Evaluating the Effectiveness of Debates as a Communication Strategy

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Effectiveness of Debates as a Communication Strategy
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Debate has been used as a tool in education, politics and public discourse for many millennia because it is seen as an effective method of disseminating facts to an audience, either large or small, regarding the whole of a topic. The audience is then tasked with the decision about which “side” they agree with. A definitive structure has not been followed by all debaters because there are different topics, debaters and desired outcomes from the debate. However, debate as a form is a good way to communicate an idea, determine the different sides of the topic and to decide whether a position is relevant or not.

The debates which were conducted in the class had the advantage of being structured in a formal way. The idea was to present a topic logically and see what side won via strength of presentation. The proposition had to be understood and prepared for. It has to be understood that “controversy is an essential prerequisite of debate” (Freeley & Steinberg 2005: 43) and that the controversy must be minutely understood. Freeley & Steinberg also state that “To have a productive debate, which facilitates effective decision making by directing and placing limits on the decision to be made, the basis for argument should be clearly defined” (2005: 45), and that “the phrasing of the proposition must be clear, specific, devoid of ambiguous terms, and precise in the statement of desired decision” (2005: 47). So the preparation for a debate is that the person who holds an opinion must have studied the proposition in question. Walking into a debate unprepared is an impossible task and will not convince anyone. Thus, for debate to be an effective communication tool, there has to be preparation on the part of the debaters.

The preparation and delivery of the idea also entails an understanding of both sides of the proposition. Cioffi said, “such essays look not only for confirmatory evidence (that is, evidence to support a given position), but disconfirmatory evidence as well. And they end up using both kinds of evidence to develop their ideas. They aim not merely to persuade but to give as fair and honest and complete an analysis as possible” (2005: 3). Of course, this quote is specifically talking about argumentative essays, but the thought applies to verbal debate as well. The person who wishes to communicate via debate must understand that there are two positions. Without knowledge of the two positions it is impossible to successfully state the correctness of one’s own side.

If a person does not understand the two different sides prior to beginning the debate they may have some difficulties convincing people that they are in the right. It is a fact that, “asserting something to be true is no guarantee that what is being asserted is true” (Holowchak 2004:22). Strength of debate lies not in loudness, but in making relevant points that will persuade people to the arguer’s side. Since, as Govier says, “If an argument has a flaw of relevance, the added premises are likely to be unacceptable” (1997: 151). The debater, thus, needs to not only understand what the two sides are to a particular debate in order to maintain good communication, but they must see that there are no flaws in the argument that they present.

A debater not only needs to prepare and understand both sides of the topic, but they must understand the structure of the debate. As mentioned above, a formal structure does not have to be adopted, but some logical form, where both sides have a chance to air their views, is necessary. Sather explains that first the debater (or debating team has to “explain any ambiguous words, second, set any limits to the debate and third, interpret any as a whole and state exactly what connection you are going to try and prove” (1999:7). Even when it is called an argument and is between two people over a back fence, the debate has an informal structure that starts with a statement of terms. While the debate is going, since it is sometimes difficult to recall the specific details of the original proposition, a restatement of the topic may be necessary. “At its simplest, restatement involves nothing more that repeating the main idea” (Kane 1988: 81). In most debates, this is done many times as the opponents try to make sure that they are being heard and that the definition of the debated topic is clear. The structure is then completed when someone summarizes the position. “A summary speaker has been compared to ‘a biased news reporter’, going over the various arguments that have already been made but implying that your side has won them all” (Sather 1999: 9). Even in the basest “arguments” this is true. It may be done while storming off, but a summary statement or gesture is made.

A formal debate also often involves more than one person per side and they must know what the debate is about and trust the others engaged on their side to state the question clearly. Thinking of a political debate, politicians need to understand that they can trust the others on their team to agree with the basic premise that is being proposed. Without some trust in the people who will be forwarding the argument, it will break down (Kee 2006: 13). Of course, debate does not have to be a team exercise, but it is best if others can bring points that one alone may not think about. Also, other people may have strengths that one person will not possess that could present the topic better (Kee 2006: 13).

Oftentimes, even the simplest of questions will be debated, and for that debate to be successful it needs to have some certain elements. The people involved must be prepared, understand that there are two sides to the issue, and they have to follow a logical structure or they are not going to be successful in their attempt. Debates of this sort are an effective means of communication mainly because they follow a logical path that it is difficult to counter.

However, the debater must be prepared to consider the other side. Even in preparation, some points may be missed. If this is the case and the other debater makes a strongly relevant case, then true communication only happens when the other side of the proposition acknowledges this. Debate as a form of communication may be foreign to many people because they have determined that they are not going to listen to what is said and that they are going to just thrust their particular opinion at the other person. However, communication being a two way street, this is where debate breaks down and pure argument begins. Thus, for debate to be an effective form of communication, it has to be an agreed upon two-way street.


Cioffi, FL 2005, The imaginative argument: a practical manifesto for writers, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Freeley, AJ & Steinberg, DL 2005, Argumentation and debate: critical thinking for reasoned decision making, Thomson Wadsworth, Australia.

Govier, T 1997, A Practical Study of Argument, 4th edn, Wadsworth Publishing Company, Belmont, California.

Holowchak, A 2004, Critical reasoning & philosophy: a concise guide to reading, evaluating, and writing philosophical works, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Lanham, Md.

Kane, T 1988, The New Oxford Guide to Writing, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Kee, C 2006, The art of argument: a guide to mooting, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, Victoria.

Sather, T 1999, Pros and cons: a debater’s handbook, Routledge, New York, [Electronic book].

Spurr, B 2005, Successful essay writing for senior high school, college and university, New Frontier Publishing, Epping, N.S.W.