March 26, 2015 23:45 UTC

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How to Win a Debate, Presidential or Otherwise

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Stand-ins for moderator Jim Lehrer, center, Republican candidate Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama at a rehearsal for the first presidential debate on Wednesday at the University of Denver in ColoradoStand-ins for moderator Jim Lehrer, center, Republican candidate Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama at a rehearsal for the first presidential debate on Wednesday at the University of Denver in Colorado
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Stand-ins for moderator Jim Lehrer, center, Republican candidate Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama at a rehearsal for the first presidential debate on Wednesday at the University of Denver in Colorado
Stand-ins for moderator Jim Lehrer, center, Republican candidate Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama at a rehearsal for the first presidential debate on Wednesday at the University of Denver in Colorado

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President Obama and former governor Mitt Romney have teams of advisors and aides to help them prepare for their three debates. But what about the rest of us who would like some help winning an argument -- at work, at school or at home?

For advice, we asked two experts at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Allan Louden chairs the Department of Communication. Assistant professor Jarrod Atchison is the director of debate. His first piece of advice is to know your audience.

JARROD ATCHISON: "Before you know if you've won or lost, you have to know who the audience is or who the judge is. And so in everyday argumentation some people think that logic alone will prevail when sometimes that's not the most persuasive form of argument in a given situation. So you have to know your audience and what they consider to be relevant information for the debate at hand."

Second, find a "universal principle" that everyone in the room -- from the audience members to your opponent -- can agree to. Mr. Atchison says if you argue from that principle, "then you don't have to fight the fight about the basics of the evidence."

Third, he says the best debaters are the best listeners. They listen to what their opponent is saying, instead of just repeating their own position.

And fourth, he says, be "very careful in deploying history in argumentation." Some people think that having one strong historical example to support their side will win the argument. But their opponents may have other historical examples to support their side.

JARROD ATCHISON: "And a very good debater will always use that to their advantage by saying, 'Well, you may have identified one example that supports your direction. But here's a larger, more important example that supports my side.'"

Next, some advice about terms to avoid.

JARROD ATCHISON: "Where people tend to get in trouble is they try to use phrases like 'always' and 'never,' and we find these in our relational arguments as well, that nothing draws the ire of an audience than an overstated claim. Because then all the other person has to do is to make a little bit more nuanced argument about where under certain conditions a particular argument or Plan A makes sense versus Plan B. So one of the major mistakes people make is they try to think that they're arguing in absolutes to sound more persuasive, when in actuality it comes across as too ideological and not nuanced enough."

Professor Alllan Louden says debaters should be careful not to underestimate their audience's ability to follow the arguments.

ALLAN LOUDEN: "They're kind of assuming the first-time audience that doesn't know much, and they tend to pander, when in fact if you were to step it up a notch and actually say what your position was and defend it with support, etcetera, that would be well-received."

In the end, he says, people have to make up their mind for themselves.

ALLAN LOUDEN: "Ultimately, everybody persuades themselves, and the best message is that which solicits the person to whatever part of their cognitive makeup says that this is a good idea. Typically people see things from a point of view, so you pick a language which is in their language and you argue from a perspective which says 'This is to your advantage because,' things that they kind of agree with. People ultimately persuade themselves."

So what should you do if you feel like you are losing an argument? Jarrod Atchison says the first thing to do is to be willing to recognize what parts of your opponent's arguments are persuasive.

JARROD ATCHISON: "The best debaters in the country, from an academic perspective and in our daily lives, are the people that can acknowledge what parts of their opponent's arguments are correct, make sense, are persuasive -- 'however,' and then provide a warrant after the however that explains why their position is still more persuasive in the end."

Professor Atchison says everyone can improve their argumentation skills. There are lots of books that people can read.

JARROD ATCHISON: "But in my experience the best resource is evaluating your own arguments in action. And that can be something as self-reflective as sitting back and asking yourself, 'How did that conversation go? Was it where I wanted it to end up? Were there moments when I found myself acting reactionary rather than conceding that my opponent may have had something to say there?'

Another thing that can help, he says, is to use a method of debate training known as switch-side debating.

JARROD ATCHISON: "And that's where you basically stake a position and then argue from the opposite side. And if the better you are at being able to articulate the argument against your position, it will teach you both the skills of empathy, to learn that the other side might not be just as crazy as you think, but also to critique your own arguments by knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your opponent's position."

That was Jarrod Atchison, director of debate at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. Oh, and one more thing. He tells us that his wife is one of the top debaters in the country. So we wondered what the conversations are like around the dinner table.

JARROD ATCHISON: "Well, the best debaters know what arguments are worthy to argue about, and so we find that oftentimes we don't have as many arguments as our peers because we know what the nuclear option looks like."

Tell us about your own experience with debate and everyday argumentation. Share your comments and advice at the VOA Learning English page on Facebook. I'm Avi Arditti.
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Contributing: Kate Woodsome
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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Andre from: RAlsfsNJrIhAsBazSmV
10/12/2012 12:46 PM
There's nothing like the relief of fidinng what you're looking for.


by: ryo
10/05/2012 10:37 PM
This article is too difficult for me.

In Response

by: Hanz
10/09/2012 6:59 AM
Yub, I think so, I couldn't understand much.

In Response

by: vember kurnia from: indonesia
10/08/2012 10:08 AM
and why the dollar that could be used for all currencies in the world?


by: essaadi from: morocco
10/03/2012 7:27 PM
This article on the political debate is very instructive.
Thank you VOA.
The televised political debates attract a large audience. Becoming a great show of boxing heavyweights! We count the number of points and we expected especially the final knockout.
The best debaters are usually lawyers.
Debates were born in the USA before reaching France and more recently Germany.
These debates don’t reach yet the rest of the world.
History reveals great speeches such as those of Churchill
and those demagogic and inflamed of Hitler.


by: BIJU.P.Y. from: SOUTH INDIA
10/03/2012 4:54 PM
I think listening increases one's knowledge, for 'wise men learn more from fools than fools from wise men'. Thank you for trying to make us win in debates. But many of the points highlighted here are universal principles cut down to sizes. switch side debating may be new to us. But thanks anyway.


by: Alex Smirnoiv from: Russia
10/03/2012 3:03 PM
Once upon a time I was a middle class in Russia. Now, as Mr. Putin has said " We has not not created a middle class in Russia". So what is a middle class in Mr. Putin's understanding. I think that he is forcing events by а forgetting that "If I forget present I forget the more". What about his wife Lyudmila. What about a middle class.


by: senan from: Cambodia
10/03/2012 2:44 PM
if this text include mp3 the job is done.

In Response

by: Hanz
10/09/2012 6:58 AM
Its on the left of page, multilmedia


by: Alex Smirnov from: Russia
10/03/2012 2:34 PM
Please, do the photo of Mr. Mitt Romney more clearer. Now he is like in fog. It is a bad message by doing such thing. In Russia is no concurrence.


by: Yoshi from: Sapporo
10/03/2012 7:21 AM
It's ironical that those who have been completely persuaded by debaters as to ackowledge that their claim is completely wrong and opponent's idea is completely correct are often likely to hold inner anger and hostility toward the opponents. They would apt to take action totally against agreement. Hostility raised from losing pride seems have been breaking out not a few violent clashes in the world. I think we should become taking it more valuable how to concede than how to win when we confront the different thoughts.


by: Yoshi from: Sapporo
10/03/2012 5:59 AM
Yielding is sometimes the best way of succeeding. He stoops to conquer. We should seek not to win but to compromise in debate, shouldn't we?


by: Yoshi from: Sapporo
10/03/2012 5:49 AM
Winning the debate? Is there a winner or a loser in debate? Doesn't a Burma leader say the most important thing is to compromise? Where compromise is accomplished between the debaters, there is no winner nor loser. All of them are half-winning and half-losing, win-win relations.

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