On-line Debating Tutorial:

General Rules/Guidelines for Debating

Please note that these guidelines are for British Parliamentary Style.


The aim of this page is to give you an idea of how to debate. It's not just a simple case of standing up and saying the first thing that comes into your head. There are certain rules and guidelines which have to be adhered to if you want to have any chance in a competitive debate.

This is not the page with all the answers. It is only a rough set of guidelines to help get you started. Everyone should try to find their own strengths and failings.

In the Debating Union we practice British Parliamentary style, which is now the official style of the World Championships. In the U.S., Canada, etc. a very different style is practiced.


1. Speeches should be SEVEN minutes in duration. Speakers exceeding this may be penalised but should never be substantially less than this. In general you should speak for at least 6:45 and generally no more than 7:20-7:30. Ideally stay on your feet until you hear the 7th min bell and then finish (i.e. Mr. Speaker sir, I beg to........) and be in your seat by 7:15. Your times will be recorded by the timekeeper and given to the adjudicators as they leave to make their decision.

2. In general most debates are in English. The main competitions are all in English but occasionally there are Irish debates usually in conjunction with some other event/soc.

3. A bell will be rung after the expiration of one minute and six minutes. The bell will be rung again at seven minutes and at regular intervals after that.

4. If the chair of the debate is the head of the host society he/she usually has a title e.g. Speaker, Auditor, etc. Here the proper form of address is Mr Speaker/Madame Speaker. You must also acknowledge the adjudicators, if there are any. Some speakers will also acknowledge other members of the house, it is basically just a matter of personal preference as to how you begin your speech after acknowledging the chair and adjudicators. (e.g. "Mr Speaker, Madame Secretary, Adjudicators, Ladies & Gentlemen........................).

5. Points of information may only be offered after the expiration of one minute and may not be given after the expiration of six minutes. Points of information may only be given to opposing speakers and should generally be not more than 15 seconds in duration. The chairman may request a speaker to end a point of information at his/her discretion. Barracking (constantly interrupting the speaker by offering points) is also frowned upon by adjudicators and the chair is expected to control this. Acceptance of points of information is at discretion of the competitor holding the floor. In competitive debates only the competitors may offer points of information however in non-competitive debates points will often be accepted from the audience. Once you have accepted a point of information you can't just ignore it and carry on. You must deal with it or risk the adjudicators wrath.

6. Maiden speakers (i.e. speakers making a speech for the first time) have the protection of the chair. Other speakers may not offer them points of information unless they choose not to accept the protection of the chair. Even if they reject the protection of the chair most experienced speakers will not offer them a point unless they run into difficulty and it can help them. If you are good enough (or misfortunate enough depending on how you look at it) to be making your maiden speech in an intervarsity (rare but it has been known to happen) you do not have any special protection.

7. Points of order concerning the procedure of the debate must be addressed to the chair. These can be brought at any time and take priority over all other speeches. However these are only used in exceptional circumstances when the rules and standing orders are being abused and the speaker making the point must be certain that the point of order is appropriate. Any abuse of points of order will be penalised by adjudicators and in general these are avoided by most speakers.

8. Speakers must observe Parliamentary language i.e. bad language is not permitted.

9. The use of Props is not permitted in a debate.

10. No amendment to the motion is permitted. You must debate the motion as presented and interpret it as best you can.

11. The "house", which will often be referred to, is basically the chairperson competitors audience etc.

12. The speakers are evenly divided on both sides of the motion. Speakers for the motion are the "Proposition" or "Government", speakers against are the "Opposition".

13. The opening Prop speaker (sometimes called "Prime Minister") has to define or interpret the motion. If this definition is unreasonable of irrelevant then the opening opposition speaker may challenge the definition. But if the definition is relevant but just doesn't suit the opening opp. speaker attempting to redefine may not go down well with the adjudicators. If a definition is given and all the other speakers or teams completely ignore it then the defining speaker is effectively out of the debate.

14. The last speaker on each side is expected to sum up his/her side's argument and rebutt or refute the arguments of the other side. Generally this speaker will not add a great deal of new information to the debate.

15. Rebuttal is vital in any competitive speech. Any argument left unchallenged is allowed to stand. The later you come in a debate the more rebuttal you must use. Rebuttal basically involves ripping the opposing sides argument apart and exposing its weak points. However don't forget to make your own argument and ideally use that to rebutt.

16. Be careful to avoid leaving statements hanging in mid-air. If you say something important back it up. Just because you know something is true and where it came from that doesn't mean the audience/adjudicators know where it came from and why it's true. To a certain degree the safest bet is to assume that the audience know little or nothing about the subject.

17. Just because you may not be competing this does not mean that you can take no part in the debate. All debates are usually opened up to the floor after the last speaker and once the adjudicators have retired. Often there is a prize for the best speaker here, but time allowed is usually no more than 3 min. to allow as many people take part as possible.

18. Heckling is also common in some debates. This involves members of the audience offering some good humoured abuse to the competitors. However there is a fine line between heckling and barracking and members of the audience should remember to respect the speaker. Heckling can be scary at first but you will soon get used to it.

19. Private Members Time, PMT, is a period of time at the start of each debate where members may bring up a motion or issue which they wish to see debated. Speeches here are limited to 3 min. This is often a part of the debate which is not only used to raise issues but also where many speakers show off their wit and humour.

20. Remember you do not necessarily have to believe the side of the motion you are on. You just have to make it appear as though you strongly believe in it for 7 min. In competitive debates you will have very little choice as to which side of a motion you get.

21. No matter how bad you think your speech is try to stay up for the full seven minutes. If the audience is giving you a hard time just remember that they probably want you to walk off so don't give them the pleasure. If the chair doesn't control the audience ask him/her to and put him on the spot with the adjudicators. Of course you have to be able to handle a reasonable amount of heckling.

22. You don't have to be a genius for facts and figures to do well. If you can remember an example, or fact which you researched, to back up your argument use it. However if you get stuck and think that a fact, figure or example is needed and you don't have one, try making one up. It can be risky if you get caught by a member of the opposing side who actually knows what they are talking about (it can be painful, believe me) but it can be very effective if you get away with it. This is not, however, a replacement for good research, only a fall back if you're in trouble.

23. If you can use humour it can be extremely effective in a debate. You can ridicule and destroy an opponents whole speech with a one line joke attacking it. But don't go over the top, while humour helps, adjudicators may not be impressed by stand up routine with little substance. Although humour can be an advantage don't worry if you can't crack a joke to save your life (or speech). You'll be surprised at the number of speakers who have to really struggle to include humour in a speech while others do it with ease