How to Debate Effectively

Posted on September 28, 2016

We can’t all match Hillary’s performance. But we can be aware that a debate is somewhat different than a one-sided talk. Whether you’re an advocate debating an issue or a candidate running for state/local office, it is not enough to say the right words. You have to say them well, looking and sounding both confident and competent.

Obviously, a debate is distinct from a speech or talk because there is an opponent. The goal is not to show that your side is worthy, it’s to prove that your side is better than your opponent’s. This requires preparation.

Before engaging in any debate, figure out how you want to frame the conflict. You need an overall theme that not only explains what you stand for, but how it differs from your opponent. Whenever you have the chance, work the theme into your answers. And when your opponent attacks your basic theme, don’t let that attack go unanswered.

Other than that, you probably already know what to do: master your content, be prepared to answer all obvious questions and challenges, and—like all types of political persuasion—use progressive values.

But that’s not the point I want to make today. When we prepare for a debate, most of us spend nearly all of our time on the content and almost none on delivery. That’s a mistake.

Numerous studies have shown that most communication is nonverbal. One famous study by Albert Mehrabian, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at UCLA, found that an audience decoded the intent behind a speaker’s words:

  • from visual clues (body language) about 55 percent of the time;
  • from tone of voice about 38 percent of the time; and
  • from the speaker’s actual words only about 7 percent of the time.

While these percentages don’t apply to every situation, it is clear that when a speaker’s words and non-verbal messages are in conflict, the audience believes the non-verbal. So here are some basic rules of presentation:

  1. Dress for the job. You generally want to dress more formally than your audience. If you are running for city council, dress like a council member.
  2. Smile. Yes, politics is very often a popularity contest. You want people to like you. To accomplish that, you must appear to like your audience and enjoy being with them.
  3. Present yourself with good posture. Don’t slouch, lean, droop your shoulders, or look down. Instead, stand up straight with your feet about shoulder width apart. Balance your weight over the balls of your feet. Keep your chest up and stomach in. Hold your head upright and straight. Look relaxed but alert.
  4. Look at your audience. Don’t scan back and forth across the room or bore down on individuals. And for heaven’s sake, don’t look down at your notes more than about 10 percent of the time. Instead, view your audience as if you’re in a conversation and you expect an answer. In a large room, focus on sections about 2/3rds back from the front. In a small room, maintain eye contact with the same person for one complete sentence or thought. Pay attention to people who are nodding or frowning—they are answering you. If you’re on television, look at the camera because that’s where your audience is.
  5. Control your gestures. Don’t over-gesture or constantly use the same gesture. Don’t cross your arms in front of you (cold), put your hands or your waist (parental), put your hands in your pockets (nervous), or use gestures that are much wider than your body (out of control). Instead, incorporate natural gestures that you do spontaneously when practicing your remarks. If you’re on television, don’t gesture outside of the TV frame.
  6. Careful with facial expressions. Don’t scowl, sneer, or shake your head “no” when you mean “yes” (you’d be surprised how many people do this). Don’t tighten your jaw, lick your lips, or look hostile. Instead, make sure your expressions match the points you’re making. Practice in front of a mirror, especially if you are naturally prone to having a “poker face.” When your opponent is speaking, look at her/him and let your face naturally reflect when you particularly disagree—here’s where shaking your head “no” can be effective, if you don’t overdo it.
  7. Be intentional with your tone of voice. Don’t talk too quickly, mumble, or speak in a monotone. Instead, practice an even but naturally varied tone of voice. Pause just before and after a particularly important word or concept to allow your audience to absorb that you are making a key point. Speak with confidence and authority, and never with anger or hostility.
  8. Speak loud enough to be heard. Too often, people speak too softly or are too far away from the microphone. Instead, articulate clearly and project your voice. Raise your volume somewhat to convey excitement, indignation or energy. Lower it to convey seriousness and to draw people in. Don’t speak over applause or laughter—make sure your words are heard by everyone.
  9. Shake hands with your opponent and the debate moderator(s) both before and after the debate. Be friendly to everyone. And afterwards, talk to as many people in the audience as possible, both friends and foes. If reporters are present, seek them out and tell them exactly why you won the debate.
  10. Prepare and practice. Why would anyone think they can wing it in a debate? Have a theme, prepare an outline, memorize your key sentences, perform in front of a mirror, and practice in front of your friends. If you practice well, you will debate well.