We’ve all heard the terms before: a speech and a debate. Some people get confused about the concepts because, well, they’re pretty similar. Some even use them interchangeably. But the question is this: are they really the same thing? Is there a difference between a speech and a debate?

The thing is, a debate is always a speech but a speech isn’t necessarily a debate. If it sounds confusing (and it does), that’s because the differences between the two terms aren’t as obvious as the similarities. It’s important for us to know the differences, though, so we know how we can prepare should we get invited to such speaking engagements. 

That said, what’s the difference between a speech and a debate? But before we answer that,  let’s look at what each of these two concepts are:

What Is a Speech?

A speech is any expression of ideas and thoughts made by one person. When a teacher stands in front of her or his class, he or she makes a speech about the subject matter for the day. When a business executive addresses employees in a meeting, he or she also makes a speech.

Even when you face a mirror and you make a monologue, you’re actually also making a speech. A speech, in essence, is an overarching term that refers to all expressions of ideas.

So, does that mean a person who tells someone “I’m great” is already making a speech? Not really. One-liners are not speeches because there’s one other element that expressions of ideas and thoughts need to have for them to be considered as speeches: structure.

The expression of ideas needs to be sufficiently long (or short) to accommodate a speech’s basic structure consisting of a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The speaker needs to put some thought into each of these parts to be effective, too. In fact, this is such a must that some speakers, like Vanessa Van Edwards, for instance, author of the bestselling book “Captivate: The Science of Succeeding With People,” have devoted some time to discussing what works for each part and what doesn’t. Take a look at her video below on the best (and worst) speech openers, in particular:

There is, however, no specific number of minutes that makes one expression of ideas qualify as a speech. According to Time to Market, the ideal speech length is 20 to 40 minutes. Anything more than that, Time to Market says, and you’ll lose your audience.

Speaking of audience, contrary to popular perception, speeches don’t necessarily always have to have an audience. Monologues, for instance, are still considered speeches. When you speak before a mirror, for as long as what you say has that basic structure, you’re considered to be making a speech as well.

Speeches have another critical characteristic, and that’s that they need to be goal-specific. The aim of the speaker in making a speech can vary. It can be to persuade, to inform, or even just to externalize those internal thoughts, as in the case of a monologue. Speeches cannot exist without goals.

What Is a Debate?

A debate is also a formal presentation of ideas. Unlike speeches, though, debates require a minimum of two people for the presentation of ideas to be considered a debate. A debate, after all, necessarily has at least two opposing sides.

In formal debates, there’s even a third person who serves as the moderator, and a fourth (or even a fifth, sixth, and seventh) who serves as the judge.

In the literal sense of the term, a debate doesn’t require an audience except for the two (or more) people involved in the debate.

Let me explain. 

If you tell your friend X car is better than Y, but your friend disagrees, and you start putting forward your arguments for X car while your friend starts to put forward her or his arguments for Y car, then, in theory, you two are already having a debate. The mere fact you’re both arguing your sides is sufficient for your conversation to be classified as such.

Debates, of course, also need to follow a structure. That’s a given. Since the main goal in debates is to persuade the other side (or in a formal debate, to persuade the judge or judges, too), they can’t be structureless. In fact, this structure can be considered complex.

According to George Mccoy Musgrave, author of the book “Competitive Debates: Rules and Strategy”, each of the teams involved in a formal debate should make two to three constructive statements, and two to three rebuttal statements. Each of those statements should have their own specific structure.

For instance, according to Purdue, a rebuttal statement should contain the following: the opponent’s argument, your position, and your refutation.

In an informal debate, well, the structure is less complicated, but it’s still there. There should be a premise, supporting arguments, and a conclusion for each argument put forward. That’s the only way you can persuade your friend and win him or her over to your side.

Similarities Between a Speech and a Debate

Based on what we discussed, then, we can discern some similarities between a speech and a debate. Here are some of them:

  • They both involve speaking: Both speeches and debates are oral presentations. That means at least one speaker is always involved.
  • They both don’t have to involve an audience: In the liberal sense of the terms, both  speeches and debates do not require audiences. We’ll dig deeper into this later. 
  • They both have a fixed structure: A speech and debate have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They can’t be one-liners. 
  • They’re both goal-specific: Speakers in both oral presentations have a goal for making their presentations in the first place. These presentations don’t exist in a vacuum.

Given these commonalities, it’s no wonder then that some people confuse one for the other.

Differences Between a Speech and a Debate

A more in-depth look, however, will show that these two concepts are more different than they look. Here are some of the differences between a speech and a debate:

  • A debate requires at least two speakers: Because a debate necessarily involves two opposing sides, it needs at least two speakers. One speaker is enough for an oral presentation to be considered a speech.
  • A debate requires at least two views to be presented: Since a debate necessarily involves two opposing sides, at least two contradictory views are presented. In a speech, only one view is presented, that of the speaker.
  • In a debate, what is right has not been established: A debate involves a formal presentation of opposing sides. The right argument is not determined until after the debate when the judge makes a ruling. Sometimes, the right argument is never determined (if your friend doesn’t convince you Y car is better, for instance, and you don’t convince him or her that X car is better, for example). In a speech, what is right has been determined. What the speaker says is typically what is right. That’s the reason he or she was invited to the speaking engagement in the first place, to share his or her expertise with the audience.
  • A debate is a series of speeches. A speech is not necessarily a debate. A formal debate involves the presentation of two to three constructive statements (or speeches), and two to three rebuttal statements (speeches). A speech, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily have the same goal to persuade as a debate. It may aim to merely inform, educate, raise awareness, among others.

Overall, a speech is the overarching term that covers all oral presentations. A debate is just a type of speech. It’s in the same league as a eulogy, birthday and wedding speeches, class presentations, among others. 

Difference Between a Speech and a Debate: Conclusion

Speeches and debates are sometimes used interchangeably. Why wouldn’t they be when at first glance, they actually do look the same? Both involve speaking, both don’t necessarily involve an audience (in the most liberal sense of the terms), both have a fixed structure, and both are goal-specific. They don’t exist in a vacuum.

Although they have similarities, they’re, however, more different than they look. We’ve seen some of those differences from this article. A debate requires at least two speakers, while a speech only requires one.

A debate requires the presence of at least two different views, a speech only requires one. In a debate, what is right is under contention, while in a speech, it has already been established, it’s the speaker’s. And finally, a debate is a series of speeches while a speech isn’t necessarily a debate.

In other words, speech is the overarching term. The term debate is just a type of speech. 

Now that you know the differences (and similarities) between the two terms, you can ensure the proper preparations should you be invited to any of them.

Don’t show up in a formal debate without your speeches–your constructive statements and your rebuttals. In the same manner, don’t show up in a speaking engagement without verifying your facts. People expect you to share with them your expertise, which for them, is the universal truth.

With the proper knowledge and the proper preparations, you can definitely wing those oral presentations.

For more resources to develop your public speaking skills while you are in the comforts of your own home, please check the articles Online Resources for Public Speaking and Where Can I Learn Public Speaking. If you would like to leverage the best presentation software for your next big speaking engagement please read the article 'Best Presentation Technology tools'.


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Posted in  Public Speaking Topics   on  January 28, 2022 by  Dan W ,   What Is The Difference Between A Speech And A Debate? [The Premier Answer]

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