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Debate tips

Updated: Oct 8, 2020

The art of verbal persuasion is never more popular than during Presidential debates. But making your case during formal public discussion is harder than it looks. Here are ten tips for winning people over using the art of debate:

1. Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty and the pig likes it. In 1992, Ross Perot, became only the second third-party candidate to fight his way into a Presidential debate. Audiences loved his snappy, Southern-twanged "plain talk." But they really loved it when he differentiated himself from Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, by saying:

"I don't have any experience in running up a $4 trillion debt. I don't have any experience in gridlock government, where nobody takes responsibility for anything and everybody blames everybody else."

2. Have rules and enforce them. If the candidates agree to debate rules, there should be a penalty for breaking those rules. The best rules allow the offender to feel the pain in real time so that he or she moves back to playing fair and square. Someone who goes over time, for instance, should have time deducted from their next clock. If one or more participants has to be warned more than once, the organizers should have the ability to stop the debate and send the candidates home.

Proximity rules were put in place in 2000, when Al Gore seemed to menace George W. Bush.

3. If your opponent is good at aggressively babbling, don't try to match him. Better to just wait him out, look for a window and then deliver a concise reply. Strategic debaters are known to prepare sound bites ("face cards") in advance just for these special moments. I've always thought that Lloyd Bentsen's brilliant, "You're no Jack Kennedy," rejoinder to Dan Quayle was prepared in advance of the 1988 debate. Many had been comparing Quayle's youth to JFK and it's reasonable to think the topic was going to come up.

4. Get good speaker coaching. There's a lot of moving parts to a proper debate, including time, tone, pace, emotions, audience, working the cameras, managing the host, defending attacks, and oh, yeah--your talking points. It helps to train with someone who knows the ropes.

Being "human" can win voters to your side. Mike Dukakis learned this in 1988 when moderator, Bernard Shaw, posed a question about the death penalty. Shaw framed a query by suggesting that Dukakis's wife, Kitty, had been raped and murdered. Dukakis answered the question just fine, but the idea of his wife being raped and murdered didn't seem to bother him. His nonchalance bothered a lot of people who saw the debate.

5. Use "labeling" to force your opponent into playing defense. Debates are a dance and you can't be viewed as the better dancer if you're never leading. Defend against false claims using a technique called "labeling." When your opponent says something inaccurate, stay cool and call him on it. Say, "It's interesting that you'd say something untrue; you know people are fact checking you in real time."

Be sure to think through the likely dialog sequence. Hillary Clinton was thinking a witty one-liner (listen at 3:00) was all she needed in a discussion about whether Barack Obama was a plagiarist. She said, "Lifting whole passages from someone else's speeches is not change you can believe in, it's change you can Xerox." The audience booed and she had trouble recovering.

6: Don't step on your own laugh.

Joe Biden's best line of the first debate of the Presidential election of 2020 was, "Will you shut up, man?" but he said it while President Donald Trump was talking. In stand-up comedy, this is referred to as "stepping on your own laugh." Watch the video. Wait for the blank space, then deliver the sound bite.

7. Win without keeping score. You can only "win" a debate if someone keeps score using a point scale and grading on categories such as organization, rebuttal, style and use of time. Presidential debates haven't used a scoring system in forever, but you can be the clear "winner" by delivering during key moments of the contest. Ronald Reagan mangled the facts plenty in the 1984 Presidential debates with Walter Mondale. But he won America's hearts when asked if, at 73, he was too old to be President. "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience," Reagan said. #MicDrop Even Mondale laughed at the joke. The Republican actor-turned-statesman won the subsequent election by a landslide.

8. Practice. Relying on bombast, theatrics and wit is an invitation to disaster. Very few people can consistently win debates just by ad-libbing. The best debaters have been practicing their entire careers. In the video age, every gaffe is forever and your mistakes will cost you over and over again. President Gerald Ford debated Jimmy Carter in 1976. The moderator, Max Frankel, was asking a question when Ford interrupted to make one of the biggest debate boo boos in debate history.

9. The planning committee sets the tone. The Commission on Presidential Debates in the U.S. is pressed into service every four years. In 2020, the three Co-Chairs, Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr., Dorothy S. Ridings and Kenneth Wollack, had been serving on the Commission for years, but the first debate of the season (Trump and Biden) was an embarrassing clown show. Today, we're accustomed to seeing the Presidential contenders square off, but this was a sh*t show.

10. Build bridges, but be in the moment. "Bridging" is a basic media interview strategy for moving the conversation to what you want to talk about. Here's the thing: You're still supposed to answer the damn question. Demo bridging too often and it won't play well.

Want help with your speaking?

Get ongoing tips for improving your presentations by joining by Present Like a Pro group on Facebook. And if you think Tip #4 above is a good idea, let's jump on a call to see how we can get you twice as good in half the time.

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