3 – Rebuttals in Public Forum Debate


The second speech that each team delivers in a Public Forum debate is the Rebuttal, which is how the one side refutes the other side’s Constructive. For new debaters, this is often the most difficult speech, as they need to be able to come up with arguments to what they other side says. Constructive speeches are written out, and later speeches (Summary, Final Focus) use content from early speeches, leaving the Rebuttal as the speech where debaters need to create content “on the fly” against what the other side says.

Preparing the Rebuttal

There are two important tasks a debater must complete in order to deliver a strong Rebuttal.

Prepare in advance. Even the most advanced debaters are not going to be able to think of all the answers they need on the fly; they are going to have to prepare a set of arguments against arguments they can predict the other side making in advance. How do they do this? There are a number of ways. They should start by writing briefs that include responses to arguments that they make in their own Constructive speeches. They should also write out answers to arguments they have brainstormed, that are available in evidence briefs that are sold, and against arguments they hear about at tournaments. If debaters have blocks/briefs prepared against all of those arguments (we will talk about how to do that in other essays) they will be able to use a minimal amount of preparation time responding to the arguments they are hearing for the first time in their debates.

Flow. We will discuss flowing in another essay, but the basic idea of flowing is to take notes on the arguments your opponent is making in the debate. If you flow, you will have a good list of the other side’s arguments and you will be able to be sure you address them all.

Organizing The Rebuttal

The Rebuttal should be directed against the previous constructive. That sounds obvious, but I’ve seen debates where the second Rebuttalist directed at least the majority of their rebuttal against the first Rebuttalist. While it may be wise to spend some time answering some of the first Rebuttal if there is time at the end of the speech, and if responding to some of the Constructive arguments are likely to take more time than what is available in the Summary (the speeches that follow the Rebuttal), the Rebuttal should primarily be directed at the other side’s constructive speech.

There are two different approaches to organizing the Rebuttal speech. The first approach is to simply go point by point through the arguments made in the Constructive speech (hopefully in order). This is certainly one way to be an effective Rebuttal speaker, but another more efficient way is to group the major arguments, usually by Contention or advantage/disadvantage. For example, if the Pro has two primary arguments in support of the claim that missile defense is in North Korea’s best interest, the Rebuttal speaker can make a number of organized responses to each one. They may say , for example, “Group the debate about North Korea being a threat two South Korea,

One, nuclear deterrence prevents a North Korean attack

[insert short quote, paraphrase a piece of evidence, or simply offer some explanation and analysis]

Two, North Korea is only developing advanced weapons to deter an attack from the US

[insert short quote, paraphrase a piece of evidence, or simply offer some explanation and analysis]

Three, missile defense will not protect South Korea

[insert short quote, paraphrase a piece of evidence, or simply offer some explanation and analysis]

Four, the Pro’s evidence is not very good – it’s from an unqualified source and isn’t supported by any reasoning.

You might make additional arguments – these are just sample arguments that you may use in a Rebuttal speech.

As I judge, I prefer this approach because it is more efficient (it doesn’t require constantly referencing the other teams’ arguments) and because it helps keep the flow organized (yes, I realize I flow and that all judges do not flow). But, even for judges who do not flow, it may make sense to ­­have an organized list of arguments, as all judges prefer organized refutation. Also, it will make it easier to extend arguments (particularly dropped arguments!) in Summary and Final Focus.

The second approach to a Rebuttal speech is to go point by point through the Constructive speech. With this approach, the Rebuttal speaker would proceed in the following manner –

“My opponent argued that North Korea is a threat, but North Korea is not a threat because nuclear deterrence prevents a North Korean attack.”

[insert short quote, paraphrase a piece of evidence, or simply offer some explanation and analysis].

And, “North Korea is only developing advanced weapons to deter an attack from the US.”

[insert short quote, paraphrase a piece of evidence, or simply offer some explanation and analysis]

“My opponent then argued that missile defense would prevent an attack on Korea, but missile defense cannot defend Seoul because Seoul will be attacked by rockets and cannons, not missiles”

[insert short quote, paraphrase a piece of evidence, or simply offer some explanation and analysis]

This approach also works and it is a useful way to keep judges focused on particular arguments, but it is inefficient. Why is it inefficient? Because a good portion of the Rebuttalist’s speech time is spent continually referencing the other side’s arguments, leaving lest time for the Rebuttal speaker to make his or her own arguments.

Regardless of which approach to the Rebuttal that you choose, there are a couple of additional considerations to keep in mind.

Additional Considerations

Clear tag lines. A tag line is a simply summary of your argument. For example, “Fear of nuclear retaliation prevents North Korea from attacking South Korea.” Although your argument contain different types of support – evidence, reasoning, multiple warrants (warrants are essentially reasons) – the tag represents a clear and concise statement of your argument. If your judge is flowing, he or she will write down the tag line. And if they are not flowing, the judge will have something clear to remember and something that you can clearly reference in later speeches.

Use offensive arguments. A defensive argument claims that what the other side says is not true, and an offensive argument essentially says that the opposite of what they say is true. The argument that missile defense fails to intercept missiles is a defensive argument. An argument that missile defense undermines diplomacy and, therefore, increases the risk of conflict, is an offensive argument.. It is good to make a number of offensive arguments in the Rebuttal because it is very hard for the Summary speaker to cover all of the Rebuttal arguments in two minutes, and dropping an offensive argument is worse than dropping a defensive argument.

Moreover, it makes sense to make these arguments at the end of the Rebuttal because debaters are often “top heavy,” meaning that they spend a lot of time answering arguments at the beginning of their speeches and often do not cover/respond to arguments made by their opponents at the end of their speeches. This means that arguments made at the end of the speeches are often “dropped,” and since dropped arguments are considered to be automatically won by the other side, it is great to have an offensive argument dropped by the other side.

Address some of the other side’s rebuttal. Although most of the Rebuttal time should be spent respond to the other side’s Constructive speech, second Rebuttal speaker should spend a bit of their speech (the last 45 seconds to one minute) responding to the first rebuttal, simply because Summary speeches are really just too short and there isn’t a lot of time to cover arguments.

Use of evidence. I will write a longer, separate post on using evidence, but for now I will simply highlight that I think that debaters should, at the very least, read the part of the card/source that supports the central claim they are making. So, for example, if they want to argue that missile defense undermines diplomacy, they could use the highlighted part of the card below, reading the highlighted part and having the rest of the evidence available.

Karen Montague Research Assistant, George C. Marshall Institute, 2014, A Review of South Korean Missile Defense Programs, http://marshall.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/South-Korean-BMD-Mar-14.pdf

In 2006, the Republic of Korea (ROK) announced that it would create an indigenous missile defense system, the Korean Air and Missile Defense System (KAMD), to defend the country against a possible North Korean missile attack.1 It began by purchasing the PATRIOT PAC-2 missile defense system from Germany, and later it acquired several Aegis cruisers from the United States. In 2012, it purchased two Israeli-made Green Pine radars, and deployed them at the end of that same year.2 After the initial purchases, missile defense acquisitions slowed. As South Korean Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun appeared to prioritize the “Sunshine Policy,” set up by President Kim, which was meant to promote a harmonious relationship with the North. For missile defense efforts, this meant focusing on limited and deliberate expansion of capabilities and avoiding direct integration with ongoing U.S. missile defense efforts in the region

Use prep time. While Rebuttal speakers often try to avoid using preparation time to save it for later speeches, it is important to make sure that you have a strong rebuttal to the other side’s arguments for a number of reasons. One, you want to make an initial strong impression on the judge. Two, you should always answer an argument at the first opportunity or it may be considered to be dropped. Three, if you fail to make strong arguments early, you will struggle with prep time to find arguments that you need to make later.

Allocate argument quality. If you are using the approach I suggest above where you make a list of arguments in response to each contention, be sure to start and end with a very good argument. Why? Because you want to make an strong initial impression with the judge and also end on a good note.

Introduce weighing. We will cover weighing in another essay, but weighing is basically the idea of comparing arguments to establish why one is more important than another. If you introduce this in Rebuttal and the Summary speaker does not respond, you can point out in your Final Focus that you established the weighing early on and that your opponent didn’t respond to it


I think that the Rebuttal speech is the hardest speech in the debate for new debaters, but if debaters prepare in advance and flow, they will be able to deliver strong rebuttals. Those rebuttals will be even stronger if they are well-organized, are supported by evidence, and include offensive arguments. If debaters can initiate weighing, they can gain a strong upper hand over their opponents.