It’s Debatable: Adding Elements of Debate to Conferences

It’s often said that debate is healthy. That’s why it could be the perfect time to consider adding the debate format to one of your upcoming meetings.

When I was kid, I liked to ask a lot of questions. So much so that I heard a lot of this: “That’s enough questions,” or, “Really, you have more to ask?” And, then as a teenager, I was known to push back and rebut when I was told something I didn’t want to hear or didn’t particularly agree with. During those years, I remember my mom ending a lot of conversations with, “Sam, this decision isn’t up for debate.”

While my parents were convinced I’d end up a lawyer, my foray into journalism let me do a lot of similar things: Ask questions, as well as dig into and sometimes debate different sides of issues.

Another profession that involves a lot of debate is politics, and that will be on full display Monday night when Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump take the stage for the first presidential debate.

But debate doesn’t have to be limited to politics or law (or teenagers). Many associations use the debate format at their meetings and conferences as a way to get speakers and attendees engaged and involved on topical issues.

For example, the 2016 American Library Association Annual Conference featured the Preservation Showdown, which put this statement up for debate: “Preserving unique digital content should be managed by the library technology unit, not the preservation department.” The debaters were members of the Association for Library Collections and Technical Services Preservation and Reformatting Section and the Library and Information Technology Association.

Each team of three brought their different perspectives to the issue. Audience members asked questions during the debate, which was followed by an open discussion with the audience and the debaters to ensure everyone was engaged and interested.

The Florida Physical Therapy Association will host an Oxford debate at its Annual Conference & Assembly of Representatives, which is currently underway. Pro and con teams will debate the topic of pain management in physical therapy.

Worth noting here is that Oxford-style debates are lively. Audience members participate by clapping, cheering, or moving from one side of the room to the other to support the arguments they like, while jeering the ones they don’t.

The American Physical Therapy Association hosted an Oxford debate of its own at its NEXT Conference & Exposition in June. Participants argued for and against the following motion: “Technology will advance the physical therapy profession more than our hands and eyes will.” (The video above offered attendees a glimpse of what to expect.)

“It’s been a big success for us,” Mary Lynn Billitteri, APTA conference programming manager, told Associations Now earlier this year. “It’s a very entertaining but important part of the conference each year. … It’s not that people are going to walk out of the room and say, ‘I’m convinced I’m going to vote for X.’ It’s more for opening minds. The debate sparks a lot of great conversation

And, moving back to presidential debates for a minute, at its 58th Annual Meeting & Exhibition, the American Association of Physicists in Medicine held the AAPM Presidential Debate. Past presidents of the group debated hot topics in medical physics, including issues facing education, professional practice, and the advancement of science. The audience questioned the candidates in a town-hall format and then decided the winner.

What I like about all of these is that they’re relevant to their respective industries, entertaining, and engage not only the debaters on stage but also the audience. How have you incorporated elements of debate into your meetings and conferences? Please share in the comments.


Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editor-in-chief of Associations Now. MORE

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