Why You Should Look at Toastmasters Debate Clubs
We’ve all been there. That discussion that you want to have, that we need to have. Whether it’s politics, society norms, or the intrinsic value of moosetracks ice cream – you want to discuss it. You want to explore it with friends, family, or the person in front of you at the ice cream stand. You want a debate – an honest-to-goodness discussion with facts, explanations of why these facts are important and the impact of the topic on the world – ok, your ice cream choice. You want a debate.
Debate often has a bad smell to it. In the US, we have these abominations called “presidential debates” which are nothing more than people slinging sound bites at each other for the media. Then we have the current “social media” debate, which appears to focus on insults and accusations.
Whatever happened to civil discussions? Have we lost the ability to have them?
Today on Toastmasters 101, we’re going to talk about an increasing need for the ability to communicate with discussions where people don’t agree, and a terrific rise in the Toastmasters grassroots community to discover the power of debate.
Do you want to find your voice and change the world? Then Toastmasters is for you. In one hour a week, we can teach you how to develop your public speaking skills and your leadership skills to have an impact on the world. This is Toastmasters 101, and I’m your host, Kim Krajci.
Debate vs. Discussion
Let’s start out by saying: moosetracks is a flavor of ice cream in our area. I have no idea if you’re familiar with it. Locally, it has fudge swirled into vanilla ice cream with peanut butter and chocolate candies mixed in. For me, that’s one too many ingredients. I don’t disapprove of people eating it, I’m just kinda… not sure why people like it.
It’s not a very debatable topic. Discuss, yes, and certainly we can agree to disagree.
People can disagree. Will disagree. It’s the nature of human nature and free will. People can disagree about almost everything, not just about taste. I may believe a certain policy will achieve a goal. That doesn’t mean I get to assume that the person who disagrees with that policy I prefer is a person who is evil or bad or doesn’t deserve respect.
Let’s define our terms. (That’s a debate joke – you’ll get it in a minute)
I like the Heritage Dictionary’s definition: Consideration of a subject by a group; an earnest conversation. I think that a discussion allows each participant to free-range around a topic: to look at the topic from several perspectives and to concede the other’s points as we come to an agreement. That doesn’t mean that a discussion is going to end on agreements.
I want to make it clear: I don’t see disagreement as a bad thing. I see it as a human thing. It’s how we treat each other in the discussions that can make a disagreement offensive or hurtful. I believe that people of good will can look at a topic and have few or no points of agreement and both be good people who want a good solution for a problem.
Debating Holes in the Ground
For example, last week my son and daughter-in-law were removing the deck from the back of their home that they just purchased last fall. As we dug out the supporting posts and concrete foundation block, we left 30 big holes in the ground. One person wanted to go get fill dirt right away to protect people from breaking legs or ankles by stepping in them. Another person pointed out that they intend to build a patio and they’ll have to remove significant amounts of dirt, so buying dirt seems unnecessary. I personally liked the idea of throwing buckets over the holes for now – they’ll be very visible. Another suggestion was to put sticks with flags on them to help people know where the dangers lie.
Were any of us wrong? No, none of us were. Our discussion ended with a decision that the homeowners were happy with – they dug up dirt from where they’ll be laying the patio and filled the holes the next day.
Debate is something different from a discussion. According to the American Heritage Dictionary.com, debate means
- To engage in argument by discussing opposing points.
- To engage in a formal discussion or argument.
Debate can have a negative connotation to it. I get that, because in a true, formal debate, each side must defend their stand absolutely without any concession to the other side. It can look acrimonious. It can look defensive and ugly. A debate can be vicious and attacking. It can look personal and soul-crushing.
It can also be an incredibly valuable tool to help us understand critical issues.
We need to take technical look at a debate.
First of all, it’s a formal engagement.
I don’t think we often have true debates randomly. We may have arguments, but a debate isn’t usually the thing we see on the street. I’ll agree that sometimes, there are spontaneous debates in situations, but the word can be abused. Like presidential debates. Those aren’t debates. Those are posturing for the media events.
Debates start by making clear what the topic is – and what it isn’t. That’s why definitions are so important. Making sure that it’s clear what the debate is about establishes the parameters of the debate and keeps it on point. If you’re talking about filing holes, you’re not talking about dinner, or about the nature of the universe. It keeps you focused and on topic.
Second, A debate is focused on a resolution.
A question. A choice. It’s persuasive speaking, using logic and facts as the primary material. This isn’t to say that emotion and character aren’t parts of the discussion, especially on fraught topics that generate ill-will or fear.
The point of focus in a debate is that resolution. There will be two sides. One side is called the affirmative. The other is the negative. Some debates call it pro and con. Potato, potato. But there are two sides.
AFF and NEG
A discussion can have multiple perspectives presented. In debate, the affirmative always agrees with the resolution. The other side takes an opposing view.
For example, the backyard holes. If the resolution is: “The holes in the backyard require Mom to go to the store and buy fill dirt” then that’s what the AFF has to defend – all parts of it, including Mom going to buy dirt.
Neg, on the other hand, has the world to draw on to fight against the resolution. Neg can contend that Dad should go. They can contend that nothing should be done. They can contend that filling the holes with pizza is better.
That is the key difference between a debate and a discussion. In one, you’re locked into specific roles and you never concede an inch to your opponent. In the other, as a less formal and hopefully good-natured way, you can change your mind.
It’s this difference that gives debate a bad name. That… and bad debaters.
When we enter a debate, we have to be able to explain why our position is the best one. When a debate doesn’t do that, it can devolve into name-calling, questioning the ethics of another speaker, or cheating. Then debate looks ugly and unproductive.
Which is horrible, because, done right,
Debates are fun.
I have a copy of a handbook about Debate from Toastmasters that I bought years ago. I was working as a debate coach and purchased it thinking I would learn a lot about debate from it. Unfortunately, it didn’t help me very much because it was too general and I was working in a very specific category of high school debate. But I always wanted to see more Toastmasters debate because sometimes, very rarely, I’d see a table topics challenge that was a debate.
The very first Toastmasters meeting I attended, the table topics leader pulled out a tomato and challenged the volunteers to debate whether a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable.
This is not the type of debate I was used to, but I was up for the challenge.
This is the other common type of debate: one thing versus another. For example: cars vs. bikes. Houses vs. apartments. Mountains vs. beaches. Socialism vs. capitalism.
Not a very clear resolution, but often it can be structured into one: Tomatoes are a fruit.
And that’s where the debate begins.
Toastmasters Debate Clubs
Maybe 5 years ago, a club in District 10 decided to try debates. I attended and thought it was great. The club… didn’t. The debates took time away from them completing speeches toward their education awards. The debates were scrapped.
A couple of years ago, I heard about a club in the middle east that focused on debate. I wanted to attend!
Then the pandemic hit and every club moved to online meetings. And I found out that there are Toastmasters who are doing debates. I didn’t know about them because we didn’t have any way to find them and attend.
With everything now online, I found out about a start-up club in Texas, USA, that wants to focus on debate.
Then they told me about two clubs in New York City that have an annual debate between the clubs. And two more on the western coast of the United States.
It looks like debate clubs are springing up all over the place! And I can attend them!
Why should you check out a debate club?
Right now, it’s hard to have a civil discussion because we’re in a volatile position right now. Communication skills are critical. If you want to change the world, you have to be able to communicate your vision.
At its core, that’s what Toastmasters is about. Communication skills. Learning how to debate – essentially, how to defend your point effectively.
That people are starting Toastmasters clubs that focus on debate – that’s a clear indication that I’m not the only one who sees that being able to debate effectively and persuasively is important.
That we want to have conversations that don’t become shouting matches where there is no communication.
Where the end goal isn’t to grind your opponent into the ground, but to understand them and help them understand you.
I hear there’s a path being submitted to Toastmasters International focusing on debate. I want it. NOW.
The main reason to join a Toastmasters debate club is that you – that we all need to improve our ability to communicate with logic, with emotion, without crushing our opponents with insults and insinuations that they’re bad and evil people. To be able to respectfully discuss and disagree is what everyone needs. That’s why you should check out a Toastmasters debate club. You’ll learn the skills and have fun doing it.
Debating isn’t easy. It requires preparation and an understanding of both sides of the topic.
That’s the superpower of debate.
That’s how good debaters win – they know what the arguments on the other side will be and prepare for them. That’s how to be persuasive – know the opposition’s position. In sales, it’s the ability to show why a reason not to buy isn’t valid before it’s been brought up. Inspirational speeches use ethos, logos, and pathos to create a memorable and effective speech. Debate hones those skills and improves your message. Debates are work, but they yield results.
In the meantime, I invite Toastmasters clubs who are doing debates to send me a note so I can add them to the list in my show notes. I’ll add a link to your Toastmasters.org Find a Club page to help others discover how much fun debate can be, and that everyone can learn how to do it!
Wrap it up, Kim
Toastmasters 101 is a podcast production of Toastmasters District 10.
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Toastmasters Debate clubs
Caltech Debate https://www.toastmasters.org/Find-a-Club/06606328-caltech-debate