Debate Frameworks

There are numerous ways to debate, but following are the most popular ones, which allow each side an equal chance to make its case. You may want to propose one of these if you are invited to participate in a debate.


The party in government argues for a proposition and the opposition criticizes this, generally relying more on logic than factual evidence. The style can be more theatrical than in other debate types, and heckling is allowed within limits. If you want to see this in action, tune into the BBC when the House of Commons is in session.


Standard debates are comprised of two teams of two for each side. This makes it much more likely that all issues will be thoroughly discussed, which is especially helpful for novices, who otherwise could be easily defeated by experienced opponents. Initial presentations are often eight to ten minutes, rebuttals typically half that.


Also known as cross-examination, or CX, this type of debate relies heavily on researched evidence presented by two teams of two; each team member makes her case and then questions her opposite number. Note taking is encouraged.


Named after the famed debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas conducted during the 1858 Senate campaign in Illinois, it features single participants debating ethical issues. The format is similar to policy debates, but each side has a shorter time to make its points (five minutes for constructive speech, three for questioning) and is thus known for rapid-fire argumentation, which relies heavily on persuasive logic.

Political Campaigns

A more flexible framework where there is no proposition, this is often used for candidates and ballot issues. There is a short opening statement by each side, followed by primary arguments and rebuttals, sometimes with questioning of each other by the participants, and a short closing statement. The debaters may flip a coin to determine who goes first (depending on the agreement, the first speaker may also go last). In presidential debates during primaries, with numerous candidates to squeeze into 90–120 minutes, rebuttals may be reduced to one minute.

Less Traditional Formats

The truth is that any structured argument that allows a fair exchange of views is legitimate, so do not feel you have to adhere to traditional formats. Opposing presidential candidates always negotiate the details. These are some other recognized ways to debate:

  • Karl Popper: Popular in Europe and Asia, this style utilizes teams of three, which research both sides of the proposition, a process which helps develop critical thinking skills. The first two speakers have six minutes, the other four have five minutes each, with three minutes for cross examination after the first four speeches.

  • Moot Court/Mock Trial: Intellectual competitions at colleges often take a courtroom approach to debating issues.

  • Community Forums: For most people, the closest they are likely to come to participating in formal debate is the regulated give-and-take at a meeting of the city council or a school board.

  • Panels: These are so common, so flexible, and can serve such a similar function to debate, they may be the best way to get a soapbox for something you want to talk about. Usually a moderator selects recognized experts, sets a time limit for presentations of five to fifteen minutes, and then the audience can question them afterward. Panelists can challenge each other in their presentations or during questioning.

  • Online Forums: Internet-based debates using instant messaging software or posting of comments now allow somewhat moderated arguments with international participation.

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