I often tell my students that prepping a debate is an exercise in asking the right questions rather than to look for answers aimlessly. As a coach, it is much more meaningful for me to provide a set of simple questions that can help you for every debate motion rather than to spend time discussing each motion and topic at length.
After all: Give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach a man how to fish and you can exploit the surplus of his labour.
For this article, I will be going through the key concepts of how to construct and elaborate an argument. I’m sure most of you, even those who have just started debating would have heard that dreaded verdict from the judge, that “you were too assertive”, or “I could not credit your assertions”. Hopefully at the end of this article you will learn how to avoid the major pitfalls which lead to judges discrediting your arguments.
So, what is an assertion? An assertion is a statement of fact or belief. The statement by itself has no persuasive qualities and thus analysis is necessary to bolster the statement into an argument. Today I want to share with you guys a simple heuristic that you can follow in order to construct and develop a proper argument.
As mentioned earlier, the aim of this article, and our training in general, is to provide you with simple questions that you can ask yourself that will lead you towards the answers you need for the motion you are preparing for. The following questions may seem so simple and ordinary, yet most debaters have never thought of applying them to every argument and rebuttal they make.
The 3 questions you have to ask yourself dozens of times in every debate are as such
HOW? WHY? And SO WHAT?
I don’t mean to exaggerate at all when I say that most debaters will find immediate and drastic improvements in their speeches, speaker scores and winrates. If I had only one hour to teach a complete newbie how to debate, this is what I would spend all my time on.
Let’s be honest, for most debate motions, there are a limited set of arguments available for each side to make, and it is not difficult for even the newest of debaters to identify what these are. What differentiates an ordinary speaker from an excellent speaker isn’t necessarily the ability to come up with unique mind-blowing arguments, rather, the difference lies in their ability to explain, elaborate and to impact their arguments. Sure, there are a small select few monster debaters who can blow your mind regularly with arguments that are out of this world, like Li Shengwu, Euros Champion, Best Speaker of the world and the grandson of Lee Kwan Yew, former Prime Minister of Singapore. If you’ve never had the opportunity to see him speak you can find his speeches all over the internet, I highly recommend that you check them out. He also used to have a debate blog where he shares many insights about debates gleaned through his years of experience which were considered groundbreaking at the time and remain highly relevant.
What I’m trying to stress, however, is that most debaters you would consider world-class or legendary, became great simply by mastering the ability to properly present their arguments in the most persuasive manner possible. If you don’t believe me, go check out the Grand Finals of the World Debate Championships of 2009, on the classic motion THW ban abortion at all stages of life, where the Prime Minister Victor Finkel literally forwards arguments on the value of life, the harms of abortion and the impacts on society, arguments i’m sure most of you have argued before.
The 2nd Best Speaker of the world Gemma Buckley, often says that in order to become a debater who comfortably breaks regularly into elimination rounds of the world championships, what you need to do is to master all the most basic stock arguments so that you have them at your fingertips the moment the motion is released. This is obviously easier said than done, but the point i’m trying to make is that mastering the basics can go a long way to becoming a top notch debater.
I’ll start off by explaining how to apply these three simple questions, How, Why and So What into your debating arsenal. Let me first use a simple example to illustrate these concepts. Let’s use the statement: I am feeling hungry right now.
How do I know that I’m hungry? Well, there are many empirical observations I can make to explain how hungry I am. I feel like I have an empty stomach; it is grumbling non-stop, I feel slightly faint and I am suffering from a distinct lack of energy.
Why am I hungry? Well there are many logical reasons I can provide to reason why. I am hungry because I haven’t eaten anything for the entire day, I am hungry because I just ran a marathon and I’m running out of energy, I am hungry because I just saw my friend eating this delicious meal which looks and smells great. The key word of note here is “BECAUSE”, you know that you are answering the question why if you begin your statement with BECAUSE.
Ok now that I have explained to you how and why I am hungry, hopefully you are more persuaded of my hunger than before. I have now managed to provide an argument for my hunger, easy right? Well the next step is going to be tricky, SO WHAT if i’m hungry? It is important to note that the objective of any debate is to persuade the judge that the motion stands or falls. What most debaters fail to realize is that making arguments alone is meaningless if you do not impact them in relation to the motion being debated. After all, every argument provided is a means to an end, to provide a call to action to prove or disprove the motion. Answering the so what question requires you to provide a link between your argument and the conclusion that the motion should stand or fall. This can be done by explaining why your argument has significant and powerful impacts and is thus important.
I have proven that I am hungry, and THEREFORE, I need to eat, otherwise I will starve, fall sick and possibly die. THEREFORE, I need a break from debate training, otherwise I can’t concentrate or learn effectively. The keyword THEREFORE, helps guide you towards a certain conclusion that you are attempting to make.
Ok, now that I have given you a simple example to illustrate my point, let’s go through these concepts again in greater detail.
There are 3 key questions you have to answer to substantiate any claim or assertion that you make to turn it into a persuasive argument. HOW, WHY and SO WHAT?
Answering the How question requires you to describe, as vividly as possible, the claim you are attempting to establish. You can use a variety of tools to explain this, let me provide a few. Let’s assume I am forwarding the argument that we should ban smoking due to its harms. How is smoking harmful?
The average smoker who smokes a pack of cigarettes a day has a life-expectancy which is 20 years shorter than those who do not smoke.
2) Empirical Evidence
Every cigarette contains multiple carcinogens which are chemicals which cause cancer.
3) Examples to illustrate
Cigarettes contain Tar, the same substance which we use to pave our roads. They contain traces of Arsenic, which is used as rat poison.
4) Descriptive narratives,
Every puff of the cigarette introduces alien and toxic particles into your body. The smoke particles clog up your lungs and heart, the toxins enter your bloodstream and and spread across your body. The pleasurable feeling gained from smoking is actually a sign that your body is in shock, as it struggles to cope with the thousands of foreign and unnatural chemicals which plague your system.
The end goal of explaining the how is to provide such a vivid description that the judge can see in his or her mind’s eye, as if he or she is watching a video documentary. The best debaters have such a way with words that their descriptions are almost poetic. It is important to note here that you don’t necessarily need to have an excellent vocabulary to achieve this, even though that would really help. Use the KISS rule, Keep it simple, stupid. There is elegance in simplicity: simple and concise language is often more accessible and hence effective.
Beyond the How, which is descriptive, answering the why question requires you to provide logical reasoning and analysis. What’s the difference? Descriptions are often based on fact claims and empirical observations, they are not sufficient to make a proper argument. Why not? Because we cannot meaningfully argue over facts, they are either true or untrue. So unless you are being ignorant or deliberately lying, which you really shouldn’t be, the how descriptions are not contentious, which means that your opponents and judge cannot possibly disagree, unless they are similarly ignorant or deliberately lying. Debates cannot be won or loss based on factual claims alone, otherwise one side will definitely win and as a result the motion is not a fair or balanced one, and should not be debated to begin with. Factual claims alone cannot compel or persuade other people to pass or fail a debate motion.
Let’s move on to answering the question why? As compared to descriptions, which I have just mentioned, are not contentious. The answers to the question WHY? Should be contentious. This means, somewhat counter-intuitively, that your opponents must be able to disagree with your logic, since there must be two sides to any logical argument. It is precisely because disagreements are possible and meaningful that there is a need to sway those disagreements in your favor. This means, that it is not meaningful to ask questions over why smoking is harmful beyond explaining how it is harmful, because it is undeniably true that smoking is harmful.
So how do we construct questions beginning with why that are meaningful to your argument and consequently the debate?
Let’s start with a statement that is non-contentious. Smoking is addictive. This is a statement that is non contentious, it has been scientifically proven that smoking, or specifically the substance nicotine is highly addictive. Asking the question Why is smoking addictive, is no more meaningful than asking How is smoking addictive. What is more meaningful is whether addiction to smoking is sufficiently harmful to warrant a ban. After all, there are many addictive and harmful substances that governments do not ban, such as sugar, caffeine, and unhealthy food.
Instead of asking, why is smoking addictive? You should be asking why is addiction to smoking so harmful that governments should ban it, because your opponent will definitely claim that the addiction to smoking and the harms of smoking do not sufficiently justify a ban.
Here are a few questions beginning with why that are contentious,
1) Why is addiction to smoking such a great problem that it warrants a ban?
2) Why can’t the harms of smoking be meaningfully regulated?
3) Why can’t smokers exercise meaningful consent over whether to smoke?
4) Why are the harms of smoking unacceptable to a society?
I know a lot of you out there will be asking, Alfred, how do I come up with better and more persuasive answers to these questions?
Unfortunately there is no magical shortcut that you can use to become much better overnight, even mastering the concepts I’ve talked about will take hours and months of hard work and practice. Of course I will be covering more of these concepts in future articles so if you find what you’ve heard so far, please leave a comment below to provide some feedback.
Ok. So now that we have gone through the HOW and the WHY, let’s talk about what makes all these meaningful. You have made an argument. SO WHAT?
Australs champion and World Breaking debater from IIUM Ameera Natasha Moore, once said in a workshop we were trainers at together, the Summer Asian Debate Institute (ADI) held in Seoul. For those of you who have never heard of this training camp, I highly recommend all of you check it out, it’s a 10 day training camp that takes place from 10 to 6 everyday, extremely intense with really experienced trainers.
So anyway, Ameera mentioned this during a lecture, that if she could go back in time to give herself a single piece of advice, it would be to allocate time to explain why the argument she was making was important, which is what I would call answering the so what question.
The best arguments in the world will not win you debates unless you are able to claim credit by impacting them. Why is your argument relevant to the motion? What are the stakes involved? How massive are the impacts? What is the call to action.
Let’s go back to the example about smoking:
We have established earlier that smoking is harmful and addictive, but so what?
How massive are the impacts? 20 years of life expectancy, 20% of smokers, the associated healthcare burden on the government, the loss of productivity due to illnesses, probably have a grave and serious impact on the economy.
If a pack of cigarettes cost 5 dollars, and you smoke a pack everyday, that’s 150 dollars down the drain per month, 1800 dollars a year. A lot of money which can make people’s lives better off, especially in developing countries, and this is not even considering the healthcare costs and burdens.
Statistics show that many children of lifetime smokers pick up smoking, which means this is like a hereditary disease that will plague future generations.
What is the call to action, why should the government ban smoking? This is where you provide the link to the motion to PROVE YOUR BURDEN.
The government has a responsibility safeguard the basic needs of its citizens, and smoking serves as a significant public health threat. It also threatens our economic stability and sustainability in the long run, while entrenching millions of people further into the poverty cycle through expenditure on cigarettes, illness, unemployment and healthcare costs.
It is the height of moral hypocrisy and gross negligence for governments to continue allowing the sale of cigarettes which are damning people lives while seeking to profit off them via taxation, which aren’t even enough to compensate for the economic loss in productivity and healthcare subsidies in the long run.
Ok lets sum up with a simple analogy, have you ever met an annoying rebellious 6 year old kid who questions everything that you he or she is told? Well you need to materialize that annoying brat at the back of your kid questioning every claim you make. HOW PAPA, DESCRIBE IT TO ME, SHOW ME HOW? WHY MUMMY, GIVE ME LOGICAL REASONING AND THE UNDERLYING REASONS. AND SO WHAT? WHY SHOULD I LISTEN TO YOU? WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL? WHY ARE YOU ALWAYS MAKING A BIG DEAL OUT OF EVERYTHING?
Because to be very honest, most judges are lazy, bored and tired from all the partying and are likely to be like that super annoying brat who is suspicious and skeptical of everything you say, and will mark your speaker scores down if you don’t provide convincing and persuasive answers. There is nothing more unsatisfactory about a debate than not understanding or caring about the low impact arguments that are being made. Judges do not enjoy filling in the blanks for you. Consequently, if you are able to leave fewer questions in your judges head, he or she will inevitably be compelled to give you better speaker scores, after all, if you can’t effectively question a speaker’s arguments, then how can the judge not credit you accordingly?