What is the point of a debate? I’d say there are broadly three categories, with differing, though often overlapping, objectives. The first is a search for truth or the best way to proceed in a particular situation. Contributors from all sides of the argument thrash out the evidence in an attempt to come up with the right solution. The second is an academic exercise, designed to hone critical thinking and clarity of expression (not to mention public-speaking skills). Speakers may or may not believe what they are saying; it’s a game, a competition, usually with judges as well as an audience. The third is a contest along the lines of bear-baiting or bull-fighting. Here the object is not to persuade the other parties to one’s own point of view but merely to humiliate and browbeat the opposition.
If you’re preparing to take part in a debate or a panel discussion, as some of my clients do, it’s worthwhile making sure you know which sort of event you’re getting involved in. Clearly, if it’s billed as a competition, you know you’re plumb in the second category, but often it’s not as clear-cut as that. The main factor that tends to blur the boundary between categories one and two is when the speakers are there not as individuals but representing organisations. If you’re in the unenviable position of having to defend a position with which you only partially agree – or you even disagree – because you’re there to speak for your company, political party or other interest group, it may help to think of it as an academic exercise.
Apart from competitions, the vast majority of debates purport to be in the first category, though in reality very few are. However, if we all do our best to approach these discussions with a view to finding the truth and/or the correct way to proceed, we can each make a contribution to democracy, as well as maintaining our integrity.
Here are a few thoughts on how to have a productive debate, or at least how to make your own part in it useful (and effective):
Give it serious thought and preparation
You do need to be well prepared and have considered all aspects of the case you’re putting. Audience members are allowed (even encouraged) to arrive with open minds, ready to listen to the arguments on both sides and refine their opinions on the basis of what they hear. As a panelist, you do not have this luxury; the audience can reasonably expect you to have thought through your position thoroughly in advance of the debate. This may sounds obvious, but it can be easy to assume you can argue a cogent case for something you believe in, when actually you haven’t cogitated deeply enough.
Once you’ve gathered and sharpened your arguments, you need to articulate them out loud several times before the debate. As I’m always saying in relation to public speaking, there is a huge difference between being an expert on the subject and being able to express one’s views about it clearly and smoothly. They are completely separate things. If you don’t rehearse what you want to say, you won’t present it convincingly.
Have the courage of your convictions
If you’re speaking against the prevailing mood in the room, stand your ground and show no sign of being flustered or uncomfortable. Do not back down! If you sell out your beliefs, no-one is going to respect you for it. On the other hand, if you remain calm and continue to explain your case, you can be sure there is at least one person in the audience – and probably a lot more – who secretly agree with you and are willing you on. The more reasonable amongst those on the other side will be also be favourably impressed. Even if you don’t succeed in changing anyone’s mind during the debate, a firm, steady exposition of your point of view may well have more influence on your listeners’ thinking than you realise.
Be prepared to concede good points from the opposition
Having the courage of your convictions is not about sticking rigidly to your position regardless. If you’re not willing to listen to what your opponents are saying and to agree with them when they make a good point, you can’t expect them to do this for you. Bear in mind the objective: to find the truth. If neither side is prepared to give an inch, you’ll be stuck in deadlock for ever – and this is an unproductive debate.
Attacking an outrageous case
Even if you consider the case being made by a fellow panellist completely outrageous, do not make the mistake of treating him or her like an idiot. Adopting a sarcastic or patronising tone may play well with your supporters but it will do nothing to advance the debate. Ridiculing the person’s position serves only to entrench him or her more solidly into it and to stifle discussion as people from the floor may feel nervous of being seen to ally themselves with the object of your derision.
You will never persuade anyone to your way of thinking simply by telling them they’re stupid or wrong to hold the beliefs they do. Calling people racist, fascist, backward, ignorant or whatever adjective you want to use is not a good tactic. An insult is not an argument. You may think hectoring your opponent is demonstrating your intellectual or moral superiority but in fact you’re demonstrating only your own need to feel intellectually or morally superior.
Refrain from making it personal, both ways
Particularly when emotions are running high and tempers fraying, it can be horribly easy to get sucked into trying to undermine one’s opponents with personal comments. It’s a disturbingly common approach these days and should be exposed for the cheap, lazy trick it is. For example, when Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, was suggesting his scheme for encouraging people to travel more by bicycle, his detractors were quick to counter by drawing attention to what they saw as his personal shortcomings: How can Boris know anything about bicycling? He went to a public school. He had an extra-marital affair. He’s got such silly hair!
I’m paraphrasing and indulging in mild hyperbole here but I think you’ll recognise what I mean. Attempting to discredit your opponent by bringing up alleged failings that have nothing to do with the subject of the debate is something we should all have left behind with puberty.
Conversely, it is equally unworthy of a serious debater to use one’s own personal situation to try to make one’s opponents appear rude and feel uncomfortable. If we’re debating whether X pot of money would be better spent on treating cancer or dementia, for instance, it can be illuminating to talk about your own experience of one or the other, or both. It’s NOT useful to say, “I’ve got cancer and I need treatment now. Are you saying I’m not worth spending this money on?!” Personalising the matter in this way is no more than a manipulative attempt to get what you want.
This is my advice to public speakers across the board but it applies doubly when you may be engaged in a debate where others are getting heated.
As Rudyard Kipling didn’t quite say:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too …
You’ll be a successful and productive debater.