Boris v Corbyn: a debate trainer’s guide to telling substance from spin

After being asked to comment on what advantages I expect each candidate to enjoy over the other in tonight’s election debate on ITV, I decided to draw on my own experience of preparing speakers for public debates and a few good rules of thumb I’ve learnt along the way about how to separate substance from spin — which is not easy. These rules could prove important in tonight’s election debate when millions will tune in to watch two charismatic communicators vie to win our hearts and minds…but mostly our hearts.

There is going to be a lot of talking tonight and you’d have to be a savant to be expected to remember everything both candidates say and analyse each of their claims on the spot. You need a filter. Mentally ring-fence what you consider to be the two or three most important issues in this election so you can pay that extra bit of attention whenever one of them comes up — and not let the candidates off the hook if those issues never come up.

This won’t happen often, but the few times it does will be telling, so make a note. This is because when both sides agree on an important point — for example: how many nurses and doctors the NHS needs to hire to reduce waiting times — they can no longer win an argument about that point by saying their opponent doesn’t know what they’re talking about because they just agreed with them a minute ago. They will have to do a better job of explaining how they will address that shortfall and offer some specifics. If they can’t, if they change the subject, or if they attack their opponent anyway, that will tell you far more about how ready they are to govern than the flamboyant claims that go viral and make the headlines the next day.

No doubt tonight’s debate will send the army of fact-checkers on social media into a frenzy, busily scanning everything Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn say, but they can only tell you if someone is lying or has got their figures wrong. What they can’t tell you is how both candidates will be relying on your own biases to cover up gaping holes in their arguments — aka logical fallacies. You can read about these here, so I’ll just run through a quick test I use to make sure someone else’s fallacies are not unduly influencing me:

The Mirror Test
Let’s say Jeremy Corbyn starts attacking Boris Johnson for being out of touch when commenting on his Brexit deal, or Boris Johnson starts accusing Jeremy Corbyn of being a terrorist sympathiser when commenting on his plans for a National Education Service, ask yourself this question: if Boris Johnson went to school at his local comprehensive instead of Eton, would his Brexit deal automatically be a good one? If Jeremy Corbyn had taken a tougher line on terrorism, would a National Education Service automatically be a good idea? If the answer is still no, then you’ve just confirmed that their character flaws are not relevant here and you will have side-stepped the Ad Hominem fallacy.

This doesn’t mean that Boris’s Brexit deal and Jeremy’s Education plan are now good ideas, it just means anyone who wants to convince you they are not needs to give you a better reason — even if you agree with their criticisms of each man’s character — but it’s up to you to demand one.

This is perhaps the best test of our ability to separate substance from spin. After the debate, start a few conversations with other people (ideally include some people who think differently from you — see rule 5) and see if you can recall what each candidate said about the issues most important to you without a single reference to their speaking style or their character. If you can, they’ve clearly given you enough content to work with, but if all you can think of is how confident, authentic, or clever they sounded, then you’ve probably heard more spin than substance and that will come across in the feedback you get when you try to explain to someone else who won the debate and why.

This is more a general rule for getting the best out of public discourse, but it is especially important here. You may not like everything they have to say, but if you have been misled by a charming speaker who knows exactly how to tug at your heart-strings and pull the wool over your eyes, it takes a friend with a fresh perspective to burst the bubble and stop you from making a decision you may end up regretting, whether it’s in your professional life, your personal life or in this case, public life. I know I would be at a loss without mine.

Follow me on twitter on @tonykoutsoumbos for thoughts and comments on all the upcoming General Election 2019 TV debates and feel free to get in touch if you have any questions

Tony is the founder of the Great Debaters Club, a social enterprise that teaches adults how to debate.

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