How to brush up your debating skills

Top tips for winning a TV debate

By Rajini Vaidyanathan
BBC News Magazine

When the curtain goes up on Thursday’s first televised prime ministerial debate, audiences will witness three men used to holding their own, in front of an audience. But you don’t have to be a party leader to know how best to win an argument.

Breathe deeply, back straight, shoulders out.

The warm-up reads like preparation for an exercise class but one of the first rules of good debating is to have a relaxed pose and posture.

„Confidence is communicated in many ways,” says Jason Vit, a debate coach. „How a speaker looks, walks and the first thing out of their mouth can make a huge difference to how they are perceived and the value which an audience ascribes to what they say,” he says.

Debating is all about selling your ideas to an audience – it follows then, that if the salesman doesn’t look the part, he can expect the door to be slammed in his face.

„Stance, voice, confident use of technical terms… enable people to fake confidence even when they are nervous,” he says.

But faking it can only get one so far and there is more to debating than simply style over substance. Mr Vit works for the English Speaking Union, an organisation which runs debate contests between schools. One of the most important tips he passes on to his students is „know your subject” – which means knowing the arguments for and against their viewpoint.

Soap opera attention span

„An audience is more likely to support one speaker’s position over another speaker if they can demonstrate knowledge of the subject in question and an understanding of the alternatives.

„Simply put, someone is always more convincing if they understand the alternatives and have still rejected them.”

While some people are debate naturals, Mr Vit says that with the correct training and practice anyone can hold their own in a high octane discussion.

Working out the correct pace and delivery – not too fast, emphasis on the right words – is one way to improve one’s oratorical skills. Injecting a bit of personality into the proceedings is another, although Mr Vit only advises „genuinely funny” people to go down this path. A sprinkling of the wrong sort of jokes in a debate can backfire in the same way a bad stand-up routine might.

Another important consideration, often overlooked, is how long to take to make a point. Maintaining the audience’s attention can be tricky and Mr Vit suggests observing the length of TV ads, or the duration of a scene in soap opera, as useful guides in judging attention span.

Always be yourself
Projecting confidence is vital
Listen to questions or points raised by other speakers
Consider the attention span of the audience
Make answers and points relevant
Know your material
Write down any important names or information

Holding people’s interest will be a big challenge for all the three leaders taking part in the prime ministerial debates. Much has been made of the fact that this is the first time British political leaders have agreed to participate in televised election debates, but they are no strangers to head to head sparring. Every Wednesday when Parliament sits they face each other at Prime Minister’s Questions, a tradition which dates back in various guises to 1881.

But the formal strictures of such set-tos mask the fact that debate, in its loosest form, is something most people engage in almost daily.

Football – the national game – is played against a backdrop of ceaseless debate between fans. The same goes for other national obsessions in which we are asked to take sides – reality TV shows, the moral choices of soap opera characters.

What is central to any line of debate is passion, says Mr Vit. Winning a debate is essentially winning an argument – the skill being able to defend a view, and to „appear to be right all the time, even when you are not”.

The importance of debate as a medium for self improvement and intellectual stimulation, within these shores at least, can be traced back to the coffee house debates of the 17th Century.

It was in the coffee houses that writers, politicians, businessmen and scientists would discuss and share ideas. Underpinning this was the freedom it offered, in a democratic society, for people to air their views freely in public – and in the process coming up with a great idea or solution to a problem.

A London coffee house in 1688

Debates were held at coffee houses

These days similarly passionate exchanges can be witnessed across the internet and, particularly, daytime TV. Talks shows hosted by the likes of Trisha Goddard and Jeremy Kyle have used the traditional debate format with a modern twist. There are still two sides appealing to an audience to agree with their viewpoint, but the subject matter is very different.

„People are prepared to debate very intimate confessional topics, compared with the topics which would have traditionally been accepted for debate publicly,” says Paul Stenner, a professor at the University of Brighton.

Mr Stenner who has studied the emotional impact of talk shows such as Jerry Springer, says it can be viewed for good or bad .

„Some people see this as a great advance, the cracking of the cold rationalist and stuffy and traditional approach but others would see it as a decline – hanging your dirty laundry in public.”

„It exercises our minds”, argues Ellis Cashmore, a professor of culture, media and sport. He argues that the appeal of television courtoom dramas and chat shows is because of the way they draw viewers into a discussion.

„We are being put in the position of the judge or the jury. We’re being asked to evaluate arguments.

„People don’t usually watch a political debate or a Jeremy Kyle programme without forming some kind of judgement on it. The reason they’re so appealing to us is that we don’t just sit there passively – we engage in it.”

The truth is that we like to watch debates as much as we like to take part in them and deliver a judgement, says Mr Cashmore.

But for debate aficionados like Mr Vit, the real test comes when you are eyeball to eyeball with your opponent, under pressure.