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5 Tips for Winning a Debate

You might not be on a national stage like Mitt Romney and President Obama, but you can take some cues from the pros. Here's how to win even the most casual debate.
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With the first televised debate between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney upon us, I thought I'd pass along some tips for winning your next debate. Sure, you might not be on a national stage, but whether that debate occurs in the question-and-answer period after a speech, with a fellow panelist in front of a crowd, or in a new business meeting, you can take some cues from the pros. My decades of work in public relations have taught me a few things about wooing the crowd, and besting your opponent (while staying humble). Here's how it's done:

Gather your thoughts before you deliver the zinger.

When I media train an Inc. 500 CEO who's preparing for a live interview on, say, CNBC, I tell her about her rights. Those rights include thinking before speaking. So, when a pit bull reporter begins his interrogation with something like: "Ms. Smedley, isn't it true that Smedley & Smedley executives take more vacation days than any competitor in your industry?" Ms. Smedley already knows to take a deep breath, lean back and repeat the question. This provides a few, critical seconds with which to reflect and respond in a calm and measured way: "On the contrary, Smedley & Smedley's work-life balance ratio is best-in-class, and enables us to attract and retain the most talented executives in the field."

That's exactly what Democratic vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen did when Republican challenger Dan Quayle said he had the same level of experience as John F. Kennedy. "I served with Jack Kennedy," said Bentsen. "I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." Zing!

Remember the non-verbal components of a debate.

Who can forget Al Gore's endless sighing during the 2000 debates against Republic contender George W. Bush? As a Time Magazine piece at the time noted, "It (Gore's non-verbals) sparked endless mockery as did his leaving the podium and coming within inches of Bush during a response." When I work with CEOs, I purposely bait them to see how they'll handle confrontation. I videotape their responses, show them how out-of-control they appear and then work with them to take a more statesmanlike tack. The same is true with listless speakers. I'd be a rich man today if I had a dollar for every time I said to a CEO I was training at the time, "If you're not excited about your message, why should your audience be?" Mind the non-verbals, and always use positive, proactive gestures to reinforce a point.

Be self-deprecating (but never be dumb).

I'm a big believer in using self-deprecating humor to show vulnerability and project more authenticity in a speech or debate ("I, myself, may be clueless as you suggest, Mr. Pencilneck. But, the men and women with whom I work possess more than a century's worth of knowledge on the topic." Nice, no? That said, there's a fine line between authenticity and being authentically out of touch with reality. Case in point: Third Party candidate Ross Perot's 1992 Vice Presidential running mate, Admiral James Stockdale, who opened his debate by asking, "Who am I? Why am I here?" Viewers had no clue as to the answer to that question and, sadly, neither did Stockdale. Be self-deprecating, but counter balance it with thoughtful, carefully-crafted rhetoric.

Admit fault.

To err is human. To forgive divine. But, too many executives, caught up in the heat of the moment, refuse to admit they erred in a previous comment. This can kill a speech, panel discussion or debate. I always counsel clients to admit fault, but then bridge back to a key message. "Yes, Ms. Hammertoes, I did serve 30 days for driving under the influence. But, having performed 100 hours of community service, I feel I've become an even better leader in the automotive industry. In fact, I think it's one of the reasons we were just ranked No. 1 in the J.D. Power survey." Back in 1976, President Gerald R. Ford said in a televised debate, "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe." There most certainly was, but Ford refused to back down. Needless to say, a guy by the name of Carter ended up winning the election.

Turn a perceived weakness into a memorable strength.

In the 1984 presidential debates between President Ronald Reagan and Democratic contender Walter Mondale, there was genuine concern that Reagan had lost a step and was simply too old to run for re-election. When a reporter raised the point, Reagan sighed, "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience." Even Mondale laughed out loud. I do the same thing whenever a prospect asks us about our global breadth and depth. "Do we have feet on the ground in Uzbekistan, no? But, if you're looking for the Who's Who of the best PR practitioners in this country, just look around the room. Our Who's Who always trumps their Who's That?"

IMAGE: borman818; IowaPolitics.com/Flickr
Last updated: Oct 2, 2012

STEVE CODY | Columnist

I'm a climber, comedian, and dog lover. But not necessarily in that order. I also happen to be co-founder and CEO of Peppercomm, a strategic communications firm headquartered in NYC, with offices in San Francisco and London. I publish RepMan, a daily blog, and have had the opportunity to appear on CNBC, MSNBC, NPR, and a host of other top-tier media over the years. scody@peppercomm.com

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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