Blog: The Educated Reporter

Presidential Debates: College Coaches, High School Debaters on Power of Persuasion

I’ve gotten a kick out of how some regional publications and news stations are localizing the presidential debates — asking high school and college debaters and their coaches to analyze the performances of President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

(The third and final debate airs tonight, and it’s on foreign policy. As I’ve mentioned, it’s not difficult to make a case that the nation’s public school system is a factor here.)

Jackie Massey, who has coached the University of Oklahoma’s debate team to four national championships in six years, told Tulsa’s KMRG TV that “Obama has kind of this Socratic, patient ‘I’m the experienced one’ (attitude) while Romney has the more ‘I’m really excited to take this job, here’s all my examples, and you know taking on the incumbent.’”

Over at CNN Todd Graham, director of debate at Southern Illinois University and a past coach of the year, said Obama won the last debate by employing “the primacy effect” — a speaker’s initial argument is ultimately more effective than anything that comes after it.

“I teach my debaters that you’ve got to make your best arguments early in the speech,” said Massey, who has analyzed presidential debates for five election cycles. “Otherwise you might not have the judge’s full attention when you get to your best arguments, thereby lessening the weight of your position.”

The Palm Beach Post asked local high school debaters for their input, and the teens emphasized the need for specifics.

Vince Gasso, a junior at Wellington High School said Obama “could have had a lot better evidence. A lot of what he said was more hearsay and promise.” And Alexa Fortuna, also a junor at Wellington, said Romney “says all these great things about how he’d create this perfect world, but he doesn’t back it up with plausible evidence of how he’d do that.”

As a former college debater, I can tell you firsthand there is no better training ground for students of all ages to learn both critical thinking skills and the power of persuasive speech. Here are a few story ideas for education reporters to consider: What opportunities do students in your district have to participate in debate programs? Have those opportunities be reduced in recent years due to budget cuts? Do the students or their teachers see participating in debate as helping them academically beyond the extracurricular experience? Ask a student debater to watch tonight’s debate with you, and you might just be surprised by some of their insights.


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