Tips for new debaters.

There was a debate at Skeptics of Oz that had me salivating to be up on stage destroying the theist side.  But it’s important to let new debaters get their feet wet.  It was kind of heartwarming to watch the atheist team make some of the same mistakes I made when I first began doing organized debates.

1.  Don’t get married to talking points.

You’re going into the debate and you’re nervous, so you’ve studied your heart out.  You have some killer rebuttals you’re dying to drop on the opposing team as a result.  That’s awesome.  But if the opposing team doesn’t use an argument that would make that rebuttal appropriate, don’t use it.  It could be the most amazing point in the world, but if it’s irrelevant to what’s being said, the audience will care more about the fact that you’re obviously not listening, and they will resent you for treating the debate like your own personal monologue.

2.  Brevity is the soul of wit.

When you’re nervous, sometimes you don’t make a point as well as you would normally.  That’s ok!  The temptation will be to try and restate the point you just made.  Don’t do that.  On the stage, it may seem like taking five minutes to make a single point means you have tons of info about that point, but even if you are sitting on a veritable encyclopedic knowledge about the subject at hand, don’t dump it all out at once.  Taking five minutes to make a single point makes you look nervous, not knowledgeable.  Keep it as concise as you can.  Use only as many words as you need and no more.

3.  Speak English.

If you have to pause to think of the most eloquent way to finish a phrase, then it’s not worth it.  Sure, dropping the occasional polysyllabic word with make you look more perspicacious as a public speaker, but if you have to pause to do it then people will think you’re just posturing.  Speak like a human being and let the rightness of your arguments sell you as the more capable debater.  Remember, all the good arguments in the world are useless if people aren’t listening to you.  You have to keep the audience’s attention, and speaking as fluidly as possible is how you achieve that.

These three things will go a long way toward helping your points resonate with the audience.  :)

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • http://secularnerd.com Richard Seese

    Excellent tips JT! These tips can also really apply to when you are selling an idea to your boss, or a contractor, or really any other conversation that requires getting your point across.

  • L. Poe

    Just a side node: “You’re going into the debate and you’re nervous, so you’ve studied your heart out. You have some killer rebuttals you’re dying to drop on the opposing team as a result. That’s awesome. But if the opposing team doesn’t use an argument that would make that rebuttal appropriate, don’t use it. It could be the most amazing point in the world, but if it’s irrelevant to what’s being said, the audience will care more about the fact that you’re obviously not listening, and they will resent you for treating the debate like your own personal monologue.”

    You might tell this to politicians. That’s pretty much all they do during debates.

    • John Horstman

      Yup, and it always makes them look like self-important asshats who care more about selling a predetermined position than engaging in a useful, meaningful exchange of ideas, or even listening to the words coming from anyone else’s mouth. Granted, this is an entirely accurate image, so perhaps we should applaud them for at least being relatively honest, but my guess is that most of us would prefer that our politicians do better instead of simply trying to look better.

  • http://skepticfreethought.com/tokenchristian/ Jaime Wise

    That’s very good advice, JT; I have a related question:
    What would your advice be to someone who doesn’t care for formal debating (I don’t like trying to prove people wrong), but still wants to participate in the cultural conversation about ethics?

    • Adam

      I would be interested in an answer to this too. I’m terrible at debating. I always get nervous and shake badly. However, I love to talk about things like philosophy and religion with people. I have one friend I talk about this stuff with regularly.

  • Aegis

    Interestingly, these strike me as ways I could improve my delivery too, especially the second and third; I just got qualified as a teacher to adults, and lesson delivery is a nerve-wracking form of public speech. These considerations are helpful as all get-out. Thanks!

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/brutereason Miri

    I dunno, JT, when I debate English-speakers, I certainly prefer to slip into Russian profanity every once in a while… :P

    Good advice!

  • CottonBlimp

    “If you have to pause to think of the most eloquent way to finish a phrase, then it’s not worth it.”
    Slight disagreement there. The biggest hurdle in theistic debates is equivocation; religion encourages some really muddy thinking, with people failing to distinguish between different subjects. For example, people will go back and forth between an abstract, deistic god and Christian Yahweh, they’ll be completely unclear what they mean by “science” (eg, when accusing atheists of worshipping it), they’ll even try to blur the distinction between facts and lies.

    I don’t disagree with the principle of your third point, one just needs to find a balance with its counter principle.

  • Bruce

    These are excellent points. I teach science at a college, and these would be good tips in that profession as well.
    I would also like to add the tip to consider one’s audience. When laying out a case of anti-apologetics, it is good to do it differently for an audience of atheists than one would do for a debate audience that contained over half theists. If speaking to theists in a debate, for example, accept that you won’t convince the most dedicated listeners at once, but they might have brought teenaged relatives with them, who might be silently listening. So your real audience might not be one’s “debate partner” so much as the “uninvolved” person in the audience. That highlights even more importantly JT’s point to speak so as to keep your clarity, sincerity, credibility, and relevance. Keep it real. Best wishes.

    • phil

      You made good points. I’ve tied to interest some freethinkers in bebating . Though one lady was enthusiastic There wasn’t much more than that.


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