Hosting a Campus Debate – Debate Structure
Hosting a public debate is possibly the best means of engaging students with the ideas of liberty. In this series, we will cover the essentials of hosting an engaging debate on your campus. We will cover three main aspects of a successful campus debate: the structure of a public debate, the structure of an argument, and the “burdens” of speakers.
In this instalment, we will start by covering debate structure. Public debate structure is distinct from the style of competitive debates that are common in university circuits, such as British Parliamentary, Canadian Parliamentary, or Lincoln-Douglas. A public debate is different in that it is less stringent on how the speakers must construct their speeches. The goal is less to appeal to a format and argue in a certain way, but most importantly to engage your audience, which requires different techniques that are far more charisma based.
With this the first criteria by which you can judge whether the debate will be successful is the topic you pick. Choose topics that are relevant and politically contentious, so that students in general will be interested in attending and you will attract people from across the ideological spectrum. Once you have a topic chosen, you can start the preparation for engaging students with new ideas.
Format of a Public Debate:
While there are many different styles of public debates, exemplified by shows such as Firing Line, Munk Debates, or Intelligence Squared, the best format for campuses will tend to be a modified public forum debate. Public forum debates are effective because they allow issues to be tightly concentrated, allow for varying perspectives, while also allowing each speaker enough time to flesh out their individual views. The teams will 2 opposing sides made up of 2 speakers each.
In a debate, the topic of the debate needs to be framed as a declarative statement. Debates are often framed as “Be it resolved that.,,” with the statement coming down in favour of one side. This allows the debate to surround a concrete issue, but with room to interpret it from various perspectives. Statements such as these then lend themselves to clear Proposition and Opposition teams.
Once you have a clear resolution, you have to think about who you want as speakers. Speakers should be knowledgable about the topic, but more importantly they have to be charismatic as well as people that can read an audience. This ensures that a debate is engaging. For SFL’ers, you likely do not want to call external speakers as often, as that takes away from the value of student activism itself. It is best if you can find students on your campus who are knowledgeable about the topic and have a passionate stance. This way it remains a student activist activity.
Before the debate begins, it is advisable to take a straw poll of the audience’s beliefs on the topic, keeping track of who supports the resolution, who is against it, and who has no opinion. This allows you to understand the audience, and see if the debate had an impact on them. As organisers, it also helps you understand and better target students in future debates.
In order to keep students interested in the debate, it should run for approximately 1 hour. This means that the lead speaker from the proposition, followed by the leader of the opposition, would have 5 minutes each for opening statements, laying out their arguments in favour of their respective side. This is followed by 2 minutes of cross examination by each of the first two speakers, to ask questions about the points raised by the other side. Cross examination is not like refutation, the person doing the cross examining is not presenting arguments against the other team, but is rather asking questions that they hope will highlight the weaknesses of their opponents case. This questioning approach may include new or contrary information, but its primary role is in generating a response.
Next the second speaker from the proposition, followed by the second for the opposition, would have 5 minutes each both to add new arguments and to refute the arguments of their competitors. This will be followed by another period of cross examination of 2 minutes each.
After this period, there should be 10 minutes of Q&A, the format of which can be left to the debate moderators. Q&A’s can be held either by allotting 5 minutes of questions from the audience to each team, by allowing audience members to choose which side they ask a question to any point (including asking general questions for both students), or they can be held by having audience members ask questions to individual speakers. The Q&A period is relevant for getting the audience to actively participate, but needs to come closer to the end so that they have an increased understanding of the topic.
Following the Q&A, another cross-examination occurs between the two teams, now between all speakers, lasting 10 minutes. This allows speakers to raise issues with the points the other team raised in the Q&A, and highlighting flaws or contradictions in the arguments made.
Finally, the leaders of both sides present 5 minute closing statements making the last case for their respective side. Closing statements are opportunities to summarise the debate that just occurred in a way that makes it seem tilted to your sides favour. You would then take another poll of the audience to see what the swing in opinion was. The team that had the largest swing to their side won the debate.
The practicalities of debate are quite nuanced and hard to cover in a short series. In the next few instalments, we will delve deeper into debating so that you can improve your appeal to students. It is important to understand, however, that debating is an iterative process, and the more you host these events, the better they will get. Even if your side loses your first debate, you have to be proud of having had the opportunity to introduce a new audience to your ideas, an audience that may not have heard it otherwise. That is the root of effective activism.