What 30 days of interviewing the world’s best debaters taught me about being a better strategist.
Every year, thousands of the best minds in the world stand behind polished podiums, clear their throats, and begin a round of verbal warfare. They grapple with incredibly complex topics, from international relations to philosophy and gender. They interrupt each other, clashing and rebutting without breaking a sweat. And they do it all in the confines of a 7 minute speech, with 15 minutes of preparation.
Six years ago, I stepped onto a stage next to them, with a pit in my stomach — and floundered.
I was never a particularly good debater. I competed for a few years, got a couple of minor awards, but I never rose above mediocre. There was always something I couldn’t crack — a barrier I couldn’t see, a wall I kept hitting. Eventually, my coaches sat me down and gave that wall a name. “Marco, you’re not bad at debate — you’re just not good at strategy”.
To this day, every time I think of those words, that pit in my stomach comes back. Here’s the thing: I work in strategy. It’s literally my job title!
So why was I so utterly un-strategic in the realm of debate? What couldn’t I crack? Where had I gone wrong all those years ago — and am I doomed to repeat it?
This month, I’ve gone back to my roots, interviewing some of the best debaters across Asia and South America, and seeing if I could learn from them now what I couldn’t before.
Strategy is Sacrifice.
There is a green, rusty trashcan I love that lives in the parking lot of my old Economics building — it was the best place to sit during debate rounds. The UP Debate Society was one of the best teams in the country, but due to budget issues, we never had any classrooms to practice in. We’d stay out on the ground — arguing in corridors, judging in parking lots.
There was something vaguely militaristic about the experience — it felt like a willing sacrifice, something that forged us tougher. And sacrifice is something that a lot of the Society’s best members know by heart, especially when it comes to their arguments.
As Kyle and Nina, hosts of the podcast Debatabl, say:
“Newer debaters usually focus on creating arguments (in their speeches). But having a lot of arguments doesn’t mean that you will win. When I was a new debater, I once ran fourteen arguments within seven minutes. None of them were tied to a strategy. As I should have predicted back then, it didn’t work.”
Different debaters have different terms for strategy — the core controversy. The burden of the motion. The crux of the debate, the one main question that needs to be solved.
But they all agree on one thing — once you find your answer to the question, every word you say must link back to that answer. Anything else is unimportant. Anything else is a distraction.
If in a debate about abortion, you’ve chosen to base your strategy on the principles of human rights — then there’s no point arguing about the cost of abortion, or the uncertain safety of its procedures.
“The main rule of strategy is simple: tie it back to the argument, tie it back to the motion. So that’s another thing: each argument solves the same goal. Don’t be afraid to abandon other nice arguments in favor of clarity.”
— Francine Malantic, National Quarterfinalist
This spirit of terrible, unrelenting simplicity makes sense in marketing too — once a brand finds its message, its controversy, nothing else matters. After all, we know that the more messages a brand adds into an ad, the fewer people will take out.
Uncommon do this brilliantly well — their campaign for On The Beach, for instance, focuses on one thing, and drops everything else.
This skill hasn’t always been easy for me. As a young debater, I was excited to pile on every argument I could. As a young planner, I used to feel the same way about strategy. I would sneak in my “darlings” — added stats, fragmented thoughts, unrelated ideas — harmless fragments that would prove how hard I’ve worked.
But debaters know that every second you spend on those fragments means time and attention taken away from what matters. As a strategist, sometimes you’ve just got to let those darlings die.
But answering your core question is only the first step. After all, your opponents have their own answer too.
Strategy is Adaptation
I knew Vivian Garciacano was a debater the moment she stepped on stage. We were competing in the English Speaking Union’s public speaking competition, and though we were miles away from my debate society and its beloved trashcan, her style was instantly recognisable.
It was the way she spoke. The way she held the audience (and later, the trophy) in the palm of her hand. But most of all, it was the way she listened. She’s since written a book about debate, and while talking about it, she said something that surprised me.
Strategy is a map — you have to understand where you want to go, where you want to take your audience. It’s not just your moves, but theirs, what they’re going to think. Your case needs to encompass their ideas too.
And she’s echoeing the voices of many top debaters — who know that what you say is less important than how you listen.
But in our industry, listening is too often an overlooked skill.
So often we focus on our own pitch. Our own brand. Our own point of view. But what happens when a competitor brand makes a move? When a client has a completely different frame in mind? How do we adapt our strategies to the cold realities of the outside world?
A speech may be a one-way street, but strategy is a bustling intersection — one we need to learn to navigate.
Strategy is Reframing
In advertising, quite a few of us may be familiar with reframing as a creative technique. We usually see brands reframing a product — e.g. Avis turning its second place status into a powerful proposition
But debaters know that reframing is something that starts from the second you’re briefed. And like everything in debate, it’s a battle.
“Debates, like most arguments, are all about controlling the narrative. When a frame is established, it usually sets up what the problems of the round are, what the important things to resolve are, and what standards the debate should be judged with.
In a round, the frame can change a lot without people noticing. In a debate about feminism, some teams will focus on the liberal women, others will talk about conservative women, others may even claim that the debate is about helping all society and not just women.
As a debater, your goal will always be to make sure that the frame is to your advantage. This is what leads to what we call “reframing the debate”. In this strategic move, you not just attack the arguments themselves, but question what the focus of the entire round should be.”
- Kyle Atega, host of the podcast debatabl
You, and your clients, and your consumers, all see the world in very different ways. The trick is to paint the picture of the world in a way that lets you make the work you need to make — and that’s what reframing is all about.
The first type of reframing, Kyle tells me, is a reframing of goals. Is your brand’s new campaign a chance to win awards? To reinforce the brand identity you introduced last year? To turn around a loss? These hidden goals aren’t always written in the brief (even though they should be) — but we’re screwed if we don’t clarify them, and we’re screwed if we let them change without noticing.
But reframing also involves context — the category, the market. The way you paint the picture of the world the brand lives in will change the way you move the brand forward.
Let’s say you see your client’s category as a jungle young usptart competitors are moving ahead, where consumers looking for new things — and the business has failed to adapt.
Your client thinks of the category as a undifferentiated product focused mess, where people are low-involved, and the business has been stagnating.
Both of these frames might be true (they are in many FMCG businesses). But only one will help you sell in vibrant, exciting work .
Strategy is Clarity
The worst part about a debate competion is the sinking feeling when you’ve lost a critical round. The best part is viciously attacking the judges who made you lose. See, in debate — you get to grade your judges. One well-placed bad score, and you can cast immediate, delicious revenge on the judge who was too dense to grasp your arguments.
One wishes we could do the same in advertising. After all, our clients are caught up in the humdrum of their industry, utterly divorced from creativity, or strategy, or fun. They just don’t get it. If they don’t understand our brilliant work, that’s on them.
But the best debaters know that judges are fallible, and accept that without blaming them (usually). In debate, a lot of your adjudicators will be college level, often the same age you are. They won’t be experts on the subject matter — so your job is to make the sophisticated simple, to make the complicated clear.
A key part of this simplicity comes down to the words we use.
Debate’s all very stylistic, I think but my rule of thumb all the time is: would this argument be understood by a fifth grader?
- Sally Lee, Asian Champion
But structure is as critical as vocabulary. For many debaters, having a structure for their arguments also helps — a famous template is called HEEL.
There are many different acronyms and templates which debaters use, but they all serve the same goal — making sure that you put your argument in the clearest possible light, without giving the judge any room to misinterpret it.
At the end of the day, clarity is accountability. Your arguments are in your hands, and only you can put in the effort to make them land.
Strategy is Practice
There may have been many things that I found difficult about debate — but one thing I loved about was how much it felt like a craft. Like professional musicians, like NBA athletes, many debaters devote their lives to their work, sharpening their skills in and out of training. And like any craft, consistency is key.
There needs to be consistency in how a person trains, for example. It is easy for people to lose progress if they do not practice after a long time. Realistically, you can better retain information if you use them often. Skills are also better polished if they are seen in action. Debate is a sport that is improved on constantly through reading, writing, speaking, and even engaging in intellectual discussions often.
- Nina, Host of the Debatabl Podcast
But a lot of it is also about getting guidance, either from your coaches, or from having idols.
It’s important to have an “idol” because learning the way they debate can accelerate your progress as a debater. Of course, we don’t want to develop canned debaters, but we want to know how the experts do it.
Kyle and Nina have provided some of their most-watched debate videos below — check out Victor Finkel’s speech on invading Zimbabwe.
Or Bo Seo’s speech defending a Marxist revolution — often nicknamed the “Holy Speech”, and used as reference material for training young debaters (you only need to watch the first 7 minutes!)
I’ve learned a lot from debate — the skills that got drilled into me in those parking lot rounds stay with me every day. But debate’s also taught me a lot about about the kind of strategist I don’t want to be.
Debate and strategy have a lot in common, but they are two very different things. Not everything we do is a competition — or a confrontation. Not everyone has to be convinced all the time. And even debaters know that.
“I get too critical with my thoughts. I do try to temper this, but if I am able to point out a flaw generally — it’s that most debaters don’t temper themselves. Oftentimes, they engage in a discussion with an incredible conviction that they are correct when most of the time they aren’t.”
- Leslie Torres, National Champion
I used to feel like every presentation was a debate where I had to convince someone of my point. Now I know that I don’t necessarily need to convince them every time. Sometimes it’s just enough to make them feel validated, heard, or valued.”
- Lance Katigbak, National Champion
Of course, these lessons and tips only go so far. You could train for years and still not guarantee a spot amongst the greats. But in a way, it doesn’t really matter.
If debate’s taught me anything, it’s that no matter how tough it gets, all I have to do is swallow that pit in my stomach, walk up to the podium, and speak.
This is the first chapter of #12MonthsOfUndercoverStrategy, a monthly series where I explore what other fields can teach us about great strategy.