Linda Butcher: A public debate can be a canny campaigning tool

The Scottish referendum has shown that debates can engage the public and stimulate discussion, as long the participants are not belligerent and the arguments are not predictable, writes our columnist

Linda Butcher
Linda Butcher

This summer's "yes" and "no" campaigns for the Scottish referendum, and the US-style TV debates they involved, got me thinking about what campaigners can learn from the showdowns between Alistair Darling and Alex Salmond.

Some readers will remember the seminal debates between Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy in 1960 – the first US presidential debates, and the first to be televised as well. These highlighted the power of your appearance when you can be seen by your audience.

Of course, few of us will ever have the opportunity to debate our campaigns live on TV, but there are definitely lessons to be learned. Debates, whether on the BBC's Question Time or on the radio, at conferences or through written articles, can be used in different ways. The debate set up by the community organising alliance Citizens UK before the 2010 general election, for example, gave a platform to the leaders of the three main parties, who followed an agenda established by Citizens UK itself.

Debates require sound bites that summarise arguments in a clear, persuasive and memorable way. Similarly, campaigners should be able to sum up what their campaign is about – and why it's needed – in a few minutes. The "elevator pitch" challenges people to present the case for their campaign in the time it would take to reach the top floor in a lift. This is essential know-how if you want to engage people actively with your issue and don't want to miss any opportunity to do so.

In any debate, statistics and figures can be used to back up what you're saying; hard-hitting facts stick in people's minds and lay the foundation for a convincing argument. But you should also talk about things that touch people – things they can relate to. Salmond and Darling focused on the future of the NHS or welfare, which matter to Scottish people. If people understand how your campaign affects their lives, they are more likely to support it. This is important for issues that can appear far removed from the lives of ordinary people. The Robin Hood Tax Campaign argues that 34bn could be raised annually if only 11 European countries introduced a financial transaction tax, but also explains how money raised this way could be used to restore public services and create jobs.

You don't have to win to make a difference. Debates help you to engage your audience with an issue, stimulate discussion and provide food for thought. You probably won't achieve this if you appear belligerent or recite well-trodden arguments verbatim. If you listen to morning radio you might, like me, reach for the off button when debates descend into predictable rhetoric.

Linda Butcher is chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation

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