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The Art of Debating

Updated: Aug 5, 2021

What is debating and what makes a great debate? Adeline, one of our Assistant Managers, explores these questions in today's blog post.

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Nowadays, debates are all around us: we see competing arguments every day on social media and we hear interviews on the radio and on TV. However, we don’t always have time to take a step back and think about an issue in depth. Arguments often need to be analysed and deconstructed; issues need to be put in perspective, compared and detailed.

This is where debating societies come into play — they are an excellent way to develop public speaking skills, to learn to engage with opposing views and to build an argumentative strategy. Many UK universities have debating societies — for instance, the Cambridge Union is the oldest debating society in the world. Debates can take many different forms, but they are often similar to the format that the Cambridge union describes:

“How do we debate? In every debate there is a motion: a statement, idea or policy that is disputed and framed within the prefix 'This House'. Usually, the motion is either a policy which changes the status quo (e.g. This House Would Provide All Police Officers With Firearms) or a statement, the truth or falsehood of which is examined in the debate (e.g. This House Regrets the Decline of Marxism in Western Liberal Democracies). There are two sides to the debate: the government and the opposition. The government, also known as the proposition, supports the motion whilst the opposition opposes it. After the debate, the judges will decide which debaters were most persuasive.”

When you are leaning towards one side of the argument, it may seem impossible to win a debate if you are meant to support a motion you don’t deeply believe in. However, everything is about persuasion. Here are the criteria which the Cambridge Union judges use:

"Content: What we say and the arguments and examples we use.

Style: How we say it and the language and voice we use.

Strategy: How well we engage with the topic, respond to other people's arguments and structure what we say."

In debates, a lot has to do with strategy: it’s not only a matter of having the right arguments, but also of knowing the exact moment when using them will have the most impact. Some may also decide to use stratagems, such as the ones described by the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer in his treatise The Art of Being Right: 38 Ways to Win an Argument. This series of “tricks” to use again your opponent in a debate might not be the most honest, but they definitely make for an entertaining read, and allow debaters to be more aware of the tricks that may be used against them: “Generalize Your Opponent's Specific Statements”, “Make Your Opponent Angry”, “Claim Victory Despite Defeat”, are some of them…

Before launching into an important debate, it might be a good idea to warm up and practise speaking out loud as clearly as possible without hesitating. I find that the game “Just a Minute” is an excellent warm up for speakers: as in the long running BBC Radio Four series, you can pick a random topic and try and comment on it for as long as possible, without repeating yourself! It is definitely a challenge but can be a fun way to get a session started.

If you like the idea of debating, you could even decide to accept a new challenge and start debating in a foreign language! When I’m not in the TT office, I’m the Vice-President of Franco-Débats UK, an association which organises a debating competition in French between students coming from all over the UK. We are scheduling the 2019 competition at the moment, so we will be posting accounts of the various debates on our social media and will be announcing the public final in London shortly.

Blog Post Crafted by Adeline

Adeline helps to run our Admin Team. With a PhD in English, she can call herself a doctor but can’t write prescriptions!

Adeline manages the staff on our Admin Team, liaising with tutors, clients and applicants. She is responsible for processing the ID, Qualifications, DBS Check and References for all our newly joining tutors, as well as taking tuition enquiries, matching tutors to clients, and supporting tutors and clients throughout the process of tuition.



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