After rewatching last year's presidential debates, I've realized that being right—in the sense of being philosophically correct—is not sufficient to win. While it’s important for you to learn how to organize your resources efficiently you must also be able to communicate effectively, especially in a debate forum. These five tips will help you debate your next opponent.
The Opening Statement
The introductory statement is your opportunity to set the tone of the debate and to frame the issues and your opponent before he or she can frame you. Open with a story of why you’re running and briefly state your three major legislative priorities. The trick is to tie these legislative priorities into an overall theme. Barack Obama was successful in this regard because he always linked everything back to his themes of “hope” and “change.” While these overall themes were used ad nauseam, it stuck in the minds of his voters. If there is not an opening statement, you must blend your introduction into the first response.
Use Conversational Language
When responding to questions you should use a fourth- to eighth-grade vocabulary to clearly articulate your positions. You don’t need to dumb everything down, but don’t use George Will-esque language. Conservatives have a tendency to use grandiose verbiage to sound knowledgeable, forgetting that most people don’t speak that way—and that they may come across as arrogant or haughty. (Note: You should never use the words like "verbiage" and "haughty" in a debate!)
Using Numbers and Facts
Use numbers only in a way that illustrates your main points. The trick to using numbers and facts is to use them in terms that people can understand visually. Instead of saying “Congress spends twelve billion dollars a year to run themselves,” say “Each year Congress spends more to run themselves than the budgets of a dozen states!” Twelve billion is a number that is hard to envision—few people have that much money!—but everyone can envision twelve states on a map.
Use Transitional Phrases
The biggest mistake you can make is actually answering every question. Your responses are opportunities for you to get back on message and discuss your overall theme and priorities. If the moderator or your opponent leads you down a defensive path, use transitional phrases to stay on message. Use transitional phrases:
- “That’s an interesting point but…”
- “I think we’re getting away from the big issue here…”
- “Well, the moms and pops I talk to tell me…”
Voters love a good story. People relate better to people than they do to numbers and tend to remember stories more than legislative minutiae. In the first presidential debate in 2000, Vice President Al Gore used a story of an elderly lady who collected and exchanged aluminum cans for money so she could buy food and medicine. This image was so powerful that the media ran stories about the woman for several news cycles—she was even used in a "Saturday Night Live" parody the following weekend. (Note: It was later discovered that the elderly lady collected the aluminum cans just for fun!)
Christopher N. Malagisi is President & Principal Founder of the Young Conservatives Coalition, an organization dedicated to leading the next generation of the conservative movement. He is also the Director of Political Training at The Leadership Institute and an Adjunct Professor at American University.