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Debate Games: How to Coach People to Argue Effectively

Time spent arguing is, oddly enough, almost never wasted.

Christopher Hitchens, inventor of the Hitchslap

Not everyone is as argumentative as the late Hitch himself. But everyone has to make a convincing case at some point in their lives. As useful as mastering the skills of the debate are, as much there’s often not the time, place, let alone motivation to practice something so seemingly basic as talking. Not to mention the image that comes with debate clubs and all the rest of it. That makes debating perhaps one of the most overused and undertrained skills. What better way to practice these skills than with debate games?

Because like any skill, the art of debate requires practice. Practice requires an understanding of the underlying structure and one way to explore those structures is through playful activities. The great thing about them is that we can fail without any negative consequences — other than to our ego. Here to crush and then rebuild our self-esteem are three underrated debate games that can teach us how to argue effectively.

Table of Contents

1. If I Ruled the World…

On the surface, the first of our debate games appears so incredibly simple that it’s tempting not to take it seriously. The aim of the debate game is for participants to get up in front of a group, introduce themselves and make a claim about what they would do if they ruled the world.

Claims are the most important part of a debate. They’re the propositions on which our arguments hinge. Without those statements on where we stand on an issue, there’s no debate. From the initial statement, everything else follows. Here’s how claims are used in the first activity:

Hi, I’m Bob and if I ruled the world, I would ban useless debate games.

Obviously, it doesn’t have to be the world. We can start small with a continent, a country, our company or school, department, or team. Sounds too easy? It is. As long as we’re all absolutely sure we can stand up straight in front of a group, introduce ourselves and take a clear position on an issue; regardless of what the crowd may reply let alone think of us.

If that idea gives you anxiety, you’re not alone. It’s strange how the adrenaline can sometimes still kick in when we’re only supposed to briefly introduce ourselves at a conference. Everyone’s taking turns, it’s almost ours. Don’t forget your name, Chris! Sharing your convictions with others can indeed be even scarier. But back to our game. Success here is not random. It depends on two interrelated factors: What we say and how we say it.

What We Say

The first challenge may not be so obvious. As opposed to saying our name, we have the freedom of choice. What’s the subject? What is it that we would do? If we haven’t thought that through in advance, in my experience, people tend to pick one of the following:

They may claim they would ensure world peace as the ruler of the world. But then the others might infer they’re slightly naïve people-pleasers who try to cheat by saying something nobody could be against. The audience may also wonder how they’d tackle this biggest task of them all and attack them for that.

Instead, they may be tempted to promise the ban of useless debate games if they ever got to have it their way. Now people may infer they’re self-referential comics who try to circumvent saying something of significance by pointing out the elephant in the room.

But perhaps they’re the type of person who’d claim to prevent Russia from acquiring SS-20 ICBMs in accordance with the START II treaty. Now they may come across as pretentious experts who know enough to clarify the ICBM acronym, but not enough to know that SS-20 missiles have long been out of service.

That’s a lot of thought given to a simple statement. In any of those cases, we would’ve kind of played the game, but haven’t accomplished anything. So, what should we say instead? How about something we truly believe in. Something we’ve already given a lot of thought to. The good news is that this helps us to choose our words more carefully, too. We want our suggestion to be as well-received as possible, so being able to tailor our wording accordingly will have a positive impact on our audience.

Even if it was only encouraging people to eat more peanut butter. Anything works in these kinds of debate games, as long as we feel confident enough to defend our claim should we not earn praise and agreement for merely stating it. What we’ll also find is that — when we pick something we actually know about — it helps us in terms of how we say it.

How We Say It

Great, now that we actually know what we would do and therefore say, let’s consider how we’re going to say it. Did you ever feel forced to say something you knew was a bunch of nonsense or a straight-up lie? It has probably influenced the way you said it. People could tell you weren’t honest and you knew people knew. Terrible, I know.

Debate Games

The bad news is, we don’t seem to have much control over how we come across; our mannerisms, gestures, posture, or way of speaking. Not as much as we’d like to anyway. But what certainly helps is not to say the things we know are not true. Luckily, we chose a statement we truly believe in for this game. That goes a long way for all our unconscious mechanisms to kick in, which will make us feel more at ease.

Tone of Voice

Let’s start by simplifying things. In his book Never Split the Difference, former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss distinguishes between three different voices: an assertive voice, a playful-upbeat one and a calm and soothing tone. To make things even easier, we can forget about the assertive tone because there’s hardly ever any use for it according to Voss.

Rather, he recommends the positive playful voice as a standard one. Smile while talking, be encouraging and keep it light. That leaves us with the calm soothing voice, which he dubs the late-night FM DJ voice. It’s a much slower, quite deep reassuring way of speaking. In that, it not only soothes and slows down the minds of our audience but also our own. So try it if your audience is rather nervous or if you are. In fact, you can test this right now by reading this sentence in an erratically aggressive tone first and then as a late-night FM DJ.

The great thing about those voices is that we’ll never have to think about how to say something again. As soon as we’ve found our personal interpretations of those two tones, it’s either playful or soothing. That’s it.

Debate Game Progressions

It’s easy to dismiss this debate game as child’s play. But it’s a great way to try out and practice some of the basics, especially if we’re struggling to speak in front of crowds. If that’s the case, we can even provide topics or complete statements for If I ruled the world…, so participants can truly focus on their delivery. If we’re no longer struggling with finding words and getting them out of our mouth, here’s a few progressions we may want to try out.

Inflections

Inflections, that is whether your voice goes up or down at the end of your sentence. An upward inflection (or upspeak) tends to turn everything you say into a question, implying insecurity. There’s a place for that in a debate, for example when we want to prompt our opponents to expand on their ideas. But we wouldn’t want to use it when making a claim. A deliberate and clear downward inflection on the other hand exudes confidence in what you have to say. By the way, the deliberate downward inflection is also a key feature of the late-night FM DJ voice.

Posture

I wouldn’t overthink this one. However, standing up straight with our shoulders back can give us an initial boost of confidence without having said a word – to others and most importantly to ourselves. Hunching over with our head down obviously has the opposite effect. Voluntarily ‘exposing’ our vulnerable parts (chest) sends the signal that we’re not afraid. We can think of standing up with our shoulders back as the opposite to cowering in a corner while addressing the audience. I assume that would affect our confidence, too, no matter how well-spoken we are.

Eye Contact

Speaking of speaking while being hunched over. Eye contact is the most tricky part in my experience. We can all probably talk to individual people, but not so much to a group. A group suddenly becomes a blur, an anonymous wall we’re talking to.

But what’s the point of making eye contact anyway? It’s a way to establish a connection, to gauge the people we’re speaking to. Are we on track or does the audience look puzzled? If we were asking for verbal feedback, we wouldn’t ask the group to shout their opinions at us all at once. We’d ask them individually and see if we notice a trend.

Conversely, how about we don’t speak to the group, but single people? We pick one audience member and tell them what we have to say as if the others weren’t there. We focus on that person alone, giving them our full attention. If we’re insecure, perhaps we pick the best active listener and not the person with the resting not-impressed face. One day we might have to say more than a few words, so we should also practice switching between audience members while we give our little talk. It’ll give us a good sense of where the collective mind of our audience is.

In sum, If I ruled the world… can be played as a mere uttering of meaningless words. If we prefer to use it to its full potential, on the other hand, we can make it a warm-up or an exercise to practice what we say and how we say it. It’s also great as a diagnostic tool to gauge how comfortable people are in their presentation. In any case, this activity lays the groundwork for debate game number two.

2. The Why Game

The second one of our debate games is a humbling game. It might make us wish we would’ve picked a different statement in game one. Remember when I said we should pick something we’d be able to defend should the need arise? The need has now arisen.

We can enjoy this game in our peer-group. Alternatively, we can lock ourselves in a room with an inquisitive toddler for two hours.

Let’s take the peanut butter angle from game one. Each participant gets up in front of the group and makes their statement again. Now the crowd comes at them. Not with pitchforks, not with moral judgement, but with a simple question asked in unison:

WHY?

It’s as innocent as it is hostile. ‘Why?’ always feels like an accusation that immediately puts pressure on us to justify ourselves. We can enjoy this game in our peer group. Alternatively, we can lock ourselves in a room with an inquisitive toddler for two hours. Why? Because ‘why’ is an intuitive reaction to every claim, particular the ones we don‘t agree with.

In and of itself, a mere statement is not an argument. So the ‘Why?’ is no more than a prompt to provide an explanation for our proposition. It’s why this is one of the debate games that’s great to test our views and our ability to withstand pushback at the same time. The peace advocates will have to dive into the intricacies of saving the world. The jokers will be forced back to reality. The expert will be revealed as an actual specialist or a fraud. Those of us who picked a topic we’re knowledgeable about can completely relax. Well, not really. Let’s see how it could play out with our peanut butter example.

If I ruled the world, I would encourage people to eat more peanut butter.

WHY?

Because it tastes much better than jam and is better for your health.

WHY?

Because it has less sugar.

WHY?

Because manufacturers usually don’t put sugar in peanut butter.

WHY?

Because it’s not necessary, I guess?

WHY?

Because it tastes good without.

WHY?

Because…how should I know?

It’s a bit of a silly practice of course. This is one of the debate games that encourages us to justify ourselves until we run out of sensible things to say. From my experience, people usually start by giving thoughtful and complex explanations until they feel the pressure mounting. Soon they’re forced into nitty-gritty terrain where they simply run out of things to say. They grow more and more defensive by the mere fact of having to justify themselves until their mind shuts down. Even though the rules don’t say you have to reply in a heartbeat.

Conscious Choices

The beauty of these kinds of debate games lies in the realisation that we’re entirely in control of where the argument goes and what we’re going to say next. We always know what the other side is going to reply to. As Mill’s Trident suggests, in an argument, we can only be wrong, partially correct or 100% accurate. But at this point, nobody is even contradicting us, let alone attempting to refute our arguments. So in a way, we can only defeat ourselves.

In our example, the global ruler had a choice in the very beginning. Provide an explanation for the taste claim or the health one. In the end, the aspiring world leader vaguely went with both, which led down a rabbit hole of mental shortcuts from which there was no escape. So, one thing we can practice using this game is to make conscious choices in terms of our line of argumentation.

Of course, in reality, we won’t be able to pick and choose the explanations to that extent. But it shows how well we’ve thought an issue through, how knowledgeable we’re about a topic and how easily we can pivot to or from different lines of argument that run through it. So, what the game can also do is expose the lines of reasoning we need to expand on or are confident in. Yet another reason to practice these debate games with meaningful real-life issues.

Debate Game Progressions

Of course, nothing keeps us from using this debate game to practice our tone of voice, posture or eye contact.

If we were to completely nerd out, we could even record the game, get a transcript and analyse which rabbit holes debaters chose and where they could’ve taken a different route. We could then repeat the game to see how we improved. Since every issue can be broken down into subtopics and corresponding arguments, it can be a great brainstorming exercise to map out this territory. It’s a cruder, more applied method than systematic research; a method that makes us reconsider what we know about an issue and how much we’ve actually thought it through.

In sum, a big part of arguing is not being able to come up with something meaningful to say under pressure. That makes the Why Game an effective stress drill that can increase our confidence and ultimately our control over a debate. Of course, in an actual exchange of arguments, we’re confronted with counter-arguments and rebuttals. Nevertheless, we’ll be more cognoscente of our ability to steer the conversation in directions we consider more productive.

3. Speed Debating

Speed Debating capitalises on people’s preference to just have a go at each other verbally. In my experience, the rules of engagement in a formalised debate are what puts many people off. In this debate game, pretty much the only rule is to engage. (Which of course we can do most effectively if we’ve mastered If I ruled the world… and the Why Game). But let’s be honest, there’s a reason why Hitchens is famous for the Hitchslap, not the Hitch-Rules-of-Engagement.

At any rate, I’d like to think that I invented this version, even though I’m sure someone beat me to it. The way I like to do it is to have all participants sit at a long table, two people facing each other (even numbers work best or someone has to pause). It’s a setup we find in speed dating (I guess) or at chess tournaments.

Instead of a chessboard, each pair has a piece of paper in front of them, which we’ve prepped in advance. It’s upside down so nobody can see what’s on it yet. Each sheet features two propositions, one facing each debater. The more opposing the viewpoints are, the better. For example:

Peanut butter is better than jelly. vs. Jelly is better than peanut butter.

Our organisation is run efficiently. vs. Our organisation is run inefficiently.

Once the Speed Debating starts, participants flip the paper and begin arguing their propositions. They have a pre-determined amount of time (one to five minutes or more) before a bell is rung and they all move up one position clockwise. Now they face a different person, debating a different topic. The interesting part is that everyone will end up debating the same topic again from the opposite perspective. Eventually, everyone will be required to steelman every argument on the table.

The Benefits of Speed Debating

First of all, Speed Debating is one of the debate games that are less structured, which in my experience makes it more engaging depending on the group. It’s great as a warm-up, for breaking the ice or to wrap things up in the end. There’s a bigger risk for participants to strawman an argument, but this will be offset once the tables have turned.

Second, compared to the first two, Speed Debating is less public. Individuals talk to individuals, they can ‘hide’ in the crowd and the general noise the parallel debates create. So it lends itself to participants being able to practice what they say and how they say it. They could be encouraged to make one claim (see: If I ruled the world…) and give one explanation (see: The Why Game) before the other side responds. Debaters take turns making a single move each so to speak. It’s a bit like playing several rounds of fast chess.

Third, we should note that Speed Debating is also more of a stress test activity. It features less familiar topics (depending on the choices by the facilitator, of course). It’s not as challenging as The Why Game, but people will also find themselves under pressure to come up with arguments and counterarguments due to the busy atmosphere. Even though the rules don’t specify that they’re supposed to pump them out as quickly as possible. Which makes it a great way to practice remaining calm under such circumstances. Maybe by trying the late-night FM DJ voice?

Debate Game Progressions

If the pressure is too high and everything goes off the rails, we can make this activity easier. Allowing more time per round is one obvious tweak. Participants could also come up with topics themselves or even prepare for them in advance. That would put more focus on delivery rather than on the ability to be quick-witted with ideas.

If participants are already well-spoken, there’s the possibility that we use it as a brainstorming exercise, too. Maybe our goal is to generate as many ideas or opposing views on a topic as possible within a short period of time. In-between rounds, debaters could scribble down the most memorable points made on the other side. It’ll certainly be more entertaining and effective than asking participants point-blank to come up with ideas and stare into blank faces for a felt eternity.

Closing Thoughts

There you have it, a detailed guide to facilitating three underrated debate games. Together, they provide an excellent progression if we choose to use them all in one session. You can also combine them with Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement for a deeper dive into what quality disagreement can look like.

Apart from knowing how to run the activities and what we can achieve with them, there’s one last point to consider. The eternal trade-off between content and delivery. Depending on the group and context, the mere goal of improving reasoning or communication skills may not capture the undivided attention of the whole group. We may need the right content or context as motivational drivers.

When we have a specific purpose or goal in mind, to find the best solution to an imminent problem or prepare for an upcoming pitch, the activities can provide a great structure. Rather than mere child’s play, they become a means that bring us closer towards a shared goal. If this is the case, the time spent on them will, oddly enough, never be wasted.