Bryan Caplan  

Debate Training: Deserve to Win

We're Number 44! We're Number ... Friday Evening Audio: Detectiv...
[UPDATE: Broken link to my presentation fixed.]

The annual Cato-Heritage intern debate on Libertarianism versus Conservatism is scheduled for July 23, 2015.  Today I visited Cato to provide debate training, so yesterday I had to figure out what I actually know about debating. 

My first thought: Winning isn't everything.  Many sleazy debating tactics are effective, especially with broader audiences. 

  • appeals to emotion
  • changing the subject
  • ad hominem attacks
  • making persuasive arguments you know to be false or overstated
That, of course, is why televised political debates are godawful.

My real goal, then, isn't to teach debaters how to win, but how to deserve to win.  There's a correlation between winning and deserving to win, but it's far from perfect.  In the end, I distilled seven big principles from my experience.  The first three focus on substance, the latter four on style/strategy.


1. Become broadly knowledgeable about the subject under debate.
2. Speak literal truth.
3. Defend your actual views with your actual arguments.


4. Know your time limit.
5. Know who you're really addressing: undecided audience members.
Talk to your opponent like he's your best friend.
7. [If there's before-and-after voting]
Make sure the audience clearly grasps the issue before the first vote.

Detailed presentation here.

P.S. I briefly considered waiting to publish this until after the debate, but I'm more interested in raising the level of the debate than giving Cato an edge.  If both sides spend the next two weeks reading the other sides' favorite authors, then bend over backwards to be friendly on July 23, I'll be deeply pleased.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (8 to date)
LD Bottorff writes:

Good luck with this. I have always thought that you take the high road in the immigration debate.

Sieben writes:
Many sleazy debating tactics are effective, especially with broader audiences.

Actually, there is one debating tactic I consider sleazy that is regularly effective even with highly intellectual audiences.

Certain arguments take a certain volume of time to construct. They do not necessarily take the same amount of time to rebut. If you choose points which take you little time, but your opponent a lot of time to address, you will run them out of resources very quickly.

For example: "The government should provide basic functions, like police and roads".


"The government should not provide any of those services because we'll all just spontaneously figure it out using mostly non-aggressive decentralized institutions. I don't know exactly how they would look, but here are 9999999 ways it could work. Theoretically, of course"

Maniel writes:

Prof. Caplan,
I believe that the difference between “winning” and “deserving to win” would narrow if traditional rules of competitive debate were observed, and in particular, 1) deciding just prior to the start which team would defend and which would oppose the statement (to be debated) and 2) having professionals score the debate. When each team prepares to argue either side of a statement, they are likely to prepare strong arguments for both sides. The preparation then becomes a broadening experience for both teams, just as the debate itself is a learning experience for the listeners.
I think of criminal trials in the same way. The court asks that the defense counselor, without committing perjury, help the defendant give the best defense possible. This in turn puts the burden of proof on the prosecution, which is as it should be.
If presidential debates were real debates, they would be conducted and scored by debate professionals. Rather, they are opportunities for candidates to be seen and heard by an “American-Idol” public.

Chris Hunt writes:

Appeal to emotion works wonderfully on the unwashed masses.

In the UK, it's used "deftly" to justify drug policies, which go against evidence and economic-thinking.

Appeal to emotion is a rhetorical scourge!

Jim Glass writes:

As a lawyer who's been "making cases" of one sort or another for too many years...

4. Know your time limit.

Yes, but not just to finish talking on time. Also to be sure you really know your case. There's an old saying "if you can't explain an idea in plain English you don't understand it". Similarly, if you really understand your case then given any arbitrary amount of time to present it you can comfortably select the most important points to present it most effectively per-minute in that time. If one fumbles because after rehearsing doing it in 10 minutes one only has 5 minutes, one hasn't mastered the case.

So practice making it in the allotted time, and in much shorter times too, as if answering questions.

5. Know who you're really addressing: undecided audience members.

Ah, this. This! This!!

One can never win over the other side -- never, ever -- thus it is futile to try, which makes it counter-productive and self-defeating to try. Yet people try and try and try! And come off looking like pugnacious jerks.

Ben Franklin said: "When I was young I won a lot of arguments in my own mind, but found that in the world it gained me nothing but enemies. So I learned to stop arguing and gain influence." (Exact words paraphrased from my failing memory, but he made that basic point several times over explicitly in his Autobiography.)

So don't 'argue', and as you say, instead play to win over the undecided: the judge, jury, 98% of the general public that knows nothing about the subject when you start.

6. Talk to your opponent like he's your best friend.

Yes, a basic part of #5, as being likable is one of the keys to being persuasive -- and being argumentative plus pugnacious about it is not very likable.

For a real-life, history-changing example of all this in action read the story of Franklin and Adams in Paris. Franklin the media maven was persuading the French royal court into funding a revolution against a monarch when Adams the lawyer showed up and tried to argue them into it, undoing all of Ben's work. The two wound up trying to throttle each other. Happily Ben won that power-play or we'd all still be speaking English today. A story both instructive and entertaining.

Jim Glass writes:

Appeal to emotion works wonderfully on the unwashed masses

Yes, it can, when playing to a large political crowd with only superficial knowledge and interest in a subject, and trying to manipulate them into lining up with you as good guys versus the other side's bad guys.

But it works much less well with a small, studious audience that is trying to be attentive and fair. In that case the standard strategy is, when the facts are on your side, be calm and let the facts speak for themselves, while if the facts are against you then appeal to Higher Justice and All That Is Only Righteous And Fair -- because, well, what else can you do do?

However indulging in such rhetoric any more than necessary can produce serious blowback: judges can read a red flag that you think something is wrong with your own case and start looking for it themselves, and juries can be brutal to those they think are BSing them.

I'd think the debate being prepped is more like this situation than a broad political appeal ... just how unwashed are the masses at Cato and Heritage?

Chris Hunt writes:

@ Jim

I'd think the debate being prepped is more like this situation than a broad political appeal ... just how unwashed are the masses at Cato and Heritage?

Not very: Cato Institute Scholars Respond to the 2015 State of the Union.

Robert writes:

"Talk to your opponent like he's your best friend"

Don't forget that females can also be opponents (and best friends).

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top