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Debate Tip: Who is your audience?

Whenever you are about to engage in a debate, you should consider the question: “Who am I trying to persuade?”

To answer that question, you should first consider what your own goals are.

  • If this is a competitive debate that you want to win.
    • You need to persuade whoever is judging.
  • If you are trying to influence a specific decision.
    • You should target the person or people who will make that decision.
  • If you are engaged in a one on one, private debate.
    • You want to persuade the person you are arguing with.
  • If you are in a public forum.
    • You most likely want to persuade the audience or some portion of the audience.

Competitive Debate Judges

Most competitive debate judges are former competitive debaters. They treat debate as a sport. This means that they try to maintain some amount of impartiality.They are looking to judge your debate based on the quality of arguments and how well they link up to support or reject the resolution. Content and structure trump presentation and style.

You should try to address the audience rather than your opponent. Tell the judges why your arguments compel a judgment in your favor. Learn the conventions and terminology of the type of debate you are engaging in. Finally, make your arguments easy to summarize so that the judge can flow the debate effectively, getting all your arguments into their notes.

Decision Makers

The key to influencing decision makers is to see through their eyes. You want to understand what their goals and motivations are before you make your case. Whatever decision you want them to make, you need to frame it so that your position clearly meets those goals. Understand that if you are persuasive, this becomes their decision and their responsibility, so pitch it as their action, not your idea.

You want to avoid arguing against the decision maker’s current positions. This will put them in a defensive posture against you. Instead, you want to approach this presentation as an ally and confidant who is offering a new solution to their problems and challenges. Instead of directly attacking competing ideas, you want to turn attention towards yours and highlight the advantages of your position.

Personally, I find this kind of audience the hardest to argue for.

Private Debate

Empathy is key to persuading people in a private conversation or debate. Position yourself as a fellow truth seeker, not an opponent. Understanding how your discussion partner sees the world and processes ideas is key to making an impact. Like with a decision maker, pitching an argument to appeal to your partner’s goals and desires is a good move.

One key technique, when there is a wide gulf between you is to make an appeal to shared core values. Using that as a starting point, you can try to show how your position upholds those values. This makes it much harder for them to reject your position out of hand. Think of such debates as consisting of small steps that bring their view closer to yours. It often helps if you can take some steps towards their view, at least rhetorically. This builds trust and lowers natural defensiveness.

A Public Audience

There are two common motivations for arguing for an audience. The first is to argue to persuade members of the audience to adopt your view. This means reaching out to people who are undecided or favor your opponent’s view. The second is to argue to gain prestige and standing with audience members who already support your position. This may seem counter-intuitive to a debater, but it is very often the aim of politicians, salesmen, and business people when making an argument.

You might imagine that you can do both. That is possible, but it is often very difficult. That which would appeal to those already persuaded will likely alienate those in opposition. That which could speak to the opposition is likely going to be seen as weak or compromised by those who already hold your views.

Preaching to the Choir

This might seem a strange thing to do if you debate for pleasure, but in the real world, it is very common. When you see someone on a book tour taking part in a debate on TV, their real aim is to promote their work, not persuade people. Their target audience typically already agrees with them. Their goal is to demonstrate strident, powerful, and damning arguments that are red meat for their audience so they will rush out and buy the book.

Likewise, this is the key strategy of many political debates. Drumming up allies is often a lot more powerful in getting elected that trying to pull people from the other side of the aisle. Demonstrating you are a committed partisan and a fighter often means more than actually making a compelling argument to the opposition.

Swaying the Undecided

In some ways, this is a true debater’s ideal audience. They are waiting for you to say something that resonates with them and gives them a reason to make up their minds. Strong rational arguments are your bread and butter. Charisma and emotional resonance are also going to have a real impact.

It helps if you portray yourself as a seeker of truth and not a hard line partisan, yet at the same time, projecting confidence in your position is helpful. One of your challenges is that undecided groups are often a mix of critical thinkers, aware of the issues, and those who are largely uneducated on the topic at hand. You can appeal to both by being in command of the facts and presenting them clearly as part of your case.

Reaching across the Isle

To persuade an audience hostile to your viewpoint is a great challenge. Understanding the reasons they hold an opposing view is key. You want to get an idea of the values they hold dear and make sure your position can support those values. Furthermore, you want to work to undermine the connection between their view and those values if you can.

Keep in mind that moving someone from an opposing view to a favored one often takes time. Ultimately they have to make the decision to change their view. That means your job is not so much to confront them, but to plant the seeds of a new viewpoint, and give it room to grow its’s own. Subtlety is a lot more effective than brute force. You can lead them to water, but they have to decide to drink themselves.

Share your Knowledge

If you have some tips on identifying and reaching out to a targeted audience, we invite you to share! Leave a comment or join a conversation on our Facebook Page.