[UPDATE: Broken link to my presentation fixed.]

The annual Cato-Heritage intern debate on Libertarianism versus Conservatism is scheduled for July 23, 2015.  Today I visited Cato to provide debate training, so yesterday I had to figure out what I actually know about debating.

My first thought: Winning isn’t everything.  Many sleazy debating tactics are effective, especially with broader audiences.

  • appeals to emotion
  • changing the subject
  • ad hominem attacks
  • making persuasive arguments you know to be false or overstated

That, of course, is why televised political debates are godawful.

My real goal, then, isn’t to teach debaters how to win, but how to deserve to win.  There’s a correlation between winning and deserving to win, but it’s far from perfect.  In the end, I distilled seven big principles from my experience.  The first three focus on substance, the latter four on style/strategy.


1. Become broadly knowledgeable about the subject under

2. Speak literal truth.

3. Defend your actual views with your actual arguments.


4. Know your time limit.

5. Know who you’re really addressing: undecided audience members.

6. Talk to your opponent like he’s your best friend.

7. [If there’s before-and-after voting]

Make sure the audience clearly grasps the issue before the first vote.

Detailed presentation here.

P.S. I briefly considered waiting to publish this until after the debate, but I’m more interested in raising the level of the debate than giving Cato an edge.  If both sides spend the next two weeks reading the other sides’ favorite authors, then bend over backwards to be friendly on July 23, I’ll be deeply pleased.