Since 1977, over 10,000 Spokespersons Trained.
Part 4 - Television Talk Show and Panel Debates

Chapter 20
Debate: Where Discussion Ends

In this chapter we will deal with specific debate techniques. These techniques are designed for use during panel debates, but many are equally appropriate for television talk-show formats.1

The title of this chapter includes an important message for the novice debater. Unlike a discussion between two colleagues whose minds are basically open to new ideas, debate involves opponents in a direct confrontation. Both you and your opponent already hold strong beliefs on the topic. Now your job is to convince the audience that your position is superior to your opponent’s. Try to think of your audience as a jury who will be rendering an important verdict based on the arguments you present.

Remember that your opponent is just as intent on winning the “jury’s” support as you are. Your opponent will prepare just as thoroughly, and will fight just as hard as you are prepared to do. In fact, many of these techniques are ways to wrest the floor away from your opponent, and to defend yourself against being totally dominated. Most rookie debaters, especially those who represent large corporations, enter the debate arena sheepishly. They sit politely during the debate, as if they are waiting for an invitation to speak. That invitation rarely arrives. The following techniques will help you neutralize an aggressive opponent – and insure that you’ll have an opportunity to plead your case.

Burden of Proof

Business spokespersons have a knack for letting themselves be put in a defensive posture during the debate. It’s a much easier tactic to attack your opponent’s position than it is to defend your own. Take an active offense whenever you see an opening, and leave the burden of proof to your opponent. An effective way to do this is by raising questions about your opponent’s arguments. You should prepare a list of tough questions well before the debate. Don’t allow your opponent the luxury of unrestricted cross-examination; put him/her in the hot-seat while you ask the questions.


I stated earlier that a large part of effective debate is wit and witticism. The use of hyperbole may fall into that category. A hyperbole is an exaggeration used for specific effect. By hyperbole, you reduce the opponent’s statement to absurdity – you make his/her point seem like utter nonsense. Hyperboles will sometimes come to you spontaneously, but they can also be planned. Hyperboles you frequently hear include:

  1. “That’s like throwing out the baby with the bath water.”
  2. “That’s like burning down the barn to get rid of termites.”
  3. “The Titanic sank, so what do you want to do, ban ocean liners?”
  4. “That’s like comparing the Kitty Hawk to a 747.”
  5. “You don’t have to be a chicken to judge eggs.”
  6. “That’s like a gnat trying to stop the onward march of an elephant.”

Laundry List

A skilled opponent will frequently raise a score of issues or accusations, knowing full well that you haven’t sufficient time to address them all. If this occurs, select one or perhaps two of the issues and deal with them. Choose issues that you feel particularly well equipped to handle. If you can show your audience that your opponent was incorrect or dishonest on one issue, then his/her remaining issues will be suspect. And remember that you may find the laundry list to be an effective offensive weapon as well.

Exposing Evasion

In your efforts to cross-examine your opponent, you will quickly learn how clever he/she can be at evading issues. When your opponent refuses to meet your arguments, call that fact to the audience’s attention. Make the audience realize that your opponent is evading the issue – or your questions. If your opponent still refuses to deal with the issues, his or her credibility is marred to the extent that you’ve impressed the audience with his/her evasions.


There is no universal agenda for the open-discussion portion of any debate. Any of a broad range of issues can come up. Rather than letting your opponent dictate which issues are to be debated, you can guide the discussion in a direction helpful to you. The use of directional or leading questions can help you steer the dialog. You usually will be able to anticipate responses to your questions. Remember to speak in your strong areas, and probe your opponent’s weakest points.


You will be most persuasive if you put the issues in some “class” of things about which the audience already holds strong opinions – “efficient,” “democratic,” “discriminatory,” “communistic,” etc. A thorough audience analysis will help you identify classes that will arouse the most intense feeling on the part of your listeners. Relate your own arguments to positive beliefs the audience holds, and relegate your opponent’s to negative ones.

Give to Get

Don’t go to the mat on every little difference that arises. Don’t be afraid to admit that you mistakenly misquoted a fact. Don’t be self-righteous. It’s better to let the little points go by, so you can land the big ones. Retreat from the small battles to win the war.


Humor is a powerful debating tool. Audiences tend to gravitate toward debaters with enjoyable personalities. Using appropriate humor is a good way to build audience rapport. If your opponent uses humor, enjoy it along with the audience. Avoid off-color remarks and humor that personally attacks your opponent.

Flat Denial

If your opponent makes an untrue statement during the open discussion period, call attention to it immediately. Be assertive. Don’t wait for an invitation to respond; deny it immediately. Used at the right moment, this technique will help you recapture the floor.


Debaters will frequently use the false logic that “crows are dirty birds; therefore, all birds must be dirty.” You don’t want to take the rap for someone else’s problem. Speak about what you know and what you are responsible for. A simple statement to the effect that “I don’t know about that, but what I do know is ( __________)” will usually get you back on track and headed in the right direction.

Carrying the Idea Farther

When we were children, we used to throw a rope over a mud puddle and have a tug-of-war contest. Invariably, when one side was clearly losing ground and approaching the puddle’s edge, the losing team would let go to the rope and send the opposing team tumbling. In a sense, you can do the same thing in debate. When your opponent has bee successful in offering a solution or proposal, seize it and play it out to an absurd extreme, showing the consequences if it were accepted.


Avoid using too many figures. It isn’t what you tell listeners that counts, but what they remember. Audiences rarely remember statistics. When you use figures, present them in round numbers, and relate them to things the audience understands.

Time Awareness

Opening and closing statements should be well planned. If the moderator has to cut you off in the middle of your remarks, you may miss your most important points. This can be devastating to your arguments. A strong concluding statement is one of your most potent weapons. Plan carefully to use your time wisely.


You can bolster your credibility by quoting authorities (preferably those free from bias) who are respected by your audience, or who are experts in their field. The more experts you can cite who agree with your position, the more you can persuade the audience to lean your way. It’s also a good technique to quote your opponent – when it’s to your advantage. Quoting previous statements that contradict what the opponent is presently saying can serve to undermine his/her credibility.

Fair Play

Do not engage in personal attacks; the audience will not respect you if you do. It is possible to be assertive and still be fair. No one admires trickery, and no one respects a speaker who is sarcastic or dishonest. If you accepted the invitation to debate based on certain ground rules, always honor those rules.


Interrupting your opponent while he or she is making a statement during the open discussion period is fair play. It is absolutely not fair to interrupt him/her during the opening or closing statements. You may find interrupting feels awkward to you at first. It goes against all those nice, polite manners you were taught as a child; however, your parents weren’t teaching you how to debate. The open discussion period is a free-for-all; anyone can speak at any time. You can’t score points if you don’t have the floor.

Whenever possible, you should interrupt on the audience’s behalf, e.g., “I think the audience deserves an answer to ( _______ ).” When the opponent won’t let you get a word in edgewise, try calling his/her name; that may get their attention. If you still can’t get a chance to speak, then appeal to the moderator. The moderator has the power to quiet your opponent, and to deliver the floor to you.

At times you may be dominating the time. If you sense that the audience or moderator is ready for your opponent to speak, avoid letting anyone intervene by relinquishing the floor voluntarily. The most effective way to do that is with a directive question that forces the opponent to speak to a subject that you select.


This technique reduces the arguments to absolute specifics. By using it, you ask your opponent direct questions that you are fairly confident they can’t answer. If it works, this will undoubtedly damage his/her credibility. This is especially effective against opponents who are not competent technically on some aspect of the issue being debated.


Proof by elimination is the technique by which you systematically reduce the options down to the one you’re advocating. Your attacks on discarded alternatives should be strong enough to dispose of them beyond question.


You may trigger a strongly negative audience reaction if you continually “beat the same dead horse.” Enough is enough. Score your points and move on. The amount of proof offered to support each of your contentions should be adjusted according to the degree in which the contention conforms to existing beliefs of the listeners. This makes an even stronger case for completing a thorough audience analysis.


People share a tendency to conform. You will frequently be more persuasive by telling your audience how “others” have solved a problem than by telling them how they should solve theirs.


To fix your main points firmly in your listeners’ minds, you must reinforce them. You can’t expect audiences to be persuaded by the first piece of evidence you offer. Be persistent in offering evidence to support your position, and watch for nonverbal clues from the audience that indicate either lingering doubt or agreement.


Although forbidden in formal high school and college debate competitions, it is perfectly legitimate to introduce “new evidence” during your final rebuttal or summary statement. Indeed, in the real world of critical issues debate, it’s a potent tool to use. Some skilled debaters will intentionally withhold a powerful piece of information until the closing remarks when the audience is most likely to remember it … and their opponents can’t rebut it.

Call to Action

When people are persuaded to act, they tend to want to act immediately. You can accommodate this natural tendency by providing an immediate action to be taken. In selling, this technique is called “asking for the order.” You can give the audience something to do, such as pick up a brochure in the back of the room, sign a petition, give a donation, or vote, or write their congressmen.

Frame of Reference

As with all public appearances, remember the audience at all times. Speak their language. Use words they can understand and relate to. To whatever extent your research allows, fit your arguments to the beliefs already held by your listeners. The more your information and arguments agree with the existing knowledge and beliefs of your listeners, the easier it is to have your contentions accepted.


As we agreed earlier, listeners are more willing to believe something said by a person whom they like than by one whom they like than by one whom they dislike. Be warm and sincere. Try to win the audience’s confidence and build your own prestige with them. Remember to use your most effective delivery skills. A dull, boring delivery will quickly turn the audience off, and will play directly into the hands of your opponent. As an experiment, I asked students to evaluate the Kennedy/Nixon debates that were held in 1960. One group of students reviewed printed transcripts of the debates, while others viewed the videotaped version on a television monitor. Those who read the printed manuscript frequently cited Richard Nixon as the apparent victor. Those who viewed the version that was broadcast in 1960 frequently cited John Kennedy as the winner. In debate, it’s not simply what you say that counts; how you say it is also important.

Remember not to get so wrapped up in debating your opponent that you ignore the audience. You will never convert your opponent; don’t waste your time and energy trying to do so. Direct your arguments to the “jury.”


During the entire debate both you and your opponent are in full view of the audience. The audience will look to you for your actions while your opponent is speaking. Many debaters forget that even while sitting silently, you are still communicating. A subtle nod of the head of a whimsical smile can cast shadows on your opponent’s information. Remember to look and to be alert at all times.

Team Work

When you are appearing with a partner, it’s important that your efforts be well coordinated. Give nonverbal support to your partner while he/she is speaking. If you nervously shuffle papers, you’ll distract the audience’s attention away from your partner.

Work out ahead of time which of you will be responsible for which issues. This way you’ll avoid the time-consuming and embarrassing exchange that can occur between partners if they try to decide on the spot who should reply to an audience question; it can look as though neither of you wants to answer. One way to keep this process from being seen is to place a pen or pencil on the table between you and your colleague. While the question is being asked, one of you can easily point it toward the person who should respond. Done without visual emphasis, no one will be distracted by it; you’ll just be seen as a well-coordinated team.

Other debate techniques certainly exist. As you gain experience, you’ll discover “tricks of the trade” that work especially well for you. You’ll also discover that the “good guys” have not patent on effective debating techniques. You must expect your opponent to use all these techniques against you; you must be prepared to counter them.

The best way to develop strong debating skills is to practice. In the training seminars that I conduct, we have videotaped simulated debates, and then play them back. It gives us a chance to scrutinize the debate, and to perform a careful critique. By critiquing the strategy, the accuracy of information, the debater’s delivery skills, and his/her debating techniques, we have been able to sharply hone abilities to articulate and to defend our positions.

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