The Psychological Dimension of Debate


Debaters are no doubt aware of the physical aspects of debate (listening and speaking) as well as its mental aspects (thinking of arguments and rebuttals). They often neglect an equally important dimension of debate: the psychological factor. Every speaker should therefore look to put themselves in the best psychological position in a debate and the following steps will help.


Believe in Victory



One of the earliest and potentially strongest psychological setbacks for a Debater arrives when the motion and sides are assigned. Although the vast majority of the motions are fair and balanced, some Debaters will nonetheless feel that they had been assigned the “weaker” side and that they are likely to lose. Once Debaters assume that they are in a position of weakness, it becomes much harder to win the debate! They are less confident of victory and are less likely to be able to give maximum effort during the debate. Instead, Debaters should look at every motion and every side as winnable. In situations where the motion appears harder for one side, recall that the judges will also know that the side for one team was much tougher and take this into account.


A similar psychological setback occurs when some Debaters learn that they will be facing opponents whom they consider to be stronger and harder to beat. Many Debaters often throw in the towel at this point and lose the debate even before it begins. To give themselves the best chance to win, Debaters should view any opponent as beatable and bring this mentality into the debate. They should also remember that the supposedly “better” team will have more pressure to perform and win the match. In contrast, the “weaker” team may actually benefit by being free of pressure and expectations.


Tip: Debaters are often encouraged and gain confidence when they receive signals from the crowd that their points are being received positively. These signals could include nods of approval, applause at the right times and even laughter in response to the humour being employed. The Reserve Speakers and other supporter in the audience can play a large role in providing this positive feedback.


The Halo Effect



Debaters should be aware that debate teams and institutions with good track records will sometimes benefit from the “halo” effect. This means that the judges will be aware of their good records and may be inclined to give the match to these teams. This is not to say that the judges are prejudiced. However, they certainly will feel, even at an unconsciously level, that the team with the halo effect has the edge in a close match. In order to defeat a team with a halo effect, the opponents will have to make the margin of victory as big as possible and leave no doubt that they had won.


Likewise, some judges may sometimes feel that a team with a weak track record is not likely to win in any case and could be reluctant to rule in its favour. This is especially true in debates which have been close. In this case, this team must also show beyond a shadow of a doubt that it has defeated its opponents.


Believe in Your Side


People react differently to the motions and sides they are given. At times, they will be indifferent to the topic. On other occasions, they could be given a side they disagree with. Yet still in happier times, the issues and the stances will coincide with one’s own. For debaters to be the most effective in advocating a position, they should try to embrace it, if only for the duration of the debate. The more belief Debaters have in their own position, the move conviction they are likely portray to the judges.


Nonetheless, there may be times when Debaters genuinely feel that they are unable to advocate their assigned side over religious or moral reasons. Under these circumstances, when the lack of conviction in the speaker may compromise the team’s ability to win, it may be better to use a reserve speaker without the same reservations.




Although debates are civilized affairs with the participants being very polite to each other, it is still a fight for territory. It is a war being fought with words. The team that will win in the end is usually the one which has been able to push the opponents back on the latter’s arguments while ensuring that its own substantive arguments stand. Thus, every Debater should go into the debate with the intent of attacking the opponent’s case and stance as much as possible and pushing the opponents hard.


This is especially true for Proposition teams, who sometimes mistakenly believe that they have the “defensive” side. This is wrong. A Proposition team can attack the Opposition team just as much as the Opposition will in the same debate. If anything, not taking the fight to the Opposition will often allow the latter more comfort and time in attacking the Proposition case. In addition, taking a “defensive” stance often makes the Proposition look like it is trying to find excuses and escapes for its own position, a situation which is ultimately untenable against aggressive opponents. So, when debating, attack!


Be Calm


Speakers are able to think best and react effectively within a debate when completely calm and unhurried. Attaining this zen-like state can be difficult in the hustle of the debate preparation process and the stress and tension of a competitive debate. The following suggested steps may help in becoming calmer and relaxed for the debate.



The speaker visualises how the speech will be delivered and how the crowd will react positively to the speech. This can be calming as the speaker no longer sees the speech to be delivered during the debate as a new experience. Rather, it will be as if the speaker is repeating a prior performance, which provides more assurance in the mind.

This step also has the added benefit of establishing an “ideal” standard of speaking for the Debater. Often, speakers launch into their speeches without asking internal questions such as “how do I want to sound like?” and “how do I want the judges and audience members to perceive me?” With the visualization exercise, the speaker can then work towards a specific “ideal” during the debate itself.


Quiet Moment

The frenzy and the rush of debate preparation leads to Debaters experiencing high levels of stress as they enter the debate room. To commence the debate in a calm state, speakers can take a minute or two at the end of the prep to sit quietly and relax, taking deep breaths and lowering the heart rate. Some speakers may prefer to listen to soothing music while more religious individuals may wish to spend time in prayer. Although individual preferences may vary, the key is to obtain a moment of calm prior to the storm of the approaching debate.

(It should be noted that the reverse situation could apply and some of the more sedate type of speakers will need an adrenalin rush prior to the start of the debate and inject some energy. This is especially true if the speakers are fatigued or feeling drowsy. Speakers may then wish to listen to loud music or do something more physical, such as jumping jacks. )


Relaxing Teammates

When operating in teams, Debaters much always look after their teammates. In addition to making sure that these teammates have completed their preparations for the debate, Debaters also need to ensure that their team members are in a relaxed psychological state. Thus, if it is apparent that one speaker appears very nervous, the rest should immediate try to ensure that the speaker becomes more relaxed. This could involve calming and reassuring conversation. It might also help to talk about other mundane and jovial issues rather than to raise the tension by referring to the debate topic.


Appear Calm


The calm and confident demeanour of a speaker has psychological ramifications on not just the speaker but also on the other key actors in the debate, namely the judges and the opponents.


On Opponents

The biggest psychological benefit attained by speakers by appearing calm and relaxed is the impact it has on the opponents. It signals that the speakers are unfazed by their opponents and are quite confident of victory. This in turn will put even more pressure on the opponents and create more tension for them.


On Judges

When speakers appear more calm and confident within a debate, the judges will get the impression, if only subliminally, that they are the team which is more prepared for and more comfortable with the debate. This could even make them more receptive to this team’s arguments and points. On the other hand, if the judges witness Debaters in a state of panic and confusion, they are less likely to be convinced by the arguments raised by these speakers.

Tip: Maintain the calm and confidence manner throughout the debate! The judges will be able to observe the speakers the moment they enter the room. Correspondingly, the speakers will need to be on their best behaviour from that point onwards and NOT assume a calm demeanour only when speaking on the floor.


Making a Good Impression


Speakers can take the following steps to ensure that they present the best possible impression to the judges, opponents and spectators.


Avoid Visible Self-Criticism

Many Debaters often finish their speeches and think that they had done terribly. After the final word, they trudge back to their seats, and utter “that was bad” to their teammates. Debaters need to remember that judges can see and hear some of this! They should avoid undercutting their own speech by their own lack of conviction and instead maintain (or at least appear to) confidence in their own speeches. The self-criticism should be reserved for the end of the match, where it is appropriate and very much needed.


Avoid Negative Body Language

Debaters often display negative body language unconsciously during a debate. This sort of behavior should be checked as soon as possible as they again signal to the judges and audience that the team does not have a strong belief in its own position. Such behaviour include signs of defeat such as slouching in the seat and burying the face in the hands or signs of distraction such as looking away from the debate and failing to track the speeches properly. Teammates should be alert to this and warn Debaters accordingly if such body language is evident.


Positive Body Language

In contrast, Debaters should do everything to maintain positive body language at all times. This will include displays of confidence such as smiling as well as maintaining eye contact and an erect posture.


Handling the Crowd



It is unfortunate if a debate is witnessed by no other people but the teams and the judges. It is sadder still if an audience was watching the match but the Debaters failed to make full use of its presence. Many debaters tend to forget the crowd and focus only on the judges. They are usually under the mistaken impression that only judges can give out the points and thus are the only ones that matter.


However, they ignore the impact that a favourable crowd will have on the judges. Judges are of course aware that they are supposed to assess the debate independently and not use the audience’s reaction as the yardstick for victory. However, many judges will gauge the reaction of the crowd as one of the indicators for how persuasive the speakers have been in the debate. Furthermore, the support of the crowd could have a subliminal effect on the judges, who will find it easier, especially in a tough match, to give it to the team which has won the crowd.


How to Please the Crowd

Winning a crowd in any debate will naturally depend on the Debaters’ own speaking abilities and their ability to handle the arguments and rebuttals. However, there are some tricks that may be employed to win the crowd over.


Know the Crowd: It is important for the debaters to assess the crowd and note some of its predominent features, such as age, educational background, gender, etc. This will allow the Debaters to put in references into their speeches that the audience can relate to. The audience then feels included within the debate. For instance, for a debate on the topic of sports ,which is being held in a secondary school, the debaters could make reference to the school’s own sporting achievements. The students in the audiences will be able to relate to these points straight away and will even begin to view the Debaters as their own, rather than a mere orator on the stage.


Entertain the Crowd: Many audience members will get the impression that debates are dull and uninteresting, if the Debaters spoke only to the judges and focused on the arguments. To win a crowd over, it may be necessary to entertain them. Thus, the speeches could allow for more stories of interest or humour to keep the crowd engaged. Expert debaters will ensure that these techniques are still related to the topic being discussed so that they can do both jobs at once.


Demonstrate Refinement: Debaters also endear themselves to audiences by showing that they do not take the occasion for granted and is appreciative of the audience. It is thus good form for the Debaters to offer thanks to the audience if appropriate and also to offer thanks to the organizers of a tournament, especially during the finals.

At the same time, debaters should avoid any behaviour that will cast them in the role of “villains” in the debate. This will include insulting or belittling the opponents in any way. Debaters should instead show the upmost respect for their opponents and attack only arguments, not people. Furthermore, although some energy and aggression is useful in bringing some life into the debate, the debaters must be careful not to appear too aggressive and appear as “Bullies.” Thus, if the opponents are inexperienced or are not comfortable in the English language, Debaters should tone down the aggression and show sportsmanship.


Not Losing the Crowd

Crowds can be fickle and a speaker has to be careful not to lose the crowd. Given the tension involved in debate matches, a distraction of any sort could act as a release for the crowd, which will then take its focus off the speaker. For instance, the opponents could all stand up to give a Point of Information or address the speaker by the wrong gender. Someone could enter the room accidently or the power to the microphone could be cut. These events typical cause the crowd to laugh out loud. In this case, the speakers should take control of the floor back immediately with witty quips in reaction to these incidents, showing that they were completely unaffected by the interruptions and are able to take them in stride.


Reading Minds


It is a mistake to think that the flow of information within a Debate is only one-way, i.e., the Debaters delivering their speeches to the audience and the judges. In reality, there is a two-way, simultaneous flow of information, whereby the debaters have the ability to decipher what the judges and opponents are thinking during the debate itself and get instantaneous feedback.


Reading the Judges’ Minds

During a debate, all speakers should try to gauge the reactions of the judges to the various speeches being delivered. In this manner, they could discern how a judge feels about a particular point and adjust accordingly. For instance, by watching the judges’ reaction during an opponent’s speech, the team could identify which sections they can prioritise in the attack. Likewise, by looking at the reactions of the judges during their own speeches, they can see which parts the judges like and which sections could use more clarifications and analysis.


Reading the Opponents’ Minds

Debaters should always keep track of how the opponents are reacting to their own speeches as well. In this manner, they can detect which particular arguments or rebuttals are causing discomfort for the other team and put more emphasis on the same areas for the later speeches. By the same token, Debaters should take care that their own facial expressions do not give anything away to their opponents.



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