How to Use Debate to Boost Audience Engagement

Author: Barbara Palmer       

IQ2US event

In the Oxford-style debate format used here by Intelligence Squared USA, two teams argue for and against a statement decided in advance.

When philanthropist and financier Robert Rosenkranz attended a live debate organized by a company called Intelligence Squared in London more than 15 years ago, he immediately recognized it as a way to inject more diverse and better-informed voices into the national conversation in the U.S. So, in 2007, Rosenkranz licensed the name Intelligence Squared and created a separate, U.S.-based nonprofit, Intelligence Squared U.S. (IQ2US), said Clea Conner, who serves as CEO of the organization.

At the time, Rosenkranz aimed to counter the rise of cable television “and the 24-hour news cycle,” Conner said, “where you can just sit on one channel and watch one perspective and reinforce your own beliefs.” Since then, the need to improve public dialogue has only grown more acute. “If we look at the media landscape right now and the state of American public discourse and politics, it’s a unique moment,” Conner said. “We’re going back into an election cycle where we’re going to see a lot of toxic rhetoric. From the kitchen table to the Senate, we are having difficulty navigating what are crucial conversations in the policy space, in our national politics, and even in our personal relationships. We have been witnessing a lot of what I would characterize as a devolution of the national conversation, as you’re seeing very important exchanges play out in 140 characters and these ‘Twitter wars,’ or social-media echo chambers.”

Moving the Needle

Audience Member

Audience members have the opportunity to ask questions directly to debaters.

What happens during the live events IQ2US produces in New York City, where it is based, as well as in Chicago and San Francisco, is the opposite of an echo chamber. During a series of timed exchanges in front of a live audience, two teams — each comprised of two experts — argue two different sides of a question, determined in advance and drawn from topics ranging from economics to law, and from to medicine to popular culture, with time allotted for both sides to directly engage the opposing team’s points.

It’s the audience who then determines the outcome of the debates — participants are polled both before and after the debate about how much they agree or disagree with an outcome, in order to calculate which team most moved the needle on audience opinion. “The side that changes the most minds,” Conner said, “is declared the winner.”

Of the more than 170 debates organized by IQ2US since its founding, on average, 47 percent have shifted their opinion as a result of watching a debate, Conner said. And another 39 percent of the audience “actually changed sides,” she said. For comparison, only 5 percent of voters changed their mind after watching one of the 2016 presidential debates.

What’s different? In the IQ2US debates, audience participants are very deliberately “exposed to both sides of an issue,” Conner said. After first determining where they stand on an issue, they “are hearing people illuminate a point of view or perspective that [they] disagreed with, but maybe hadn’t heard all of the facts, or heard anecdotes or insights delivered by experts in the field,” she said. “We find it has a profound impact.”

In addition to their own events, IQ2US has produced debates for outside events including the Aspen Ideas Festival, TED, and IBM’s Think tech conference. At conferences, the debate format offers an alternative — and arguably much more engaging — experience compared to a panel discussion, Conner said. “Oftentimes, with a panel discussion, there is a lot of consensus. We agree that there’s some kind of problem and that we need to find a solution and maybe we’re exploring those solutions. In contrast to that, a debate is about the competition and exchange of ideas — there is inherently conflict.”

There may be audience interaction at the conclusion of a panel, such as Q&A and surveys or other follow-ups, but at the end of a debate, what’s at stake is that there is going to be a clear winner and loser, Conner said. “The audience participating in that process really changes the experience,” she said. That conflict “fosters a lot of excitement and energy in the room between the people on stage and the audience that is participating.”

Against ‘Debate Lite’

Because the format is so engaging, event organizers see its value and produce debates for their events, she said. Too often, however, their efforts result in what Conner calls “debate lite.” Debates “are very difficult to produce,” Conner said. “It’s practically a five-way negotiation between everybody on stage and the team of producers about everything from the framing of the language to who’s debating on each team.” In addition, it’s critical that the debate moderator has “a direct line of sight to all four debaters,” Conner said. “That eye contact is incredibly important.”

Debate Format

A new format, “Unresolved,” debates multiple motions.

Debate has a history that stretches back to ancient Greece — IQ2US produces what are called Oxford-style debates — yet there is still a lot of room for innovation in the format, Conner said. For example, event organizers could invite additional experts who could weigh in with questions during a Q&A, or they could create an elite panel of judges who would declare the winner and compare their results with the audience, she said.

IQ2US livestreams most of the debates it produces, posts video on YouTube, and produces a podcast. The online audience is the area where the nonprofit has seen the most growth, Conner said. “I think we’ve enjoyed a lot of growth on the digital side because [the videos] are really engaging to watch. What you get from the visual experience is the expression, and the emotional connection that the debaters are making with the audience.”

That energy still doesn’t compare with what happens at the live debates. “I think you have a much more intellectually rigorous, and rich and interesting exchange from just within the audience itself,” Conner said, “when people meet one another. A lot of people love talking to somebody who disagrees with them once they have various facts and they have a shared experience that relates to that topic that they didn’t have before.

A lot of people are very surprised that they changed their mind and they love talking about that with each other after a debate. We hear all the time, ‘I did not expect to change my mind,’ or ‘I had no idea a debate could be so fun.’ So, actually this format, which on the surface could be adversarial, really brings people together.”

‘Welcome to the Future’

IQ2US modified its two-person-per-team format when it produced a debate for IBM’s Think conference in San Francisco last February. For starters, the topic wasn’t revealed until 15 minutes before the debaters took the stage. Moreover, there were only two debaters — and one of them was an AI-system-enabled machine, nicknamed Project Debater, developed by IBM over six years to debate humans on complex topics.

“Welcome to the future,” Project Debater said to its debate opponent, Harish Natarajan, a world-champion debater, as the pair began a 25-minute-long exchange — three four-minute speeches in three rounds: an opener, a rebuttal, and a summary. The topic? Whether preschools should be subsidized. The winner, as determined by the audience, was Natarajan, who argued against subsidized preschool. Before the debate, 79 percent agreed with the position in favor of subsidies; that dropped to 62 percent at its conclusion.

During the debate, Project Debater weighed the pros and cons of the issue, while drawing on 300 million sources, noted Conner. “Project Debater is truly revolutionary,” Conner said. “I think what AI can really do is help people make better decisions. I could see it being a very powerful tool in the public policy world or in education, and in just changing the way we think about issues and helping people make better, more-informed decisions based on data and verified sources.”

Visit Intelligence Squared U.S. to learn more.

Barbara Palmer is deputy editor of Convene.