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As Chip and Dan Heath (also authors of our favorite communications book, Made to Stick) note in their book “Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard,” improvement is often about capitalizing on the “bright spots.” A similar point is made by Charles Duhigg in his book, The Power of Habit, when he demonstrates how a “keystone habit” (such as exercise, overeating, smoking, daily reading, and so on) often drive success and failure in the rest of life. They tell compelling stories to illustrate the point that it’s essential to use your strengths to fight your weaknesses.

SWOT is a business concept, used in Lean Six Sigma and other applications. It stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. Business practitioners use these categories much like stock issues to assess a situation. You’re going to learn a business decision-support and strategy framework to help your debate strategy and improvement plan. Plus, it’s useful to know for all the other projects you take on!

What SWOT is all about: using your strengths to overcome your weaknesses, and capitalizing on opportunities to neutralize your threats. Albert S. Humphrey is said to have started use of the SWOT tool, which is a simple 4-square grid:

SWOT – http://www.agrinomicsconsulting.com/services/business-case-studies/s-w-o-t-ananlysis/

SWOT – http://www.agrinomicsconsulting.com/services/business-case-studies/s-w-o-t-ananlysis/

How you use the SWOT for debate

View filling out your SWOT as a research project, where your sources are slightly different. Your sources are: ballots, verbal feedback, opponent reactions, partner or coach feedback, parent feedback, and stuff you just know (be extremely careful with this last, because human biases often weave a false narrative and debate often teaches us our own biases).


First fill out all the strengths you have as a debater. Keep it concrete and specific. For example:

  • Charismatic presentation style when it comes to social issues
  • Strong foreign policy knowledge, full of historical examples
  • Skilled at seeing the big picture of what’s going well and what isn’t by the time of the last rebuttal

Your list may start far longer (a complete brainstorm, including every single strength comment from ballots), but you should work to group items and get your list down to 2-5 items. The same holds true for the rest — you’re trying to prioritize your strategy, not boil the ocean.


Next, build your list of weaknesses. Mine are:

  • Overly passionate to the point that some are skeptical
  • Complicated explanations instead of simple bumper stickers
  • Too rapidly dismissive of long-held traditions

Some of my students have had the following:

  • Speak too quickly, almost every round
  • Reliant on supporting sources to “speak for you” rather than using quotations to support your speaking
  • Bring up far too many issues to consider any one deeply
  • Overly complicated plan

You especially want to look for patterns from ballots here, like 5 people saying “too fast.” At some point, you’ll see that what you discount as an unimportant feedback point is corroborated by the masses.


Opportunities are the trickiest to understand. They are all about areas that are ripe for the picking, where some small investment would provide large rewards. I like to use the Pareto Principle, otherwise known as the 80/20 rule, here: a 20% change can affect 80% impact. Look for the minimal change needed for maximum reward.

Some opportunities I’ve seen in debaters include:

  • Becoming an expert in the topic, able to discuss at the level of authors and journals rather than news sources and pundits
  • Learning new case structures and theories that are “next” for the debater’s level
  • Getting to the bottom of a particular topic, like depleted uranium munitions or the real impact of sanctions in Iran
  • Learning to respect the judge, even though that judge doesn’t know as much about debate, because debate is a tool for life

Opportunities are often the most difficult to see, but the most rewarding paths for growth. What you’re really doing in identifying these is what I’d call “self-coaching” or “self-managing,” which is a critical 21st Century skill. It’s identifying the best next steps to take, that are achievable and customized to you. Too often we have obscure goals to chase, but the how of getting there is far off. Your opportunities should focus on a “how” that is a stretch next step for you personally.

Right now, for me as a coach, these opportunities are:

  • Understand better which coaching lessons and techniques really paid off for students 8-10 years later, since former students are now in the professional world
  • Learn a new body of knowledge in rhetoric (I’ve chosen Cicero and Quintillian for 2015)
  • Create forums to discuss what is “really real” amongst debaters, so they can clash and learn about what matters most


The threats are different than weaknesses, but may stem from weaknesses. They are the sharp potential results. For example:

  • Team X’s case, which you aren’t prepared for, is adopted by more debaters
  • Losing your patience in cross-examination
  • Getting distracted by small arguments, when instead you should be looking for their linkages and addressing the big picture
  • Judges who think like engineers (you ask for eggs and a loaf of bread from the store, the engineer brings back two loaves of bread and argues that there are eggs in it)… (Ok, that’s my personal most significant communications threat in debate and life. I speak in generalities and examples that illustrate something larger, but engineers tend to build context for the big picture by stacking up all the small items in it.)


Now you analyze your SWOT. You’re looking to neutralize the threats and improve your weaknesses, looking to the strengths and opportunities lists as a major part of your toolkit for doing so. The strengths and opportunities are the low-hanging fruit, as it were, but you may come up with different items than you find there to address or overcome the weaknesses and threats.

Then you hold yourself (and your partner, if you have one) to the action plan generated from the SWOT analysis.

When to SWOT… Anytime

For competitors, I recommend doing this SWOT three times a year. Once after the first tournament, once before the most important qualifier, and once before nationals. For professionals, gathering the feedback is more challenging, but you should try and do a SWOT twice a year as best you can. You’ve got piles of ballots to sort through!

And that’s how to apply this business tool to debate. Use it on yourself, your team, or your squad for a clearer roadmap to improvement.

Excerpted from Upside Down Debate, by Isaiah and Betsy McPeak

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