Accessibility links

Breaking News

VOA's Avi Arditti and Kate Woodsome Interview Debate Experts Jarrod Atchison and Allan Louden

Read, listen and learn English with this story. Double-click on any word to find the definition in the Merriam-Webster Learner's Dictionary.

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have their teams of advisors and aides to help them prepare for their three presidential debates. (The first of the 90-minute debates is at 0100 UTC Thursday.) But what about the rest of us who would like some help improving our skills at structuring a winning argument -- whether at work, at school or at home. VOA's Avi Arditti and Kate Woodsome asked two experts at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for advice. Assistant professor Jarrod Atchison is the director of the debate program, and Allan Louden chairs the Department of Communication.

KATE WOODSOME: "And so, Allan, when we talk about structure, what is the winning structure for somebody?"

ALLAN LOUDEN: "The winning structure in the political debates as we know them is whatever the soundbite or the post-narrative is, and so that's a political judgment. In a debate we're actually trying to privilege, if you will, the quality of the argument and the level of support and foundation for it."

KATE WOODSOME: "So what you're saying, the winning strategy essentially is to have a good quip."

ALLAN LOUDEN: "Well, I'm not saying that that's what the candidates want or anybody pays lip service to. But in reality that is the political reality of how debates often play out, but not always."

AVI ARDITTI: "Which, actually, I was going to bring this up later, but this may be a good time to bring up the question of the 'zing.' We keep hearing about, in the talk up to the presidential debates, will there be zings. Is that a formal term in the world of debate, or do you folks kind of turn up your nose at that?"

ALLAN LOUDEN: "Now zing in terms of debate, I'm going to let Jarrod take that."

JARROD ATCHISON: "Well, in academic debate obviously what a zing normally means is that you find a moment in the interaction where one person encapsulates a fundamental flaw in the other person's argumentation style. So the best zings are whenever you use a turn of phrase against your opponent, something they've said that you could actually change a little bit.

"If you think of the Ted Kennedy clip that was played about claiming that Romney was 'multiple choice' instead of pro-choice or pro-life, things like that are what play so well because they encapsulate so much of the debate in one small snippet of argumentation."

KATE WOODSOME: "In addition to these quips or these short moments that encapsulate bigger issues, the debate is an opportunity for each candidate to define or clarify their stance on major issues, political issues. Can you tell us a little bit about the preparation that takes place for this?"

ALLAN LOUDEN: "The real key to preparing them is to get the candidates able to give their point in a concise, short and still substantive way. The other thing I would say on that is that we often talk about policy explanation. Part of what people judge debates on is a person's just knowledge, and hence the incumbent usually has an advantage, because they're president, after all.

"And we also judge them on -- a good example of that was in the primary debates when Newt Gingrich had a couple of breakout debates early on. He just knew more about things. So there is a judgment which says, 'This person is knowledgeable and has a handle and control of an issue which is independent of their stance.' There's something about the quality of knowledge."

AVI ARDITTI: "Well, now let's take a step out of the academic debate structure, the setting, to maybe the more commonplace, everyday kind of interactions people have with colleagues, with superiors, with co-workers, classmates, where you want to make an effective argument, you want to persuade people. Could you maybe give us or our audience some kind of insider tips -- maybe start with Jarrod -- insider tips into framing arguments, making winning arguments."

JARROD ATCHISON: "Sure. Well, 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 I would say the best debaters are the people who can find principles that they can get their opponents to agree to, and then argue from those principles. So the easier you can find a universal principle that everyone in the room, from the audience members to your opponent, can agree to, if you can use that principle to argue from, then you don't have to fight the fight about the basics of the evidence that are relevant at hand.

"And my last tip would be that the best debaters are the best listeners. And what frustrates an audience is when someone doesn't take the time to trace the evolution of an argument because they're so fixated on repeating their perspective. They don't come to find the points of agreement which are then crucial to evolving the argument."

ALLAN LOUDEN: "If you would indulge me, I think there's a pretty good example where you had a real debate, was [President Jimmy] Carter and [Republican challenger Ronald] Reagan. And the debate was different than the ones we have now because they had four rebuttals, so people could actually interchange. There was an important question in that debate about nuclear proliferation. By the fourth round, where they were actually kind of on their own and not doing the prepared statements, Reagan was talking about witch doctors and world policy somehow.

"Carter talked about talking to his daughter about nuclear proliferation. So every camera team in DC was at her school the next day because of the amusement of a tenth grader, about Amy. Had he heard what Reagan said and used that, if any of these candidates were to talk about what the other person actually says, that would enhance their position considerably."

KATE WOODSOME: "Tell us about some of the most common traps that one can fall into."

JARROD ATCHISON: "Well, I would say one of the most common traps people can fall into is attempting to argue by historical analogy. They think that having one strong historical example to support their side will seal the deal from an argumentative perspective. But if they're debating or arguing with someone who understands history, then they've opened themselves up to the importance of empiricism and historical moments to frame the direction of the debate.

"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.' So you have to be very careful in deploying history in argumentation."

ALLAN LOUDEN: "I would say that one of the traps we fall into is underestimating the audience, that the audience's ability to follow the arguments and to actually be impressed by knowledge and interchange and expertise, etcetera, is way underestimated. 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."

AVI ARDITTI: "Now getting back to Kate's question about traps to avoid, within the context of everyday argumentation -- let's say there's a dispute with a colleague and you're both trying to make a case to your boss, why you should go with Plan A and not Plan B -- what are some terms to avoid, what are some terms to use, to make a more effective argument in that kind of context?"

JARROD ATCHISON: "Well, in that context what's crucial is to avoid the absolutes. 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.

"And so the second thing I would say is once again returning to the question of the audience, if it is honestly a proposal between A and B for a boss to decide, that would be a moment where arguing through the lens of the boss' perspective on what matters is going to be a crucial part of the debate, rather than thinking speaking from their personal experience will automatically make them sound more credible. It may be the case that their personal experience isn't relevant for what the boss is determining in a particular situation."

AVI ARDITTI: "You're not suggesting to pander, are you, to your boss?"

JARROD ATCHISON: "No, I think that most bosses see right through that. In fact, that's probably what Dr. Louden says, it's a disaster if you try to pander to an audience. I mean more something along the lines of, if a new employee thinks that they're going to pitch Plan A based on their two or three years of experience, and the boss who's been there for 30 years and seen it all before, is not likely to be impressed by their simple assertion that this person believes that they know all of what's to be said on a subject. A more nuanced approach that says 'In my limited experience, here's what I have observed' is going to be far more effective than claiming to know it all."

AVI ARDITTI: "Let me just interject for a second here. What happens in a situation where that experienced boss does actually -- what does the other employee then, if the boss is seen to be favoring the newcomer's position, what if you are in an opposing position, how do you reclaim that lost ground?"

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. The successful argument I think Jarrod is suggesting there is to, from the boss' point of view, what makes sense and what is an advantage. That becomes part of your argument."

JARROD ATCHISON: "And if you feel it slipping away, if you feel like the opponent is accessing that in a way that you're not, then first and foremost what you have to do is be willing to acknowledge what parts of your opponent's arguments are persuasive. And I think the difference between a junior varsity debater and a varsity debater is that a junior varsity debater knows how to say that their opponent is wrong in all instances. 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."

KATE WOODSOME: "And I think that's kind of a tip for navigating all kinds of relationships, personal and professional, on stage or off. If you can acknowledge that your conversational partner is right, suddenly you have the upper hand. [Laughs]"

ALLAN LOUDEN: "Absolutely."

JARROD ATCHISON: "People like they are giving up too much, when in actuality they are probably gaining credibility."

AVI ARDITTI: "I'm curious, being a trained or experienced debaters such as yourself, does it ever create problems in your personal or professional relationships?"

JARROD ATCHISON: "Well, I'm lucky in that I married my wife who is one of the top debaters in the country, so we both have a debate background. But where I find that things happen [is] when someone finds out you have a debate background and then uses that as sort of an excuse for either not engaging in an argument with you or for not fully engaging, when they'll say, 'Oh, well, you're just a debater."

KATE WOODSOME: "What's the conversation like around your dinner table? [Laughter]"

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."


AVI ARDITTI: "And, Allan, any point to add to that?"

ALLAN LOUDEN: "I'm not going to go near that one. I think as chair of a department which is a mix of different cultures, because we do everything from film to rhetorical analysis, argumentation, they're kind of different worlds. There are argumentative cultures in which people have ways of arguing and understanding and also not feeling attacked and/or feeling supported.

"In the end, you basically, like you say, it's not just conceding their argument makes sense. Often their argument does make sense, and being able to hear that and do the transcendent notion -- Obama has that kind of ability in these debates sometimes to say, 'You know, OK, everything's not perfect, here's the next step.' A person who's challenging is a lot more limited because they kind of go after the other person all the way, all the time, because that is the shtick. They don't have the record to fall on and to reason from, and to be -- not always, but you can be reasonable and disagree and be transcendent."

KATE WOODSOME: "I've noticed with the evolution of technology and social media that young people have a very different way of communicating with each other than generations to prior to them."

AVI ARDITTI: "Have you noticed -- "

ALLAN LOUDEN: "Not face to face."

AVI ARDITTI: "Well, actually, yeah, I mean have you over the years noticed a change at all in the quality -- "


AVI ARDITTI: " -- of argumentation skills?"

ALLAN LOUDEN: "Hmm. Of course the obvious thing to say, 'Well, of course, it was better when,' but I don't know if that's true. It's just different. It's not necessarily better. I do think there's an attention span and ability which has somewhat shifted, and so has our teaching, and it's shifted with the culture and the media and all these other inputs. And so we have so much more to play with, even in a class, that in fact it probably ought to shift. I wouldn't go there. I'm not sure that it's bad or good, I just think it may be somewhat different."

AVI ARDITTI: "Is this something people can learn? Well, I didn't do debate -- I don't know about you, Kate."

KATE WOODSOME: "I did not."

AVI ARDITTI: "I didn't do debate in high school or college."

KATE WOODSOME: "I'm very emotional. [Laughter]"

AVI ARDITTI: "Is there is a good resource that either of you would recommend for someone who wants to bulk up their abilities to debate or to present arguments?"

JARROD ATCHISON: "The first answer is, absolutely. Everyone can improve their argumentation skills. In terms of resources, you know, I think that there are tons of different argumentation-related books out there people can read. 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?'

"The basic skill of switch-side debating, which is what we use to train, anyone can do. 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 the strengths and weaknesses of your opponent's position."