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Debate Overview

Debating develops critical thinking, public speaking skills, strong research skills, and a focus on ideas and issues.

A debate round has two teams with two debaters each and a Speaker. The Speaker serves as both the judge and arbiter of the rules during the round. One team represents the Government, while the other represents the Opposition. The Government team is composed of a Prime Minister, who speaks twice, and a Member of Government, who speaks once. The Opposition team is composed of a Leader of the Opposition, who speaks twice, and a Member of the Opposition, who speaks once. The Government proposes a specific case statement, which the government team must demonstrate to be correct. The Opposition does not have to propose anything, but must demonstrate that the case statement is not correct. The winning team is determined based on the arguments made, whether the Government proved its case or whether the Opposition disproved it. The team which met its burden more convincingly wins.

We will cover off the following:

  1. The basics

  2. Roles (Speaker/moderator, timekeeper]

  3. How to prepare for a debate
  4. How to prepare a debate speech

  5. Debatable resolutions

  6. Room set up


Let's start with the kernel of a debate -- the resolution.

The Resolution is the issue to be argued over

  • Every debate has a resolution.

  • The resolution is usually phrased with the words “Be it resolved that...” and then the issue.

    For example: Be it resolved that a bath is better than a shower. (note: the shorthand for Be it resolved that is BIRT]

  • Sometimes the topics are comparative (as above) and sometimes they are a simple statement

    (BIRT that the war in Afghanistan is morally justified).

  • There are value debates (BIRT that religion does more harm than good).

  • There are policy debates (BIRT that uniforms should be abolished).

  • Sometimes the topics are serious (BIRT Edward Snowden is a patriot) and sometimes they are ridiculous (BIRT Pie is better than cake).

Defining the Resolution

To have a debate, the government and opposition must understand the resolution the same way. Otherwise, the two sides are like two ships passing in the night – the arguments of one side will hold little or no relevance for the arguments of the other side.

Are there limits or rules regarding how the resolution is defined?

  • The government should respect the ordinary English meaning of terms. For example, one would not expect the government to turn “Dogs are man’s best friend” into a debate about the merits of protein in human diets.

  • The government must not define the resolution in such a way that it becomes trivial, tautological or requires special knowledge.

Here are three common strategies that can be used to give the government an advantage.

a) Narrow the definition

It is usually easier to defend a narrowly defined proposition. For example, if the resolution concerns a ban on marijuana, it would be easier to defend a prohibition on cultivation for commercial purposes than it would be to defend prohibiting anything and everything to do with any amount of marijuana. Note: If you define the resolution too narrowly, you might end up with something that is trivial.

b) Shift the ground

In general, a lot of resolutions can be moral or pragmatic propositions. For example, in the resolution “Tobacco taxes should be raised,” the word “should” could be a moral should or a pragmatic should. Terms like “right” and “good” can also be moral or pragmatic. Note: If you want to stick with moral or pragmatic arguments, you must define “should” one way or the other. An alternative is to leave “should” undefined and then present both moral and pragmatic arguments.

c) Use alternate definitions

Sometimes the government can catch the opposition off guard by using an alternate definition for a key word. For example, the resolution “Good fences make good neighbours” is likely to be interpreted as being about physical structures that separate people living next to each other. But a “fence” is also someone who buys stolen property. Note: To be fair, the interpretation should still respect the ordinary English meanings of words and not use an obscure or obsolete definition.

The sides

  1. Affirmative is the side that AGREES with the resolution

  2. Negative is the side that DISAGREES with the resolution

What each side must do:

  • The affirmative must define all the terms of the debate and the reasons why the case is a good one.

  • The negative must simply prove the affirmative is wrong.

( i.e. if the debate is BIRT orange is the best colour, then the affirmative has to give all the reasons. The negative does not have to prove that another colour is better; they simply have to prove that the affirmative’s arguments are flawed, and that orange is not the best colour.)


There are two speakers on each side in a parliamentary team debate.

- The first speaker on the affirmative team is called the 1st affirmative (aka Prime Minister), the second speaker is the 2nd affirmative (government seconder, or member of the government).

- The first speaker on the negative team is called the 1st negative (aka Leader of the Opposition), the second speaker is the 2nd negative (opposition seconder, or member of the opposition).

New arguments can be made at any time during the first four speeches. These speeches are called constructives. New arguments cannot be made during rebuttals, the last two speeches of the round. The Prime Minister can, however, respond to new opposition arguments that were made by the Member of the Opposition, or Opposition Seconder. So the PM's Rebuttal may contain new responses, but not new arguments.

Constructive speech is the speech in which the debater lists all of their main points and all evidence to support these points.


Speaker / Moderator

Moderator: the person who introduces the speakers and gives the instructions in a debate.

Debaters must refer to them as 'Madame Speaker', or 'Mister Speaker'.

The moderator has a script that they read from (see attached moderator’s script)

It is up to the Speaker / Moderator to:

  • Ensure all the rules and procedures are followed and respected.

  • Call the debate to order if it gets unruly

  • Approve any points of information, or points of personal privilege

  • In the event of a contested resolution, the Speaker decides whether the objection has merit 

  • Decide which side wins in the event of a tie.


Timekeeper: the person who keeps time and gives count down warnings (i.e. provides one minute warnings, time out). Tools include a stop-watch and a bell.


  1. Define the resolution.

  2. Decide who will be the first/second speakers on each side.

  3. Brainstorm ideas for the affirmative side. Each debater writes down at least one idea as to why the resolution is correct and then brainstorms with their team mate.

  4. Move to the negative side.

  5. Repeat #2, #3 until your team has 5-6 points to make the case.

  6. Divide the points up between the first and second speakers.

  7. Research your constructive arguments.

  8. Conduct opposition research to anticipate what your opponents will likely argue.

  9. Prepare rebuttals.

  10. Define needed terms.


1st Affirmative

All speeches should begin with “Honourable judges, worthy opponents (& if there are any audience members), and welcome guests.”

Next the 1st Affirmative should say something like “The resolution that stands before us today is of crucial importance because it questions the very nature of our society” (or our education system, legal system etc. depending on the resolution). “Before giving my constructive speech, I would first like to define the resolution.”

The terms should be defined, then the 1st Affirmative should say “The points I will be presenting today in support of the affirmative’s deep conviction in the truth of the resolution are” (outline points). “My partner will expand on my contentions and present the following points for your consideration” (outline partner’s points). “I will now commence my constructive speech.”

State your case in point form, followed by examples for each one. For example, "I will demonstrate why the government should not provide universal child care. One, it is an unfair burden on taxpayers. Two, it is difficult to effectively regulate and three, it is better for pre-schoolers' developmental health to be at home until junior kindergarten. ... then add context to each point with specific information and examples.

If you have time, conclude by summarizing what you have said. If not, say something rousing. E.g. “Ladies and Gentlemen, we hope you believe as we do, that this resolution MUST STAND.” If debating cross-examination style, then finish with “I now stand open for cross examination.” Remain standing, wait to be cross examined.


1st Negative

You should choose whether you'd like to make your case and incorporate your refutation into the content of your speech, or separate the rebuttals from your arguments. It is fairly standard to begin with your rebuttals, then launch into your own arguments to make your case against the resolution.

For example, after the opening welcome, the 1st Negative would say “Before commencing my constructive speech, I would first like to rebut a few of the more obvious fallacies in my opponent’s case.”

The 1st Negative should then argue against the key points the 1st Affirmative made in his or her speech and cross examine.After rebutting for one to two minutes, proceed with your opposition arguments.

2nd Affirmative & 2nd Negative

Restate resolution (not mandatory)
Statement of the organization of points
Can restate points made in conclusion by the whole team

Summary Speeches

The purpose of the summary, or rebuttal speech, is to summarize the debate, clarify the major issues, and emphasize why your team has proven its side of the case.  Two minutes is not enough time to address every point brought up by the opposing team. If you attempt to address each point, one of two things will happen: a) you will run out of time, or b) you will give too little attention to the most significant points. An important thing to remember about rebuttals is that no new arguments are allowed.

Opposition: Sum up your key points of disagreement. Drag the arguments back to your side by convince everyone of the total believability, logic and reasonable of your opposition to the motion. This speech is a showcase of how inept the Governments case has been, and how strong the Oppositions case is. You cannot hope to rebut everything the Government has brought in, nor everything you have brought in. You are explaining to the adjudicator and the audience why your arguments show that your side has done the better job debating. You must summarise the fundamental weaknesses and contradictions in the Government case and solidify your team's case. The rebuttal must be strong enough to prevent the Prime Minister from sufficiently recovering the government case in rebuttal. .

Government: The Prime Minister will have a chance to overtake the Opposition by having the last word. Sum up your key points. Emphasize how your side offered a case that was logical, reasonable and more appealing than the opposition. Explain to the adjudicator and the audience why your arguments show that your side has done the better job debating. The goal is to bring the round back to the fundamental values presented in your case, to respond to any significant new arguments presented by the Member of the Opposition, and to defeat the final Opposition position. Demonstrate how your team worked together to make the case. You can include new responses, but do not add any new information or arguments.


Regardless of how interesting the topic or how passionately you feel about it, a proposition may not be debatable if it does not lead to a logical conclusion.

In order to be debatable, a resolution must not:

  1. be tautological

  2. be a truism

  3. be trivial

  4. require special knowledge


This is an extremely tight case that uses repetitive phrases or words which have similar meanings. Simply put, it expresses the same idea twice using different words (sort of like this second sentence). It is a redundant resolution. . onsider the resolution “Good things come to those who waits.” If you define “good things” as “delayed gratification,” the resolution is essentially tautological. How do you argue a tautology?  You state that the case is a tautology, explain how it is a tautology, and why this means the case should be rejected. Follow up your tautology argument with your own definitions and explanations of why these definitions provide a fairer ground for debate.


This is a proposition that states nothing beyond what is implied by any of its terms ( i.e. you get what you pay for). Or it is an argument that is considered to be true by the vast majority of people, which makes it indisputable (i.e. “genocide is bad”. It is unreasonable to argue that genocide is good).

How do you argue a truism? You state that the case is a truism, explain how it is a truism and why this means the case should be rejected. For example, to show that “genocide is bad” is a truism, you would argue: “Saying that genocide is bad is a truism. No one disagrees with this. The government case makes it virtually impossible to argue against their case. You should dismiss the government case as being a truism unworthy of debate.”

Follow up your truism argument with your own definitions and explanations of why these definitions provide a fairer ground for debate.


This one is more subjective. A trivial statement is one in which the vast majority of people would either agree or disagree. “Non-consensual sex should be permitted” is an example of a resolution that would likely receive near-unanimous disagreement while “Health is better than wealth” would probably meet with broad agreement. There is no hard test to determine what is trivial. No doubt, you could find someone who agrees with the proposition about non-consensual sex and the resolution about health is probably closer to the gray area where debate is possible. But neither resolution holds out a lot of promise for counterarguments.

Special Knowledge

This one also tends to be subjective. What counts as special knowledge among the faculty of the London School of Economics and what counts as special knowledge among the members of your mother’s knitting circle are likely two different things. Some degree of judgment will be required but, for example, a resolution that requires a basic understanding of psychology will probably be debatable while one that requires knowledge of basics concepts of microbiology is probably not debatable.


Debates are scored on 8 categories.

  1. Arguments

  2. Substantiation

  3. Rebuttal

  4. Presentation

  5. Emotional Impact

  6. Summare

  7. Teamwork

  8. Timing

Final tally is 50 points. Here's how they rate:

45 - 50 Future Prime Minister

40 - 45 Very Good (persuasive, organized, good refutation, excellent delivery)

35 - 40 Good (Organised, some clash, adequate delivery)

35 or lower: Something to improve on


The Moderator speaks from the podium at the front of centre stage.

Affirmative team is seated stage left of the podium, or to the right of the Speaker when he/she is facing the audience. The Prime Minister is closest to the audience.

Negative team is seated stage right of the podium, or to the left of the Speaker when he/she is facing the audience. The Leader of the Opposition is closest to the audience.

Judges (adjudicators) are seated in the audience. Debaters are not allowed to directly address the adjudicator.

© 2016 Toronto Debating Society 

Moderator's Script
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