How To Organize A Debate

Political Debate
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Debates are popular in part because they tackle complex issues with conflicting sides, and the format is a visceral one which adds flavor and nuance to the points being made. Additionally, speakers can't afford to be boring in a debate because the purpose is to persuade people, and you need to be engaging in order to do that.

Watch a few debates before you host one to get a sense of what works and what can go wrong. Television networks, local newspapers, and organizations like the League of Women Voters are known for hosting debates, as are universities and colleges. If you can, take the time to attend one or two to get first-hand experience. 

There are different kinds of debates, each with a different format. Most people are familiar with debates because they've watched the presidential debates, where the format rotates.

Moderated Debates

Hosts negotiate the ground rules ahead of time with the debate participants. This is the case with presidential debates that typically are hosted by major TV network or universities.

Typically, each participant makes an opening statement in a prescribed period of time. A moderator then asks a question of one of the debaters, who is allocated a certain amount of time to respond. Other participants then can respond. This is called a "rebuttal." Some moderators allow for a good back-and-forth among candidates. Other formats are stricter and allow for a question, followed by 90 seconds for a response and 90 seconds for a rebuttal before moving on to the next question.

In some versions of this debate format, questions are suggested by the audience ahead of time. If this is the case, the moderator usually asks an audience question near the end of the debate. Other formats have the moderator generate questions and follow-ups.

Town Hall Debates

This format often is popular with politicians whether they are running for the highest office in the land or for a seat on a city council. The town hall format calls for a moderator to take a microphone and walk around the audience, letting attendees ask debaters questions live.

The audience is actively involved and has the added bonus of generating interesting questions. The only caveat is that this format is unpredictable and can trip up debaters.

The Lincoln-Douglas Format

This is an open style of debate, named for the famous series of debates between U.S. Senate candidates Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858. Time limits and topics typically are decided ahead of time. In presidential debates, for example, you might see one debate devoted entirely to domestic policy, while another debate is devoted to foreign policy.

Many high school and college debaters are familiar with this format because it is very structured, yet allows for people to openly express their viewpoint, as well as their rebuttal point. A typical Lincoln-Douglas format lasts about 40 to 45 minutes with a structure as follows

  • Speaker A: Making the case–6 minutes
  • Speaker B: Cross-examination of speaker A–3 minutes
  • Speaker B: First rebuttal–7 minutes
  • Speaker A: Cross-examination of speaker B–3 minutes
  • Speaker A: First rebuttal–4 minutes
  • Speaker B: Final rebuttal
  • Speaker A: Closing rebuttal