How to Debate Well: Debate Roles, Skills & Rules

Published in


July 9, 2022


Milan Kordestani

Entrepreneur, writer, and founder of 3 purpose-driven companies oriented toward giving individuals control over their own discourse and creation. Milan works to produce socially positive externalities through a mindset of social architecture.

Hi! I'm Milan, an LA based founder and writer, architecting impact-first businesses.

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Have you ever noticed how many of the people you admire possess a strong sense of conviction and confidence?

They speak passionately with unwavering determination and hold the authority to convince their audience.

This skill is prominent in debates, where two sides: affirmative and negative, discuss the issue in a structured format.

The side with the most convincing arguments wins.

Even if you’re not involved in a public debate, you’ll still face situations where people disagree with your viewpoint.

If you want to get other people on your page, you need to win them over with your debating skills.

Here are five persuasive tactics to get better at debating:

  • Strong perspective and reasoning
  • Strategic speaking
  • Public speaking
  • Creating a persuasive case
  • Deep introspection, as debate topics can go against their personal opinion which forces them to consider both sides

I’ve met debaters who lacked confidence when they first stepped on stage. But, over time, most of them developed skills that helped them perform at a higher level.

This goes on to show that debating isn’t necessarily something that you're born with. Rather, it's a skill you can learn and practice in order to improve your performance over time.

One of the best ways to learn is to watch great debaters and pay attention to their body language and speaking style. Try to mimic them as you hone your own debate skills. With time, your debating skills will improve.

How to Debate Well: Examples

This is an example of a debate on the topic of socialism, something many people hold strong opinions about. Notice the way the debaters stay focused on the topic and avoid ad hominem attacks. That's key for debates.

You might agree with some topics, disagree with others, and have a neutral stance on many.

But when you watch these debates, you develop a strong stance on one side of the issue.

This is how influential debates can be – they not only stir up your emotions but also alter some preconceived notions. Undoubtedly, the speakers are masters of how to debate effectively.

Anatomy of Debate

How to debate well? So, you can try several debate formats. The most common forms are parliamentary debates, legislative debates, public debates, and Lincoln-Douglas debates. Regardless of the format, all debate events adhere to the same structure:

  • There is a motion or topic of the debate. It can be a statement, idea, observation, or policy.
  • Participants are divided into groups (or individuals, in case there are two speakers) where they choose either the affirmative side or the negative side.
  • Speakers are given time to prepare their case and a limited slot to present it. If there are many speakers, they alternate between teams – one affirmative speaker, one negative speaker, then the second affirmative speaker, and so on.
  • After all arguments are presented, the judge makes a decision based on which side has more logical arguments.
  • Audiences are sometimes present, however, they have no say in the verdict.

When there are only two speakers in a debate, one wins and the other loses. In group debates, however, different roles are assigned to the participants.

It's crucial to understand what this last speaker needs to do in order to persuade an audience.

Debate Roles

Each speaker has an important role in making the overall case – affirmative or negative. The basic debate roles are as follows:

  • First Affirmative - They explain the topic, outline the team's case and offer some arguments in favor of their topic.
  • First Negative - They reconsider the topic from the opposite stance and clearly state their motive, provide some arguments in favor, and offer rebuttals to the affirmative case.
  • Second Affirmative - If the topic needs further explanation, the second affirmative clears that. After delivering more arguments in favor, they rebut the first negative.
  • Second Negative - They follow the same plan of action, speaking against the motion and rebutting the affirmative.
  • Third Affirmative - After more rebuttals, they conclude their team's argument and offer points on how their stance is more sustainable than the negative side.
  • Third Negative - They follow the same structure as the third affirmative.

This is the division of roles in a three-against-three debate. If there are more speakers, the roles can further diversify, each speaker requiring substantial value-adding content.

How to Debate Effectively: Dos and Don'ts

How to get better at debating? A good debater always plays by the rules. Some rules should never be broken, and these are the dos and don’ts of debate. Here are the guidelines:

What You Should Do:

  • Be punctual.
  • Present your opinions openly without any fear of disagreement.
  • Be open to questions from your opponent.
  • Gracefully applaud each participant, even your opponents.

What You Shouldn't Do:

  • Don’t directly address the adjudicator.
  • Avoid carrying a piece of paper to refer to while speaking.
  • Don’t add unnecessary pauses and say “um” in between the speech.
  • Never interrupt other speakers while they're on the podium.
  • Don’t talk loudly when the debate is in progress.

How to Debate Well: Basic and Advanced Skills

By applying the elements of civil discourse to your arguments, you can sharpen your debating skills.  It’s important to establish a civil environment where all parties are able to express their positions openly.

These skills can help you debate well:

Basic Debating Skills

  • Focus on delivering unique and valuable content.
  • Speak with a sense of urgency and purpose to sound confident, astute, and convincing.
  • Vary the tone of your voice to keep the audience engaged.
  • Shouting won't help you succeed. Keep your volume to a reasonable level.
  • Make your points in a clear and direct manner.
  • Don't be afraid to inject a bit of humor into your rebuttal, but only if it won't detract from the weight of your argument.
  • If you have to refer to your notes, do so quickly and briefly. Then return your attention to the audience.

Advanced Debating Skills

  • Practice confident body language. When you're confident, your audience is more relaxed, open, and ready to demonstrate mindful listening.
  • Polish your strategy-building skills.
  • Anticipate your opponent's arguments and address them when speaking.

How to Get Better at Debating: Tips

The debate can be challenging to learn, but once you get the hang of it, your skills will develop naturally. To learn how to debate well, incorporate the following tips that most successful debaters use:

  • Avoid being passive, especially when you're responding to an opponent. State your position confidently from the beginning.
  • Pay attention to what other speakers say, and use it later for rebuttals.
  • Speak calmly to get your point across. Don’t react aggressively.
  • Take the audience into consideration. Speak to them directly with points they can relate to.
  • Rebuttals can be difficult, but respond with confidence and make your point persuasively.
  • Be confident in whatever you speak, i.e., believe in what you’re saying.
  • Speak with confidence, and believe in what you’re saying.
  • Use positive words when you talk about your position.
  • Know the rules of debating thoroughly and stick to them.
  • When you finish your presentation, sum up your arguments and offer a persuasive conclusion.

How to Prepare a Successful Debate Claim

To make solid arguments, always keep the following tips in mind:

  • Don’t just focus on your words, but complement them with matching body language, hand movements, and facial expressions.
  • Avoid using fillers. Keep providing the listeners with relevant points to consider.
  • Use tone modulation to keep the audience engaged. Make use of dramatic pauses if your motion allows so.
  • Offer statistics, proof, and credible data to back up your arguments.
  • Give examples that your listeners can relate to in order to convince them of your point.


  • How long can a debate take?

The duration of a debate depends on the number of speakers and the time allotted to each speaker. For one-on-one debates, there can be multiple rounds, lasting 10 minutes each. Parliamentary debates can go on for hours, with each speaker getting 7-10 minutes to present their case.

  • How is the winner decided?

Judges focus on well-rounded arguments that are supported by the body language and attitude of the speakers. An argument with more facts, statistics, real-life examples and evidence has a higher probability of convincing and winning.

  • What criteria are there for judging the debate?

Common judging criteria for debates include:

  • Analysis of the motion
  • Evidence and reasoning
  • Structure of arguments and coherence
  • Style and way of delivery
  • Strategy to tackle rebuttals
  • Quality of rebuttals

If you want to become an influential leader, learning how to get better at debating will give you multiple advantages.

It can sound intimidating at first, but if you keep practicing, your debating skills will improve and turn you into one of the most powerful people in your circle.

I hope this article has helped you learn the nuances of debating. As always, reach out to me if you have any questions, I’d love to answer them.