How to win a debate when everything around you seems to be burning and everyone is calling for your head to roll?
That’s the situation Trump faced when entering the second debate. Let’s see a few of the tactics he used to turn the situation around and eventually carry on to victory.
- How to Win a Debate
- How to Win a Debate: Summary
How to Win a Debate
Trump uses a lot of debate tactics and techniques that could be defined as shady or unfair. But you must know them to at the very least protect yourself against them.
1. Strategic Agreement: Take Their Game Away
When You Agree, Their Attacks Are In Vain
It can often happen that a politician will derive most of his power not from within himself but from positioning against you.
When that’s the case, if you can show you are the opposite of what they are trying to depict you, they will look silly for attacking a straw man (Straw Man argument fallacy). And for trying to push an agenda that is obviously not true, they will also look insincere -and they’ll waste time in ineffective marketing-.
Trump called Clinton “crooked Hillary”, and Hillary tried to make “dark Trump stick”. Clinton tried to frame Trump as dark and divisive and positioned a big portion of her campaign as the exact opposite of that.
Of course, as soon as the primaries were over, Trump went into overdrive to change that narrative and did so effectively: “dark Trump” never stuck.
During a debate, an extremely quick and easy resolution to destroy your opponent narrative and to make them look silly, is to simply agree when they try to position themselves against you -you can do this strategically when you can see their speech is rallying the troops in their support-.
In the second debate, Hillary is smart enough not to verbalize that her position is against Trump, but it’s pretty obvious to almost everyone.
When Trump takes the stage and he just agrees with Hillary, he makes her look silly, largely neutralizes her whole speech and makes himself more palatable to large swathes of moderates.
All in one:
2. Fight Fire With Fire: Blame Them of Your Weaknesses
Show Chinks in Their Armor: Nobody Will Notice Yours
You probably remember children quarreling with each other and repeating to themselves “you are”, “no you are”, “no you are”.
It can sound silly when it’s done without any supporting argument, but by simply fleshing our a bit your counter-attack, it’s extremely effective to win the argument.
When Trump was accused of sexual assault for his leaked videos talking about “grabbing women’s pu**y”, he resorted to this technique. He said his were just words, but Bill Clinton has actually assaulted women and Hillary Clinton has defended rapists and laughed about the victims.
Trump actually brought those women on stage, and Hillary didn’t defend from these accusations, letting them waft in the air.
This was a very well structured of “you are, no you are” game and effectively helped Trump to climb out of the huge hole that the sex assault tape had relegated him in.
3. Enter Action with Boldness
When All Expect Surrender: Charge
Trump’s whole campaign seemed to be on the verge of disbanding and coming undone.
When you face a similar situation, approaching the situation meekly or with the common “defend and attack” wouldn’t be enough. You need something bigger. Trump needed something big as well to even the scores.
The 48 Laws of Power suggest to enter action with boldness, and that’s exactly what Trump needed.
Faced with sexual assault charges, he mounts an even more powerful attack on Clinton. He says Bill Clinton lost his license for sexual assault and says Hillary laughed at rape victims. He then moves on to the email controversy saying that “lives have been ruined for doing a fifth of what she’s done” and it culminates with his (in)famous retort “you should be in jail”.
4. Play the Victim
Make Your Oppressor Look Nasty: Everyone Will Be With You
We have a strong tendency of sympathizing with people whom we feel are being unjustly oppressed. It doesn’t work with people who dislike us deeply, but it works with people who likes us and, crucially, with neutral and super-partes observers.
If deployed when there’s no objective oppression it looks lame, pathetic and you look like you’re making excuses. But when you can spun it well, it works wonders.
In the presidential debate the female moderator did seem slightly against Trump, or at least she was at times rather aggressive towards him, which helped Trump hugely in framing himself as the victim and the moderator as a Clinton supporter.
5. Show They Are Cheap: Then Be Generous
Your Generosity Pays Double When Your Opponent is Cheap
Debates can often become confrontations. When that happens, the party who is able to show the observers that he can preserve a positive and welcoming attitude no matter what stands to gain big time.
Trump does it masterfully.
It’s more challenging to be the first party to let down the weapons and open up, as it’s more difficult to change your state first and there’s also the risk the other party might NOT let down their weapons and use your opening to attack you instead.
Also the first party is more likely to only take a half step towards you rather than a full step. And therein lies Trump’s Power Move in letting Hillary go first -whether that was intentional or not, we don’t know-.
When Hillary goes first her “compliment” looks stilted and avoidant. That’s great for Trump: the party who present herself as the party for unity and the president for everyone, is not actually able to switch off the fight inside of her and deliver an honest compliment.
Trump takes the stage, looks like a real family man, a proud father and deliver a sincere and honest compliment to Hillary. Huge point for Trump.
6. Make Neutrals Your Allies
When Neutrals Side With You, You Must be Right
When you’re in a debate there’s a tendency for people to take sides. Having people in your side support you is great, but it’s also expected: They’re on your side after all.
But when you can get obviously neutral people to support your cause, that’s when you really score big. In the case of a debate you will rarely get people openly supporting your view, but giving the semblance is all it takes (Obama takes full advantage of that as well here).
Trump does just that by adding a slight “thank you” when the moderator asks Hillary a heavy question framing her as a candidate a bit too cosy with big banks.
That “thank you” draws attention to the question, which is a great way of pre-suading by drawing attention to it (Pre-Suasion, Cialdini). And it makes it sound as if the moderator is now supporting Trump’s cause. The moderator slight laughter also supports that view and Hillary’s big smile -as if she had just been found out- also help Trump in framing Clinton as the defender of big corporations’ interests.
7. Reveal Your Opponent Tricks
And Make Them Look Sneaky
All politicians use a very common theme of “defend and attack” or “defend and change topic” to answering questions. Trump does it almost always, Clinton does it most of the times (but a few notable times she didn’t and left her side open to counter-attacks: watch an example here).
This a rather standard procedure in political debates. However, when your opponent is deflecting a major question or when he didn’t defend properly, here’s a simple technique to bring the spotlights back where you want them: highlight the pivot they’ve just done.
It will give you double the points as it will also show your opponent as the party who’s trying to play games to get off the thorny issues.
Watch Trump execute it to perfection and get a major cheer out of it (this is right after the “thank you” move) :
8. Let Others Come To You
.. Then You’re Obviously the Most Important Man in the Room
When there’s an audience watching you don’t win the debate only during the debate. Everything you do before and after are all part of your show.
At the end of the debate Hillary is the first to move. She tries to show herself as social and friendly, but I believe she overdoes it and looks a bit like an over-excited schoolgirl meeting the family after her first class.
Trump instead moves slow -we’ve already spoken about the connection between slow movements and dominance– and, importantly, STAYS on the stage.
Clinton looks like the typical politician shaking hands, taking pictures and giving away fake smiles -and this is a period people are a bit tired of politicians-.
Trump instead looks like the man at the center of the attention, he keeps getting all the limelight he can and lets others come to him.
9. Destroy their Social Proof
If their friends don’t like them then… Who would?
A common strategy to accrue social power and win debates is to appear like you have a lot of support from famous people and people who command a certain respect.
Trump used it more than anyone I remember seeing, and often in very hyperbolic fashion.
But when Hillary used it against him to increase her support, what does he do? He attacks and undermine that same social proof.
When Hillary mentions Sanders, Trump reminds everyone how Sanders said Hillary is a crooked politician. And when Hillary mentions “my friend Michelle Obama” Trump says it’s no friendship and reminds us all how how Michelle wasn’t really very amiable towards Hillary in the past.
Most people are likely to remember both Sanders’ comments and Michelle Obama ads, so Hillary now looks like a chess playing politician with no real friendships. Such as, a fake person, which is one of the biggest issues Hillary had to contend with during her campaign.
How to Win a Debate: Summary
If you’re here looking on how to win a debate I’d like to point out that some tips here are not always generalizable.
You will indeed not always be a in a situation where you need to attack like a rabid dog. And when not strictly needed it’s an attitude that can backfire.
However a few of the other tactics like Strategic Agreement and Recruiting Neutrals will serve you well in any situation.
Make sure to check out How to Win a Debate (Part I) for more.