How to improve debating/arguing skills and general eloquence.
May 18, 2006 2:25 AM   Subscribe

How do i go about improving my arguing/debating skills?

Obviously i know that going to some debating club is an obvious answer but i dont feel confident enough with my current ability.

Since a child i have always lacked confidence when expressing myself. I found writing essays difficult and even sometimes when disscussing topics I would always end up saying "Oh whats that word" or worse end up waffling. Im also a non confrontational person which means i never had lots of opportunities to improve. I dont want to become better to win verbal fights. I just want to be able to express my opinions and feel and look confident when i do so.

Are there any good sites/books or excercises i should read or do?
posted by thegeezer3 to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Not that I do it all the time, by any means, but I've found that by trying to engage people with whom I disagree and who are smart and articulate here on this very site, at least in threads that don't devolve into shouting matches, my skills have increased. It's been years I've been doing it now, so I bloody hope so.

Also, I find that trying always to place all the value that I get from argument and discussion on the process rather than the output is helpful to focus my thoughts and skills.

(For me, mostly, unless I'm feeling stroppy) the purpose of dialogue is not to win (or shouldn't be) but to sharpen my own ideas -- trying as much as possible to keep this in mind helps a lot. If the other person just wants to 'win', either disengage or redirect them through humour or kindness or whatever towards a more playful (in the larger sense) attitude. Non-zero-sum.

Or just curse 'em out. That's fun too, sometimes.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 2:54 AM on May 18, 2006

Accuse your opponent of "begging the question." Works every time. That, and the comparing them to Hitler thing.
posted by StickyCarpet at 3:18 AM on May 18, 2006

I like Schopenhauer's 38 rules of argument.

Short version, long version. Just about every strategy you could want is there.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 3:27 AM on May 18, 2006 [4 favorites]

What's single-handedly improved my skills over the years is visiting a forum with a Discussion section. It means topical debates at a fairly consistent rate, and you can learn easily by example.
posted by Lockeownzj00 at 4:38 AM on May 18, 2006

One thing not to do: don't waste your time arguing online with idiots. If someone is making good points and playing by the rules, keep going. If a discussion devolves into a shouting match (as stavros describes it), just stop participating in that discussion or, if you have to stay in, do not respond to the shouters and insulters. Flag their insults (if there's such an option) and move on. Save your energy for decent discussions.

To learn real footwork, maybe you can also participate in mock debates with friends. In other words, have a few drinks and argue about something. That's always fun, as long as no one gets mean. You might even agree to argue opposing positions on something about which you don't really disagree, just for fun. "Hey, tonight I get to be the rich conservative anti-immigrant white guy who secretly can't stand non-whites!"
posted by pracowity at 5:05 AM on May 18, 2006

I just want to be able to express my opinions and feel and look confident when i do so.

My impression is that you want to hone your abilities of conversation, discussion and perhaps critical thinking, not so much argument per se. Here are some ideas

Looking and feeling confident in an argument extends from having a good knowledge of the subject at hand (that, or bullshitting). If you have spent time weighing different opinions and investigating their underlying logic and motives, you will feel more comfortable debating them.

You could practice by reading about current affairs or other issues with various points of view, and try to assess the merits of the arguments. I enjoy reading a daily newspaper for similar purposes.

Perhaps you could engage your friends in discussion about some issue that you or they have strong opinions on, and attempt to probe their logic, though in a friendly, exploratory manner rather than adversarial.

You can engage in thought-experiments - examine familiar, perhaps common or ubiquitous ideas and imagine how they might be argued against.

Pick up an introduction to philosophy and philosophical thinking. I hear sophie's world recommended a lot, but I haven't read it myself.

And maybe watch some law movies for kicks.
posted by MetaMonkey at 5:22 AM on May 18, 2006

You might try Toastmasters - the practice with public speaking and more to the point in your case, table topics, which are short, impromptu speeches on a topic you're given just before you speak, would help you learn to lay out your arguments and think on the fly. They're very welcoming of new people, and unlike a debate club where people who are interested might be assumed to already have some level of public speaking and rhetorical skill, Toastmasters expects that a lot of its new members will barely be able to stand up and say hello.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:37 AM on May 18, 2006

Try taking the opposite side in a debate. You should be able to argue more dispassionately, which may help. It will also make you more empathetic with other people's positions. It should also help you recognize and distinguish 1) what you believe from 2) what is true and 3) what you can prove.
posted by zanni at 6:50 AM on May 18, 2006

For me, I've been finding that practice makes perfect.

I've been doing computer presentations around the community for various open sources groups and whatnot. While I really sucked at it the first time out, now that I've done a bunch, it's getting easier to express myself in a big group like that. Fun even.
posted by ph00dz at 6:50 AM on May 18, 2006

Do you have a friend who you consider a good debater? Talk more with that friend. Discuss issues of the day. After he/she has demolished you, play it back in your head and figure out how.

Read the Economist. You'll feel better informed. It's very well-written, and has very explicit biases, which make it easier to "argue back."

Go get into discussions at

Disagreements need not be confrontational (in the sense of making you uncomfortable, I think). If anything, debates generally start going south as soon as they get heated. You can challenge an assertion (or be challenged) without making it personal.
posted by adamrice at 8:47 AM on May 18, 2006

It sounds to me that the problem is almost entirely about being comfortable expressing yourself. This is a very different skill than debating. I have done years of formal debating and I can tell you that formal debating is not about expressing yourself--it is an intellectual game with its own rules and it is much more about winning than exchanging ideas. Informal debating is too, but to a lesser extent.

Do toastmasters or take a class in public speaking. The only way to become comfortable speaking is to practice.

If there is an area that you are particularly interested in talking about, study it so that you are confident with your knowledge. That will translate into speaking confidence.

Also, I disagree with those that suggest getting into online debates. The quality of communication there is low (because of the limits of text, not necessarily because people are stupid) and if you are unconfident it is going to be tough on you when people, under the veil of anonymity write, 'You're an idiot!" People are much nastier online and over email than they would be to your face.
posted by underwater at 9:08 AM on May 18, 2006

Master the fundamental principles of logic. Symbolic logic is an excellent starting point for understanding argument.
posted by GIRLesq at 3:23 PM on May 18, 2006

To learn real footwork, maybe you can also participate in mock debates with friends. In other words, have a few drinks and argue about something.

In this vein, you could always go buy the "board" game Apples to Apples. It basically consists of arguing against the other players in favor of ridiculous things. It's actually super fun and requires a lot of creative thinking, and when played with friends I find it a really good venue for improving my debate skills without any of the pressure of arguing about something that's actually important to you.
posted by granted at 8:08 PM on May 18, 2006

Bananafish also recommends toastmasters.
posted by jewzilla at 9:51 PM on May 18, 2006

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