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.
Now saying odd things on Twitter: http://twitter.com/mantalknow