Turn a Panel Discussion into a Debate Using this Classic Debate Format

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Everyone loves a good debate -especially if there is a strong sense of an even-handed process facilitated by a skilled moderator, there are opportunities for the audience to get involved in the conversation, AND that they get to vote as to who wins!

So let’s take a page from the classic Oxford Union debate format and make it work in a panel discussion:

1. Opening remarks. The panel moderator opens with a few words about the topic, process and voting procedures.  The moderator will then introduce the panelists by name and with a short one or two-line introduction, which can be either humorous or serious.  The moderator then calls on the first panelist to begin the debate.

2. First panelist speaks for the proposition for a predetermined period of time (I suggest no more than 4 minutes).

3.  The moderator thanks the first panelist and calls upon the next panelist.

4.  The second panelist speaks for the opposition for a predetermined time.

5.  The moderator thanks the panelist and then opens the debate from the floor.  This is the opportunity for the audience to join in the debate. A certain amount of time will be allocated to this and each speech will be limited to an agreed maximum length of time.

6.  The moderator ends the floor debate and calls upon the next panelist.

7. The third panelist speaks for the proposition for a predetermined period of time.

8.  The moderator thanks the third panelist and calls upon the next panelist.

6. The fourth panelist speaks for the opposition for a predetermined period of time.

7.  The moderator thanks the panelist and calls for rebuttal remarks for a predetermined amount of time (typically half of the length of the first round of remarks – if at all.  This is an optional step!).  Typically, the rebuttals are made by the first and second panelists.

8.  The moderator then calls an end to the debate and calls for the voting to begin.

9. Audience votes by a show of hands or another polling procedure.

Sounds pretty simple….as long as you follow the structure without being too draconian!  Oh, and there are a few other tidbits you need to be aware of:

The audience may only interrupt your speech using a Point of Information or a Point of Order.

  • Point of Information: An audience member wants to clarify or question a piece of information raised by the panelist, and not to express an opinion. Here’s the kicker: The panelist can choose to accept or refuse a point of information! Answering a few makes things a little more lively and interactive, but taking too many may interrupt the flow of your arguments.
  • Point of Order: An audience member wants to draw attention to an alleged violation or breach of the panel’s rules of order (set by the moderator at the beginning).  Like the Point of Information, the panelist must give way to a point of order.

Finally, keep in mind that the goal of the debate is to inform AND to win the votes of the audience.  This involves more than making the best logical arguments. A few well-placed jokes, anecdotes and flat out pandering to the audience can often win votes and make it more interesting to attend!

Related Articles:

27 Popular Panel Discussion Formats

How to Create GREAT Questions for Your Panelists to Answer during Your Panel Discussion

“Turn the Tables” in a Debate-Style Panel Discussion Format

Kristin Arnold, professional panel moderator and high-stakes meeting facilitator, shares her best practices for interactive, interesting, and engaging panel presentations. For more resources like this, or to have Kristin moderate your next panel visit the Powerful Panels official website.


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Kristin ArnoldKristin Arnold
KRISTIN ARNOLD, MBA, CSP, CPF|Master has been facilitating meaningful conversations between executives and managers to make better decisions and achieve extraordinary results for 25+ years. She's a leading authority on moderating panel discussions and passionate about finding the perfect olive to complement a vodka martini.
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