The Prep-sheet for Mastering Structure in Debate

Essentials on the anatomy of a winning case

January 29, 2021

Having the best arguments in a debate doesn't always guarantee that you will win. However, you will lose if your arguments have a poor structure to build on and to help them point to something more meaningful. An argument with a poor structure sets itself up for absolute failure and thats the last thing you want.

The template I recommended here helps you develop a balanced case which guides your audience's sentiments, facts and considers its own logical fallacies. It was originally developed by some of the best debaters in the world. Its purpose was to make sure that debaters don’t lose sight of the essentials in case construction. This version was edited to be more accessible for entry level debaters.

Applying it will greatly improve your speech’s structure and chances of winning.

If you are confident that you got all the basics covered feel free to just scroll down and download the prep sheet down below.

The Core of Debate

Debate is about convincing someone to consider what you are offering. It is at the center of all conversations where people have different opinions.

Successful and productive debates have a deep appreciation of all concerned parties' evaluation of the issues under consideration. This means for you to be relevant in any debate you must listen and understand what the other parties care about and make a better offer.

You could of course argue for the sake of being right but that will most likely leave you ignored.

In most cases, you, and your opponent will have the same broad goal but differ on how to achieve it. Judges will pick the winner based on the solution with less scary trade-offs, reasonable contingencies, and most efficient methods of achieving the goal - simple cost-benefit analysis.

Find out the following about your opponent and the debate you are having:

  1. What do you have in common?

  2. Where is your main point of clash or divergence?

  3. What’s their best objection against your proposal?

  4. What are both sides trying to achieve with their arguments?

These steps must be carefully arranged and packaged in the clearest and most appealing way possible.

What should you prioritize?

Your priority is to build a connection with your audience.

Before anything else, prepare to answer your audience's question - WHY SHOULD WE CARE ABOUT WHAT YOU ARE SAYING?

No matter how amazing and awesome your argument is, it will be useless if people don’t get it or just don't give a damn about it.

To get people paying attention try this:

  1. Be as clear as possible about your goal/position.

  2. Demonstrate the scope and importance of your goal. Give your listeners an easy guide into understanding your metric of evaluation.

  3. Compare outcomes, and other available options. How is yours superior in addresing the needs of the debate?

How To Use The Prep Sheet

Follow this link to download the Prep-sheet.


Screenshot for section 1: Words

Adding clarity to your definitions and frame of thinking is the foundation for any good argument. Nothing you will do later is more important.

This section protects you from a scenario where you end up squabbling over definitions and meanings of key words in the motion being debated. Debaters can be snide bastards who will deliberately twist what you say if they see a chance for an easy win. Being clear saves your case from the silliness which your opponent might be tempted to raise against the scope of your logic.

This is your first opportunity to gain control over the narrative in the debate.

Don’t just pull dictionary definitions. Characterize key words to paint the world in debate as you see it. Sometimes, in more complex debates, you may have to challenge other people’s definitions and show why they are not suitable for that debate.

Richard Dawkins used this model in the 2006 classic The God Delusion. Spending almost an entire chapter explaining what he meant by common concepts and words like delusion, religion, God, pantheism, deism and Darwinism. As a result, he created a formidable argument which wasn’t so easy to strawman.

If the greats are doing it, why wouldn't you?

2.The Birds-eye View

Screenshot for section 2: Birds eye view

After characterisation, you must add a brief intro into your version of the debate’s overall scope.

People listen to someone who relates to their feelings and understands the gravity of the issues at hand. If you want to convince them, you need to demonstrate these two to a satisfactory degree.

When covering this section, try using simple common descriptive words which people can easily understand. It won’t do you any good to use complex words which leave people wondering WTF you were saying.

Answer 2 of their questions:

  1. What exactly is being debated?

  2. Why should they care about it?

3. Build Your Propaganda Machine (Context/Fundamentals)

Screenshot for section 3:fundamentals

This section contains the future of the arguments you will make.

Section is for storytelling and adding context to the debate. If we are being honest, it is propaganda at its core.

Stories help people feel or make associative emotional connections with events and other people.

The narrative you create here will give your arguments relevance in the judges and audience’s minds. They are more likely to picture what you are saying and buy into your argument if there is a humane impactful story behind it. Ever noticed that judges on America’s Got Talent pay more attention to people with a moppy background story? – that same tactic can do wonders for you.

To get an edge over your opponent guide people’s emotions. Pack your story with emotions, agendas, worldviews which you want your audience to associate with. Load it with implicit suggestive nudges.

It goes without saying: Resist the temptation to lie or misrepresent facts. If you are caught in a lie, it will discredit everything you would have said.

Your story should beat your opponents in addressing these issues:

  1. What is the problem and how bad is it? – Are there any auxiliary issues related to the core problem?

  2. How did we get to this to this position? – Who or what is to blame?

  3. Who is being affected? – Play the numbers game where possible but be careful of neglecting minorities

  4. How are they affected? How did they react to previous attempts to solve their problem if there were any? Details, always add details

  5. Where and when action is needed? – Does your solution address the problem with the required urgency? If you are going radical, show the cost of inaction or weak action

Follow this link to download the Prep-sheet.

4. Strategy! Drawing the Battle Lines.

Screenshot of section 4: Strategy

Obviously, you can’t argue about everything but you will only need to contest the issues that are most relevant to your agenda.

This section of the prep-sheet gives you a laser sharp focus by forcing you to frame your case. As you advance, you will probably find more creative ways of doing it but for starters you can try this:

  • What are you and your opponent most likely to argue over?

  • What would you rather argue about instead?

  • What tactics can you apply to redirect their focus?

  1. Pick a battlefield that is most relevant to your goal, show why it’s the best and why your opponent should engage with you there.

  2. Dictate through explanation what needs to be proven and why. These are called push burdens. Use them to draw your opponent in your territory and beat them there.

For example, in a debate between an Atheist and a Christian, the Atheist may impose a burden and point of clash like this.

This debate is about creating an ideal framework for human morality. We appreciate the use of sources from good authority. If the Christian is to use the bible as an absolute source of morality, we feel they must first prove the existence of God. - the implied supreme source of the book. Without it, we have no reason to consider the bible because it can just be another work of fantasy written by humans, no different from Harry Potter or The Communist Manifesto.

See what just happened there? Push the argument over to things are meaningful to your agenda. You don't want to waste time on anything else.

Refer to Section 6 below on how to deal with a situation where your opponent has an equally good frame and has forced a burden on you.

In the next section, you add some technical momentum to your case.

5.Stance: The Battleplan

screenshot of section 5: Stance

At a higher level, debates can be very technical. If this happens, link this section with your story and context.

In technical debates, the burden is on you to demonstrate how your proposal works and to answer all key questions which may be asked by your opponent or audience.

  1. Are the goals you set realistic or you are chasing rainbows in your argument?

  2. How does your goal merge with your proposed mechanism?

  3. Why are you choosing to sacrifice certain things in your solution?

Addressing those issues gives you a chance to patch up your case. Add more details into your own solution’s limitations and offer methods of mitigating any of its epiphenomenal effects.

When debating policy, consider time and feasibility in your assessment of the immediate and long-term needs of the people involved. Don’t mind repeating yourself here. If something is important, its better to go over it again than to leave it to chance.

6.The Comparative

Screenshot for section 6: Comparative

A good debater should always be comparing and never speak in absolutes - unless if you are moralising about some obviously evil sh*t like rape and genocide.

In general, your proposal’s aim is to present the prospect of a better future over every other solution available. You are literally selling dreams. Your comparison therefore should paint a vivid picture of that dreamy future and the nightmare in the alternative.

Be careful of making a "false dilemma fallacy." This is where you present only two possible solutions and assume they are the only ones available.

A bit of scepticism and uncertainty in possibilities will work better than absolutes. Checkout this article on how to win debates by creating chaos and uncertainty.

Use comparative language over absolutes like this:

Bad: We will solve the problem of future civil wars and save lives if we conduct a military intervention with the support of the locals.

Good: We can reduce the likelihood of future civil wars and save more lives if we conduct a military intervention with the support of the locals than…….

If you speak in absolutes, the likelihood of your case collapsing catastrophically is very high.

A classic example is the collapse of classical Marxism mostly because Marx was sure that oppression was a product of accumulation of capital and applied his class-based collectivist thinking everywhere. But all the while he overlooked many factors like individual human aggressiveness which may have been the major reason behind the need to accumulate capital in the first place. The effects of his poor judgement resulted in extreme violence and millions of lives lost in almost every nation that has pursued a Marxist Revolution.

If you want to win, don’t be like Marx, make dynamic comparative arguments.


Follow this link to download the Prep-sheet.

Lastly, provide a quick summary of your case’s main highlights (things you want the judges to remember you by).

There are some who believe your opening and closing lines contribute more than 35% of what judges will consider in high impact speeches. You may want to play around with that system.

Whatever the case, always remember, without a proper structure, you probably wont do much in a debate.