by Diane Bailey-Boulet
Middle school debate teams may not be the first thing to come to mind as a model for effective business communication, but after judging a recent debate competition, I was inspired. These lessons I learned from a middle school debate can help you
strengthen your reputation as a strong, clear communicator.
1. Quickly get to your argument
The debate was timed. Students who engaged the judges quickly were able to set the agenda and expand on their argument before time ran out. Students who started with a long opening statement lost our attention and had little to no time to make an argument or rebuttal.
In business writing, it’s important to put your bottom line on top. Like a timed debate, your reader’s time is likely limited. By stating your argument or message early, you engage and orient your reader to what will follow.
2. Itemize your key points and limit your content
The most successful debaters supported their key points clearly and concisely. Some debaters read pages of data at a rapid-fire pace. While the amount of research was impressive, sharing all of it overwhelmed the judges.
In business writing, giving typically three to five strong key points is more persuasive than overwhelming your reader with walls of text or dozens of bullets. Provide information that adds value and helps guide your reader to make a decision or take action.
3. Tone—keep it professional and respectful
Some debaters with less experience won the judges over by staying professional, calm, and friendly in a competitive situation. A few debaters with more experience had a condescending tone toward their competitors—and even the judges. At the close of the debate, a judge, who had successfully argued cases before the United States Supreme Court, politely pointed out how the debaters’ negative tone undermined the integrity of their argument.
In business writing, your tone affects how your reader will read your message. You want your writing to be friendly, professional, and positive—just as if you were speaking.
Whether you are writing a formal proposal or a friendly e-mail, you can benefit from these simple middle school debate skills.