Notes for party leaders: some pointers on winning debates

It was supposed to be an historic moment for British television, but last night's leaders' debate turned out to be little more than deeply monotonous.

In fact, the Guardian's Lucy Mangan was the only one to keep me going: 'Cameron looks like a carrier bag full of yoghurt', she pointed out at one point. Then: 'Gordon is a man naturally eight drinks below par. He should have got hammered, come on and rocked it'.

Think about it: had the three leaders concentrated less on sniping and more on their debate technique, a nation might have been spared the sheer tedium of it all and instead learned something about what the parties are promising us.

I suppose it doesn't matter entirely: the leaders still have two debates to impress us. To win the next one, they'd do well to employ the following techniques:

1. Stick to your message
It may seem like an obvious point, but when you're locked in a battle of wits, it's always tempting to veer off-topic in order to prove your opponent wrong. Rather than making you appear a shining example of oracular brilliance, though, the effect will most likely be to confuse, or worse, bore your audience, and if your opponent responds in kind, the debate risks descending into chaos. Instead, stick to one simple, core message, and use evidence to back up your point. While statistics are great for proving your argument, audiences find anecdotes far more interesting - so try to use a combination of the two - but avoid confounding them with dense figures and stay away from anything which will muddy or complicate your point.

2. Be willing to concede
The advantage of boardroom disputes over formal debates is they aren't subject to strict rules, and conceding a bit isn't going to make you look weak - in fact, appearing willing to listen and take advice from others can make you look like a stronger manager. Once you've made your point, pay attention to your opponents' arguments: even if you don't think their ideas will work, you'll come across as someone who is prepared to take note of others' ideas, which will earn you kudos among your employees.

Of course, you could adopt another tactic, which is to negotiate down: start by making much higher demands than anything you would ever expect to be approved, making your actual demands seem far more reasonable. You'll have to strike a balance between the sublime and the ridiculous - as British Airways chief exec Willie Walsh discovered when he asked his staff to work for free last month - but as long as you fight your corner well, you might even reach that holy grail of Machiavellian thinking: fooling people into thinking it was their idea in the first place.

3. Be likeable
No matter how much sense your argument makes, there's little chance your audience is going to side with you if they don't like you - so make sure you observe the basic rules of common decency.  This is something presidential candidate Al Gore discovered during his first debate with opponent George Bush: although Bush's responses were less than sharp, the main story the next day was Gore's eye-rolling and sighing, which was considered to be impolite.

Instead, take your cues from Barrack Obama. Political consultant Paul Begala paints a more dignified picture: "Every time [John] McCain launched a broadside, Obama would shake his head slowly, paint a half-smile on his face, look down and jot a note. It doesn't matter what he was writing. It could have been gift ideas for his daughter's birthday. But he did not glare angrily or stare blankly." Thus, Obama has earned his reputation of 'king of cool'.

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