Dr Tim Squirrell is a writer, broadcaster and researcher. He focusses on internet culture and extremism, specialising in the far right and misogynist extremists.

An Introduction to Framing

Framing is probably my favourite part of debating. It’s notoriously hard to define, because when people talk about framing, they’re actually talking about a large number of different things. Ultimately though, framing is about the choices we make in language. As much as we likely to pretend that debating is a game about pure logic, it is at core a language game. The way in which we talk about things is every bit as important as the logical links which we make.

Whenever debaters receive feedback from an exasperated judge after a particularly messy round, it’s likely that feedback will contain the idea that all analysis should include an idea, followed by arguments as to why that idea is true, and why it is important in the context of the debate. When you show why your ideas are important, you’re framing. This sounds extremely abstract, so in the next few sections I’ll try to exemplify what it means to ‘do’ framing in the context of a debate.

Burden Play

At the beginning of a speech, speakers will often outline exactly what they’re trying to prove in their speech: what they think their burdens are, and what they think they don’t need to prove. This is framing.

Playing with your burdens is one of the most interesting but also technically difficult parts of framing. It starts simple: you’re talking about what you need to prove in order to win the debate. For example, on the motion “This House believes it is never legitimate to attach conditions to foreign aid”, the Opposition can attempt to claim that all they need to prove is one small set of circumstances under which it would be legitimate to attach conditions to foreign aid (for example, making aid contingent on the cessation of human rights abuses).*

This does two things. First, it allows them to narrow the debate to a class of cases that is easiest for them to win with: it’s much easier to prove that a small subset of foreign aid should have conditions than to prove that all aid should have conditions. Second, it forces the Proposition to either accept or contest this framing. They may decide to fight the debate on the ground given by the opp team, in which case they’re fighting on uneven turf because they need to try and prove that even say, human rights abuses are not a legitimate reason for conditions to be attached to aids. Alternatively, they could decide to contest the framing: they say that Opposition has unfairly narrowed the debate, and that they need to talk about a wider class of cases than just the low-hanging fruit. Ideally they’d do this by showing that the vast majority of aid doesn’t have the kinds of conditions attached that the opp team talked about, and therefore whilst it might be within the debate, it’s certainly not the most important thing in the debate.

Critically though, this still makes the Proposition’s job more difficult. They have to spend vital seconds contesting the framing given by the opp team, arguing “Opp says the world is like this, but we think it’s not actually like this, it’s more like this other thing”. Not only does that take time, but every time they have to say it they draw attention back to the contribution that the Opposition made to the debate. If this continues to happen down the table, it makes it much easier to win, because your contribution to the debate has been made continually relevant throughout the debate.

This is a simple case of burden play which shows the benefits of claiming that the debate needs to be fought on particular ground (even if it doesn’t actually end up being entirely fought on that ground). In many instances burdens will be less cut-and-dry than this: very few motions specifically use the words ‘always’ or ‘never’ in their titles, and that means it’s much harder to narrow the debate significantly whilst appearing legitimate in doing so.

Let’s say you’re in a debate on the motion “This House believes that parents should actively instil the value of questioning authority in their children”. This is a complex motion which has a large number of moving parts and possible outcomes. The impacts in the debate can range from “children will climb trees more and they might hurt themselves”, through “these children will grow up into adults who are less likely to get their children vaccinated and they might die of measles”, all the way up to “this will result in an anarcho-individualist society in which no institutions exist because nobody believes in or trusts them”. Depending on how the debate is framed, though, all or none of these could be debate-winning arguments.

If you’re in first Proposition, you might claim that you have two burdens in the debate. First, to prove principally that most authority is illegitimate, and so questioning or disobeying it is the morally correct thing to do. Second, to show that teaching children to disobey authority will result in those children being less likely to join in on things which hurt other children, like bullying. Here, you set yourself relatively low burdens: it’s quite easy to show that certain kinds of authority are not earned, but are merely given by default. You’re going to talk about why children are more likely to disobey the most illegitimate kinds of authority which they will recognise as having no basis in reality, and are likely to continue to listen to, say, doctors, who can prove their credentials and are legitimate authorities. You also only need to talk about children as children, rather than spending too much time talking about the long term: this narrows the debate to something which is much more winnable in 14 minutes than it might otherwise be. The way you make this seem plausible is through more framing: you say that there is a vast gap between the kinds of values which we teach children and the kinds of values which they actually end up acting upon as adults. When we teach children the value of respect, that doesn’t mean that they grow up to respect everyone all the time (though we may wish they did). Rather, it becomes one of a set of traits which balances out with all their other traits. So with authority, we say that they’re likely to grow up with a healthy disrespect of authority, but that the most important impacts happen when they’re still children, because children have quite black-and-white moral frameworks which means that if you actively instil one particular value in them, they’re likely to take to it quite strongly.

Here, the more subtle use of burdens allows you to frame the debate in such a way that you don’t have to talk about things that are going to be either disadvantageous to you or extremely complex such that they bog your speech down and you get lost.

What subtle burden play allows you to do is to convince not only the judges, but the other teams, that you only need to prove a certain number of things in order to win. Remember that there are no set criteria for what teams need to prove in order to win. That means that any claim of the burdens that a team has to take on is contestable, and it’s within your interests to claim that other teams need to prove a lot more than they might realistically be able to in order to beat you. This might come in the form of telling them they have a number of different, perhaps conflicting, burdens to prove. Alternatively, it might be that you say they need to talk about one particular group in a way that strongly advantages your side of the house. For example, in a debate about sterilising drug addicts in exchange for money, it’s in the Opposition’s interests to tell the prop teams that they need to talk about the addicts themselves, and their parenting rights, as much as possible. In contrast, the prop team will likely want to tell the opp teams they need to prove that the children of addicts are likely to live better lives on their side of the house. It’s incredibly difficult in this debate for prop to prove that this choice for drug addicts will not be coercive and that they can actually consent into it. Likewise, it’s difficult for the opp to prove that the children of addicts tend to live happy lives.

*It would be unwise to then go on to only prove their case in these conditions. It’s highly likely that on any panel of adjudicators there will be at least one judge who thinks this is an illegitimate narrowing of the debate and decides to penalise the team for it. The best strategy is to prove the cases you say the debate is about, then to say “even if you think this debate is about more than just these cases, here’s why we win in those other cases too”. And then prove that you win in those cases too, obviously.

Stakeholder Analysis

When you talk about different groups and how they’re affected, that’s framing. Nearly every debate will have groups who are winners, and groups who are losers. Part of the debate will revolve around arguing over which groups are winners and losers (and whether they do necessarily win or lose). However, how you talk about those groups is just as important as identifying their existence. If you care about a particular group, you want to make that group seem as large as possible, so as to maximise their impact in the debate. You also probably want to show them as a group which we ought to care about on a qualitative level, rather than just in terms of numbers. We tend to care more about groups which can’t protect themselves, or who have been subject to injustices (whether present or historical), or who are otherwise dependent upon the state or others. We also ascribe tend to ascribe traits perceived as positive to these groups: just think of the way that David Cameron constantly talked about ‘hard-working families’ during the last election.

Likewise, if you’re talking about a group you don’t care about, you want to minimise the size of this group (so that negative impacts on them are seen as less important), but you also want to talk about their qualities. Groups who are broadly well-off or able to look after themselves are often seen as less important within debates than groups with more marginalised individuals. You likely also want to ascribe negative characteristics to them.

The way you talk about the impacts a particular policy will have upon this group is crucial. Having built up a picture of a large group of people teetering on the precipice of chaos and/or obliteration, you want to show that this motion won’t just make them marginally worse off, or slightly ameliorate their situation: it is the difference between life and death. The key here is nuancing your rhetoric: if you lead straight in with ‘poor people will die, and death is bad‘, then you don’t sound convincing. If instead you paint a portrait of people who have long suffered at the hands of a state which is either neglectful or actively inimical to their needs, and who will be pushed over the precipice into despair and severe material deprivation by this particular policy, then you’re going to sound much more convincing.

One of the easiest ways of illustrating the way that framing works is in terms of debates about welfare. When we talk about benefits recipients, our choices of descriptors, and the individuals within these groups we use as representatives of the whole, are pretty important. Let’s take as an example the motion “This House would provide welfare in the form of basic goods and services, rather than cash payments”.

If you’re on proposition, it’s in your interests to portray people on welfare in a fairly negative light. You’re going to want to talk about them as fiscally irresponsible, either through ignorance or malice. You’re also going to want to try to show that as many benefits recipients as possible fall into this kind of category. It’s worth bearing in mind that the majority of people who receive benefits (at least in the UK) are actually in work, and receive tax credits. There are also parents, who receive child benefit regardless of means; elderly people receive winter fuel allowances; the chronically ill receive incapacity allowances; asylum seekers receive a small amount of money each week to live on. It’s extremely difficult (not to mention offensive and untrue) to portray all of these people as lazy benefits scroungers. However, you need to minimise the number of people who are both fiscally responsible and welfare recipients, or show that providing payments through basic goods and services is unlikely to be a large hindrance to those who fall into this category. You want to focus the debate as much as possible on the group you think this will most impact, by showing that other groups are either really small or are marginally affected at worst.

If you’re on opposition, your interests are obviously antithetical to those of the proposition. You want to talk about the hard-working people who’ve fallen foul of a perverse system of neoliberal capitalism through no fault of their own. They’re often working for employers who pay them far less than the living wage, and now they have the additional indignity of not even being trusted with choice over what to spend their minimal welfare cheques on. You’ll stress how important it is for people to have control over their own livelihood, and how demoralising it is to live under a state which not only neglects to make your employer pay you fairly (or even to ensure you’re employed at all), but which then kicks you when you’re down.

You’ll notice that much of the work we’re doing here is about standard analytical lines: freedom of choice, fiscal responsibility, the duties and obligations of states to their citizens, etc. What framing adds to this kind of analysis is threefold: (a) it helps you minimise/maximise the size of the groups you’re talking about; (b) it lets you show why these groups are particularly (un)important; (c) it puts emotional and rhetorical weight behind your words, letting you express big ideas in fewer words. The latter is particularly important for economy of argument: at the higher levels of debating, you want to be able to fit as much material as possible into your speech, and the only way to do this without sounding like you’re about to have some kind of minor cardiovascular event by the end of your speech is to use fewer, more carefully chosen words to create the same kinds of arguments.

Moral Frameworks

One of the things a lot of people consistently have trouble with in debates is dealing with competing moral frameworks. Perhaps because consequentialism (and particularly its utilitarian strains) is easy to cash out in terms of some kind of ‘balance of harms’, or ‘cost-benefit analysis’, a lot of debaters tend to make arguments which rarely stray far from consequentialist territory. This is unfortunate, because a lot of the most appealling arguments from an intuitive and rhetorical standpoint can be made without reference to the consequences of actions. This isn’t a presentation about how to make principled arguments, so I won’t go any deeper into the nuts and bolts of how those work, but it’s important to recognise that this is a real problem a lot of debaters face in debates. This section will deal with framing issues regarding moral frameworks. A lot of this section is likely to bleed into analysis itself, but that’s mostly a byproduct of the fact that analysis and framing really aren’t as separate as we’d like to think they are.

Sometimes, it may be very difficult – if not borderline impossible – to win a debate from a purely consequentalist perspective. Say, for example, you find yourself in the unenviable position of having to argue against torturing someone you know has information which would lead to the aversion of the deaths of a thousand people in a terrorist attack. From a purely utilitarian standpoint, you’re screwed. A thousand lives versus one life? No chance. You might stand some chance if you talk about how this might cultivate sympathy for the tortured person and cause more terrorist attacks further down the line, but it’s a gamble. You could probably also talk about the unreliability of information gained through torture (and indeed, you probably should talk about that), and the precedent this sets for torturing people in the future.

But one way you could change the terrain of the debate to your advantage is to talk about the people involved as human beings, rather than as numbers on a utilitarian spreadsheet. Using all of the above arguments as mitigation, you could then begin your speech by reframing the debate as one about rights and dignity, rather than one purely about consequences. What does this look like? First, you can show that utilitarianism often clashes with our moral intuitions on a deep level, meaning that we probably shouldn’t trust that this is the only way by which we can judge whether something is morally correct: for example, it would be the utile thing to do to remove the organs of a person in the hospital waiting room in order to save the lives of five other people, but we don’t do that, for various reasons. Second, you can start to talk about the actors involved in this debate: specifically, the person you’re torturing, and the person doing the torturing. You could start by analysing why it might be bad to instrumentalise a human being, treating them as a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves. We think that everyone deserves a basic level of human dignity, even those who commit the worst crimes, and we only allow state-sanctioned violence against people when those people are themselves a threat, rather than in order to obtain some other kind of end (like information). You could then go on to talk about how the kind of state that makes someone into a torturer is not one that we want to live under, and how this itself is a form of instrumentalisation, and why we have a moral imperative not to be that kind of state.

Ultimately, the legwork is done in the first few sentences. When you talk about why one moral framework (say, consequentialism) is insufficient to judge the debate and then substitute another (with reasons for it!) then you reframe the debate. This is particularly effective in the back half of a debate, when the top half has talked primarily about consequences. On the rare occasion that someone leads with a moral argument and you want to move back to consequences, the way to do this is usually with words to the effect of “when talking about morality, it’s crucial that we take into account the consequences of the actions we take, rather than living in a bizarre debate-land where the only thing that matters is whether something is morally justified, whatever that means”.


This is by no means an exhaustive guide to framing. My aim here is just to give a taste of how framing works, and the kind of circumstances in which it can be useful (always). At base, every word of your speech is framing, because framing is about world-building: talking about what’s in the debate, and what’s out of it; what’s important, and what’s marginal. Burdens, groups, and moral frameworks are just three broad ways in which you can easily work on your ability to frame. Hopefully this has been of some use – if you have any questions, hit me up.

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