Intro to Debate

Objective: To understand the formal “claim/warrant/impact” structure of an argument.

So what are the fundamentals of debate? No matter whether you do PF, LD, CX, or congress, they are the same across every format. In fact, these skills are foundational to any attempt at persuasive communication. These basic steps to making an argument are referred to as CLAIM, WARRANT, and IMPACT/DATA.

CLAIM: As its name implies, a claim is a statement you are advancing as true. If you are reading evidence, your claim is usually summarized in the card’s tag (or it should be!). Even when you’re not reading evidence, a claim is any declarative statement that you are trying to establish as true within the debate.

So, if you are debating about immigration reform, and your strategy for the debate requires you to win that immigration reform is good because it improves the economy, your claim is simply “immigration reform is good because it improves the economy.”

WARRANT: This is where the magic happens. Warrants are what you use to create legitimacy for your claims. They are the reasons why the claim is true. You should dedicate a substantial amount of your time to debating about warrants.

Warrants can be just about anything, as long as they’re arguments that support the accuracy of the claim. The more specific the explanation is, the better off you will be. For example, if you want to support the claim that “immigration reform is good for the economy,” you could say:

  • Immigrants provide a necessary labor force to produce needed goods
  • Immigrants pay taxes, resulting in more net revenue for the government
  • Immigrants open businesses and make investments, increasing jobs
  • Immigrants compensate for Baby Boomers leaving the workforce and keep entitlement programs solvent
  • …or plenty of other reasons

Warrants are almost always better if they are supported by a piece of evidence. However, this does not mean that your explanation of the warrant should be just saying a phrase like “according to my evidence.” Instead, find out what your evidence says, and then expand upon those arguments in your speech! Your performance will improve dramatically if you make yourself a commitment to never reference your cards without explaining exactly what they say.

You should also answer your opponents’ warrants, and compare them to yours. Why should the judge prefer yours? Is your evidence newer, or from a more reliable source? Is it comparative—that is, does it directly answer questions raised by your opponents’ arguments? Does it make more sense contextually? There are a million reasons you could use to convince your judge to prefer your warrants over your opponents’. But you have to make these in your speeches! Again, the vast majority of a good debate will be about the warrants: why should we believe X is true instead of Y?

IMPACT/DATA: The impacts are why someone should care about your argument. Why is this point important? What does winning it get you in the context of the rest of the debate? How does it interact with other considerations that might also be important?

For example, in our hypothetical debate about immigration reform, you would say “immigration reform is good because it improves the economy,” articulate one or more reasons why we believe this is true, and then explain why having a strong, growing economy is important. CX debaters might say “economic downturn leads to nuclear war; that causes extinction.” LDers might say economic liberty is fundamental to respect for human rights. In PF, you might simply want to explain that economic growth prevents poverty and improves quality of life. Exactly why economic growth is important is up to you, but make sure you have a reason. That’s your impact. Don’t forget that your impacts themselves must also contain warrants (reasons why your description of the impact is believable).

Remember that most debates are somewhat close. You will not always be able to win every point. Instead, you have to carve out your path to victory by assuming you will be behind on some questions, but explaining why the things you are winning are more important than the things you are losing. Impacts are what allow you to do this. Like warrants, you should always be comparing yours to those of your opponent and explaining a decision calculus that would lead the judge to vote for you.

Impacts connect small pieces of the debate to the broader picture. They help us decide what decision is best.  Failing to dedicate some energy to your impacts will often result in judges who say things like “I agree you won X, but I’m not sure what to do with that argument.” If you’re hearing phrases like that, you can correct the problem by always making an effort to explain why each individual argument matters, and why they outweigh those of your opponents.

Each of these three steps (CLAIM, WARRANT, IMPACT) should be included in every argument you make in a debate. Remember, nothing should escape your lips without you considering and articulating WHAT you are claiming, HOW we know it is true, and WHY the judge should care. This will make sure your arguments are always fully-developed, your judge understands them, and they earn you maximum clout in the debate.  If you hold yourself to always going through all three steps when creating an argument, it will quickly become second nature. You won’t believe how much your win-loss record will improve once you master these basic fundamentals.

Consider this: you and a friend are arguing about what to have for lunch. You want salad, and she wants pizza. How would you approach this conversation? Chances are, you would not just stand there screaming “PIZZA!” “NO, SALAD!” back and forth for an hour. Instead, you would advance reasons for preferring one over the other. You might say “We should have salad, because salad is much healthier, and we will both feel better all day if we eat a healthy meal.” If you’ve been paying attention, you should see how that statement already contains a claim, warrant, and impact. Similarly, in a debate you should never answer an opponents’ argument by simply re-reading a tag or rearticulating a claim. When you do that, you aren’t really debating. You’re more like screaming. So make sure that every time you say something, that statement contains all three pieces of a well-developed argument: claim, warrant, and impact.

Now get out there, craft some arguments, and don’t forget to keep those fundamentals tight!


Some people think that “engaging in argument” means being mad at someone. That’s one use of the word “argument.” In debate we use a far different meaning of the term. In some ways though, making an argument in debate is the opposite of being mad at someone. It means making claims based on logical reasoning and proof.

There are three parts to an argument in debate: the claim, the data, and the warrant. These terms seem kind of formal, and they are. But whether you know it or not, solid  arguments that you make every day are based on these concepts.

Here is an example of an argument: “Team X will win the basketball game against Team Y
because Team X has taller players than Team Y.”

  • The “claim” is the bottom line conclusion of the argument – namely in this example that “Team X will win the basketball game.”
  • The “warrant” is the reasoning behind the claim. In this example the reasoning is that the taller team will win the basketball game.
  • The “impact/data” are the facts used to support the warrant. In this example the data is that Team X is taller than Team Y.

Here is another example of an argument. “The death penalty should be abolished because
innocent people are killed.”

  • The claim is that “the death penalty should be abolished.”
  • The warrant is that any  policy that results in innocent people being killed should be ended.
  • The impact/data is that innocent people are killed by the death penalty.

Claims without reasoning are very weak arguments. Some might say it isn’t even an argument at all. The more warrants, or reasoning, that a claim has the stronger it is generally speaking.

Sometimes the data might be statistics sometimes it might be an expert opinion. For example, the argument “I saw that movie got ‘two thumbs up’ so we should go and see it”
uses the expert opinion as the data for the claim. The claim is that we should go see the movie.

The warrant is that movies that receive two thumbs up are worth seeing. The data would be that the movie did, in fact, receive a review of “two thumbs up.” This reasoning is based on an appeal to the expertise of the reviewers, and little more.

So, that’s an argument. Claim-Warrant-Data. Debate is based on competing arguments. Each team offers arguments that they defend, and they attack the arguments of their opponents. Research provides the data and warrants for defending and attacking arguments.

There are many ways to attack an argument. You could challenge the factual basis of the
claim. In the first example, perhaps Team Y was in fact taller than Team X. In the second
example you could prove that there has never been an innocent person executed in the U.S. Another way to go would be to attack the reasoning/warrant. In the first example you could point out that the taller team does not always win basketball games. You could find examples of games that were not won by the taller team. You could say that other factors such as shooting ability, experience, effort, and coaching might be equally or more important factors in winning.

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