1 Jul

Now you know how to make solid arguments, the next step is to organize them in a sensible way that will make sense to your audience and at the same time will optimally support your case. I will deal with the first part here and discuss the latter in a follow up article on structure and logic.

There are many type of structures you can use in a debate or presentation, but one of the most powerful and popular structures in debating is: Problem, Solution, Consequences. This structure is great for policy or proposal style debates and can also be used for utilitarianism or consequentialism style moral debates. It is a structure every debater should master and use before you start experimenting with other structures. The elements are as follows:

Problem: Easy enough, every debate should start with a problem, you’re trying to solve. For example, there’s a nuclear threat in Iran, Democracy is under fire in the Ukraine, or excessive use of alcohol by Dutch teens is causing social issues. The purpose of stating the problem is twofold. First it’s used as a means of introduction, in order to explain why we’re having this debate. Secondly it is meant to justify that we are having a debate on this subject, in other words, that it’s a relevant debate. You’d think this is a no-brainer and most of the times, thankfully, it is, but it does happen that you find yourself in a debate wondering: ‘what on earth is the issue here’. In competitive debating defining the problem is also meant to ensure that the issue is not too niche and small as to create an unfair disadvantage. If it isn’t a generally accepted problem (because for example no one knows about it), then it’s considered an unfair topic to debate on.

Now many people mistakenly believe that when justifying having the debate, you need to have an actual problem that can be solved in some way. Especially when debating judges are instructed to look for this particular structure when evaluating a speech. This is not the case. You could also propose an improvement over the status quo that doesn’t involve an immediate problem. The point is to show that the debate itself is relevant, improving people’s lives, for example, even though there’s no immediate problem can be just as relevant. Moral debates, of a consequential nature, are another instance where this structure can be used but the problem doesn’t need to be a problem per se. For example if I want to debate gay marriage, then I will claim that Gay’s not having the right to marry is a problem. However, there are enough people that do not consider this a problem at all. As such holding on to a strict definition of ‘problem’ could cause problems of itself. Better is to say we need to define an issue and show that it is a relevant issue that warrants a debate.

As it is meant as your introduction, the purpose is to grab your audience’s attention so they’ll want to listen to your case. It is not supposed to turn into a debate in and of itself (on whether there’s an actual problem). So keep it short, clear and interesting. I’ve seen too many people spend more than 50% of their time explaining the problem and why it’s imperative that we do something about it, only to really superficially go over the proposed solution and arguments. Also make sure it’s clear. You don’t want people to still be thinking about what your problem is exactly when they are supposed to be listening to your awesome arguments. And lastly make sure you grab your audience’s attention. I will delve deeper into that when discussing Pathos, but for now make sure you add some drama or other emotional or sensory component (ie make it visible) in order to get people’s attention.

Solution: This is in essence your case. And is the proposed way to deal with the relevant issue at hand. Here it is important you mention this first after your introduction. You’d think this to be obvious, but I’ve seen too many people making a complicated opening, jumping right to the arguments and then halfway through their speech going “and that is why we propose to do x,y,z” leaving the audience completely confused.

Also make sure it is completely clear what you are proposing. If your audience doesn’t fully understand what you are proposing, than they have nothing to connect your arguments to. As such your arguments become useless as the relevance of them also becomes unclear (see refutation ) Make sure that any words used in defining your solution are unambiguous. For example, suppose your solution to the Iranian nuclear threat is to attack them. Although that seems quite clear, there’s world of difference in the way you can attack a country which would yield completely different debates and require different arguments. For example, you could make tactical strikes on their nuclear facilities, you could assassinate nuclear scientists, you could have a full scale invasion, or you could even nuke them. Each would give you a different debate. As such you need to clearly define what you are proposing. Again the pitfall is that you spend too much time on this, so be crystal clear, but also short. You want as much time for your arguments as possible. Also here I’ve seen many, many examples of people spending too much time on explaining their solution. I should know, I’ve made the mistake myself on more than one occasion, especially when it involves a complex issue.

A crucial part of the solution is the implementation, or how you are going to realize your solution. Basically these are the answers to the W questions: who, what, where, when, with what means. This is a very important and often underestimated part of a policy debate. You could have a wonderful plan with lovely positive benefits in theory, but if the implementation, or lack thereof, ensures these benefits never materialize or that the negative side effects outweigh the benefits, than you’re basically out of luck and will lose. Now the problem with explaining the implementation of your plan is that it can potentially take up your whole speech. When above I’m talking about not spending too much time on your solution, this is the part I’m talking about. Nevertheless, the implementation is often where the ‘holes’ in your case reside and you can bet your opponent will look at implementation first in order to find ‘negative consequences’ to your case.

The solution is to go over the W questions in your preparation and think of what potential attacks the opposition can launch against your solution. Then determine what the essential details of the plan are to make sure your audience will know what you are going to do and will believe that it is achievable, then spend some time pre-emptively plugging some holes, you know your opponents will try to exploit and leave it with that. Anything else you keep in your back pocket, just in case it becomes an issue. This way you maintain a balance between on the one hand building a rock solid case and on the other hand spending too much time on it so you don’t have time for your arguments. This is a very difficult balance to strike and will require experience to master.

One of the dilemma’s in competitive debating is that not all debates are policy debates and implementation heavy debates tend to favor the opposition, as it is always easier to attack something than to build something. For example, for a couple of years, every UN debate would end up with the opposition saying: “China and Russia will never agree, so it’s impossible”. This would make for very boring debates. The solution was to move away from pure play policy debates and make the debates more moral. So instead of proposing an actual solution, one would propose a course of action we ‘should’ take and argue why we should do it, not whether or not the solution will actually solve anything in real life.  In these cases and in moral cases in general, the point of implementation then becomes to show it is academically possible. E.g. colonizing the sun is academically not possible, Mars could be under certain circumstances. This puts much less pressure on implementation, but still makes it important in the sense that you will always need to mitigate certain negative consequences of your plan and implementation is the way to do it.

Consequences:  These are your arguments, the pro’s and cons of your case. I will delve more into this when discussing, argument discovery, or finding arguments. But for now it is important to look at the positive and negative consequences of your plan. The positive consequences are the arguments supporting your case. The negative consequences are your opponent’s arguments and the ones you need to pre-empt or have an answer ready for (there not that important, they’re mitigated, they do not outweigh the benefits, etc.).

When looking at consequences, look at short term and long term consequences. Look at different type of consequences: economic, social, legal, moral, environmental, etc. Lastly, look at who’s impacted by your solution and what the consequences are for them.

In moral debates you will also look at other aspects that are not consequences itself. For example, you will look at moral principles being violated, moral right, etc. But don’t forget about consequences in ethical debates as well. Although utilitarianism and consequentialism are highly contested moral frameworks, the reason they’re still so popular is that they are simple and work effectively in a lot of instances. As such you can use positive consequences as support for your moral case with the utilitarian premise that whatever course of action brings more benefits (happiness) than costs (pain/misery) is morally just.





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