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Debating abc: What is debating

December 17, 2012

This is an introduction to competitive debating.

What is debating?

Debating is about examining ideas and policies and persuading people within an organised structure. It allows us to consider the world around us by thinking about different arguments, engaging with opposing views and speaking strategically.

What are the different parts of debating?

There are many different parts of debating that are interlinked. The main parts are:
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.


How do we debate?

In every debate there is a motion: a statement, idea or policy that is disputed. Usually, the motion is either a policy which changes the status quo or a statement who truth or falsehood is examined in the debate. There are two sides to the debate, the government and the opposition. The government supports the motion whilst the opposition opposes it. Through considering the content, style and strategy of speeches, the audience or judges evaluates the different speakers and decide who has persuaded them the most.

How is the debate structured?

There are many different formats of debate, each with their own rules. Compare it to football where different rules govern a knock-around in a park or a professional refereed game. The format we use in competitive debating is called British Parliamentary as it resembles a debate in the British Parliament. This is not the format used for Thursday night Union debates but is the international standard for university debating. However, remember that it is one of many different debating formats and, like football, learning the rules doesn’t teach you how to play it well. Once you have learned to debate in one format, it is very easy to convert to another format.

The Rules of British Parliamentary

In British Parliamentary, there are four teams of two speakers. Two of the teams (and hence four speakers) are on the government and two teams are on the opposition. The first two speakers on the government side are called the opening government, the first two on the opposition are called the opening opposition and similarly the last two speakers on the government and the opposition are called the closing government and the closing opposition respectively. Speeches alternate between the two sides starting with the first government speech and are usually up to either five or ten minutes in length. All the teams are trying to win the debate outright – this means that it is not the side which wins but a specific team. Hence, speakers within the same team cooperate but teams on the same side do not cooperate during the debate and instead try to outmanoeuvre each other. The teams are then ranked first to fourth in the debate. Each of the teams has a specific role in the debate.

The Opening Government

The opening government presents the case for the government. Firstly, they must produce a definition: a policy or interpretation of the motion. The definition should be relevant to the motion and should not attempt to restrict or shift it to another debate. They must then present arguments in favour of the motion. The second government speaker must also rebut the opening opposition and explain why their arguments are wrong or irrelevant.

The Opening Opposition

The opening opposition presents the case for the opposition. To do this, they rebut the opening government and present arguments. They can choose to defend the status quo or present a counterproposal.

The Closing Government and Closing Opposition

Both of these teams must try to move the debate on (in order to win as an outright team) but must not contradict the opening team on their side. In particular, the closing government cannot change the definition. To move the debate on, they present new analysis of the debate either from a different viewpoint or by extending the arguments already made. The third speaker presents this ‘extension’ or new material as well as comprehensive rebuttal or all previous speakers on the opposite side. The last speeches on both sides are summary speeches: they summarise the debate and the clash between teams from a biased perspective in order to explain why their side has won the debate. Special emphasis should be made on why their team has won the debate. No new arguments may be presented in the summaries although new examples and rebuttal are accepted.

The Motion and Preparation Time

In British Parliamentary, the motion is announced fifteen minutes before the debate begins. Teams are assigned to positions in the debate randomly. The teams prepare during these fifteen minutes using their own knowledge and experience to create their case. Examples of motions include ‘This House Would Introduce the Death Penalty’ or ‘This House Believes That Globalisation Marginalises the Poor’.

Points of Information

During speeches, speakers on the opposite side may offer short, quick points of rebuttal to the speaker known as points of information. To do this, the speaker offering the point of information must stand and say ‘On that point’ or ‘On a point of information’. They must then wait to see if the speaker speaking accepts or declines it. If accepted, the point of information can last up to ten to fifteen seconds and the speaker speaking may ask for it to stop at any point. Speakers should accept only one or two points of information and offer them regularly throughout other speeches. The first and the last minute of a speech is ‘protected time’ during which no points of information may be offered.


After the debate has finished, the judges evaluate the debate on the basis of the content, style and strategy of speeches. After comparing separate teams, they then rank the teams first to fourth. In open rounds, the teams are then given the result and reasons for the result. In closed rounds, the result is not given to teams.

Where else can I find out more about debating?

  • For a source of different motions, see the Debatabase website, which contains a library of around 500 motions.
  • For information on British debating, see the British Debate website, which includes a calendar of debating events.

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