The Art of Persuasion
By Carolyn Drinkard
When some people hear the word “debate,” they may think “stuffy” or even “boring.” However, across the country, debate teams are putting a new spin on this iconic activity.
In Southeast Alabama, the Wiregrass 4-H Debate Club has renewed interest in this age-old art of persuasion. Doug Summerford is the leader of this club that includes students in both Houston and Henry counties. In 2016, Summerford felt his 4-H'ers would benefit from a debate club. Targeting students in grades 6-12, Summerford’s goal was to help his students develop leadership and public-speaking abilities, while acquiring life skills needed for the job market. To spark interest, he found a way to make debating fun and entertaining.
At first, the club attracted only students in grades 8-12; however, as time has passed, more middle-school students are joining.
“Debating is very procedural,” Summerford explained. “It takes time for the kids to learn the rules, but once they learn the techniques and get into it, they really enjoy it.”
A debate is just an argument with rules. The number of participants determines the format. For example, debate formats can be 3-on-3, 2-on-2, 1-on-1 or a single moderator. At a typical debate, students hear the topic and take positions (proposition or opposition). Then the teams discuss their topics and come up with statements, all done in a set amount of time. Each team member has a distinctive speaking role in offering the burden of proof. Students then discuss all arguments and come up with rebuttals. Finally, teams deliver their rebuttals and make their closing statements.
One of the most exciting parts of the debate is when an opposing team member briefly interrupts a speaker to offer a point of information in either a question or a statement. Another counter technique is “heckling,” using a witty one- or two-word remark or slap on the table to take a jab at an opponent. POIs and heckling can morph a regular debate into a great 4-H debate, making it challenging and exciting for not only the debaters but also for the judges and the audience.
Debating demands participants concentrate, know the points they want to make and keep on track.
“Debating trains kids to focus,” Summerford said. “It is trying to draw the opposing team off and knock them out of their game. These kids learn procedures and civility. They have to follow the rules, or they lose points.”
Abbie Taylor, a sophomore at Headland High School and member of the 4-H Debate Club, added, “My favorite part is learning both sides of an argument and the factual elements. I also enjoy sharing my opinion on topics that I am passionate about.”
Parent and volunteer Anne Taylor believes debate club participation teaches students to think for themselves.
“It enables students to become free thinkers who are open to opposing viewpoints and perspectives,’ she said. “Not only does debate encourage and develop research skills but it also allows students to develop self-confidence while improving public-speaking skills. These are lifelong skills, and I am thrilled that my daughter has the opportunity to participate in this wonderful 4-H Debate Club!”
Always on the lookout for leadership opportunities, Summerford encourages his students to get into other public-speaking contests and to participate in community-service projects. Each year, his Wiregrass Club members help in an event at Landmark Park.
“This activity provides a great leadership opportunity,” he stated. “The kids go out there and help with the 4-H exhibits. These students are there to be the face of 4-H to the public. It also satisfies the community-service component of their club membership.”
The Wiregrass Debate Club may be in its embryonic stage now, but Summerford sees a bright future ahead. He hopes to get debating into the schools, so students, who are truly interested, can participate. Currently, the Wiregrass 4-H Debate Club members compete only against each other. Summerford also hopes to initiate competitions on the state level, so that, in the future, students could compete outside their home schools. He has already presented programs across Alabama to introduce the joy of debating.
“These students are learning valuable life skills that they can use in the workforce,” he said. “They take on a challenge and work as a team to listen carefully, take notes, think critically, organize their thoughts, plan strategically, speak coherently and communicate effectively. They gain self-confidence and independence, but, most importantly, they have fun and make lasting friendships. When I see them use their persuasive tactics with their friends at school, I know they have learned something.”