By Diane Harrison
Merriam-Webster defines a debate as ‘a regulated discussion of a proposition between two matched sides.’ A good debate is not an argument. Rather, it is a thoughtful process of insightful positioning that allows two sides of a concept to be explored on their merits. Sound a bit like a manager working to convince an investor that what they do makes sense for an investment portfolio?
“A lively discussion is usually helpful, because the hottest fire makes the hardest steel.” — Tom Clancy, Debt of Honor
The process of executing a solid debate follows several logical steps and emphasizes skills that also work effectively to strengthen a sales pitch. The clear articulation of ideas, a compelling use of rhetoric, employment of solid proof points, and the ability to both see and consider the opposite point of view are all essential elements of a good debate process. Critical thinking skills, the use of research-backed positioning, confidence in communication, and respectful consideration of opposing views are all necessary components in selling. In the world of alternative assets, learning how to utilize all of these tactics can only help to improve a marketing effort.
“The real battlefield is the realm of ideas.” Bryant McGill, Voice of Reason
CRITICAL THINKING SKILLS: According to the Foundation for Critical Thinking, critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. More simply stated, critical thinking encourages exploration of new ideas balanced with a healthy dose of skepticism and questioning.
Why is this important and how does this assist in selling an idea (or investment product)? Richard Paul and Linda Elder provide some examples of critical thinking in their publication, The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools (Foundation for Critical Thinking Press, 2008):
- raises vital questions and problems, formulating them clearly and precisely;
- gathers and assesses relevant information, using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively, comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards;
- thinks open mindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, as need be, their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences; and
- communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems.
“The clash of ideas is not weakness. Truth reaches its place when tussling with error.” –Richard Henry Pratt
RESEARCH-BACKED POSITIONS: Secondary to having a good idea or a strong message to convey is the ability to be able to support it. Learning to present complex situations in a clear and focused manner is a vital part of any debate process. Research-backed positions are likewise a necessary component to the art of convincing someone to join your view. There are multi-faceted sides to a good debate, and one is never a two-sided argument. Insisting that there can only be two sides, black or white, right or wrong, loses the complexity inherent in most issues. In reality, there are multiple angles in a debate—or a sales pitch.
Debate is a triumvirate of knowledge, strategy, and persuasion. Having the facts at hand, a plan for laying them out in an organized and reasoned manner, and doing so in a style and process that enhances the facts and conclusions is a blueprint for success in debate and selling. One of the key elements of this practice is the use of logic. Explain the thread of your positioning by leading the listener through your train of thought.
“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” – Peter Drucker
CONFIDENT COMMUNICATION: So you have outlined a strong case for something and have pulled together a set of convincing proof points to support it. The next step is equally vital to master. Confidence in communication by using situation-appropriate tone and language is as essential to an effective outcome as the content of the message.
Extemporaneous skill, or the ability to think on your feet quickly and respond to questions and comments, is a valuable advantage while debating. It also assists enormously in selling. Understanding and responding to non-verbal cues is an element of debate that often goes missed. The ultimate tipping point for most sales decisions happens when the potential buyer has his/her needs met by the seller. It’s not about what is being offered; it’s about what that can do for them. The salesperson, or debater, who understands this and works to shape their pitch or position to meet this need tilts the outcome in their favor.
An often-overlooked aspect of strong communication is the balance of reason and emotion. Emotionalism is as important as evidence in constructing an argument. Passion is necessary to persuade, but not so much that it clouds the facts. If the delivery is too dry and scientific, it won’t capture the attention or level of conviction in the listener necessary to move them. Too strident or embellished, and the facts and rationale will get lost and the result will be a turnoff to the listener. Striking the right balance is an exercise in non-verbal assessment—observing the audience and adjusting delivery to match the emotional temperature of the current situation.
“…civility doesn’t require consensus or the suspension of criticism. It is simply the ability to disagree productively with others while respecting their sincerity and decency.” –Ravi Iyer and Jonathan Haidt
EMPATHY AND RESPECT: And finally, the ability to demonstrate a respectful consideration of opposing views is vital to executing a successful debate or sales pitch. Listeners find a delivery so focused on winning a discussion to the point that nothing is given to receiving feedback, reservation, or requests for clarification from the other party a major turn-off.
To be effective at convincing others, the emotional ability to stay calm, demonstrate real empathy for others, and understand when conflict resolution is a better course of action than escalating discomfort with opposing positions can bring a discussion to a more successful conclusion than a forceful, heavy-handed effort. Don’t distort facts to bolster your cause, or put people on the defensive, as that inhibits their ability to hear you and be persuaded to your side.
“…leave an escape hatch for your opponent, so that he can gracefully swing over to your side without too much apparent loss of face.” —Sydney J. Harris
Sometimes there is a singular word that embodies a complete thought or description perfectly. The German language has multiple examples of this, one of which is suited beautifully to summarizing the concept of being a winning debater or marketer: that being the ability to cause zugzwang.
Often used when describing the game of chess, zugzwang refers to a moment when a participant finds themselves forced to make a move when they would prefer to pass and not move. Whatever move is made will cause a disadvantage, yet they must move and cannot stay static. The player is said to be “in zugzwang” when any possible move will worsen their position. A great debater, or marketer, will learn to both cause this state and simultaneously show empathy to the unfortunate individual to whom zugzwang occurs.
Diane Harrison is principal and owner of Panegyric Marketing, a strategic marketing communications firm founded in 2002 specializing in alternative assets. She has over 25 years’ of expertise in hedge fund and private equity marketing, investor relations, articles, white papers, blog posts, and other thought leadership deliverables.