Debating 101: brilliant lessons for a future in Adland

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Arguing for the other side
in a college debating class
was a valuable
and infuriating
way to prepare for
a career in advertising

 
The other night I got to thinking about a debating class I once took at the University of Wisconsin. An article on the ages-old conflict between the Arab nations and Israel spurned the memory. Like gun control and abortion, the Middle East is a debating class chestnut.

It dawned on me how important that debating course was in shaping my career as an advertising copywriter. The ability to create a compelling and fresh argument from tired tropes is paramount to good copywriting.

For most clients, the benefits and solutions within their respective categories are extremely similar, if not identical. Therefore, practicing our skills on classic debating topics is highly worthwhile.

(By the way, the preceding paragraphs were constructed in the form of a syllogism {if/ then/ therefore}, a term and concept I learned in debating class!)

I recall one assignment in particular because of how it forced me out of my comfort zone. I was asked to compose an argument for the opposite side on an issue I felt strongly about. Though I believed in a woman’s right to choose, I had to argue on behalf of pro-life.

It was an infuriating exercise, inflaming my youthful passion in so many ways. Which is also why it was such a valuable lesson. Forcing me to argue on behalf of something I was ardently opposed to was and is great preparation for a career in advertising.

Since then, I’ve had to write persuasively about countless products I know nothing about or will never use — everything from enterprise software to feminine protection.

At Leo Burnett, I created numerous campaigns for Phillip Morris, selling cigarettes. I worked on a pitch for an online gambling entity. I don’t drink alcohol because it nearly killed me, but I’ve written national campaigns for Johnnie Walker and Anheuser Busch.

Scenarios like these are not uncommon. For many of us they represent just another tricky day in Adland. Putting aside one’s moral compass may be harder for some than others, but either way the value of classic debating skills is obvious.

Final aside: Now more than ever I think the above debating exercise would benefit everyone who took it, teaching empathy. Sadly, I’m guessing many would refuse to partake calling it emotional terrorism or some such.

 
ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Steffan Postaer
Steffan Postaer

A copywriter by trade, Steffan is perhaps best known for his provocative and iconic work on Altoids, The Curiously Strong Mints. Early into his long tenure at Leo Burnett, Steffan co-wrote “Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile,” which (for better or worse) became a part of the lexicon.

Steffan currently provides creative leadership at Jumbo Shrimp, a San Francisco boutique responsible for elevating the creative product across a broad range of B2B and technology clients.

A one-time recipient of Crain’s prestigious “40 under 40,” Steffan is immersed in new media. His popular blog, Gods of Advertising was recently ranked top 20 by Business Insider.

He’s the recipient of advertising’s most prestigious awards, including numerous One Show Pencils, the Kelly Award for best print campaign in North America, and gold and silver Lions from Cannes.

Steffan has written three novels, all of which are available via online booksellers. His horror screenplay, Belzec: The Made Undead won Best Horror Screenplay at Action on Film, Chicago’s Horror Fest and several other festivals.

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