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Home > News and views > What is Debating? The ESU’s complete guide to the history and development of debating

What is Debating? The ESU’s complete guide to the history and development of debating

two students debating

What is debating? Dr. Matt Hilborn guides you through its history, structures, roles and rules 

So, you want to debate? Well, you’ve come to the right place. This ‘What is debating?’ explainer sets out the fundamentals of this artform, including its history, varieties, techniques and benefits to students of all ages. The English-Speaking Union has been running public speaking competitions and in-school workshops like Discover Your Voice for several decades. Let us walk you through the steps, explaining the basics of debating and oracy in the classroom, teaching space, lecture theatre, and beyond. 

 

What is debating? A beginner’s guide  

A debate is an organised argument or contest of ideas in which participants discuss a topic – usually philosophical, social, and/or political in nature, and often a pressing matter in current affairs – from two opposing sides in a controlled, civil setting.  

At their best, debates teach us that the best way to address a poor or reprehensible argument is to put it on a platform and, using all the intellectual, forensic, and rhetorical skills at one’s disposal, expose its incoherence and/or dishonesty. The way to become accomplished at this is precisely to interact with positions, ideologies and worldviews different from one’s own, on the basis of what the Bible, of all places, calls ‘iron sharpening iron’. 

This is crucial firstly to enable anticipation of the other perspective – the better to rebut it – but also to enable a shift or modification in one’s own view, precisely by virtue of having been exposed to alternative arguments that challenge one’s own prejudices and presuppositions. That is the essence of what Socrates, according to Plato, called the ‘examined life’ – or of what we today call critical enquiry.  

Before we get into how you can hone your debating skills, let’s jump back in time and learn more about how debating came about. 

 

The history of debating 

Debating in various forms can be traced back to intellectual sparring matches waged between the world-famous philosophers of Ancient Greece or the scholars of Ancient India. 

The Greek philosopher Socrates (c. 470-399 BC) sought to understand the world by teasing out the assumptions and principles that, often unwittingly, lay beneath the reasoning of his interlocutors, thus exposing self-interest, deception and false reasoning for the smokescreens they were. 

In 63 BC, the orator and philosopher Cicero was famed for his ability to detect weaknesses in contemporary Roman government, most famously in his blistering, unrestrained attack on the aristocrat Catiline. That said, debating can be a perilous intellectual pursuit: both men paid for such effrontery with their lives (see later section ‘Keeping It Civil’). 

Moving forward to 1858, the debates for an Illinois Senate seat between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas were celebrated for their rhetorical skill and precision. Their verbal jousting inspired a whole form of modern debating, now a common sight in every election cycle across the world. 

Though the first televised debate was broadcast in 1956 between representatives for President Eisenhower and his Democrat challenger, Adlai Stevenson, the centrepiece debate before the 1960 US Presidential election is now more famous. Those who tuned in via radio thought Richard Nixon had won, while who watched on television believed the more charismatic John Kennedy had emerged victorious. Kennedy’s eventual triumph in the polls is often attributed to his charm and strength of character, proving the importance of body language when establishing an emotional connection with one’s audience. 

 

Where debates take place today 

Many people think that debates take place in traditional settings such as university chambers, boardrooms and the Houses of Parliament. They do, but they happen everywhere, from dinner tables to TikTok comment sections to, increasingly, primary school classrooms right across the world! 

Debating delivers a whole host of benefits including sharpening your critical thinking, improving your public speaking and boosting your self-confidence and teamwork, so there has never been a better time to get involved. 

 

Isn’t debating just arguing? 

woman shouting at man through megaphone

A debate resembles a game in that both involve teams, rules, and adjudication. Like sports, debates can be held competitively or more casually, and debaters require both training and practice to reach their full potential. 

That said, debating is not the same as arguing. Why? Because each side is given equal time to build their case, respect is the order of the day, and listening is just as important as speaking.  

Debaters know that however bombastic, intimidating, or fiercely intelligent the other opposition speaker may seem at first glance, every speaker will have exactly the same amount of time to deliver their case. So, take heart: your voice matters, and here’s how to use it. 

 

Motions 

A debate is structured around a proposed statement, which, in debating terminology, is called a Motion. Fittingly, those who propose the Motion are called the ‘Proposition’ side, while those who oppose or disagree with it are the ‘Opposition’ side. 

Each team delivers a series of speeches, trying to convince the audience and judges that their side has made the most persuasive case. They do this by marshalling their points with skill and poise, sniffing out specious arguments in the opposing side, and using examples and evidence to support their ideas while working towards a cogent, coherent conclusion. 

Motions are usually structured in the format ‘This House believes that…’, ‘This House would…’, or ‘This House prefers…’, with the ‘House’ – a convention deriving from debates in Parliament – meaning the group of people in the room whom you are trying to convince. For example, ‘This House would support children striking on Fridays in protest against climate change’, ‘This House believes that pupils should elect their own Head Teacher’, or ‘This House prefers a world where it is impossible to tell lies’. 

 

Making a speech  

First things first: to debate, you need a speech. Speeches are a little like essays that you read aloud. The ESU recommends the PEEL structure: Point, Explanation, Example, Link.  

For instance: 

Point: We should ban timed exams because they test only a few hours on one day of a pupil’s life, not true effort or ability. 

Explanation: Formal educational assessments should evaluate a broader range of abilities and skills across a longer time period. By testing only one snapshot, in truth they assess cramming, memory retention, and writing speed, not creativity, imagination, or problem-solving. And if you’re not feeling 100 per cent on the day itself, tough luck! The vast majority of tasks that students will face in the workplace, as adults, require thoughtful, patient, long-lasting collaboration with colleagues, not the capacity to craft a tricky essay on Hamlet in 30 minutes flat. No world-expert on Shakespeare writes a book in such a short space of time – they write them over several months, if not years! 

Example: A friend of mine felt ill one day during his A-level French exam and, though she did her best, did not achieve her predicted, required result. She was a first-rate student throughout the year, yet due to this one disappointing mark, failed to get into her first-choice university, with long-lasting repercussions. 

Link: Timed exams should be banned because schools should be testing a balance of skill sets across the year, not one, unreliable hour. 

Now, a speech is just one of these expanded PEEL structures connected to another, then another, and so on. Stick an introduction at the beginning and a conclusion at the end, and, hey presto – you’ve got yourself a speech. 

So, if the Motion were ‘This House would close all zoos’… 

Team Proposition could argue the following points, developing each fully: 

– It is barbaric and unnatural to keep animals in cramped cages, far from their natural habitats 

– Zoos’ raison d’être is to exploit vulnerable animals for profit, which is cruel 

– If people see animals in zoos, they assume that that species is doing fine out in the wild, and may therefore care less about animal conservation 

– It is wrong to trap beleaguered animals behind glass windows simply for our entertainment (i.e. seal/dolphin shows), not a world away from bearbaiting and cockfighting – which are rightly banned 

Meanwhile, the Opposition could argue that: 

– Zoos are a useful educational tool, encouraging children and adults alike to learn more about animals and endangered species even if they are from countries far away from our own 

– Zoos provide a fun, edifying, (mostly) outdoors day out for all the family, which is surprisingly hard to find these days – much better and healthier, for instance, than spending all day watching screens 

– Animals don’t have it easy out in the wild: every day they face predators, food shortages, extinction, etc. In zoos, on the contrary, everything is provided for, giving them a peaceful, satisfying life. (In Yann Martel’s 2001 novel Life of Pi, the protagonist mounts a potent defence along these lines.) 

– Zoos help with important conservation and scientific research initiatives, ensuring that animals under threat due to poaching don’t become extinct 

Add an intro that anticipates each point, and a conclusion that draws them all together, and that’s it – you’re ready to rumble. 

Remember that while flair, passion, and drama in your delivery are important, don’t sacrifice substance for style. Give us the sizzle, by all means – but don’t forget the steak. 

 

POIs 

In ordinary life, it would be pretty rude to interrupt someone mid-speech by standing up and yelling ‘POINT!’. In debating, however, this is par for the course – in fact, it’s encouraged. Often shortened to ‘Point’ or ‘POI’ (pronounced pee-oh-eye), points of information are brief (10 seconds or less) interjections made by one speaker to any member of the opposing side, midway through their speech. 

Often phrased as questions rather than comments (i.e., ‘Hasn’t the speaker considered the economic impacts? Margaret Thatcher famously said that there’s no such thing as public money, only taxpayers’ money – it seems unjust to expect the hardworking electorate to fund such non-essentials…’), a POI tries to derail an opponent’s argument by pointing out a fatal flaw or addressing a key omission. 

Once a POI is offered, the main speaker must immediately say ‘Accept’ or ‘Decline’, or ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ (or equivalent), whereupon the POI-maker gives their POI (or not). The speech then carries on as normal, with the speaker expected to respond directly to that POI. 

Don’t go overboard, though – give too many , or fail to wait a respectful number of seconds/minutes between your team’s POIs, and this is called barracking. 

Oh, and to misquote Napoleon Bonaparte, ‘Never interrupt your opponent when s/he is making a mistake.’ 

 

Rebuttal 

Rebuttal is where you point out – and, most importantly, explain – the flaws in the opposing team’s argument. Key tips: 

– Attack any logical fallacies, e.g. red herrings or straw-manning, which is where a speaker attacks the weakest possible version of the other side’s argument, thus easily tearing it down. FUN FACT: The opposite of this is called steel-manning, a rhetorical technique whereby a speaker charitably constructs the strongest possible version of the counterargument, patching up any flaws or inadequacies, in order to improve the overall quality of the debate and illustrate that, even then, their own arguments stand up to scrutiny 

– If the Proposition proposes a change (e.g. legalising cannabis), a good starting-point for rebuttal is to ask precisely how this would be enacted in a practical sense, and why, if it’s so wonderful, it hasn’t been done already 

– Use reliable evidence, data, and statistics to support your position – and call out your opponents if what they are saying is hearsay, conjecture, or just isn’t backed up (like yours should be!) 

– For instance, if the other side argue that videogames increase violent behaviour amongst children, a good rebuttal could stress that vanishingly few peer-reviewed studies have proven a cause-and-effect relationship between the two. Mistaking correlation for causation would be erroneous 

 

Keeping it civil: improving your debating skills 

infographic of two men looking at a number 6/9

The ESU believes that debating is a fundamental democratic good, a robust exchange of ideas that brings rational dialogue to a wider audience. A well-turned speech can double as a magnanimous act of teaching, modelling not what to think but how to think. It builds bridges of good-faith discussion, showing that it is possible to disagree without being disagreeable. 

That said, anyone acquainted with the yah-boo politics of PMQs or the BBC’s Question Time knows that debating can become a combative bear-pit, a spectator sport for a baying audience that, ironically, can threaten to undermine the very idea it purports to elevate. 

During one university debate, I was assigned to propose the motion ‘This House believes that we should all be vegetarians’, despite not being one myself. After some respectful to-ing and fro-ing, team Opposition promptly claimed that they had seen me ‘tuck into a juicy lamb burger over lunch’, which was true, but, as I then pointed out, both irrelevant and a prime example of ad hominem: attacking the person making the argument, not the argument itself. 

Here at the ESU we strive to keep debating civil, open-minded and well-mannered. The exercise should facilitate listening, collaboration, cooperation, and a deeper respect and appreciation for one another’s ideas; to quote English philosopher John Stuart Mill, ‘He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that’. 

 

What is debating in 2022? 

Debating empowers us all to assess the various lenses through which a single story might be recounted and reinterpreted, cultivating curiosity regarding the nuances of language, rhetoric, persuasion, and politics and building empathy for and understanding of different points of view.

The importance of debating has been proven time and again over recent years. Covid-19 ripped up the rulebook regarding state intervention, forcing politics ‘out there’ into the private lives of every single citizen. Governments refurbished huge, state-of-the-art hospitals in days, restricted supposedly freedom-loving folk to their homes, forcibly closed the economy – yet brought millions onto the public payroll in ways that would, in normal circumstances, be almost unthinkable.  

How administrations allocate resources to protect and support their citizens… that’s the nitty-gritty of debating. No time is more relevant for this vital, lifelong skill. 

The ESU has lots of ways in which you can get involved in debating and public speaking. Our Discover Your Voice Workshops are designed for primary and secondary schools, no matter whether your students are beginners or advanced. Our Schools’ Mace debating competition, aimed at students in Years 7-13, hones their debate skills in a fun, competitive environment. And adults can get involved too by attending, or even speaking at some of our show debates at Dartmouth House. Keep an eye on our What’s On page to keep up-to-date with the latest opportunities! 

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