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Argumentation In Action

The Debate

To generate effective persuasive discourse, you must think first and foremost of the impact that your presentation will make on your audience.

If you are sitting on a stage, your presentation shared by various individuals, you are, in reality, enacting a drama.  So think theater, think film, think television.

Susan Smith Nash, Ph.D.

DEBATE STRUCTURE -- a suggestion

Think of the debate as not only the exposition of fact and an investigative activity, but also as a persuasive discourse "in action."

Keep in mind the Pillars of Persuasion:
Pathos - emotion (includes
Logos - logic (includes knowledge-systems, symbol-systems, signs)
Ethos - tone (includes the credibility, believability, and appropriateness of the speaker and/or the mode of delivery)

If you think of this as a kind of theater, or as though you were watching yourself in a kind of pageant (or as Guy DeBord puts it, as a "spectacle"), then you may have more insight on how to manage the order and presentation of the various aspects of your case.

As a presentation that revolves around the presentation of material by various individuals (actors), it is important to realize that they are, in essence, enacting roles, and the audience will respond to them in the way they have been guided or coached to respond to them.  For that reason, it is vital to keep the presentation high-impact, which requires individuals to maintain separate and instantly understandable roles. The cast of characters for this particular debate can be shaped around the roles described below.

Format for Debate
The Teams
PRO -- in favor of the issue
CON -- against the issue
MEDIA -- questions both sides

The Procedure
Pre-Debate Research:
PRO team -- 10 references per group
CON team --  10 references per group
MEDIA team -- 5 references PRO, 5 references CON
*Include Bibliography page for our references, with 1/3-1/2 page description for each reference. 

The Debate
Opening - 10 minutes
PRO - 5 minutes per person in both groups = 25 minutes

CON - 5 minutes per person in both groups = 25 minutes
Closing - 10 minutes
Press asks questions
15-minute break
Each individual writes a 1-2 page response to the debate, and their final analysis of the issue after contemplating all sides, plus the press's questions

PRO team
Position Statement (Spokesperson)
One-sentence overview - should be direct, with lots of impact
Three major reasons WHY this position is desirable
Brief overview of each debate team member & presentation to the audience

Expert Testimony (Expert)
Evidence:  who/what/where/why/when

Testimonials - Emotional Appeal (The Emotor)
Tell impassioned story
Describe emotional impact on family, friends
Show huge picture of victim

Community Builder:  Who Benefits?  Who Loses? (The Community Builder)
Make audience members stakeholders; pull them into the community arguments
Describe impact on community
Show maps; before-after scenes
Economic impact
Crime, etc.
Jobs & Schools

Concessions to the other side, with refutations  (The Compromiser)
Looks at opposition's points & concedes that there may be some merit
Shows the half-truths in the opposition's assertions

Summary / Conclusions (Spokeperson)

CON team
I.  Position Statement
One sentence overview
Major emotional reason why NOT, with "evidence" support

II. Testimonial / Case Studies (The Expert)

III.  Statistics (The Emotor)

IV.  Alternate Community View (The Community Builder)

V.  Paint scenario of what might happen if PRO wins (Expert) -- Doomsday scenario (fear) (Emotor); Concedes points, but refutes them at the same time (The Compromiser)

VI.  Summary / Conclusions (Spokesperson)

MEDIA team

Question motives
Expose underlying assumptions & demonstrate how shaky they are
Question validity of statistics, evidence, case studies, testimonials
Undermine biased arguments
Impugn credibility of testimonials
Question character of general spokesperson and/or "face" person
Impugn credibility of the expert


Spokesperson:  Fair-minded, calm, and clearly able to communicate the primary points.  This should be a person who projects a likable persona, who will make the audience feel both comfortable and confident regarding the content and the entire team.

The Expert:  A serious person, "all business," who doggedly investigates statistics, facts, and figures, with a relentlessness usually reserved only for nerds and academicians.  Can be slightly eccentric.  Can be absent-minded, but never with respect to the numbers.  Carries around piles of books, papers, reports, documents.

The Emotor:  A highly sympathetic person, who fervently presents the human side of the issue, and tells a story of a person or persons who have been affected. 

The Community Builder:  A warm executive type, with soul.  A highly connected person who sees the big picture, who works hard to bring jobs and opportunities to community members, but who can be a bit overly protective if he/she perceives that something will be harmful to the community businesses, individuals, groups, and future stakeholders.

The Compromiser: Soft-spoken, thoughtful, deliberative, willing to look at all sides, concerned with justice and ethics, then makes conclusion.  Comes across as something of a worrier, perhaps too deliberative, but all the same, very credible and ethical.


Should our state set up workshops (participants to receive free safety glasses, respirators, equipment, etc.) in rural areas on safe handling of chemicals (avoid some of the ghastly accidents and environmental issues with do-it-yourself meth labs)?

Should we expand the patriot act in order to put video surveillance in every home where people fit a certain profile?

Should PetSmart set up a research center to genetically engineer animals so that they are more unique
Do reptilian aliens exist?

Should we put the ten commandments in every school and courthouse in the southern U.S.?

Should we set up English-only schools and communities in the U.S.?

Should we establish dress codes (or requiring uniforms) in college?

Should all students be required to take a course in comparative religion (from an Islamic perspective) taught by an Imam?

Should the U.S. eliminate the electoral college?