Building a Strong Argument: Lessons from Debating

One of my favourite things about English classes at school was debating. Once a year, the class would be split into teams of three, who would face off against each other in epic and usually civil arguments over such hot button topics as women’s rights, the death penalty, euthanasia, and school uniforms versus mufti.

In my head, I was like an impassioned lawyer out of a John Grisham novel, banging my fist and on the table and throwing around words like “injustice” and “discrimination” before I fully knew what they meant. (In reality, of course, I was thirteen and wearing a Mickey Mouse watch on that banging fist. But reality is less interesting.)

mickey mouse watch
90s kids represent!

For many of us, debating finished at school. But at elite levels, debating is a highly competitive and frankly intimidating academic sport. (Watch some YouTube videos of the World Universities Debating Championships if you don’t believe me.)

Debating is also highly theorised, and that’s where it becomes useful for researchers. The point of debating is very similar to the point of doing research: to enter and add to the intellectual dialogue around a subject. The job of the individual debater is very similar to the job of the researcher: to make an argument, and to persuade an audience/reader of the truth of that argument through logic and reasoning.

Debaters have a number of strategies that we as researchers can “borrow” (steal) and “adapt” (exploit) to make our academic arguments robust. The more robust our arguments, the better they will stand up to examiners’ scrutiny. Great. Let’s go.

The Big Red Ball technique

Debaters generally have a few minutes’ “rebuttal” time after their opponents’ speeches. In their rebuttals, they have to respond to their opponents’ points and try to invalidate their opponents’ arguments. They do this using the Big Red Ball technique.

Let’s say that the opponent has held up an object and stated that it is a big red ball. Their premise depends on three things: 1) the object is big; 2) the object is red; and 3) the object is a ball. To destroy that argument, the rebuttal only has to disprove one of those points. It would be nice to disprove all three (the object is a small green giraffe!) but one will do.

Here goes: “Given that the size of the object was determined using my opponents’ subjective judgement, and has not been benchmarked relative to the sizes of other red balls, its status as “big” is merely an opinion of my opponent and not an objective fact.” BOOM! Argument destroyed.

In an academic argument

Make sure your own big red balls are demonstrably big, red, and balls. When you are trying to prove that something is true, make your argument as robust as possible by breaking it down into components and proving every component individually. That way, it will be very difficult for examiners to pick holes in your argument.

red ball
Don’t let your big red ball argument unravel. Geddit? Hehe.



A debater has to engage audience members for several minutes using (usually) nothing but their words. Those audience members may or may not be paying attention. Worst case scenario: they are texting on their phones, sipping the coffees that they snuck in, and chatting to each other behind their programmes.

Debaters try to make it easy for even inattentive audience members to follow the logic and flow of their argument by using “signposts.” Signposts are key words which hint to the audience about where the argument is going and has been. For instance, if a debater wants to hint that their second point builds on their first, they might signpost that with the word “building.” (“Building on the x, we can see that y…”) If a debater wants to indicate a contrasting view, they might signpost with “however, another angle is…” and so on.

Even the worst audience texters and chatters and coffee sippers won’t get completely lost, because the signposts within the debater’s speech will keep them on route to the point.

In an academic argument

In a perfect world, thesis readers (including examiners) would pay perfect attention and understand every swoop and swerve of your logic immediately. But it doesn’t hurt to help your readers along by signposting within your paragraphs. Try these signposts:

If you want to… Signpost with…
Introduce a new idea This thesis seeks to…
Develop an idea further Another aspect of x is…
Add a new idea onto the last one Building on x, it is evident that y
Offer a contrasting idea However, some research contradicts y
Sum up This chapter has shown…

A quick caveat: signposts help readers to follow the structure of your argument, but they can also be repetitive and boring if overused. Vary your signposts, put them in your own words, and make sure they fit the tone of your writing.


Recognise and Purge Fallacious Arguments

If you ever meet an elite debater, throw out the phrase “Reductio ad Hitlerium” and watch them squirm. The term refers to arguments which reduce a person, group or subject to whatever flimsy Nazi association it might have, thereby attempting to discredit it. Amateur debaters often play the Nazi card in wildly misleading ways. For instance: Hitler was a vegetarian, therefore all vegetarians are evil.

Reductio ad Hitlerium is just one of many Harry Potter-esque sounding logical fallacies.

Reductio ad absurdum! (Oh wait, that’s not a spell.)

Debaters (and logicians in general) have hundreds of terms to describe different types of false or misleading arguments. They can go into a debate ready to expose the logical fallacies of their opponents, and thus strengthen their own positions.

In an academic argument

Learn to recognise logical fallacies (the table below shows some common ones) so that you can purge them from your writing. When you spot a logical fallacy in someone else’s work, you know to either avoid citing that work, or to cite it critically (exposing the logical fallacy).

Logical Fallacy Description Example
Straw Man Misrepresenting or exaggerating an opposing position to a ridiculous degree. Smith has argued for fiscal responsibility in government. Therefore Smith is against funding schools and hospitals.
Ad Hominem Attacking an individual, rather than their position. Patterson’s research shows that squirrels have emotions; although Patterson has a gambling problem.
Correlation / causation confusion Assuming that, just because two phenomena appear to be related, one has caused the other. Increasingly grey hair correlates with increasing net worth. Therefore, grey hair creates wealth.
Causal Reductionism Reducing a complex phenomenon with multiple factors to a single cause. Babies cry because their noses itch.
Non Sequiter A statement which bears no relation to what preceded it. (Often, a conclusion unrelated to its evidence.) Jones et al. showed that the grass is green. Therefore, pigs are made of confetti.
Slippery slope Presuming that something is undesirable because it could lead to bigger consequences. Universities should not allow water bottles on campus because it could lead to flooding.
Stacking the deck Cherry-picking only the arguments or pieces of evidence that support your position. Studies a, b, and c showed that my argument is correct. (No mention of studies d, e, and f that contradicted a, b, and c.)

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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