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. I previously explored a few of these common pitfalls, but here are several more — along with tips for avoiding them.
Completely succumbing to proven faults
If an opponent succeeds in cornering you with proven faults on your record, you must act quickly and efficiently to maintain both your integrity as a rhetorician and your rhetoric’s integrity as a balancing force in the debate itself. If the assertions are irrefutable, the best approach is to find a middle ground between acceptance and fluidity. In other words, admit your faults, but work to bridge these sentiments back to your key message. For example, if the debate is part of a political race, discuss how a potentially tarnishing past mistake, such as a DUI, was used as a learning experience, and perhaps explore the ways you converted this mistake into positive productivity (such as community service or philanthropy). This path must be navigated delicately, but if traversed effectively, it can help establish you as unflappable in the eyes of your audience.
Using the “shill gambit”
Perhaps one the biggest temptations in debate — especially amongst newcomers — is to commit the “shill gambit,” or to accuse your opponent of being paid off by an external party to formulate their arguments against or in favor of an issue. An example would be one debater accusing his or her opponent of advocating for gun This tactic is basically an extension of the ad hominem concept explored in my previous blog, and therefore it should be avoided at all costs; a red herring fallacy will only put the burden of proof on your shoulders.
Ignoring non-verbal components
Debate is obviously an art rooted in strong oratory skills, but a debater’s rhetoric is not exclusively based on this aspect of his or her performance. In reality, many debates include a variety of non-verbal components that must be taken into consideration to ensure a strong presentation. In most cases, it is not enough to have your facts in a row and your speaking skills honed; you must also look the part to complete the image. Stand up straight, engage in regular eye contact with your audience and your opponent, and do your best to maintain your physical composure. Certain external habits, such as incessant sighing or visible trembling, can quickly undermine your credibility and set you up for failure.