U.S. President Barack Obama and his Republican rival Mitt Romney are facing off in three political debates ahead of the November 6 election. While the stakes are high for the politicians seeking the nation’s highest office, two debate experts at Wake Forest University in North Carolina say the techniques used in the presidential debates have practical applications at home, school and work.
Know your facts and be able to articulate them in a “concise, short and still substantive way,” said Allan Louden, chair of the university’s Department of Communication
“Part of what people judge debates on is a person's … knowledge,” he said. “So there is a judgment which says, ‘This person is knowledgeable and has a handle and control of an issue which is independent of their stance.’"
Know your audience
To win a debate, you have to know whose favor you’re trying to win.
“In everyday argumentation, some people think that logic alone will prevail when sometimes that's not the most persuasive form of argument in a given situation,” said Jarrod Atchison
, the director of Wake Forest’s debate program. “So you have to know your audience and what they consider to be relevant information for the debate at hand.”
Agree to agree
The best debaters, Atchison said, are the people who can find principles they can get their opponents to agree to.
“The easier you can find a universal principle that everyone in the room, from the audience members to your opponent, can agree to, if you can use that principle to argue from, then you don't have to fight the fight about the basics of the evidence that are relevant at hand,” he said.
Another winning technique is to listen really well to your debate partner so that your response is informed.
“What frustrates an audience is when someone doesn't take the time to trace the evolution of an argument because they're so fixated on repeating their perspective. They don't come to find the points of agreement which are then crucial to evolving the argument," Atchison said.
Don't underestimate your audience, whether it’s a boss, a romantic partner or a rival. Louden said a weak debater will pander, underestimating the audience’s ability to follow the arguments and to be impressed by the debaters' knowledge and interchange.
That said, an effective technique is arguing through the lens of your audience's perspective, rather than from your own.
“The best message is that which solicits the person to whatever part of their cognitive makeup says that this is a good idea,” Louden said. “Typically people see things from a point of view, so you pick a language which is in their language.”
Never say never
Atchison recommends avoiding the absolutes – words like “always” and “never.”
“Nothing draws the ire of an audience than an overstated claim. Because then all the other person has to do is to make a little bit more nuanced argument about where under certain conditions a particular argument or Plan A makes sense versus Plan B,”
If you feel your advantage slipping away and see your opponent gaining ground, be willing to acknowledge what parts of your opponent's arguments are persuasive.
Once you do that, Atchison said, explain why your position is still more persuasive in the end.
If you’re not a strong debater, don’t lose hope. Atchison insists everyone can improve their argumentation skills. Try the basic skill of “switch-side debating,” where you basically stake a position and then argue from the opposite side.
Pick your battles
Also, he suggests evaluating your own arguments in action.
“That can be something as self-reflective as sitting back and asking yourself, 'How did that conversation go? Was it where I wanted it to end up? Were there moments when I found myself acting reactionary rather than conceding that my opponent may have had something to say there?'” he said.
That is not just a recipe for a winning debate, but even a winning marriage. Atchison’s wife is one of the top debaters in the country, so he has learned to choose his battles wisely.
“The best debaters know what arguments are worthy to argue about,” he said. “And so we find that oftentimes we don't have as many arguments as our peers because we know what the nuclear options look like.”
Good advice - whether you're running for president or husband of the year.
Listen to VOA's Kate Woodsome and Avi Arditti discuss the power of persuasion with debate experts Allan Louden and Jarrod Atchison.