Preparing for a debate can be a stressful and nerve wracking experience — especially if you have never participated in one before — but the upside to that notion is that there are many ways to ensure victory over your opponent.
However, there are arguably just as many ways to lose a debate, and many of these mistakes are unfortunately common. To help you identify these pitfalls and ultimately avoid them, here are a few of the easiest ways to lose a debate.
Using ad hominem attacks
One of the easiest ways to derail your debate performance is to retreat into ad hominem arguments, or irrelevant attacks on your opponent’s character that stray from the main debate topic. These attacks may seem like a potent form of mental warfare through which to knock your opponent off balance, but in reality they are usually interpreted as beacons of insecurity and poor preparation, and a strong opponent will exploit them and back you into a corner by simply staying on topic.
Falling back on tradition
It is not enough to present a strong argument or cross-analysis; in most cases, you must back up your claims with credible sources. Therefore, you should strive to cite arguments as efficiently and accurately as possible, and this means refraining from appealing to tradition. A traditional or cultural belief may be relevant in certain scenarios, and it may resonant particularly well with you personally, but it is crucial to prevent these factors from primarily influencing your arguments when they are inappropriate. Injecting potentially ambiguous or subjective claims into a debate will only leave you open to the inverse of such logic: that many other people, possibly even your opponent, do not identify with such traditions or beliefs, and therefore their place in the debate is probably invalid — unless of course you are content with a guaranteed ideological stalemate.
Being too self-deprecating
In certain debate situations, mainly those preceding a public vote, a small amount of self-deprecation can go a long way in winning over your audience. However, regardless of the debate at hand, be sure to keep this habit in check. Too much self-deprecation might make you appear uneasy and low on self-confidence, and it can quickly undermine your credibility as a rhetorician. You do not want to give your opponent this type of momentum, so maintain a strong balance of outward assertiveness and inward modesty.
Making up information
Making up information and/or creating conspiracies is never okay in a debate. This habit sometimes rears its head in moments of psychological desperation, when a debater is caught off-balance and without a quick comeback, but it can be hard to undo once it occurs (and most likely stains your entire performance). It is important to identify the signs of this impulse before they are able to break loose; the main one being a general feeling of irrational hostility toward an opposing argument, or in an entire community or concept fueling an opposing source (an entire scientific community, for instance). Assume that facts are facts and do your best to stay on topic — even when you feel hopelessly cornered. Do not give up, but remember that it is better to have your rhetoric outwitted than laughed at.