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What makes a good debater?

David Steinberg, the University of Miami’s director of debate and an expert in debate tactics, tells us what to look for in the upcoming presidential debate.
Presidential debate
CNN is hosting the first presidential debate this election season between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump. Photo: The Associated Press

Thursday night at the CNN studios in Atlanta, Georgia, President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump will face each other in the first presidential debate of the 2024 election season. 

There will be no audience. Each candidate will get to outline their political platform and why they are the best candidate for the job. 

David Steinberg, associate professor of professional practice at the University of Miami School of Communication and director of debate, shares his thoughts on what makes a good debater.

“The campaign debate is part high pressure, public job interview, part Jeopardy, part press conference, and minimally, a debate,” Steinberg said. “It is focused more on performance than critical analyses of competing issues. It is the one time when the largest audience of prospective voters from both sides have occasion to view both candidates simultaneously.” 

Steinberg weighs in on the following questions.

What makes a good debater? 

In political campaign debates, a good debater meets and exceeds the expectations of their audience. They identify and address the concerns of stakeholders and prospective voters in a manner that matches their audiences’ visions of effective leadership. They successfully engage viewers by relating to them and their emotions, values, and beliefs, by demonstrating an understanding of audience hardships and aspirations, and by offering a shared vision for a better future. And they tell stories.

Ultimately, what makes the “good” debater is their ability to connect with their audience and meet the moment. 

Political campaign debates differ from academic debates, legal debates, philosophical and policy debates. The winner—and both will “win” among some part of their audiences—is not the one who better employs logic, reasoning, and proof across specific points or wins by debater’s rules, but the candidate who can strategically speak to swayable prospective voters and to the media pundits and other opinion leaders who will impact swayable voters, generating a more positive overall impression than their opponent. 

Good debaters offer listeners at least one “take away.” This may be an important line or statement which is essential to characterizing themes or visions differentiating them from their opponents, or just a memorable moment.

Does showing aggressive language work in one’s favor when debating? 

Language and style in campaign debates is impacted by trends across all public communication. Historically, a standard of civility and decorum reflecting what has been perceived within our dominant cultures as elevated courtesy and mutual respect has been expected. Since the first televised presidential debates in 1960, the level of formality of language has incrementally diminished. However, debates have usually continued to reflect expectations that participants interact within norms of friendly and polite conversation and deference. 

This has been a measure of character and leadership as assessed by viewers and commentators. When Vice President Al Gore was overheard sighing audibly and seen rolling his eyes during George W. Bush’s speaking in the 2000 campaign debates, he was criticized, and some think he was perceived to have lost the debates based on the negative impact of his nonverbal discourtesy. 

Aggressive language and style reflect a violation of our long-standing norms for public communication and debates, and in general, are assessed as a reflection of open disrespect and lack of consideration causing most people to ascribe poor character and ineffective leadership style to the user. Aggressive language and style would generally be an ineffective choice for audiences. Assertive approaches which offer humble confidence are generally much more effective. However, the key is in the audience and for an audience for whom the vibe is anger and alienation, an aggressive approach may be very effective. For those who feel alienated by the norms of dominant culture, the debater who breaks the rules serves as their voice and thus offers a performative statement of support and identification. And for some, they may be more entertaining. 

What are some pitfalls that debaters should avoid? 

Campaign debates derive much of their impact from the spin offered by the campaigns, pundits, and media coverage and distribution. In this era of social media, spin occurs in real time during the debate and is augmented by memes and repeated coverage post-debate. For much of the history of televised debates, it has been the zinger and the gaff that were the measure of debate success or failure. Gaffs may result from mistakes, as when President Gerald Ford incorrectly made the statement that "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe" during a 1976 debate with Jimmy Carter or miscalculating the impact or subsequent spin of a remark, as when Governor Michael Dukakis answered a question inviting him to envision the murder and rape of his wife with a dispassionate argument opposing the death penalty. Both were avoidable mistakes. Candidates must not only avoid misinformation but must also give thought to how their comments will be interpreted.

What kind of body language works when delivering answers in a debate? 

It is the goal of the candidate to convey competence and confidence. We perceive this to be conveyed by eye contact, emphatic phrasing employing faster than normal rate accentuated with extended pauses, and effective use of smiles and facial expression. Everyone has their own unique personal style and so there is not one universal set of rules for delivery.  Each candidate will use their own personal style. President Ronald Reagan presented a friendly and empathetic persona and was masterful at timing his well-placed zingers. President Barack Obama was professorial at times yet maintained a personable tone. 

In general, a debater should work to come across as personable, caring, empathetic, thoughtful, competent, and articulate. In addition, the candidate is advised to convey strength through forceful and assertive support of advocacy and proposals. 

Also, a debater is communicating whenever they are on camera, speaking or not. The most important message may be sent while the opponent is speaking. George H.W. Bush may have lost when he looked at his watch during a debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot in 1992. Effective nonverbal reactions can effectively rebut or diminish an opponent’s position. 

What are some of the key points that a political candidate should bring up to show their experience for the post?

When a candidate has accomplished policy achievements in the past, it can be relevant and valuable to reference them, especially when the accomplishment is not well known or understood by key targets within their audience. However, their focus is best placed, not on the legislation, policy, or decision itself as a bullet point of accomplishment, but on its positive impacts on people and their lives and its promise for future progress and benefit. More time and focus should be spent on a vision for the future than on the past.