Public Speaking & Debate: The Differences & How They Help Each Other

Two men in suits facing each other

In today’s world, where effective communication paves the way for many great opportunities in the realm of professional and personal life, public speaking and debating skills are assets that add value to an individual’s overall persona.

To acquire more knowledge about public speaking and debate, it is essential to first have a holistic understanding of what they are and how they differ from each other.

Public speaking is a process of strategically communicating structured and purposeful information to an audience to inform, entertain or create influence. Debate, on the other hand, refers to a formal discourse between two individuals or teams with opposing viewpoints on a given topic.

The primary differences between public speaking and debate are in the matter that they present, the manner in which they are presented, and the method that they undertake to present their matter. 

Before we move on to delve into the differences between public speaking and debate, we need to go over a few more things about both these topics to better understand the differences between them and how they help each other. Hence, let’s take a look at the types of public speaking and debate.

Types of Public Speaking

a group of business professionals in a public speaking session

Public speaking ranges from speaking at a funeral in front of friends and family to giving a TED talk in an auditorium packed with a thousand people. So it becomes all the more helpful to know the different types of public speaking and narrow them down to the ones that interest you. 

There are mainly four types of public speaking and these are – ceremonial, informational, persuasive, demonstrative

Ceremonial – Speaking to Entertain

raising a toast at a wedding

Nearly all of us will give a ceremonial speech at some point in our lives. As these speeches mark special occasions, they are given at weddings, funerals, retirement parties, graduations, etc. 

For these kinds of speaking occasions, it is useful to add a personal touch by bringing in personal stories and recalling events about the celebrant.

Informational – Speaking to Inform

These speeches aim to impart knowledge about a given topic or issue. Examples include seminars, industry conferences, business/ class presentations, informative speeches, etc. Here it is important to make the transfer of information from the speaker to the listener as comprehensible as possible.

If you are preparing to deliver an informational speech, make sure you have done adequate research on your topic – this helps to gain credibility as a speaker. Keep in mind to keep your information precise and to the point, because your success depends on how much your audience could understand from your speech. 

Demonstrative – Speaking to Show

a public speaker demonstrating an activity to his audience

A demonstrative speech does exactly what you think it does. It demonstrates. It teaches the audience to do a particular thing by taking them along every step in the process and providing explanations wherever necessary. 

Some examples of demonstrative speaking are science demonstrations and speeches on topics like how to sleep correctly or how to reduce your blood pressure, how to prepare for an interview, and so on. We wrote an article on Demonstrative speeches. If you want to know more about them, check it out!

Persuasive – Speaking to Persuade/Actuate

The best example of persuasive speaking by far is Martin Luther King Jr’s speech “I Have A Dream”. This type of speaking is characterized by smart use of voice inflections paired with emotional appeal and rhetorically crafted language that is effective in convincing the audience. 

These speeches aim to influence and change opinions according to that of the speaker and hence are used by politicians to garner votes, clergymen, or sales and marketing people to create a buzz around their products.

Types of Debates

a debater speaking with vigor

Debates are held in different scenarios. You might be required to debate over a topic like Is climate change real for one of your school projects in the classrooms, or there might be a debate in town halls relating to the passing of certain bills, or in parliamentary houses, etc. 

Although the formats of debates vary according to the time limit and the sequence followed, generally, these are the four types of debates that are commonly used – the Rebuttal debate, the One-Rebuttal debate, the Lincoln-Douglas debate, and the Oregon-Oxford debate.

The Rebuttal Debate

This debate consists of two teams- affirmative(for) and negative(against), each of which is composed of two or three members. The debate starts with the speaker from the affirmative team giving the speech, followed by the speaker from the negative team giving the rebuttal. 

Here, every speaker can deliver a rebuttal speech, and the debate is closed when the speaker from the affirmative side delivers the last rebuttal.

The One-Rebuttal Debate

This debate type is similar to the Lincoln-Douglas debate, however, it consists of two or three members on both sides. 

All speakers, except the first affirmative speaker, are allowed the chance to disprove the opponent’s argument. The first affirmative speaker gets to close the debate in their rebuttal speech.

The Lincoln-Douglas Debate

two men speaking to each other

Also known as the two-men debate, this style of debating got its name after a series of famous debates between U.S. Senate candidates Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.

This type of debate lasts for about 45 minutes and involves the speaker making a case, followed by cross-examination and a short rebuttal (meaning to convince the audience why the opposition’s argument is wrong)  session. The debate ends with a final rebuttal. 

This is one of the most structured debating types and is widely used by high school and college debating societies.

The Oregon-Oxford/Cross-examination Debate

The Oregon-Oxford debate also has two-three speakers on both sides. The first speaker goes on to deliver the entire affirmative case and is then intervened or cross-examined by the first speaker from the negative side. 

The same goes on the other hand where the first speaker from the negative side presents their full case and is then intervened by the second or first affirmative speaker. There is no cross-examination after each rebuttal speech.

Differences between Public Speaking and Debate

a group of men involved in a discourse.
Public Speaking Debate
Matter Can talk about ideas that are in favor or against the topic that they are presenting.Can only talk about their viewpoint but requires research on both viewpoints for framing better arguments.
MannerThe nature of public speaking is controlled.The nature of debating is combative.
MethodFocuses on merely voicing the speaker’s view.Debating takes an argumentative approach.

Let’s take a deeper look into the primary differences between public speaking and debate.


Public speaking requires the presenter to be thorough with all information on their topic. Hence, they can also talk about ideas that are in favor or against the topic that they are presenting. 

On the contrary, the matter in debating requires one party to research not only the information relating to their viewpoint but also that relating to their opponent’s viewpoint.

1. Purpose

The purpose of public speaking is to educate, entertain or persuade people. A public speaking activity like interview coaching aims to educate whereas a political campaign by Barack Obama aims at persuading people to vote for him. 

While debating can also educate and entertain its listeners, its primary purpose is to persuade them along a way of thinking. 

2. Content

a work desk with a laptop and a coffee mug on it as a person takes down notes in a notebook

When it comes to public speaking, the purpose of that public speaking activity defines the content. This is because a speech is most effective when it is written keeping in mind the audience that it is to be presented to. Its content may vary according to the occasion and the idea that the speaker wishes to share.

The contributor of content in public speaking could be just the speaker or someone else. For instance, the speaker may take inputs from a family member if they are to write a eulogy.

The topic around which the content of a debate is structured is usually one that gives rise to two opinions. For example, Dress Code In Schools. To successfully persuade, the team of debaters has to research not only their viewpoint but also the views of their opponent, so that they can target their weak points and develop content that places them in a favorable position. 


In public speaking, the speaker presents their view calmly, without asserting why their view should be the prevailing one and without feeling the need to outweigh the view of another person. 

Whereas, the nature of debating is combative, as one speaker is determined to enforce their viewpoint as the right one and is ever ready to defend their views.

1. Speakers

Giving a speech, which is a public speaking activity, is an individual sport. It is carried out by a speaker who presents to an audience. 

Debating is generally a team sport. (except in the case of the Lincoln-Doughlas type) It involves two sets of people who present for and against the topic. Though each member is required to give a speech, they are a part of the team having the same view.

2. Delivering the Message

a girl talking to a group

In public speaking, the individual speaker aims to simply deliver their prepared message in one go. While they aim to influence their listeners, whether or not the audience agrees to their views does not affect their message or its delivery.

A debate is delivered by two teams. The structure of delivery of both teams changes according to the type of debate. The members presenting in a debate operate with a formal style of arguing.


Public speaking focuses on merely voicing the speaker’s view and the details relating to that view. 

Debating, however, takes an argumentative approach wherein both parties are involved in a combative discourse to prove their respective point.

1. Audience Participation 

audience enjoying the talk

For the majority of public speaking, the audience usually plays a passive role while a speaker is delivering a speech. However, they might be invited to answer questions, volunteer in an activity conducted by the speaker, or participate in a question-answer round that follows a speech. 

The audience in a debate normally engages in verbal reactions like applause, boos, cheers, or laughter as the speakers are presenting or after every rebuttal. Though they may take sides, the audience usually doesn’t actively participate.

2. Outcomes

While both public speaking and debate result in enlightening the audience on a given topic, how they achieve this is different.

A speech usually follows the speaker’s point of view and a debate has two points of view and the outcome decides which one prevails.

Does Debate Help with Public Speaking?

Debating is a life skill you endow people with. For those who embrace it by working hard, in exchange, they acquire a voice that is hard to silence.

-Lucinda David, TEDxLundUniversity

When you think of a debater, you think of someone who’s confident, knowledgeable, skilled at articulating their thoughts well and has a great command over their speech. Aren’t all of these skills that help you improve at public speaking too?

Debating is a great way to improve public speaking. Sure, it does seem daunting at first. But with enough training and constant interest, it is as much of a learnable skill as skating. These are some ways in which it helps with public speaking:

Builds Confidence

To give a speech to a group of people and go back to your seat is one thing. To present your view on a topic and then argue with those that think differently about it, while having an audience judging you from their seats, is a whole other thing. 

It is something that requires immense self-confidence. Debating requires you to research extensively and then defend your views, hence, preparation is key. And a well-prepared debater already feels confident about his stance. 

This confidence might help you in other areas of your life like shining at work presentations or even talking confidently on a date!

Polish Communication Skills

Taking part in debates helps in polishing skills that are essential in public speaking and day-to-day life. These include skills like:

Rhetoric: the art of persuasive speaking

Eloquence: the art of speaking correctly and effectively.

Eristic: the art of arguing

Debating makes you realize the role that vocal variety plays in good communication – changing speed, volume, and tone will be tools that you will be able to readily incorporate in your everyday life.

These skills prove to be useful in various areas of life. For example, being good at rhetorics may assist you to negotiate your salary expectations during a job interview.

Critical Thinking 

a toy of Albert Einstein signifying critical thinking

Debating helps you to sharpen your critical thinking skills – these include the ability to produce well-thought-out and logical arguments as well as questioning a given stance. It helps to awaken your curiosity and be open to consuming new ideas but also question and approach them in analytical ways.

You might not be debating at a competition every day, but if you engage in dinner-table arguments every other day, chances are, debating can help you there too! This is because you will have learned the difference between quarreling and formally arguing and hence, will be able to defuse an escalating situation.

Articulated Thoughts

Ever been in a situation where your words sounded perfect in your head but the minute they came out of your mouth, it was all a mess? 

Well, debating can help you to articulate your thoughts well enough so that you can explain a variety of topics without having to first think each word through in your head. It will help you communicate your thoughts with as much clarity as possible.

As Lucinda David remarks in her Ted talk, 

Debating gives people voices. It helps people master the physical and mental parts of speaking. So that when it’s time to speak up for yourself you will know what to say, how to say it and at the precise time you need to say it.

Think on your Feet

Many debating competitions present topics on the spot and require debaters to give impromptu speeches and argue for their cause within a limited time frame. Things like these help you to know the answers to questions that your opponents ask, or to identify loopholes in their arguments without wasting time and hesitating.

Consider how helpful this might be in a Stress interview where you are to answer challenging questions under stressful circumstances.

Broaden Your Horizon

Debating not only gives you the knowledge and perspectives on a ton of topics but also helps you expand your social networks. It helps you to inculcate empathy while debating – to understand the views of others and to agree to disagree.

Being in touch with several social and political topics will help you be aware and connect and relate better with others.

To Sum It Up

There might be a ton of differences between Public speaking and Debate. But when it comes to making an impact, they go hand in hand. Far from what is the notion, both these are skills that can be learned through consistent practice.

The benefits of these skills go way past their professional spaces, into the day-to-day conversations that we engage in and their impact is life-changing when undertaken with sincerity.

Satya Khurana, a nationally ranked high school debater says it best,

Speech and debate is so much more than a competition. It’s about sharing a passion and helping people see from other perspectives.

It’s about igniting change through words.

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