Sophomore class 6: How to prepare a spoken-word debate presentation

Nimen Hao,

the class is the first of two classes specifically dedicated to preparing for your assessed speed debate presentations (the second is in week 13, Thursday December 20th for class 4, Friday December 21st for Class 5 and Class 6 ).

Many of the classes throughout the semester have provided material and spoken word practice that you could draw on for your debate content and arguments (for example, hometowns, climate change etc).

Today I will give some guidance on debate preparation, and we will begin to make up and choose some topics for debate (we will return to choosing in further lectures before the class speed debates and the individual  assessed debate presentation (week 14, Thursday December 27th for Class 4, Friday December 28th for Class 5 and Class 6).

A few words on debating and speed debates

Formal debates normally include two teams of three people arguing for and against a proposition.

An example of a typical proposition: My Hometown Tianjin is a Better City than Shenzhen.

One team is required to argue that the proposition is true; this team is arguing in the ‘affirmative’.

So, to take the above example, the affirmative team would be arguing that Tianjin is a better city than Shenzhen.

The other team is required to argue that the proposition is false; this team is arguing in the ‘negative’.

So, to take the above example, the affirmative team would be arguing that

It is not true that Tianjin is a better city than Shenzhen.

Each team makes two basic kinds of argument in favour of its side of the argument.

The first kind are ‘substantive’ arguments. These are the prepared arguments in favour of a team’s side of the topic.

The second are ‘rebuttal’ arguments. Rebuttal is where a team attacks the opposition’s arguments.

Substantive arguments aim to show why your team is right, and rebuttals aim to show why the other team’s arguments are wrong.

In formal arguments, the first speakers for each team defines the topic, and introduces the main substantive arguments.

To use the above example again, the affirmative team’s first speaker might start by saying that the proposition asks us to consider which of the two cities is better, and we will show that the proposition statement that Tianjin is a better city than Shenznen is clearly correct.

The negative team’s first speaker might accept or revise the definition of the topic, before introducing her/his teams arguments.

In the above example, the negative team’s first speaker might start by agreeing that the proposition asks us to consider which of the two cities is better, or might suggest that the proposition only requires the teams to consider whether Tianjin is better, and therefore doesn’t require the negative team to prove that Shenzhen is better. The first speaker for the negative team will then introduce their arguments that the proposition statement that Tianjin is a better city than Shenzhen is not correct.

The second speaker for each team gives further substantive argument and some rebuttal of the opposing teams arguments.

The third speakers summarize their respective team’s substantive arguments, responds to the other team’s rebuttals, and give their team’s final rebuttals.

Key differences and similarities: formal team debates vs. speed debates


  • Speed debates are individual one-on-one debates (one affirmative and one negative speaker debate the proposition. They are not team debates.
  • They only consist of the substative arguments, not rebuttals.
  • The proposition topics will be defined beforehand, by agreement between the two speakers (so the speakers do not need to define the topic in their presentation).
  • The main aim of our speed debates is to produce a well-spoken and logically coherent argument.

Although we will have one-on-one debates in week 13, and have a class discussion and vote on which side (the affirmative or negative speaker) won, the competitive element is secondary to the main aim of giving a spoken word presentation that communicates its ideas effectively and coherently (i.e., it makes sense to the listener/s).


  • In our speed debates, as in formal debates, you can use note cards to refer to when speaking. As with a formal debate, you must avoid just reading off your cards.
  • Each speaker will speak for 3 minutes

Possible Topics: small group exercise

First, here is a list of topics that other students have used for their debates. Have a quick look and discuss (we can revise them, discard any that we don’t want, and make up some new ones).

In your small groups:

1. make a list of the topics that you think we should use out of the suggested topics below (a-k).

2. Suggest any revisions to the propositions that you think we should use.

3. Make up at least three more possible propositions to debate.

4. Select a proposition that you might debate (you can cnage your choice later), and whether you want to argue the affirmative or negative case.

A. Women work harder than men, for less reward.

B. My home town is a better city than Beijing.

C. Chinese people are much healthier than American people.

D. Our youthful generation is much healthier than the older generation.

E. The youth of today are shouji-addicted “small Emperors”.

F. It’s much better to stay and live in China than to migrate overseas.

G. Qi Gong is the best exercise in the world.

H. The national government should fix the problems of global warming, not individuals and communities.

I. Sha He campus is a great place to live.

J. Without an apartment, modern love is impossible.

K. Road trips are the best kinds of holidays.

L. Modern Chinese housing is worse than traditional hutong housing.

M. There are too many migrants in China’s big cities.

N. Chinese pop music is better than Western pop music.

Debate Preparation.

There are five bases for preparing an effective debate (they are similar to those used for essay writing): unity, coherence, support, sentence skills, verbal skills.


Have a clearly stated point, argument. Begin with a clear opening statement of the main argument of your presentation. Make sure that everything else works to support this opening statement.


Organise and connect your supporting material. Have an effective introduction, body, and conclusion, make sure your points are well-linked.

A Model for structuring your 2-minute debate presentation.

  1. Introduction
  2. Three or more main points, with supporting material.
  3. Conclusion.

Timeliness and organisation

This spoken word task is time restricted. Because there are only three minutes for the whole presentation, speakers need to plan the time devoted to each section of their speech carefully.

One suggestion would be to give no more than 20 per cent to the introduction, 60 per cent to your main points, and then the remaining 20 per cent to the conclusion. You could choose to vary these proportions, but be careful not to run out of time (for example, end up without giving your conclusion).

Time problems to avoid.

  1. Not using your full time. If a speaker doesn’t use the full two minutes they will not have said as much as they might. They may lack sufficient arguments and support, and one or more of their sections (introduction, body, conclusion) may be weak.
  2. Going over time. Anything said after the three minute mark cannot be counted as part of a presentation.


Provide logical and detailed support for your thesis, including sufficient specific evidence or examples.


Revise and edit so that you sentences are effective and error-free. Practice your presentation (record it and listen to yourself; ask a peer to listen to you). Check for the following.

  • Correct verb forms?
  • Subject and verb agreement?
  • Avoidance of fragments (speaking in full sentences)?
  • Correct use of pronouns including gender (he/she)?
  • Needless words eliminated?
  • Effective word choices?
  • Varied sentences?

Verbal presentation: clarity, speed, volume

Clarity: Speak clearly and enunciate correctly.

  • Pronounce your words correctly.
  • Make sure you don’t garble your words (they should be clearly distinct and not run into each other).
  • Express your ideas as simply and clearly as possible (avoid unnecessarily complex language).

Speed: Speak at a slow or moderate pace.

  • Make sure you don’t speak too quickly. A good way to ensure this is to concentrate on starting slowly (reinforcing the feeling of speaking at a measured pace to your audience).
  • If you are speaking too slowly that is likely to be related to not having enough to say (that’s a problem of content, not verbal ability).

Volume: Your volume should be appropriate for the context of your presentation.

  • As we will be presenting in a small classroom, first to the class group and then just to the teacher, you might use a normal conversational tone.
  • However, don’t speak too softly; we need to be able to hear you clearly.

Varied speech: Try not to speak in a monotone (like someone reading from a page). Try to speak in an expressive and animated style, while remaining within your normal mode of expression (be yourselves).

You might want to vary your volume at particular points. For example, it might be effective to finish one argument in a loud and aggressive style, and then start the next argument in a softer manner.

There are also related qualities that may enhance your communication, including creativeness, inventiveness, entertainment. Different speakers might have differing positive qualities and still produce an effective and well-communicated debate presentation: for example, one student might gain positive marks for a humorous presentation while another might gain just as many marks for a serious and compelling (or persuasive) presentation.

Humour: a word of caution

If you have a humorous manner and can use it to support your argument that’s great. But make sure it does work to support rather than distract from your argument, that it is appropriate to your subject matter, and is used respectfully.

Manners and body language

Variation (gestures)

The example of verbal variation  is a case of manner change. This involves your body language as well as your spoken words. In the example just give, load and aggressive verbal manner might be accompanied by large gestures, while a softer spoken form might go with gentler or smaller gestures.

Brainstorming: initial speed debate preparation.

Working in your small groups again, do the following debate preparation.

  1. choose your debate proposition and side (affirmative/negative).
  2. Begin to brainstorm your ideas (you might want to write them down). Think of as many arguments to support your main argument as you can, and make a list.
  3. Then rank them in terms of importance. Now choose the main ones, and see if you can decide what order to present them in.
  4. Finally, think of several supporting examples or pieces of evidence for your arguments.

Next week: Appraising a debate: class exercise

Listen to the two sides of the following debate.

Proposition: My Hometown is better than Shenzhen

The first is Lu Jian’s argument against the proposition: She argues that Shenzhen is better than Tianjin (her hometown).

The second is my argument for the proposition, that (my adopted hometown) Tianjin is better than Shenzhen.

While you listen, consider whether you think the two debate presentations meet the criteria for a good presentation outlined above. Consider the following questions.

  • What did you notice about the structure of the two arguments?
  • What were the speakers’ main points, and how did they support them?
  • How did the speakers finish their debate presentations? Did they achieve sufficient unity and coherence?
  • Did the speakers demonstrate good sentences skills/ did you notice any errors?
  • Were their sentences varied and interesting?
  • Did they make good use of their allotted time (2 minutes)?
  • Did the speakers enunciate clearly?
  • Who won the debate? Why?

OK, now listen while I present the debates. Then, once they’ve both been presented, discuss them together in our class group.


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