrust in the audience and in the debater himself. For the debater to stammer too much is to be rattled by his own train of thought, which may deteriorate his argumentation greatly. This happens especially when the debater faces claims from the other side which he himself has either never heard of or does not know how to refute. It is best, therefore, to improve on one’s own confidence then proceed from there to eloquence. Confidence and knowledge of the topic are prerequisite to eloquence. 

Form

Form is a matter of how the debater’s argumentation is structured. To provide a clear and functional framework, and to lay it out before explaining the claims themselves, is essential to learning how to be a good debater. Absence thereof may lead to incoherence and a perceived lack of authenticity on the part of the debater.

Setting the parameters

Before the good debater lays his arguments down on the table, he first builds the foundation upon which his arguments shall stand.

Setting the parameters allows the debater to fully clarify the framework with which he operates. Its importance lies in pinpointing where the debater truly stands in addition to merely possessing an “I agree to that” stance. By setting the parameters, the debater says, instead, “I agree with that from this perspective.”

To best illustrate, suppose a debate on cruelty in animal farming where there is a party that agrees that cruelty is present. How would the debater argue his stand? He would start, first of all, by laying out the standpoint he is arguing from. Would he speak from a standpoint of veganism? Or, does he speak from the research of a particular figure in bioethics?

To put it simply: the good debater starts by explaining under which framework and fundamentals his arguments will operate. 

Signposting the argumentation

After setting the parameters, the good debater must lay out what how he will go through his argumentation. This is called “signposting” because it clarifies to the audience the layout and boundaries of the debater’s claims.

This will tremendously aid the debater as it shows an attempt at catering to the audience. The debater may very well know how he will argue against the other side. The audience, however, may not. Signposting will allow the debater to illustrate how he would engage particular claims of the other side.

Though this may be counterintuitive, this also helps the other side understand the debater’s arguments better. For the opponent to say “this is not clear to me” is not so much a lack of knowledge on his part as it is the opponent’s inability to present his claims well.

Signposting, therefore, is vital and beneficial to a good debater.

Conciseness in speaking

Conciseness is meant here not so much speaking about form as being mindful of it. 

In formal debates, there is a specified time limit in which a debater is allowed to state his claims and his rebuttals to the other side’s arguments. Usually, it lasts about 8-10 minutes, which may sound like a long time. 

To completely state one’s own side within such a timeframe is easier said than done, however. Time seems to run more quickly when it is someone’s turn. There may be a whole outline that may effectively refute the other side’s stand and strengthen one’s own, but if it is not explained concisely within the timeframe, then it would not have much use.

It is best, therefore, to eliminate “fluff,” which are unnecessary statements that will only waste time. Fluff may come in the form of repetitions of what has been already said, unless such repetitions are made for emphasis. Empty seconds should also be kept at a minimum as much as possible. It is at this point where improving on one’s composure would work best to his advantage.

More importantly, to be concise in speaking is to speak more of your authenticity. Redundant repetitions, stuttering, and other gestures speak much about the debater through body language, in a negative way.

A great debater must give equal focus to composure, form, and substance.

Substance

Substance is the research, data, evidence, and claims with which the debater equips himself for the duel. It constitutes the arsenal that he will use to combat the opposition. The good debater masters the weapons and tools before going into a debate—to master the component of substance is critical to how to be a good debater.

Knowledge of the topic

An absolute no-brainer. One cannot engage in a debate on a topic about which he hardly knows.

A debater who is arguing for a particular side must possess extensive knowledge about it. Not only does this mean knowing certain facts about specific areas of his side, but also the entire framework under which he must operate.

Just as important is for the debater to know the other side’s stand. It is unacceptable for a debater to enter into a debate with another without knowing the other party’s stand first. In other words, the debater must know about the given facts that the opposition, in the past or in another form of debate, has made. 

Granted, the debater cannot know everything about his opponent’s stand. In fact, there may be some novelty in the debate, which is a good thing. Debates are supposed to arrive at something new. Rather, the debater only has his wits and weapons to refute what the opponent has.

Concession to the opponent’s claims

The good debater does not disagree with everything that his opposition says. At one point or another, there will be claims that have to be universally agreed with (i.e. facts). For example, if his opponent says that “plants are living beings,” he cannot disagree with that.

Conceding to the opposition is not a sign of weakness or defeat. It is an acknowledgment of the truth of the opponent’s claims. Even put this way, it is not to give points to the opposition. At best, it works well to the debater’s advantage. For one, it can become a potential impetus for a deeper and more incisive discussion on that particular point, something which he can use against the opponent himself if the circumstances allow it.

Most of all, it demonstrates the trustworthiness and open-mindedness of the debater. At the very core of debates is the interchange of ideas, the whole of which would become completely undermined when either side lose their ears to the other. The good debater demonstrates good faith when he is open to the other side’s argumentation.

Elenchus: critical inquiry

Socrates was and still is one of the most influential Western philosophers in history. His student, Plato, wrote dialogues that are a testament to his discursive prowess. The key element to Socrates’ style of discourse: elenchus, or named today popularly as the “Socratic method.” This method is one of the prime components of learning how to be a good debater.

In the dialogues, the formula of this method is this: a claimant lays forward his arguments, Socrates concedes to some of the claimant’s arguments, proceeds to question the arguments by way of inquiring into the fundamental principles underlying those arguments to the point of making the original argument weak and absurd.

The original intent of this method was to test the integrity of a claimant’s arguments. It seems impractical in formal debates, as this method was performed only after the opposition makes the claim. Socrates generally never introduces his own claims first. In fact, Socrates himself claimed that he “knows nothing”—an admission of humility. That he never introduces his own claims first and that he mostly responds to the claims of others is strong evidence of his non-knowledge.

However, elenchus is a highly effective ability that a debater can have. Socrates’ humility is less a yielding aspect, more of an intellectual characteristic that allows the person to be conducive to new information. The reason why Socrates is considered one of the greatest Western philosophers is not only because of his discursive ability, but also—precisely—because of such humility.

With this humility comes scrutiny. Socrates was an agent for the truth. He dismantled arguments, not with the intent of humiliating his opponents, but in pursuit of what is true. This quality was how Socrates was equipped with such ingenious capacity to inquire and to subject a person’s arguments to examination. 

Debaters do not come to a debate claiming omniscience. In fact, they know much less than what they think they know. In Plato’s “Apology,” Socrates told the commission of Athens that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” In learning how to be a good debater, one does not simply claim he knows everything. 

This is precisely why he comes to a debate: to know more and to cooperate with the opposing party on a topic towards realizing the truth. Socrates embodies the spirit of what debating is about. That is why he is a paragon of how to be a good debater. Those who aspire to be one should learn much from Socrates.

The essence of the debate

As said before, cooperative intellectual activity constitutes the core of the debate. The two sides of any debate are not so much competing—though debates today are conceived as being competitive in nature—as they are a subconsciously collaborative effort. Without such core, it leads to chaotic rambling and closed ears.

Cooperation: the essence of debating

Traces of such extremes linger in some modern debates, formal or otherwise. Perhaps the final note on how to be a good debater is to never engage in logical fallacies, commonly committed either out of error or out of an incessant urge to win. While many logical fallacies are matters of logic, one particular fallacy that the good debater must always aim to avoid is the ad hominem: arguing against the opposition. This is the most frequent fallacy committed in the whole world, primarily to attack the character of a debater rather than disprove the soundness of his claims.

In moments of temptation to commit such aberrations to the spirit of debating, those who engage in this activity must always return their mindset to the very essence of what they are doing. This is what it truly means on how to be a good debater.

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