Monday, July 19, 2010

Help! I have to be in a debate!

Part 1

Since JFK and Nixon got it started, TV debates are a political reality. They’re now featuring more and more in public and corporate life.

I’m a dedicated believer in debating as a life skill, and I am thrilled to see it happening so much, but if you’re over 35 (especially if you’re female) you may have shunned school debating in favour of sport. When your CEO, or the head of your industry association asks you to debate at the corporate retreat, or the next big conference, it might be your first time. So what are you going to do? This cry for help is a message I’ve received a few times lately.

Here is the first of two posts to get you started.

How the game is played

Just settle in and bear with me - it's not as complex as it sounds. It's basically a series of speeches where the Pro alternates with the Con.

The 1st speaker for the affirmative (sometimes called the government) opens with a speech. They are followed by the 1st negative (opposition), who is in turn rebutted by 2nd affirmative who is rebutted by 2nd negative, the 3rd speakers (if there are any) repeat this process and the final speaker summarises the debate overall.

Each speaker (except 1st Affirmative) should spend about one third of the speech refuting the person who spoke before them. The rest of the time is for putting forward your own case.

Once you know how debating works, my advice is to think about three things: content, process and being 'on'.

Content: Unless you’re a political candidate, in a public debate you are usually meant to be amusing yet also to make a point. So first figure out your main thesis or key message. Select themes on the basis of what your audience will be interested in.

Depending on time you can make up to three points - not more. People can't retain much – a few points will be plenty. The extent to which you elaborate on each point is at your discretion – you can be brief or go in-depth depending on whether you have ten minutes to fill or two.

Like any speech you need some good facts and information, and a conviction or point of view. It may sound obvious but you need to have something to say.

You need an arresting opening. Try telling them something they don't know - statistics and 'hey martha!' style tidbits are very impressive and will shock people into paying attention.

Use ‘PRE’ as a structure, that’s Point Reason Example. You make a point, give some reasons for it and discuss it, then exemplify it. Examples will really tell the story. People love them, so have plenty.

To attack your opposition takes skill - you have to listen and think on your feet. However, usually you can predict at least some of what they will say, so ‘pre-cook’ your arguments ahead of time and keep them up your sleeve, ready if needed.

Open your speech with a summary of what the previous speaker said but from an angle that shows they are wrong. Point our the flaws and the fallacies, and the awful consequences of what they want to do. The extent to which you are witty, or ridicule or make fun of them is entirely up to you, depending on the nature of the occasion.

In my next post I'll talk about how to get yourself and your team mates organised, and how to handle yourself up front or on stage.

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