Canada Reads

What does it take to be a panellist on Canada Reads? 7 past contenders share their top tips

Want to be a better debater? These former panellists share advice on how to successfully argue your point.

These former Canada Reads panellists make it look easy, but debating is no simple task. Formulating a strong argument and keeping it clear and consistent takes a lot of skill. CBC Books asked past panellists for their best debating advice. Here's what they had to say.

If you're an educator and want to use Canada Reads in your classroom, check out this toolkit on Curio.ca, which includes debate advice and videos from past panellists.

Canada Reads 2018, which will be hosted by Ali Hassan, takes place March 26-29, 2018. 

Humble The Poet says: Listen to your opponents

Humble The Poet makes his opening argument for Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis on day one of Canada Reads. 0:38

MC and rapper Humble The Poet was the 2017 Canada Reads winning panellist. He defended Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis.

Tip: "I think definitely listening for the sake of listening is a massive one that I'm still practicing myself. I think, most often, debates or disagreements — they become arguments or they become fights because people feel like they are not being heard. And we can get frustrated. When we get frustrated, we may not come up with the best language. We may not come up with the best strategies moving forward and things can get really ugly very quickly. I think what I began to practice in my personal life, in my professional life and even just hanging out with my friends and debating our favourite hip hop songs and our favourite rappers is listen to the other person and let them know that you hear what they have to say."

Trent McClellan says: Do your homework

Panellist Trent McClellan argues why the themes in February by Lisa Moore are still relevant today. 0:49

Comedian and This Hour Has 22 Minutes cast member Trent McClellan successfully defended Lisa Moore's February to win Canada Reads 2013.

Tip:​ "In order to be a good debater, you will need to do your homework. That means you have to know your book inside out. That means you're going to have to try and predict what you think the other debaters are going to say about your book, what challenges they may have, what arguments they may have and prepare for those."

Stephen Lewis says: Organize your points

Panellist Stephen Lewis makes his case against The Orenda by Joseph Boyden. 1:34

Politician, broadcaster and diplomat Stephen Lewis was a panellist on Canada Reads 2014. He championed The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. 

Tip: "Everybody has arguments in their mind they want to make. But to make a decent speech and have your audience follow you from beginning to end requires — either ahead of time in your mind or on paper — the organization of the material. You don't have to put it in strict compartments. You just have to organize the material in a way that allows your audience to follow you comfortably and organically from point to point. As a matter of fact, I often say at the beginning of a speech, even of a debate, 'I'm going to make six points.' Because I know that the audience at the fourth point knows that the end is in sight and they can breath again. And they anticipate the fifth point and the sixth point. They know what's coming. Or I'll say, 'I want you to follow me through these three areas of interest, which I'm going to dissect.' I try shamelessly to signal in advance the structure of the argument so that the audience follows it and anticipates it. It's a small thing, but you'd be surprised how powerful it is."

Jay Baruchel says: Be comfortable getting and giving criticism 

Panellist Jay Baruchel makes his case for Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan. 2:03

Actor, screenwriter and director Jay Baruchel championed Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan on Canada Reads 2013.

Tip: "Everybody has different tastes and criticism allows for an exploration of a work at its very core. You string out and deconstruct the elements so that people can see if there is something in there they might like. Or conversely, something that they know they'll hate. Criticism is important because anything good and worth experiencing survives in spite of very harsh criticism. There is nothing that everybody likes and I think criticism helps articulate things that you might not like about something."

Cameron Bailey says: Make it personal

Panellist Cameron Bailey makes his final case for Ru by Kim Thúy. 0:31

Cameron Bailey, the artistic director of TIFF, was the winning panellist of Canada Reads 2015. He defended Ru by Kim Thúy.

Tip: "My parents went through a lot to get to Canada, to get my sister and I Canadian passports. We didn't do that work. They did, but that's a hard-won document that allows me to travel so freely all over the world. If I had the passport I was born with, I wouldn't be able to travel the way that I do. And so, I really value that little blue book. I snuck it into the studio on the day of the final debate of Canada Reads at the CBC and I knew that the emotion that I felt about that passport was going to be what I need to really make the final persuasive case because the book itself, Kim Thúy's book, is about migration. It's about forced migration, about refugees and I knew that, for someone like Kim Thúy and like the characters in Ru, the importance of arriving in Canada and having all the rights and freedoms that Canadians have would also be an emotional thing. And so I thought that's something I can convey to others, that's something I thought would resonate with the other Canada Reads panellists and it turned out it did. In the end, I think that passport, which I had to hide until I revealed it to everybody, is actually what won at the end of the day."

Kristin Kreuk says: Be prepared to have uncomfortable conversations

Panellists Kristin Kreuk and Martha Wainwright debate the style and themes in Kamal Al-Solaylee's memoir Intolerable. 3:23

Actor Kristin Kreuk, known for playing Lana Lang on the hit television series Smallville as well as Joanna Hanley on CBC's Burden of Truth, championed Intolerable by Kamal Al-Solaylee on Canada Reads 2015.

Tip: "The Canada Reads debates were really growthful for me and really challenging. I found having to be on the spot with my ideas really difficult. I felt safe and comfortable to go and craft my initial arguments at home alone, but being there was really tough. And there are factors that you can't control and couldn't have anticipated, and that's just part of it. But what was amazing about it is we got into these great conversations about really hot-button issues and we gave everybody else in the country a way in to do the same thing."

Elaine 'Lainey' Lui says: Be passionate

Panellist Elaine 'Lainey' Lui makes her final argument for When Everything Feels like the Movies by Raziel Reid. 1:14

Broadcaster and blogger Elaine Lui, better known as Lainey, championed When Everything Feels like the Movies by Raziel Reid on Canada Reads 2015.

Tip: "What makes for a good argument, first and foremost, is passion. When you're having a debate, I like to approach it as a life or death situation. You want to argue a point so that the people who have to make a decision or the people who have to be swayed have no doubt. So if your back isn't really into it and your soul isn't really into it, then nobody is really going to buy what you're trying to sell."

The Canada Reads 2018 contenders are:

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