MIT students have a reputation for being great intellects but terrible communicators. It’s really not true,” says Adam Goldstein, a member of the MIT Debate Team, who has become such a facile communicator that he has already written two books.
“Frequently, I give presentations in class. My ability to present and to answer questions convincingly has improved a great deal,” he says. “Last year, I gave a presentation in front of 150 people at a publishing conference in New York, and it went great.”
Parliamentary debate focuses on impromptu speaking and teaches students clarity and organization; how to persuade and how to listen; and how to analyze issues and come up with solutions.
In a global world, communication skills are crucial to succeed. As people in business collaborate across disciplines and across countries, clear self-expression is more important than ever.
Goldstein, an MIT senior, is now president of the American Parliamentary Debate Association, a group of 40 U.S. universities. This year, the MIT Debate Team ranked fifth of all American universities. It also took first place at the Cambridge University Championships and made it to the Oxford University semifinals. In addition, MIT made it to the quarterfinals at both the North American and World Championships.
“Being able to talk intelligently and persuasively about things you haven’t prepared for is really useful in life,” says senior Kathleen Clark-Adams, adding that public speaking helps students gain confidence and be at ease professionally and socially. Students say when you feel an audience responding to you — when you can influence and persuade — your confidence soars.
“These skills come in handy at business meetings, in social conversations, and in writing reports. It has helped me a lot working in the summers,” says Bill Magnuson, a grad student who worked at a Connecticut hedge fund, then at Google. “Now, I’m not afraid to stand up and speak my mind.”
Debaters say the team also prepares them to work in the world by teaching them about social, political, and moral issues. Recently, the team debated whether there should be limits on executive compensation; whether adultery should be a crime; and whether the U.S. should recognize Georgian territories that Russia says should be independent.
Debaters have seven minutes to come up with an eight-minute speech. “And that’s while someone else is talking,” Goldstein says. “In addition to thinking about what you’re going to say, you also have to think how you’re going to respond. It requires quick thinking.”
“The hardest part for me is the breadth of knowledge that we need to keep up with,” says Magnuson, who studies electrical engineering and computer science, and who reads voraciously to keep current. “We need to stay up to date on foreign affairs, law, and international relations. And we have to know about all the various conflicts going on in the world.”
Goldstein says: “It’s embarrassing to say, but when we went to the World Championships, we were debating a topic we knew little about. We listened carefully, quickly framed an argument, and did much better than we expected. It’s challenging to not know.” Students say their MIT backgrounds aren’t always helpful on the team, since engineering and science topics are seldom debated. “What we do have, though,” Magnuson says, “is a reputation for being analytical and focused. That translates into practical arguments.”
Goldstein says perhaps the most interesting and fun aspect of the Debate Team is meeting other college students. Every weekend, the team — about 20 students — travels to college campuses across the United States for tournaments, including to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and elsewhere. “It’s great to meet new people,” Goldstein says. “Some of my best friends are from other schools.”
Magnuson, president of the team last year, also loves the social aspect. One night, he participated in a poker game with 12 debaters from Boston-area schools. “You see these people every weekend all over the country,” he says. “I never would have met them if it weren’t for the team.” And the international competitions have been great to get to know people outside the country,” he adds. “Now, I have friends at Oxford, Cambridge, and at schools in Ireland. It’s great to have a global network while still at MIT.”
The team hopes to continue to compete on a world level, but Goldstein says there’s no guarantee. “Our biggest problem for decades has been that we don’t have a consistent source of funding. The team has grown and we’ve had more success than ever, but we’re constantly struggling against having enough money.
“We were successful this year at Cambridge University,” he says. “But next year, we don’t have funds to go to the World Championship in Turkey. It’s possible that we’ll be the first team in history who’s won a tournament and been unable to return the next year.”
Yet, despite the constraints, members say the team has great appeal. “Some like the rhetoric,” Goldstein says. “Some like the analysis. Some like the travel. Some like knowing obscure information and spouting off facts about Indonesian politics. But I like it because it’s fun.”