Presidential Debate: Why being right is wrong

As the dust settles on the second debate, one thing is clear. The loser in each debate was the candidate who thought it was more important to win the battle over facts than the war of ideas.   Romney won the first debate by projecting a positive confidence, while Obama got mired in wonky and long-winded explanations.   In the second debate, Obama presented positive and pithy narratives, while Romney angrily fought back with facts and statistics.

In both debates, the litigator lost; the orator, won.

This isn't the way it is supposed to happen. In a world of fact-checkers-on-the-fly, the truth is supposed to prevail. But in debates, trying to prove you are right is just the wrong strategy.   Why?

  • You’re talking about their story not yours. Every minute spent correcting your record is time spent validating the other guy’s criticism, using his terminology and playing on his terms.  Whether you are right or not doesn’t matter.  In the heat of a debate, fighting one fact with another is like fighting fire with fire – it doesn’t put out the flames; it just makes the conflagration bigger.
  • You’re speaking in data not stories. The easiest way to lose an audience is to get into a debate over facts and figures.  It is hard enough for people who pay attention to these things to tell the difference between such things as increases in employment and decreases in unemployment. Uncommitted voters need to hear themes, narratives and personalized stories. Fact fights, like food fights, leave everyone a mess.
  • You’re being small instead of big. Romney won the first debate because rhetoric matched the size of his job. He framed every response in a larger context, while Obama played the policy wonk. In the second debate, the roles were switched. Obama spoke in big themes not small data. That was left to Romney whose angry attempts to set the record straight appeared petty. In both cases, big ideas were far more important than small details.

Facts can be great tools to attack, but they are poor shields. The candidates would do well to remember that as they prepare for their final contest.

Michael Maslansky (@m_mas) is CEO of maslansky luntz + partners, a language strategy and research firm, and author of The Language of Trust: Selling Ideas in a World of Skeptics.

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