On Events and Debates

When I first became president of our humble chapter, I made a single goal for our group:  We will be leaders on the campus of Texas Tech University.  We might not be the biggest group, or the group raising thousands of dollars for charity, but we will be respected and noted.  

As the semesters pass us by, we are hitting checkpoints on our goal, but still have many ahead of us.  An idea that my chapter been fortunate enough to capitalize on is hosting events — not meetings, not rinky-dink pizza parties with Little Caesar’s pizza and Sam’s Club cola.

In the last two semesters my YAL group has hosted two debates, both have advanced our goal and helped us grow in many ways. Between the two events, we had over 150 people attend and fostered relationships with the Young Conservatives of Texas and the Tech Student Democrats, the two most politically active groups on campus. Do not forget that as you share many ideas and create friendships with other political groups, it will serve you well in the future.  

If you are looking for a challenge as a group, I cannot recommend hosting an event, such as a debate, enough. I hope my notes, thoughts, and general rambling can serve as guide for you should you go down this path.

In our first try, we organized a debate solely based on the drug war. You must center the debate around a topic anyone can enjoy. Asking anyone to watch college students argue is already a tough task, remember that you are there to entertain while fostering a healthy discussion.  

We organized the debate in two weeks, blanketed the campus with flyers and sheets, and had 70 people show in the room when we were expecting a hundred people. We were disappointed with the outcome; we had put so much time into advertising we had actually neglected other parts of the debate. However, from this experience, we learned a lot.

Recently I heard a great quote about advertising: You need to use a bazooka on a bunny. You need to accept that most of your advertising will be ignored, even the most explosive material you have. Repetition is key, and making sure people see as many reminders for the debate as possible will help you out. Facebook, Twitter, flyers, and reminders are the dry erase boards in your classrooms all do their part in that facet. Create a Facebook event, and invite people slowly over a two or three week time period.  This allows for the event to remain on attendee’s newsfeeds for as long as possible.

Even though your debate will be run by college students, know that students will be judging your group and debate like it was being run by professionals. If that’s what they want, feel free to give it to them. Watch professional debates on YouTube, and if you can attend one in your area.  Write down what you observe, and grab as many questions as possible. Don’t be afraid to steal ideas — it’s not just exclusive to the government! Making up questions can quickly become an exercise in mental breakdowns, so allow yourself to focus on other areas like food, advertising, and bringing in faculty members.  

Keeping a strict time schedule is also important, and make sure to announce how the debate will be run in the opening speech. Feel free to announce a tentative time schedule before the event starts, but stick to your time schedule.  Our first debate ended up being over three hours because I was too afraid to end it!  

Assuming you end with audience questions (more on the pros/cons of that later), know that after a spirited debate some people with nothing to do afterwards will feel almost obligated to throw questions back at you.  You must learn to say no; as a leader you must break hearts.  

Having faculty host the debate also lends a bit more credibility to your event. At Texas Tech University we are lucky to have the Free Market Institute who will jump at any chance to give a speech. We had the president, Ben Powell, give a small speech with a slick PowerPoint beforehand that really set the tone of the night.  Some faculty members might be more in demand than you think, so don’t be afraid to email them months in advance!  

You also need to remind them as the date gets closer, but they might be looking forward to the event just as much as you are!  Professors love getting the chance to talk about things they enjoy, so don’t be afraid to allocate upwards of fifteen minutes to them. I would also recommend having a different faculty member give the opening speech and moderate the debate if you can find two faculty members. You want to seem as impartial as possible. People care, and don’t want to attend an event they believe to be one-sided.

Audience questions are still a wildcard to me. On the one hand, if your debate is lacking any flair one question from a student can turn the whole night upside down. However,  I will say in our first debate about the drug war, we had several questions from students and locals that added nothing. Some PhD students came to our event, and their question went completely over our heads. A (notorious) local also attended, and within five minutes he asked a question, answered his own question, and rambled on about Obama for another two minutes.  

You need to decide early on how you want to handle audience questions. In both debates, we ended the debate and separated for pizza before the audience questions. People who wanted to ask the panel questions were asked to stay, and anyone who didn’t care was allowed to leave after taking home some pizza and a YAL Constitution.  I would recommend this.  Just decide early on if you want to have note cards in the lobby area for people to write questions down, or if you want people walking up to the stage to ask.  

Journalists love to cover these types of events,so make sure to include your local and student newspapers as early as possible. We have not done a great job including the Daily Toreador (our daily newspaper) leading up to our event, and that falls squarely on my shoulders. Generally speaking, your newspaper/radio/TV station will really want to cover your debate before and after the event. Shoot them an email weeks ahead of schedule and I guarantee you will be pleased with the response.

Like most areas of life, having a strong leader who is able to dish out roles to people who are willing to listen will make hosting a debate a pleasurable event. Give every member involved a clear cut objective, and hold them accountable!  

As always, make sure you have plenty of free goodies available to pass out before and after the event. Staple at least three future meeting times to everything you pass out, and schedule an interesting speaker for one of those meetings. Potential members are always looking for an excuse not to attend, so make sure to erase any doubt.  

I hope this helps you.  

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