How to Argue Like a Pundit, by PR Expert Rich Masters

Photograph by Nathan Perkel for Bloomberg Businessweek

There are two schools of thought on how to win an argument on television. You can memorize the talking points that the DNC or the RNC sends you and spit ’em out at whoever you’re up against. We call that rip and read, which gets a little stale. The other school is the Joe Biden school of extemporaneous blather. It has the virtue of appearing more genuine and helps you connect with your audience. Face it, Biden is everybody’s favorite D.C. interview. But message discipline and Joe? Oxymoronic.

So how do you combine the message discipline of school No. 1 with the spontaneity of school No. 2? By using something I call the message diamond. When the host asks a question, the very first thing you do is answer it. Don’t duck it, don’t hide, don’t run from it. Then pivot to your message, and back that with a little Biden: an interesting anecdote, an example that amplifies the major point you’re making. Then you close out by restating your message. That way, no matter how it’s edited, no matter how it comes out, you’ve hammered home your message and added a story to make it stick.

Now, for debate shows, it takes a little something extra. First: Smile while you swing. If folks don’t like you, they won’t care if you win. Next: You want to know your opponents’ arguments as well as your own. If you know what they’re going to say in advance—and 99 percent of the time you know exactly what they’re going to say—you’ll be able to take their own argument, twist it around their neck, and kick ’em off the bridge with their own words. And finally: a big zinger, something unusual that they weren’t anticipating. That’s what viewers will take away, that something special. In Louisiana, where I cut my teeth debating, it’s what we call a lagniappe. —As told to Joshua Green

Masters is a partner at public relations agency Qorvis Communications.  

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