How To Organize A Debate

Political Debate
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Debates are popular events because they tackle complex issues which always have conflicting sides and the debate format is a visceral one which adds flavor and nuance to the points being made. Additionally, a speaker might be boring in terms of their presentation skills, but that same speaker can't afford to be boring in a debate because the purpose of a debate is to persuade people to your side and you need to be engaging in order to do that.

You should watch a few debates before you host one to get a sense of what works, and what can go wrong. Television networks, local newspapers, and organizations (like the League of Women Voters) are known for hosting debates, as are universities and colleges. If you can, take the time to attend one or two debates to get a feel first-hand of debate experience. 

There are different kinds of debates, each with a different format. Most people are familiar with debates because they've watched the presidential debates, where the format rotates.

The Moderated Debate Format

The ground rules are negotiated ahead of time either between the two sides or (most often) by whoever is hosting the event. This is the case with the presidential debates that are hosted by a major TV network or university.

Typically, each side makes an opening statement in a prescribed period of time.

The moderator asks a question of one of the debaters, who is allocated a certain amount of time to respond.

Then the other person is able to respond to their opponent which is called a "rebuttal." Some moderators allow for a good back-and-forth to keep going. Other formats are more strict and allow for a question, followed by 90 seconds for the response, and then 90 seconds for the rebuttal, before moving on to the next question.

In some versions of this debate format, questions are suggested by the audience ahead of time. If this is the case, usually the moderator asks an audience question at the tail-end of the debate. Other formats have the moderator thinking up the questions and follow-up questions.

The Town Hall Debate

This debate format runs the gamut from being popular with politicians who are running for the highest office in the land to local politicians running for City Council. The town hall format calls for a moderator to take a microphone and walk around the audience, letting attendees ask debaters questions live.

This format allows the audience to become actively involved and has the added bonus of generating interesting questions. The only caveat is that this format is unpredictable and the debators could get tripped up.

The Lincoln-Douglas Debate

This format is a more open style of debate and is basically two people on a stage, debating each other. There are usually time limits and the topics are typically decided ahead of time. In presidential debates, for example, you'll usually see one debate topic devoted entirely to domestic policy, while another debate is devoted to foreign policy.

Many high school and college debaters are familiar with this format because it is very structured, yet allows for people to openly express their viewpoint, as well as their rebuttal point.

Here are the typical time limits for a competitive Lincoln-Douglas debate, which typically lasts about 40 or 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