Debate as a Decision-Making Process

Debate is a process, a set of skills, and a perspective that can help corporations, organizations, small businesses, and other groups make better decisions on future directions, policy decisions, and resource allocations. This process can increase individual advocacy skills while also enhancing the overall quality of decision-making in the organization.

Athena Communication has been instrumental in providing effective guidance in implementing the debate process in a variety of contexts. From individual training, to small group work, to annual division conferences, debate has the potential to clarify options, test the quality of the evidence for and against different policy options, and involve stakeholders in "ownership" of decisions.

For more information about availability of consultation on these and other issues, please e-mail Star A. Muir directly.

An abbreviated version of some basic materials is included below to illustrate some concepts that have been useful in corporate debates in the past. Far from being a heated contest of loud voices, debate brings people together in discussing different views of issues within an organization, and in searching for the best options based on the best evidence and arguments available.

Argument and Clash

Construction of Arguments



Tips on Strategic Debate

Decision Criteria

Mini-Debate Topics

Argument and Clash

Arguments take many forms, but most arguments can be clarified and examined closely by identifying parts of the argument. Toulmin's Warranted Structure provides a way of closely scrutinizing the validity of an argument.

Toulmin's Warranted Structure

DATA: Grounds, or evidence for the claim

CLAIM: Opinion or conclusion advanced for acceptance

WARRANT: Reasoning used to link the Data to the Claim; hidden assumption of the Claim

BACKING: Further reasoning or support for the Warrant

QUALIFIER: Adverb or phrase modifying the claim, indicates the strength of the claim

RESERVATIONS: Circumstances or conditions that undermine the argument


Example: Expanding our sales into Chinese markets will be very profitable for Widget Co. (Claim), since our competititors at Xy Co. have recently seen profit margins increase in China (Data). The Warrant here is that Xy Co. and their situation is analogous to our company and situation. Evidence where Widget Co.'s experiences have been similar to Xy Co.'s would be Backing for this warrant. The Qualifier here is the amount of profitability (i.e. "very"). Reservations would include key differences between the companies, their already existing presence in China, etc.


KEY FOCUS: Examining warrant and assumptions of arguments

CHAINS OF ARGUMENTS: Claim of one argument becomes Data for next argument

COMPLEX ARGUMENTS: Several Data/Warrants for one Claim

Types of Argument

Argument from Principle -- general principle applied to a specific case (all businessmen are profit hungry, so appeal to Gary's sense of the bottom line). Weaknesses: exceptions to absolute principles, special circumstances.

Argument by Example -- series of examples or instances to draw a general conclusion (decreasing profits in March and April indicate reduced profits over the Summer). Weaknesses: examples typical or representative, sufficient number of examples, negative or contradictory examples.

Argument by Analogy -- comparing two instances or cases and applying characteristics of one to the other (this contract is like swiss cheese--smelly and full of holes). Weaknesses: key differences more relevant than similarities, figurative analogies more emotional than analytic.

Argument from Sign -- elements are related because one is a sign of another (weak housing starts are a sign of a bad economy). Weaknesses: reliability and consistency of the relationship, false attribution of cause.

Argument from Cause -- elements related causally, X Y (poor economy causes reduced investment). Weaknesses: Post Hoc (after this, therefore because of it), multiple causes, direction of causality.

Argument from Authority -- claim advanced because credible person or authoritative sources support claim (economy is improving because the administration reports it is). Weaknesses: bias, proper area of expertise, inconclusive basis for agreement.


Clash in debate is more than arguing interpersonally. Debaters should:

Construct Sound Arguments: develop claims with appropriate evidence and rational assumptions

Refute Opponent's Positions: pay attention to arguments advanced by opposition and devote rebuttal (and constructive) time to defeating them

Integrate Assessments of Net Costs and Benefits: impact arguments and arrive at overall evaluations of pros and cons; answering the questions "So What?" and "How does it come out on balance?".

Construction of Arguments

Developing Cases


A case is series of arguments, organized in such a fashion as to support a broader claim which the proponent wishes some particular audience to accept. It is a strong defense of a position layed out in a clear structure. In general, a case should demonstrate some existing harm (or some advantage to action), it should explain why the harm is inherent, or why it will continue to exist, and it should provide some alternative that will be the best solution. Note that while case structures are flexible and adaptable to the specific issue, the common elements of a case generally include contentions, or main points, and supporting points with evidence. In a constructive speech for a debate, many of these points would be evidenced and supported from authoritative sources, while some would simply be analytical reasoning. The following is an example of a case:

Resolved: That Widget Co. should expand into new markets. Now is the key time, or a competitive advantage will be lost

I. Current Marketing Strategies are Inadequate

A. Current efforts are focused only on expanding market share

B. Criterion for new market expansion are too conservative

II. Hesitation will Mean Loss of New Expanding Markets

A. Competitors are poised to expand and will gain significant advantages

B. Japanese economic rebound will increase competition

C. Potential profit of $40 million is lost

III. A Balanced Investment Strategy will be More Effective

A. New markets are available in several countries

-India offers a huge and expanding consumer market

-China is removing barriers to trade and is ripe for widgets

Internal and international risk factors in these countries are now low

B. The time to tap into foreign markets is now

C. Long-term competitive position best if investing now; inaction assures competitive disadvantage

Topical Structure

In developing a case in a corporate context, the structure used is often topical, that is, the main points reflect different topics or issues in the debate. This is perfectly acceptable, but care must be taken that some of the central elements of a case are not forgotten. Cases should still defend the core issues of justifying change.


One well used means of presenting a case is to use a problem-cause-solution format. There are three elements in the problem-cause-solution approach to case construction (following the basic burdens of a case outlined above):

Ill. The first step is to identify some sort of problem. Your goal is to show that the problem is significant and warrants attention.

Blame. The second step is to show what structures and attitudes allow the ill to continue. Essentially, you are attempting to demonstrate that the problem is inherent in some particular structure or set of beliefs. This step is important, because it proves that the problem will not simply work itself out. It proves that action is necessary.

Cure. The cure is an action which would solve the ill. In defending the plan, you attempt to show that it is workable and avoids the systemic and attitudinal barriers that you indicted in the blame step.

Comparative Advantage

The comparative advantage case argues that while no particular problem exists, a new plan or action would result in a comparative advantage over the status quo. The above case could be restructured into an advantage case very easily:

1. There is Large Untapped Profit Potential (Advantage)

A. New markets are available in several countries

-India offers a huge and expanding consumer market

-China is removing barriers to trade and is ripe for widgets

B. Internal and international risk factors in these countries are now low

C. Benefits in the $40 Million range after five years investment

2. Action Provides Advantages Over Competitors (Advantage)

A. Others are moving slowly but are gaining investment momentum

B. Japanese economic rebound will increase competition

C. Long-term competitive position best if investing now; inaction assures competitive disadvantage

3. Expansion is Feasible (Solvency)

A. Market studies provide adequate information to act

B. India and China markets are ripe for expansion

Using evidence

Evidence is used to support a claim. In many cases it is the most important part an argument. Empirical studies, examples, statistics, and authoritative opinion are all forms or types of evidence.

Source Citation

In the debate, sources should be qualified as they are introduced. A full bibliographic reference should be available in the round for opponents and judges to inspect.


Paraphrasing is permitted, but the actual text of the material should be available. Use evidence to make key points, not to substantiate items already accepted by the audience. Be wary of overrelying on evidence--don't use evidence to make the argument, but to support an argument. The presentation of evidence (Data) generally follows the claim being made.


The credibility of a claim can be enhanced through the use of a variety of types of evidence, and by the presentation of a variety of sources of evidence. On some important points, more than one form of evidence is needed to be convincing.


Refutation generally begins in rebuttals, after the presentation of constructive positions. It can begin preemptively in constructives, but such "prior refutation" is unusual, and if adopted should be clearly identified lest the audience become confused. Many of these refutation strategies should be combined (e.g., directly refuting your opposition as well as arguing disadvantages to their proposal).

Four Step Refutation

A complete refutation of an opponent's argument generally contains the following elements (S--A--S--I):

1. Signpost--cite the opponent's argument. Signpost where you are and what you are discussing for the audience.

2. Argue--make your claim. Advance your counterargument(s).

3. Support--give evidence or other support. Prove your claim, either with new evidence or with material from a previous speech.

4. Impact--explain the importance. Make some comparative assessment or conclusion as to the relative validity of the clashing arguments.


Our opponents have stated that 40 Million dollars could be gained by investing in foreign markets (Signpost) In actuality the figure that could be obtained is much smaller than that (Argument). According to previous experience with foreign investment, risk factors such as social and economic instability can make return-on-investment projections meaningless. A recent survey of CEOs by Forbes Magazine reveals that the international climate for investment is not particularly favorable at this time (Support). Until these figures can be more accurately verified it would be prudent to stay with the present system (Impact).

Direct Refutation Strategy

This is the most straight forward of all refutation approaches. The debater simple disputes each and every aspect of the opponents case. The goal of direct refutation is to show that the plan is simply not needed. For instance you might prove that there simply is no problem which merits attention or you could demonstrate how the present system could adequately deal with the problems outlined by the opponent. Finally, the debater might concede that a problem exists, but prove that the proposal simply will not solve the problem.

Disadvantage Approach

One variation on the direct refutation strategy is to show that the disadvantages to the plan outweigh the potential advantages. This is done by demonstrating the disadvantages and/or showing that the opponent has overestimated the potential advantages. The significant elements of a disadvantage are the link (that the proposal causes, or results in some effect), and the impact (the net effect of that event occurring). A disadvantage might structured as such:

New Market Expansion Spreads Widget Co. Too Thin

A. Market share key to future profits

B. New market expansion trades off with market share increase (Link)

-limited resources means ad $ and market development effort is spent in the wrong places

-competition in existing markets may become stronger

C. Impacts:

1) Long-term profit declines in existing markets

2) Claimed competitiveness advantage is worse because we lose market share

D. Decision rule: Known and existing profits should be accorded more weight than speculative and uncertain ventures

Counterproposal Strategy

The final refutation strategy actually involves very little refutation. You may choose to concede the majority of their case but attempt to show that some counterproposal would be better able to gain the advantages identified by the opponent. A central issue here is whether the proposal and the counterproposal actually compete, and should not be adopted simultaneously. For example, against the above proposal to expand into foreign markets:

Study is a Superior Option

A. Marketing research doesn't reflect social and economic instabilities

B. Stepped up research is necessary before any significant investment is made

C. Research allows us to maintain flexiblity while still maintaining and even expanding our current market share


Why Flow?

To help remember points made by opposition -- to clarify their case and outline it for quick reference and refutation

To help remember your own points -- to recall proper wording and the development of your own case to clarify your position

To allow for comparison and clash -- an accurate and effective clash of ideas needs a clear identification of how the arguments have progressed over the course of the debate

Effective Flowing

Mark off and stay within columns -- maintain an actual chart of the debate, with arguments separated vertically and responses flowed across horizontally

Space out separate arguments, leave room for answers

What to flow:

-major headings/arguments

-supporting points (sometimes not structured)

-evidence (name and date, if possible), should at least use mark to indicate evidence is read

-your counterarguments

Flow in outline form -- for clear reading and argument separation when pressed for time in rebuttals

Abbreviate -- have abbreviations in mind, and develop specific ones as the debate continues. Be consistent.

Use preflows -- especially for your own case, have the main points written out clearly before the debate.

Tips on Strategic Debate

Claims should be clear and precise

It is to your benefit to be understood. Confusion throws off the audience and judges, not just the opponents. Precision is highly valuable, strive to be word economical, time is limited and you want to get out as much support as possible for your positions.

Extend arguments that are not answered

If your opponent fails to refute an important point that you were making, be sure to point that out and take a brief second to remind the audience of the importance of that argument. An unanswered argument is essential conceded to you.

Attack the evidence and support

As we mentioned, the most important part of an argument is often the evidence. If you can refute or cast doubt on the evidence you may be able to defeat the entire argument. There are several different way to do this:

Reliability -- How reliable is the source of the evidence?

Expertise -- What are the qualifications of the author of the evidence?

Recency -- is the evidence recent or outdated?

Objectivity -- does the source of the evidence have an ulterior motive for speaking?

Attack the link between the evidence and the claim

Very often evidence can be taken to mean more than one thing. Has your opponent drawn the proper conclusions from the evidence? How relevant is the evidence to the question at hand?

Watch your time (Be prepared for time pressure)

Most speakers overprepare for debates and presentations. The result is you plan to get in a lot more material than you actually can. You should prioritize your material and divide up your time strictly and carefully. During your presentation you should watch your time so that you can summarize and move on to other arguments as time merits.

Divide rebuttal time equally between refutation and extension.

You must be careful to refute critical and or damaging arguments made by your opponents. On the other hand, you must not be drawn entirely onto their ground. Take some time to expand, extend and reestablish your own case.

View your presentation as a speech

While a debate speech is different from other forms of communication it must be stylistically pleasing. Short (very short) introductions and conclusions are appropriate. The use of humor can also be quite effective.

Outline your arguments prior to the debate

After outlining them you should erase the alphanumeric structure and utilize the remaining arguments as a skeleton to be dressed up.

Look for fallacies

Some common errors in reasoning include drawing conclusions based on insufficient numbers of examples (hasty generalization), attacking the source instead of the argument claim (ad hominem), using the claim to support the claim (begging the question), and arguing that the claim is popular and therefore justifiable (ad populem). Pointing out these errors in passing can be effective in undermining an opponent's case.

Decision Criteria

Effective debating often depends not only on the basic skills of construction and refutation, but on developing and successfully defending criteria for judges to evaluate the debate. Winning an individual argument does not necessarily determine the outcome of the larger issues. Success depends on developing "meta-arguments," or arguments that establish how to weigh the various arguments claimed in the debate. Such criteria also help to evaluate which arguments are the most important, or the most credible, and give the judge and audience grounds for a ballot.

Presumption -- presumption is usually thought of as being against change, and in favor of the existing policies. This assumption is predicated on the the risk that is thought to be inherent in change. Presumption is also often tied to other basic principles. In the legal arena, for example, there is a presumption that the defendant is innocent until proven guilty. In business, there may be a presumption with growth, with diversification, etc. that could be developed as a basis for supporing or rejecting proposals for change.

Goals -- decisions over future policy directions often hinge on identifying the most important goals of the organization. Arguing for a particular hierarchical placement of goals can be effective in undercutting alternative proposals. Plans which may seem otherwise desirable, but are outside of established goals, are often rejected solely on that basis. Goals can be identified by statements the organization has issued, the history or tradition of the organization, or even past successes of the organization.

Risk -- the concept of risk frequently guides decisions of policy-makers at all levels of government and business. Risk can be thought of as a combination of the possible impact and the probability of that impact occurring (Risk = Impact X Probability). Risk applies both to the advantages and disadvantages of different policy options. A large impact can be denied by showing it is unlikely, and a small impact can be enhanced by showing that it is almost certain.

Time Frame -- projections into the future are fraught with uncertainties. In many cases, espoused benefits or identified problems grow more uncertain the farther the future projection is required. A small but immediate impact may require more attention than a larger impact that is more distant. Likewise, a comparison between policies can be clarified by analyzing the time frame within which the benefits are accrued.

Mini-Debate Topics

The following topics are possible areas for mini-debates to sharpen construction and refutation skills. Keep in mind that your personal opinion is less important here than the application of techniques we have identified in the briefing session.


3 minute affirmative constructive

3 minute negative constructive

2 minute affirmative rebuttal

2 minute negative rebuttal


That Reagonomics is better than Clintonomics.

That the U.S. should substantially increase support for the UN.

That government should not pay for abortions.

That all states should adopt the 65 mph speed limit.

That capital punishment should be banned.

That marijuana should be legalized and controlled by state governments.

That more corporations should adopt a four-day work week.

That regulations on handguns should be significantly increased.

That affirmative action programs should be phased out.

That physician-assisted suicide should be legalized.

That the U.S. should significantly reduce its foreign military commitments.

That a modified Canadian health plan should be adopted in the U.S.

That nuclear energy should be phased out.