5 Reasons to Debate Core Messaging

Any truth worth propagating is a truth worth debating.


At recurring persistent intervals I hear well-meaning leaders describe how they need to “drive down” yet another new message to employees throughout the organization. Like Moses coming down from the mountain, a new PPT deck is meticulously crafted, peppered with corporate speak to deliver an encouraging, if not inspiring, message to the masses. Despite good intentions, the outcome is frequently more skepticism than enthusiasm.

A structured well-moderated debate is a novel and powerful alternative to another webcast or town meeting. I recently facilitated the design and implementation of a debate for 100 top tier R&D leaders in a client organization. The debate topic, delivered as a proposition statement, was clean and crisp. It was the heart of the Sr. Vice President’s core message to inform strategy implementation for the coming year. All participants were assigned to discuss only one position, either pro or con. The ten debate team members, 5 pro and 5 con, were identified through a small group selection process.

“Inviting opposing viewpoints disarms whatever resistance resides in the system.”

The anxiety about subjecting core messaging to debate was palpable among the meeting organizers as well as senior management. “What if the cons win?” “This is going to take too much time!” “How can they debate this in front of the head of the labs?” “What if no one wants to speak up in opposition?” “What if we can’t stop the debate and it derails the whole meeting?”

At the end of the day, our client wrote: “I am delighted to say that we went forward with the debate, and feedback from all participants was resoundingly positive! Furthermore, the debate turned out to be a centerpiece of the launch day activities.”

Five reasons why debate is worth the time:

  1. Identifying point and counterpoint for even the best-crafted message only strengthens the argument.
  2. Inviting opposing viewpoints disarms whatever resistance resides in the system.
  3. Designing a well-structured clearly articulated format for debate creates a safe environment for people to speak up.
  4. Uncovering significant opposition, if it exists, is better done sooner rather than later.
  5. Debating can be surprisingly engaging, energizing and fun.

In a resource-constrained environment where flashy media presentations and costly meeting arrangements can quickly decimate any discretionary budget, creative alternatives to the usual executive briefing do exist.

With thanks to Mrs. Sedgwick, my HS debate coach, I encourage more leaders to invite debate rather than simply deliver their latest greatest corporate message. You will discover that it actually promotes more powerful communication.