How to get the most out of a debate

The first of several election “debates” hit the UK TV screens on Thursday 26th March. After the UK Prime Minster’s wrangling – procrastination that would impress any event planner who had dealt with the most precocious of speakers – we finally saw the first debate. I will leave the content for others to discuss but as an event planner I’d like to look at the format.

When a debate is not a debate

Perhaps the broadcasters think that the public will only accept and understand a format involving politicians if they call it a debate. This was anything but. An interview of each leader followed by an audience Q&A. A true debate is a great format when it is done properly.

Some of my favourite sessions at the conferences I’ve constructed have been covered with the true and proper debate format. But unfortunately the “debate” is a catch all format for many conference organisers and it would appear TV producers.

When a debate is a debate

Most conferences have a good stab at the debate format but I live in hope when I attend a conference: to see a proper debate. The debate when done well is a wonderfully engaging way to dissect content.

A debate, for sake of any misunderstanding, works like this:

– a motion is proposed

– for and against set out their position and argue for or against that motion

– and then some form of vote takes place

So now we have agreed a format let’s look at how to get the most out of a debate:

1. Choose a controversial topic

The best debates are challenging for the audience and the debaters. If you are going to set up a debate make sure the topic is at least challenging if not wholeheartedly controversial.

2. Tag team your panel

The best debates involve a team of two on either side of the motion. This allows for a variety of style and personality and allows your debaters to recharge and refocus.

3. Choose a colourful character as a debater

Every person who has put together a programme knows someone they would love to speak on their programme however they just cant give them their own session. We all know an industry wildcard! Well this is the perfect format for the wildcard. Place them alongside a safer pair of hands and you have a great good cop bad cop team.

4. Make it very clear who’s views are being expressed

If you opt for a controversial topic make it clear exactly who’s views are being expressed. The motion is unlikely to be your organisations stated policy so state it clearly to avoid any uncertainly. Also if you have a very game speaker who has taken a position as a “devil’s advocate” make it very clear that is the case.

5. Involve the audience

The debate is a great format for engaging the audience so make sure they have a lot of input into the content. Encourage comments and not just questions.

Involve the audience

6. Measure the success of the debaters

A debate is best used in a conference format when the audience votes before and after the debate so that everyone is able to see the effectiveness of the debaters.

7. Keep them short

The ideal length for a debate with a team of two is forty minutes. This would break down like this:

5mins introduction, outline and initial vote

5mins x 4 from each panelist

10mins of cross examination inc audience Q&A

5mins summary and vote

8. Place a debate at the end of the morning or at the end of the day

This format sits best at the end of the day. It’s here it can be best used to critic the big issue facing the industry. It can also add a lot of value before your attendees break up for lunch as it is a highly interactive and engaging format and it is a great way to energise (or re-energise) the audience before they head for lunch or head home. As it’s informal it is a nice way to lead into any networking.

how to get the most out of a debate

9. Make it a fun and informal session

The best way to address a seriously controversial industry topic is to deal with it quite informally. Brief your speakers to take the extreme position to highlight the polar ends of the debate. This obvious tongue in cheek approach will allow the attendees to feel relaxed in voting and expressing their less extreme views.

10. Your moderator is the most important person in the room

There are few things that make such a positive impact on this format than having a great moderator. So go with a brief like this: “You are a simple moderator only in name. You are the conductor: you are the ring master: if this debate is a car, you are the engine.” 

How to get the most out of a debate is an example of some best practice meeting design. Changing the formats at your events isn’t easy but it’s easier with a bit of support. We can help. Get in touch.

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Gallus Events are the UK's leading Event Consultants. If you would like to improve your events then please get in touch.

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