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Part 4 - Television Talk Show and Panel Debates

Chapter 19

Knowledge of your subject is the first requirement of a debater, but knowledge alone won’t make you an effective debater. Wit and witticism comprise a large share of a debater’s arsenal.

Thorough preparation is absolutely essential for you as a debater. I find debating to be the most time-consuming of all public appearances – and the most challenging.

A practical definition of debate is an attempt by the participants to persuade the audience to accept or reject a belief. Your ultimate purpose is to win your listeners over to your side. Your opponent has the same objective. In an even matching, the outcome may depend on which participant has the best pre-debate strategy and preparation.

Ground Rules

Most debates have certain ground rules, which the participants have agreed to abide by. Television talk shows are typically loose and unstructured compared to debates. Panel debates are usually tightly organized. In either case, as a participant you have the opportunity to establish or alter ground rules already established as a condition of your accepting the invitation to debate. Well thought out ground rules can help neutralize an antagonistic audience, a tough opponent, or a biased moderator.


Time limits should be set for each segment of the debate, and an ending time for the debate established. A typical debate format might look like this:

Panel Debate
Moderator Opening Statement . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3-5 minutes
Panelist Opening Statement
        You . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5 minutes
        Opponent . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5 minutes
Open Discussion (between panel members). . . . . . . . 15 minutes
Audience Questions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15 minutes
Panelist Closing Statement & Rebuttal
        Opponent . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5 minutes
        You . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5 minutes
Moderator Closing Statement . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3-5 minutes

One important consideration to be tackled immediately is who goes first during the opening and closing statements. My experience shows clearly that speaking second offers distinct advantages. Debaters who speak first usually must spend a substantial portion of their allotted time (20-50%) explaining their opponents’ positions, so they can begin discrediting them.

The debater who speaks second can immediately refute the opponent’s specific points, and then go on to score his/her own. This is particularly important during the closing statements. The audience will remember most vividly what they heard last. You should opt for the closing position, even if you must get it by trading away the first position during the opening statements. Be leery of ground rules that give your opponent the advantage of both first opening and final closing statements.

Open Discussions

Our sample panel format calls for 15 minutes of open discussion between the panel members. Many organizations hosting debates will eliminate this phase, as it can involve a direct confrontation between the participants. Despite your host’s misgivings, this is usually the most interesting part of the debate. It gives you the opportunity to cross-examine your opponent, and to attack his/her position openly.

As a rule of thumb, if you’re a novice debater attempting your first debate against a skilled opponent, you should probably opt for ground rules that omit all open discussion sessions. On the other hand, if your opponent is weak or if your position is strong and easy to defend, then you should encourage the moderator to schedule an open discussion period.

Visual Underdogs

Often panelists will be invited in opposing teams of two or more, based on special expertise, affiliations, or other considerations. Beware. If you and your partner arrive and learn that one of your opponents will be unable to attend, you have an important decision to make. If you elect to go ahead as planned, you create a “visual underdog:” two on your side against a lone opponent. This seeming inequality could sway audience and moderator sympathy.

It may be prudent either for you or for your partner to bow out to give the appearance of equality to both sides. The two most important factors in reaching this decision are: (1) how supportive the audience is to your cause, and (2) how effectively one of you can cover your partner’s material – in addition to your own. If you suspect the audience leans in your direction, then proceed as originally planned. If, however, they are more supportive of your opponent, then strongly consider that one of you should drop out. If either of you can handle your partner’s area of expertise adequately, then you’re covered. If one of your has irreplaceable knowledge critical to the discussion, both of you must go on as planned. Don’t let your opponent set you up by creating a “visual underdog.”

Audience Questions

Most debates include a time for audience questions. I encourage you to include an audience question-and-answer session; it provides the listeners the opportunity to cross-examine all the panelists, and to probe for specific information they may need.

One important consideration is the mechanism by which audience members will direct questions to you on the panel. There are several options, all of which are effective. Their use depends upon the occasion – and on how aggressive you expect the audience to be. What you should try to avoid is getting involved in a one-on-one debate with a member of the audience, or – worse – letting the debate deteriorate into a shouting match with a few vocal members of the audience. You can neutralize a potentially volatile situation with a little forethought.

You may wish to include one of the following three options in the ground rules:

Option 1. Audience members stand at their chairs, identify themselves, and then direct their questions to the panel. By requiring them to identify themselves, you can coerce people into being a bit more responsible. The potential disadvantages of this method are plentiful. First, you set up the opportunity for a direct confrontation between an audience member and panelist – possibly you. Second, by requiring that questioners stand and identify themselves, you automatically eliminate timid individuals who are unwilling to speak before the entire group, even though they may have superb questions burning inside them. Those who ask questions under these circumstances are those who already have strong feelings on the subject.

One way to reduce the possibility of panelist/questioner confrontations is to filter all questions by addressing them to the moderator. This way the moderator accepts the question; the questioner sits down; and then the moderator paraphrases the question to a panel member.

Option 2. This is similar to Option 1, but it adds the use of a public-address system. Under this option, questioners are required to leave their seats and go to a central located microphone. Again they are required to identify themselves before asking their questions. But still only the more aggressive personalities will use this system.

One variation on this option that aids the less aggressive audience member is the use of hand-held microphones. The host organization provides two or more people equipped with remote, hand-held microphones that they take to the questioners. The questioners remain seated, and simply raise their hands. This is similar to the Phil Donahue method – loving about the audience with a microphone in hand.

The hand-held microphone provides some control over the questioner. If things get out of hand, the microphone can be removed from that particular person. When the stationary microphone system is used, it’s a good idea to have an easily disconnectable system, on the chance that some aggressive audience member might attempt to dominate the session. Again, questions can be filtered through the moderator for better control.

Option 3. This option offers the greatest control; it eliminates potential one-on-one encounters, and defuses much of the emotion that can cloud the issue while the questioner speaks. This technique involves the panel accepting written questions. The audience can jot them down during the debate, frequently done on 3x5 note cars provided at the door.

At the appropriate time, all the cards are collected and delivered to the moderator. The moderator then screens the questions, rephrases them as necessary, and directs them to specific panel members for answers. If you require the questions to sign their cards, some higher degree of responsibility is guaranteed. This system is especially effective for soliciting questions from audience members who may be unwilling to stand up and speak before the entire audience.

When dealing with a potentially hostile audience, or a highly controversial issue, this system can be a superb neutralizer for the question-and-answer session, especially if the moderator is inexperienced.

Neutral Moderator

Debating a skilled opponent is difficult enough without having to deal with a biased moderator as well. One of your ground rules should always be the selection of a neutral moderator. If the host organization will have difficulty locating a moderator whom both you and your opponent agree upon, then try an alternative approach. By this technique, each of you submits a list of individuals whom you feel are acceptable as moderators. The host is then free to invite any person whose name appears on both lists. Local universities, newspapers, television and radio stations are all common sources for moderators. The selection of a neutral moderator should be a condition of your accepting the invitation to participate.

Neutral Facility

A clever opponent may try to lure you into a debate at his/her local clubhouse or place of employment. The likelihood that you will find an audience sympathetic to your cause on your opponent’s turf is small. What’s worse, if you choose to invite additional guests, sympathetic to your cause, they may be turned away at the door; they may be crowded out by a lack of adequate seating. A neutral facility where attendance is not limited will help facilitate the debate.

The second point has to do with a phenomenon known as “social facilitation.” Basically, it relates to the fact that people have a tendency to react to one another in groups, and to conform to the dominant emotions. For example, your own reaction to a comedy you see in a filled theatre will likely be more demonstrative than if you saw the same film at home alone. By the same token, it’s easier for you to get a group of people charged up over a controversial issue if they’re tightly packed together in a standing-room-only crowd than if they are seated comfortably throughout a large room.

When you tackle controversial issues before a potentially hostile audience, be certain that the hosting facility plans to provide adequate seating, and that the ventilation system functions properly.

Subject Matter

The more narrowly you define with the hosting organization the specific subject matter to be debated, the easier your planning job will be. Specifically defined subject matter should be, whenever possible, a part of the ground rules. This will allow you to prepare your case thoroughly – and it will help you narrow down the arguments you might expect your opponent to throw at you.

I’ve encountered many debate opponents who use every evasive tactic ever devised to avoid addressing the specific issues at hand. Well-established ground rules and a neutral moderator will help keep the dialog on track. It may be necessary to agree upon what is not to be debated – as well as what is.

Advertise Ground Rules

If you suspect that your opponent and/or the moderator may not adhere to the established ground rules, it may be to your advantage to insure that the audience understands what those rules are. This way you can set up an appeal to their sense of fair play on the chance that unethical behavior may surface.

One way to inform the audience is to have a short, printed handout at each chair; they can also be distributed as people arrive. Another is to put a large poster on the wall enumerating the rules. In well-run debates, the moderator gives a summary of the rules prior to commencing the debate. The audience should understand the rules. As one of those rules will almost certainly pertain to audience questions, listeners have a definite need to know how things will work.

In summary, always keep in mind how important ground rules can be in a debate. Effective debaters always use good judgment in establishing rules, and in deciding how formal they want to make the occasion. As a rule of thumb, when you debate a skilled and experienced opponent before an audience more likely to favor the opponent’s views, try to negotiate firm ground rules. This helps you neutralize any advantage the opponent may have over you and guarantees that you’ll have at least some opportunity to state your case. On the other hand, if you’re debating an inexperienced debater before either a neutral audience or one that may lean your way, then you need to establish fewer controls. The more open the exchange, the better you can exercise your own advantage: the more you can dominate your opponent.

Audience Analysis

As with any presentation you give, conducting a thorough audience analysis is imperative. Debate is no exception. Chapter 22 discusses how to go about an audience analysis.

Opponent Analysis

The more you know about your opponent, the better you can prepare your case, the better you can identify his/her weaknesses, and the better you can plan for an expected line of argument.

The first step in analyzing your opponent is to identify his/her general frame of reference. Investigating the following information will help:

  • Age
  • Sex
  • Race
  • Education
  • Income
  • Occupation
  • Hobbies
  • Special affiliations
  • Place of residence
  • Relationship to moderator
  • Relationship to audience
  • Credentials on the subject
  • Experience as a debater
  • Military service
  • Religion
  • Marital Status (children)

… and the list goes on. You may wonder how information on some of these topics can relate to your specific subject and the purpose of your debate. The answer is that the better you know your opponent, the better you can prepare. Also, your spontaneous replies and cross-examining questions will be sharper and more pointed during the debate.

I recently watched two professors debate various alternative future energy sources. The topics of safety and relative risk emerged repeatedly. One professor put the topic in perspective by relating it to his opponent’s hobby: he is a private airplane pilot. The analogy worked. It wouldn’t have been possible if a thorough opponent analysis had not been performed.

One special area always worth researching is any previously stated or written positions the opponent may have taken on the topic. Not only will this increase your understanding of your opponent’s position, it may arm you with lethal ammunition in the form of contradictory or irresponsible statements.

Just like a football team studies the tactics of upcoming opponents carefully prior to the big game, viewing videotapes, analyzing strengths and vulnerabilities – so must you. Remember that a worthy opponent does a complete analysis of you.

Moderator Analysis

Even when you’ve been assured in advance that the moderator is neutral, it will pay you to learn a bit about him/her as well. Most of the things you investigate about your opponent can be helpful if learned about the moderator as well. By understanding the moderator better, you will have the opportunity to favorably impress him or her. This may affect the amount of time you are allotted during the open-discussion period or during the moderator’s closing summary.

Knowing how much experience the moderator has had with debates or panels will also let you know what to expect in terms of how the ground rules may be adhered to. Inexperienced moderators may be more easily manipulated by your opponent – who may try to take advantage of the amateur in charge.

Presuming that most moderators are held in reasonably high esteem by the audience (otherwise someone else would have been asked), it will be especially if you can quote during the debate from statements or articles made previously by the moderator, and which support your case.

A final area of concern regarding the moderator is whether he/she fully understands the ground rules you’ve labored to establish prior to the debate. I frequently ask the moderator prior to the debate to refresh my memory on the rules. If you unmask a poorly informed moderator, then be sure to get the ground rules well established in his/her mind before the debate gets under way.

In the case of television talk shows, the moderator and the host are usually one and the same person. Be certain to watch that particular show several days in advance to understand how the host operates. The more familiar you are with the host’s style and personality, the sooner you’ll relax and begin scoring points for your case.

Mock Debate

After you’ve completed your audience analysis, your moderator analysis, and your opponent analysis; and you have a comfortable command of your subject, it’s time to rehearse. A good place to begin is to create a list of issues and arguments you might expect your opponent to use. Also create a list of questions you can reasonably expect the audience to ask. Sit down with a friend or an associate, and kick the issues back and forth. Practice answering tough questions; then practice asking even tougher questions. Take turns being for and against the issue. When you get to the point where you can defend yourself and articulate your case with ease from either the pro or con position; you’re probably ready to meet your true opponent. If you’re having difficulty shifting gears quickly or in articulating your opponent’s position, then keep practicing until you can do these things with ease.

The more you prepare and rehearse, the more effective you’ll be during the debate.

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