It’s debate season in America. Every night, as an alternative to football or the World Series, you can watch somebody debating. Millions watch these debates, breathless, to see if one candidate “wins” or “loses.”
Yesterday, I played the President in a series of debates at Oakton High School. The week before, I was the Democratic surrogate at Olam Tikvah synagogue. I have no idea if my performance was effective (or not), but I sure enjoyed it.
Anyway, here’s a few tips for surviving debate season:
1. Be yourself. Inevitably, consultants will tell you how to act (“be tough”, “be sincere”, “appear open-minded”) in a debate. What a waste of time. Be yourself. Rely on your own instincts and emotions. It’s easier to do and saves emotional energy.
2. Be prepared. This is a close runner-up to #1. Never walk into a debate without a feel for the subject matter. Yes, it’s easier if you’re an elected official already, as you probably spend several hours a week on certain standard issues: health care, higher education, Medicaid, etc. But, if there’s a new issue (e.g. Mideast policy), take the time to read some articles and get different viewpoints.
3. Be entertaining. OK, this may be harder for some people, but you’ve got to try. Most of my public speaking skills, I’ve learned from two sets of people: preachers and comedians. Here’s what I learned: Speak clearly and modulate your voice to stress important points. Keep the audience engaged. Make fun of yourself. (Reagan was a master at this). Look at the audience, not at your notes.
4. Listen to the question and answer it. Avoid an unrelated and unexplained diatribe. It makes you appear evasive and contrived. As a helpful hint, repeat the question before answering. If you do want to make an unrelated point, be open about it. (“I’ve answered the question. Now in my last 30 seconds, I’m going to talk briefly about something else.”)
5. Stick around afterwards. OK, this is hard. And I’ve not been perfectly compliant, as I had to leave my last two debates immediately afterwards to make other appointments. However, if you have time, stick around. It shows the audience that you’re not just there to be on stage, but you also want to meet them and learn more informally.
OK, those are the rules of debating. Another rule: everyone makes mistakes! If you do, make sure you correct it afterwards (or even during the debate). At the end of the day, the debate is not about facts and figures. It’s about how you present as a candidate. Confuse the experts by being honest and forthright about the fact that you don’t know everything.