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Testosterone Ain't Hormone Pollution
OCTOBER 4, 2012 12:50PM

How to Win Any Debate

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All debates are fundamentally the same. All of them, regardless of venue or format. Whether you win or lose is always a function of just a few things, because debates are simple, wonderful things. Whatever the issues, and whatever the personalities involved, a debate is a distillation of knowledge, fact, faith, hope and the ability to persuade. I’d argue that it’s among the very finest, most important and most honorable forms of interaction. Debates are – or they should be – humans at their best.

I’ve done a lot of debating, and I love it. Sometimes you’re in a formal setting, with a moderator and specific rules of engagement. Sometimes it’s more nebulous: you’re in a boardroom, or a ballroom, a living room (or even a bedroom). 

A debate isn’t a conversation, or an argument, or a fight. It’s more genteel than that (in the best way), demands more respect, preparation and intense focus. It requires you to strengthen, stretch and activate your debate-specific muscles and skills.

Here’s how you win: 

Know more relevant facts, simplify them and explain them 

The smartest person in the room doesn’t always win the debate. I’ve run circles around opponents with bigger brains, more experience, more degrees and more prestige. We don’t hand public office, or organizational leadership, or contracts, or our trust to the debater with the highest IQ or SAT scores. Nor should we.

We decide who’s won a debate in part based on whom we believe had better command of the relevant facts. To the person who takes the big and complex and sometimes scary questions at hand, and helps us to understand. It’s not about dumbing things down, or being simplistic. It’s about simplifying things carefully and accurately. So much of life is a struggle to understand the forces and tides that pull and push us around. Help us to understand, and we can more confidently decide. 

Make it personal and real 

The human brain craves evidence and proof. We want to be right. So we need data. Give us the numbers! The fiscal, economic and demographic details. The historical trends and the most credible projections.

But don’t stop there, because the human brain also needs stories in order to make things fully real to us. Remember that through most of the history of our species, knowledge was passed from person to person, and from individual to group, in the form of anecdotes and aphorisms, poems and stories and songs. Our brains are still hard-wired much the same way.

So give us the aggregates and the macro, but also tell us about the experience of Mr. Wilson, the teacher, Mr. Kim, the factory worker, and Ms Gorski, the entrepreneur. And tell me how what you propose, and what your opponent proposes, would affect me. Help me understand by making it personal and real.

Be energetic and engaged 

You can’t win a debate if you’re casual, hesitant, restrained or aloof. No, you’ve got to be ferocious. You have to be glad to be there – delighted at the opportunity to make your case and to dismantle your opponent’s positions. The audience is giving you generous access to their minds, their centers of logic and emotion. This is your moment to be, alternately, bold and subtle. To proclaim, educate, elucidate and seduce. To persuade with righteous authority.

You’d better get your blood pumping, your neurons sparking and your confidence peaking. Before any debate, I go for a run, take a frigid shower, eat a sweet snack and pound back a couple strong coffees. It works for me. Figure out what works for you. 

Be serious, sincere, respectful, agile and consistent 

Important things are at stake in any debate. So you take the issues, your audience and your opponent seriously. When your opponent is speaking, you watch, you listen, you think, and you keep your expression neutral and sincere. Don’t sigh, laugh, shake your head, sneer or smile inappropriately. Your opponent deserves your respect.

Your agility will be vital. You’ll find flaws or gaps in your opponent’s arguments. You’ll contest some things they declare to be fact. Jump on those things. Swat them away or hammer them into pulp, or even dismiss them with a timely joke – but do it quickly. As fast as you can, get back to the heart of your own position and why it’s right.  

Feel free to repeat yourself. Bang away at your core themes and messages. Make your audience hear what’s most important. Churchill was a pretty fair speaker and debater. Here’s yet another golden nugget from that guy:

 If you have an important point to make, don't try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time - a tremendous whack.   

Define, control and own the debate 

Right from the start, if you don’t frame and define the terms of debate, you’re well on your way to losing. Formal debates have formats, and informal debates don’t, but it doesn’t matter. Your challenge at the outset is to tell the audience what the fundamental issues are, why they matter and what’s at stake. Drag the whole thing onto your home ground – your playing field. Stack the deck in your favor. If you don’t, expect that your opponent will.

Force your opponent to address the matters and questions on which they are weak, or that they have overlooked. These are the elements of substance you have decided are most relevant and important, and where you know you’ll win. 

And finally, some elements of style. To own the debate requires not just feeling confident, but also imparting that confidence to the audience. They have to feel it, and feeling is different from thinking or knowing. And because we are human, feeling is just as important.

So you must be focused, confident and optimistic. And you must be fluent. If you are prone to ums, uhs, stutters or verbal tics, for God’s sake rid yourself of them as best you can. They give the impression of disorganized thinking, lack of confidence, lack of credibility and lack of mastery. It’s not fair, but it’s reality.

If you need a moment for your mouth to catch up to your brain, just pause at the right place. Start a compelling sentence… then take a breath and let your cognition coalesce. “The biggest, most dangerous and most immediate challenge we all face… [pause] the threat that could bring America to its knees… [pause] is the fact that the new iPhone maps tell us Cleveland is somewhere in the middle of Turkey.” 

A debate is a brilliant thing. It brings organization and discipline to my thoughts, convictions and opinions. It challenges and tests me. I win most times, and that’s a rush. I lose sometimes, usually because I was wrong. But I always learn things. And I always love a debate, and do it right. If you want to win, you’d better love it and do it right, too.


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I was on a debate team briefly in high school. It was exhilarating! Good ideas for debates there but I still don't like the idea that someone has to win and someone has to lose. It seemed to me about the individual moments and Obama carried me with his grace and compassion. They are both smart men but the charisma of Romney was like a Bully. He scared me.
Zanelle, my take? I support the President and hope he prevails in November. But he and his team have some work to do on the President's debate and general communications skills.

He's a supremely intelligent man, but he's not the brilliant communicator many folks tend to believe - especially in give-and-take situations such as debates or interviews.

He does have difficulty connecting sometimes. He can come across as overly academic, a bit distant, and reluctant to handle questions.

Last night, he looked like he didn't want to be there. He should have been ferociously excited to be there. Bill Clinton was always insanely happy to be there and debate.

In political circles, among political professionals and pundits, there's a conventional wisdom that debates are almost invariably better for the challenger than for the incumbent. It leads to defensive thinking, anxiety and reluctance - and it's wrong.

We know presidential candidates do debate prep. But the wrong kind of debate prep is as deadly as the wrong kind of tennis instruction. It prepares you to lose.
A word to add:
Everything said here about debating well is also applicable to writing a good posting for a blog site such as this is, or, for that matter to writing anything well.

Good stuff MTN!

Well, thank you, skypixie0.

And don't you wish you were up on that stage last night? I sure do.
Well done, Maestro! But as a self-professed avid and successful debater, you also know that your success also depends on your opponent staying somewhat with the rules, especially when it comes to things like facts. As I put it in my current post:

No doubt it's hard to win a debate with a practiced sociopathic liar -- whether his name is Richard Nixon or Mitt Romney. When your opponent's every claim is based on lies and distortions, it's hard to call him on all of them without violating the old adage to never argue with a fool because those watching may be hard-pressed to tell which is which.
Have you sent these to BO's team?
o was and is not a DEBATER. but fer chrissakes who coulda expectd
caffeinated mitt? uncanny shit.
suddenly he got a populist ! who coulda guessed.

talkin bout the normal folks he's met.
o could well use yer sage advice.
"If you need a moment for your mouth to catch up to your brain, just pause at the right place. Start a compelling sentence… then take a breath and let your cognition coalesce. "

that is how i conduct my bizness. thoughts gotta as u say coalesce.

to teach a politico this? be like teaching a dog to talk.
Tom, we may think our debate opponent is a "liar". He or she may even be a liar. But that's just one of the things you have to deal with in debates. And deal with them you can. Two ways:

1. Shoot down the "lies". If an opponent get it wrong or cites a *faux* (Fox?) fact, say so, and quote a more credible (preferably unimpeachable, independent) source. But do it quickly and move on. Back to:

2. Focus on your own points, messages and themes. Wrench back control of the debate and insist on what's most important. Connect with your audience. Do NOT get thrown or distracted by your opponent's moves.

So we can spend our time worrying about what our opponents say, and whether they are "practices sociopathic liars", or we can think about how to be competent, confident, persuasive and successful in debate.

@Lea: Ha! Naw, I'm sure the President's team is getting a lot of free advice right now. I could, however, wish for just a few minutes alone with the man. Because I hope he does a lot better next time.
Didn't watch it. The cesspit that politics has become (or that I've, at last, become fully aware of), merely accents the realization that nobody gets anywhere near the Oval Office unless a fully under control puppet of the real powers-that-be.

It gets really boring to watch scripted "outrage" and phoney "battles" between "contestants" who all know that the outcome is irrelevant; whoever wins will take his orders from the masters-of-the-money.

The difference, to the citizens, is about the same as the difference of using your right hand or your left hand to scratch your ass when it itches.....

America will continue on the same path of aggression and war - it's truly just too profitable for the big money boys to forego. The other people of the world will hate America and Americans more and more as they're forced, to spout "I love America" at the point of a gun (whether an actual gun or a financial one is moot).

America is now just a tired old elephant that is in much pain and is determined to wreck the china shop before its disgusting demise by consuming its own population.
now wait. whaat does sky say?

"America will continue on the same path of aggression and war - it's truly just too profitable for the big money boys to forego. The other people of the world will hate America and Americans more and more as they're forced, to spout "I love America" at the point of a gun (whether an actual gun or a financial one is moot). "

guy got a point but we true redblue americans need to
say, "no no aint us."

alot of dubious folk will ask, "ah why should i believe u?"

this is when you bring out yer emerson.

our paternal daddy philosopher . shit!
did u know old nietzsche admired him?

he said

Nothing astonishes men so much as common sense and plain dealing.

then he said

A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty

guy was uncanny
I love debate too. Those professors were good for something. You write very well. And you have a good command of the English language. My guess is you are a professor. Nevertheless, you write well. Goodluck in all of your debates.
I'd bring it, but not to debate you, MTN.
You mean Cleveland is NOT in Turkey.