When I coach, I usually provide four ingredients I think are key to being a successful debater. These ingredients are pretty helpful in life too. You’ll find number four changes from time to time. I’d like to review these, along with the number one principle of Cross-Examination that we always teach. The three national champions I’ve coached excel at each of these principles.

Four keys to being a successful debater:

1. Maximize Your Flowing Ceiling. If you aren’t taking good notes, there is only so far you can progress. I’ve had fourth year debaters tell me they can flow in their head, and every year I have to fight with about five stubborn teenagers and get them to admit that it is their lack of flowing, not depth of argument, that is holding them back. People who don’t keep track of arguments and remember what was said earlier make big mistakes (and don’t win nationals). The reason this is number 1 is that flowing is the prerequisite to 2 and 3.

2. See the Big Picture. If you get lost in the weeds, you won’t be able to identify what really matters. You’re liable to make arguments like “but your plan only solves 75% of the problem.” Solving 75% of a problem is pretty good in the scale of life, especially given the Pareto Principle. The big picture is what helps you agree with the opponent on many points, but disagree on just those key points that make all the difference.

3. Identify the Crux. As PHC professor of rhetoric and director of debate, Dr. Tallmon, argues on the Rhetoric Ring, cultivating the ability to “evaluate assumptions and exercise wisdom in real time” is a key life skill taught by argument and debate. It’s logic meets reality. I have given rebuttals before that used one or two minutes of the five minutes allotted, not because of lack of arguments, but because I found the crux, demonstrated that it was so, and showed it went my way. If you fail to find the crux of the decision, you will end up arguing about all kinds of tangential things that may or may not help the overall decision.

Put another way, principle 2 is “have a wide view,” while principle 3 is “and then focus”. They go together.

4. Keep it Simple Stupid (KISS). The best debaters understand that debate “theory” is really just a bunch of labels that capture real life principles. In fact, they test such theories in rounds and explain them to judges by speaking of decisions at the dinner table, in Congress, or in the executive boardroom—not a “debate round.” You can’t KISS unless you see the picture and find the crux. You can tell by people who throw out twenty statistics instead of the single statistic that matters, with a good analogy like how many times that many Candy Corn would wrap around the earth.

Finally, Cross-Examination. The number one principle of cross-examination is: BE LIKED. Persuasion is having the right arguments (logos), putting the audience in the right frame of mind (pathos), and building up credibility of the speaker and arguments (ethos). Frustrating, annoying, and mean cross-examinations fail at persuasion because they crucify two key elements of persuasion for the sake of another. It’s difficult to win a round in CX, but it’s easy to lose one.

Based on these principles, I give the Presidential Candidates an “F” for their participation in debates. In my opinion, they demonstrated lack of clarity (missed the crux) and strategic forethought (ability to see the big picture) most of the time. This opinion is based primarily on form and content, but not as the content approaches my beliefs or not. Here are five observations:

Observation 1: Obama failed to flow his partner. Biden made Paul Ryan squirm in the VP debates (which were much more like debates, in my opinion) by pointing out that the 47% appears to include veterans and retired folks, which presents a false picture of “freeloaders” that is overinflated. Whether that’s true or not, there was no good comeback – Obama should have brought this back into the economy discussions during the debates because it was a winner.

Observation 2: Talking Over Each Other is Childish. Ok, sophomoric. Because they know the crux, they aren’t pressed for time even under time constraints, and they see the big picture enough to know that talking over someone else gets no point across. In fact, they see the big picture enough to know that by now, most of us could likely finish any of their sentences, so squeezing in those last few words is not essential. All you get is a big “not liked” stamp on your ideas, and you don’t get to finish your sentences with sweet bumper sticker statements we all remember. Instead, you kind of fizzle out.

If, at your workplace, meetings looked like Obama and Romney bickering, you would likely conclude that your bosses were tyrants. Good leaders, decisionmakers, and debaters are all good listeners.

Observation 3: Warrants missing… too many claims. Especially after each person has essentially called the other a liar all night each debate, claims just don’t cut it for persuasion. You want education to make this country great? What, specifically, needs to be done in education to make it great? Is there a philosophy or method you embrace, or is it just “making us great”? The biggest symptom of this problem is that you could nearly switch speakers on closing speeches and they would still make sense because, except for income taxes, both speakers are making roughly the same claims. It’s only if you see how those claims differ by the warrants that prove them that you start getting anywhere.

Observation 4: Statistics lose meaning. We heard about a study of this and a study of that and sometimes heard number after statistic after number after demographic, plus corrections like “I mean 270,000, no 470,000”, that the numbers totally lost meaning. Clarity says find the one or two key statistics, then argue the principle. Stringing together many numbers does not persuasion make, especially when each person is questioning the numbers and offering alternatives.

Observation 5: The crux is a principle, illustrated by a story; not a story. Too many times, when the candidates were asked a question (like how someone will get a job after college, is there a red line with Iran, does the military support Israel, what about women), the response was a story. So you employed many women as Governor—what’s the principle of action? Debaters should use examples to illustrate principles, because the principle speaks to a broad set of actions, whereas a story tells what happened once. Judges should not make decisions based on one instance, but on a principle that allows them to predict multiple future instances. Candidates are afraid of this because… it’s a commitment to not do whatever seems “best” at the time (in other words, not operate off of principles).

The best moment of the Presidential Debates: Obama wins this one for a particular technique I recommend to all my debaters. The technique is putting a burden on the other team. Not a “debatey” burden—a content one that sees the big picture, identifies the crux, and serves as a criterion for the decision. This is a loose paraphrase, not an exact quotation: “As a successful investor, Romney wouldn’t take a business deal to spend $8Trillion without details of the plan. That’s a sketchy deal. You (Romney) wouldn’t take it, and neither should you the American people.” Bonus points for the figure of speech “sketchy deal.” This was one of the few moments of the debates I appreciated.

What did you think of the debates? Do you want to strive to be like the candidates or not like the candidates?

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