What Makes a Good Debater?

Healthy debate is key to a successful advisory board. As we’ve said before, if everyone on a board agreed on everything, there’d be no healthy discussion and no one would learn anything.

But the key word here is “healthy.” That starts with your member knowing how to be a good debater. To take us through it, we sat down with Brendan Lea, the faculty advisor of the Bishop Strachan School’s debating team one of the city’s most successful squads.

Impetus: Thanks for sitting down with us.


Mr. Lea: My pleasure.


I: You’ve coached and judged debates all over the world. What’s the one trait that all good debaters have?


ML: That’s easy. They’re prepared. They’ve done all the reading they can get their hands on about the subject matter, from both sides. Because having a position is only one half of it. The other half is being able to refute the contradictory position.


I: So it’s about anticipation?


ML: Sort of. It’s about knowing the points of clash.


I: Point of clash?


ML: Yes. These are the issues you know are important to your opponent. So, in the pharmaceutical world, let’s say the discussion is going to be about what the best way to market a new medication is, and you know that someone on the board built his or her practice using online marketing, there’s a good chance they’ll press for that. They’ll be well-versed in it. And they’ll have a case study to prove their point. So if you’re there to rebut this position, you have to be able to match their passion for the subject, but from the opposite direction.


I: Speaking of passion, we’ve seen advisory boards get beyond heated from time to time. They usually devolve after that. What do you tell your team members when you see them escalate?


ML: Ha! I like how you phrased that.


I: How did I phrase it?


ML: Carefully. But yes, escalation happens, especially when someone is clearly on the ropes. Obviously, in your world, it’s not a competition as much as it is a means to an end, but that’s all the more reason to keep calm. I tell my team that it’s all about discipline. For example, debating convention dictates that debaters use proper salutations and protocol before addressing the opposition. It’s not just about being polite. Taking the time to do that actually calms your mind and forces you take a breath — even a small one. A lot of calming can happen in that split instant. Like sober second thought.


I: So you’d recommend that in an advisory board environment?


ML: Absolutely. In fact, I’d make it a rule of engagement.


I: It’s better than waiting for the conch to come around.


ML: Well, that’s not a bad idea either. My friend used to work for an advertising agency, and there was a foam brick in every meeting room. Only the person holding the brick could speak. It worked well.


I: What about speaking style? We’ve seen board meetings turn into shout matching and these were well-educated medical professionals.


ML: I’m not surprised. Education and conviction are linked. Generally speaking, the more you have of one, the more you have of the other. The key is to temper it.


I: How?


ML: Remember that you can be much more easily heard by speaking quietly and calmly. No one likes a yeller and in an environment like yours, yellers will just get tuned out. We don’t have that luxury in a competition, but I can tell you that I’ve never seen a yeller take home a trophy.


I: I like how you phrased that. Anything else?


ML: I would remind your members to consider their pacing as they speak. That comes with practise, but it also comes with practising. Before a meeting, I’d recommend that your members get into the habit of speaking slower and emphasizing their important words.