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The Art of Argument

How dueling debaters sharpen speaking skills in a fun, fast-paced activity.

By Greg Glasgow


Debates can offer an entertaining variation to the traditional club meeting format, while stressing familiar competencies: logic, quick thinking, vocal variety, and persuasive delivery skills, to name a few.

When you think about how much of everyday experience involves debate—from political discussions with friends to analyzing a work project, defending your favorite movie, or even deciding where the family will go out to eat—it only makes sense that improving debate skills can help in nearly every aspect of life.

There are many forms of debate, all of which rely on the ability to craft a concise point and convincingly defend or debunk its merit. In one of debate’s most common forms, two teams take turns attacking or defending an issue. It’s an intriguing communicative challenge, which is why a number of Toastmasters clubs have adopted either a full-time or half-time debate meeting format. In fact, the elements of great debates so complement speaking skills that Toastmasters created a debate manual, designed to fit a 35-minute practice in club meetings.

Participants research timely topics, collaborate, and face off against one another in collegial arguments that emphasize friendly, spirited competition.

“It’s fun because you’re a team going against your opponents,” says Darren Ng, Secretary and Vice President Education of Caltech Debate Toastmasters in Pasadena, California. “You’re all trying to win, but you’re all supportive of each other, regardless. It’s different from the traditional Toastmasters meeting, and that brings a lot of value to what our club does. People bond over that shared experience of, ‘Let’s work together as a team and see if we can convince the audience to see it from our angle.’”

“MultipleVice President Education Darren Ng (3rd row, in headset) and his club value debate for the lessons it teaches in thinking about both sides of an issue. It’s an important skill to practice in today’s often-divided society, he says.

The Caltech club is home to staff and students of the California Institute of Technology, community members, and others who simply love debate, Ng explains. The group devotes one meeting a month to the traditional Pathways curriculum, and a second monthly meeting to debate. By combining the two, members have ample opportunities to learn and practice the kind of speech techniques that apply on the job and in life.

Debate has allowed Ng to enjoy a valuable exchange of dialogue with fellow members and get to know everyone better. He also uses debating techniques regularly in his work. “As an engineering manager, I need to convince people of my the-art-of-arguments and be able to listen to and be swayed by logical and well-constructed arguments from others. Debate helps me on both fronts and allows me to take a level-headed approach to running my team and interacting with other groups,” he explains.


Teamwork and Flexibility

Members of Toastmasters clubs that specialize in debate learn to think on their feet—not just through the longer debates that pit teams against each other, but also through Table Topics®, which can be held in a debate style.

“The first person picks a side, pro or con, and the second person has to take the opposite side,” Ng says of the way Caltech Debate handles Table Topics. “Even if you don’t agree with the position you’re taking, that’s the choice that’s forced upon you. Being able to debate the other side allows you to really think about the other perspective. Especially in today’s society, where we’re very highly divided and politicized, being able to understand the other side, I think, is a valuable skill to have and a valuable thing to actually exercise.”

“Your thoughts and perspective are being challenged in real time.”

Philip Kao, DTM

When it comes to the longer debates, the research time allotted to participants varies. Some clubs choose topics months in advance; others, like the Tokyo Debate Toastmasters Club in Japan, don’t announce them until right before the meeting. Kazuko Kawauchi, DTM, the club’s Vice President Education, says not everyone has an equal amount of preparation time so the last-minute announcement levels the playing field—and encourages quick thinking.

In these Toastmasters clubs, no matter which side of a debate you end up on, you have to work with your teammates to put together a plan. “It’s really exciting to be working with other people, especially when you have a common goal,” Ng says. “It’s a little bit like team sports, getting that excitement and that rush. That’s fun, and that’s one of the things that really brightens people’s lives, especially in this time.”

Members of debate-focused clubs say they also like the almost-improvisational nature of the format, where approaches and strategies are ever-changing. “Your thoughts and your perspective are being challenged in real time,” says Philip Kao, DTM, President of Advanced Debaters in New York City. “A lot of Toastmasters is public speaking and giving speeches, but in a debate, we’re being challenged as the debate is going on.”

“CollageAdvanced Debaters in New York City happily argued pre-pandemic and continue now on Zoom with global participants. The club often uses the Toastmasters Debate Handbook.

Mary Johnson, DTM, another Advanced Debater, says she appreciates the opportunity to practice her debate skills—often on controversial topics—in a safe environment. “You know that it won’t get out of hand. It won’t get negative, and people won’t get upset and get mad at each other. We know that it’s a professional atmosphere as well. That’s helpful. It’s comfortable.”


Real-Life Debate

Any Toastmaster will tell you that public speaking skills are helpful in all kinds of real-life situations. Toastmasters who are part of debate-style clubs say the skills they gain in debating teaches them to think and respond quickly in unexpected situations.

“I hear professionals say that they’re totally fine going to a conference and giving a presentation, but they dread the Q&A afterward because that part is unscripted,” says Paul Carroll, DTM, Treasurer of 104 London Debaters in England. “Debate helps you prepare for that.”

"In a debate, the two skills you learn quickly are listening and patience."

Rory Moore

It helps in other work situations as well, Carroll says, whether it’s defending a new project or initiative, running a meeting among different departments, or mediating a dispute.

“People say they can defend themselves, or they can make a better case for their project using debate skills,” he says. Another benefit is the ability to “spot bad logic, logical fallacies, and bad reasoning, and call those out.”

Rory Moore, another member of Advanced Debaters, adds that debate relies on sharp listening skills and the calmness to wait and hear the other side of an issue. “In a debate, the two skills you learn quickly are listening and patience,” Moore says. “You may ask the other person a question, or challenge them, and you have to have the patience to let them answer the question. The first thing you do is listen very closely and wait. They might not be as fast or as good as you are at debating, but you have to give them that patience so they can express themselves.”


Visiting Hours

For Toastmasters interested in checking out a debate-focused club, there’s never been a better time than now, since the majority of clubs now meet online due to the pandemic. The Tokyo Debate Toastmasters Club has welcomed members from the Philippines, the United States, and elsewhere, while Advanced Debaters in New York has expanded its membership to other states, and even Australia. Recently, two United Kingdom clubs, Manchester Communicators and Digital Communicators, hosted a free virtual workshop and real-time debate.

“Now, besides attending your own club in the virtual space, you can go visit other clubs just to say hi to people and see how people do things,” Ng says. “It’s a great way for keeping in touch with folks and to actually explore other clubs and what they have to offer and what you can bring to your own club.”


Give It a Try

Debate-style clubs encourage other Toastmasters groups to explore the format, even if just for one meeting as a fun activity that’s a break from the norm. Ng suggests trying out debate-style Table Topics for starters, “and if you really like that and think it’s fun, go ahead and set a special event, a special night for your club to actually have a debate. Perhaps get in touch with one of the debate clubs or take a look online to see how they’re run in high school and college and use those rules.”

Chances are, Ng says, members will enjoy the experience. “Having these debates on relevant, sometimes politically charged topics allows us to get to know each other better and actually learn a little bit more about the topic at hand, while having fun doing so.”


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