How To Organize A Debate

Types Of Debates And Tips For Holding Them

Political Debate
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Debates are popular events because conflict is visceral. A speaker might be boring, but that same speaker can't afford to be boring in a debate. The stakes are higher.

Watch a few debates before hosting one. Local newspapers and organizations like the League of Women Voters will host debates, as will universities and community colleges. Take the time to attend one or two of these to get a feel for how they work.

There are different kinds of debates, each with a different format. Most people are familiar with them from watching the presidential debates, where the format rotates.

  1. Moderated
    Ground rules are usually negotiated ahead of time between the two sides -- or whoever is hosting the event decides the rules and that's it.

    Typically, each side gives an opening statement with a time limit.

    The moderator asks a question of one debater, who has a set amount of time to respond. Then the other person gives a rebuttal. Some moderators allow for a good back-and-forth to keep going. Other formats are more strict: question, 90 seconds for the response, 90 seconds for the rebuttal, next question.

    In some versions of this format, questions are suggested by the audience ahead of time and the moderator searches through the slips of paper to pick the best ones. Other formats have the moderator thinking up the questions and follow-up questions.
  1. Town Hall Debate
    The moderator takes a microphone and walks around the audience, letting citizens ask their questions, live, directly to the debaters.

    This gets the audience involved and can generate interesting questions. It's also unpredictable. You never know what topics will come up.
  2. Lincoln-Douglas
    This is a more open style of debate. There are usually time limits, but it's basically two people on a stage, debating each other.

    The topic is typically decided ahead of time. In presidential debates, you'll usually see one debate devoted to domestic policy and one to foreign policy.

    Many high school and college debaters have used this format, and it's a good formula. Here are the typical time limits for a competitive Lincoln-Douglas debate, which takes about 40 to 45 minutes.
    • Speaker A: Making the case - 6 minutes
    • Speaker B: Cross-examination of Speaker A - 3 minutes
    • Speaker B: First rebuttal - 7 minutes
    • Speaker A: Cross-examination of Speaker B - 3 minutes
    • Speaker A: First rebuttal - 4 minutes
    • Speaker B: Final rebuttal
    • Speaker A: Closing rebuttal

    Edited by Laura Lake