When I was fourteen, I was a computer nerd. I would grab 1,000-page behemoth books about programming and shred through them. My computery world went upside down when my mom met a fellow homeschool, Christian family at the YMCA: they had recently started up a speech and debate club. I think you know where this is going.
“Computer programmers don’t need to know how to speak in public!” and similar pleas did not dissuade my mother, who forced me to just try it out for a year. Parents usually know best, and this was one of those cases.
Something you need to know about me: whatever I get into, I get into. I don’t dabble. Before I even gave my first speech, white-knuckled hands clutching the paper, I decided I was going to get good at this.
It took a while. I was not a naturally talented speaker. Heck, who am I kidding? I was honestly awful. When a nervous wreck gives a speech, you’ll usually see some shifting feet, some voice wavering and stammering, etc. I pretty much took a list of everything you can do to make you a bad speaker, and I checked each box.
My hands were accustomed to typing away at a computer, not moving around to emphasize my words. My eyes were meant to look at a computer screen until they burned, not look people in the eye until they burned. My mind was much more comfortable crafting logical code blocks than crafting logical sequences of words.
My first year of debate was unremarkable and kind of pathetic, like when Jeb Bush said, “please clap”. My second year, my debate partner and I made it to outrounds at Nationals. Make no mistake—I was still not a good speaker. That entire year, I never got a speaker award. (My debate partner might have, but nothing above 10th place that I can remember). We crawled our way to Nationals and then to outrounds purely on the merit of our strong Affirmative case and logical arguments. I wouldn’t be surprised if the judges that voted for us held their noses as they checked the box.
My third year was a bit of a disaster, but my fourth year was when I was fed up with not getting speaker awards. Surely after four years of debate, after making it to Nationals, after writing all these debate briefs—surely I could give a good speech. I went a little crazy my fourth and last year. I read nearly ten books on public speaking and persuasion, scoured for helpful tips online, and practiced debate speeches whenever I got the chance. (By whenever I got the chance, I definitely mean in the shower. Some of my biggest speech masterpieces were delivered in the shower.)
I got one 12th place speaker award in my entire third year. But my fourth year, I got 1st, 1st, 2nd, 5th at Regionals, and 4th at Nationals. I got 4th speaker at Nationals without breaking—we went 3-3. My debate partner, Elijah Gonzales, went on to win Nationals with Simon Sefzik the year after.
The reason I tell you this is simple: I want you to realize that hard work and dedication to improvement do pay off. And it also makes a convenient first point for why debate is like marketing.
1. Both marketing and debate require initiative to learn
Good debaters seldom just arrive there by going to tournaments and writing briefs. They also take intentional steps to learn and improve. I’ve been told by multiple people that after reading my blog, Potent Speaking, they won first place speaker (or a high placing) at the next tournament. No, my blog is not magical, and just reading it won’t give you some kind of speaking superpower. The most likely reason these individuals experience success is because of the combination of a will to learn and the resources to do so. The same combination serves you well in marketing.
Marketing is a quickly changing profession, especially when you consider digital marketing. Google updates its search algorithm frequently, throwing off SEO (Search Engine Optimization) experts that seek to understand the beast. Popular social networks release new advertising and targeting features every week. Some major aspect of digital marketing changes every year, I’d argue, and minor things change weekly.
To be a good marketer, you need to have a hunger to learn and apply. It helps if you find marketing interesting because then reading the latest updates in the field won’t be dreary.
2. Most debaters can be good at marketing
In speech and debate, you learn how to convey a message in a compelling manner to an average person. As you get better at it, you don’t just cater to the average person: you also learn to change your message according to the audience. Your strategy with an older female judge will likely be different than your strategy with a young alumni debater judge.
Marketing is the same way. You can apply everything you know about making compelling and memorable speeches to advertising. I was able to write a post about a popular book among marketers, Made to Stick, and apply it to debate.
Look. If you are good at speech and debate, if you like reading books about persuasion or speaking tips, or if you read blogs to improve your craft: you will be good at marketing. I can almost guarantee it.
You’ll walk into the marketing program at college and shred through tests. You might even win awards. I’m not recommending it if you just don’t like marketing, but it’s likely that you don’t know enough about the subject to make that decision right now.
Only around 5-10% of my classmates in marketing can get up and deliver a presentation without being tied to their notes or the powerpoint screen. But if you’ve ever made it far in impromptu speaking or debate, you’ve proven you can speak for several minutes about whatever you want without any notes and make it sound good.
Last week, I competed in a marketing case competition that reminded me of the extemporaneous speech event. We (a team of 3) were given a marketing case with a central question (what Target should do about its decreasing profit margins as a result of its grocery section). We had three hours to figure out our answer, come up with a PowerPoint presentation on one laptop with no internet access, and deliver a 20-minute presentation to business experts along with 10 minutes of Q&A.
I signed up for the event not knowing what to expect, and my team took second place in a very close, split decision. I know for sure that without my experience in extemporaneous (synthesizing information quickly, learning about a new topic under pressure, delivering with few notes) and debate (answering difficult cross-examination questions instantly and argumentation) our team would not have placed.
In the NCFCA or Stoa debate leagues, winning is nice, but no one really cares once you graduate and there’s no cash prize. It’s just a line on your resume, at best. Winning case competitions, though, could really accelerate a career.
If you decide to pursue marketing, you have a huge advantage.
3. Marketing has diverse opportunities for you
Many people have an incorrect image of what marketing is. When I took my first class on the subject, I just thought of it as advertising. In reality, there’s a lot more to it. We are taught from the beginning that marketing is broken down into four P’s: Product, Price, Place, and Promotion. If promotion is advertising, what are the rest?
The product itself is part of marketing. For example, packaging influences how people see the product and their likelihood to purchase it. Some products are meant to make people want to purchase based on emotion—just like those dreaded emotional appeal arguments in debate. Debate gives you a pretty good idea of what makes some people tick, which helps with this.
While most people assume prices are set by looking at the cost to produce a product and choosing a profit margin, there’s a lot more to it. Sometimes companies choose a high price just to make the product seem prestigious, for example. It’s much like wearing a pair of fake glasses to look smart in debate.
Distribution of the product is important. Will you only sell online? Or will you offer your product exclusively through pop-up vending machines like Snapchat did with their Spectacles? This is an oft-overlooked aspect of marketing.
The types of jobs that you can get under marketing are diverse. Here are just a few examples:
- User experience research (learning from people in order to make your product better or easier to use).
- Copywriting (if you’re good at writing a persuasive speech, many of those skills will transfer).
- Online advertising (same deal, plus your learning instinct will serve you well. Online advertising is a constant testing and learning process, much like trying to improve your case or your speaking style).
- Brand management (how do people perceive your company? It’s a very psychological field, much like persuasion).
- Direct sales (not generally considered a part of marketing, but there’s a lot of crossover. If you’re good at convincing a judge to vote for you, you’ll be good at convincing a customer to order something from you).
- … and more.
4. Job automation is coming—but marketing is relatively safe
The reality is, many common jobs are going to be automated in the near future. Manufacturing jobs are shrinking, and next on the chopping block are driving-based jobs. If you read articles about the advancing field of robotics, it’s rather frightening how many jobs will likely disappear in the next 20-30 years.
But while automation software can make a marketer’s job easier, computer code is still incapable of writing marketing copy or coming up with marketing strategies. Robots can’t manage a brand or persuade someone to buy something. Marketing is one of the safest jobs when it comes to automation. In fact, if all of marketing got taken over by robots, I can’t think of a single better industry to be in at that point.
Conclusion and next steps
Interested in marketing? I recommend you do the following things to gauge your interest and get started:
1. Read Made to Stick, Pre-Suasion, and Contagious.
This will give you a solid background about the human brain and persuasive techniques. If you find those books interesting, you’ll probably find marketing interesting. And they will help you with debate, too! These are not strictly marketing books, but you’ll have plenty of time to read those later if you enjoy the subject.
You can find the list here. At first there will be a learning curve, but you’ll get the hang of it eventually. It’s much like researching for a brief against a completely new case.
3. Start practicing.
Look up how to start a WordPress website for free, and then try it. You don’t even have to make it public. Write some blog posts about the stuff you learn, to help you process it. If you want to really challenge yourself, try to build a public blog and invite friends to read it. (That’s how Potent Speaking got started—part debate passion, part marketing practice. Now I make money coaching, so it was worth it.)
While marketing is not for everyone, I’ve found it to have fairly universal appeal. And if you ever want to start your own business, marketing knowledge of any level will be helpful. Give it a try—I’m sure you’ll find that your speech and debate experience makes it intuitive.