There is only one reference to me (as far as I know) in Wikipedia — the day I stood up in a floral Laura Ashley dress before a room full of rowdy college students and argued about Canadian football. Although (or, perhaps, because) it was a subject about which I—and my figure skating fan of a partner—knew almost nothing, we won the debate and ended up winning the national championships that year. I thought of that moment recently when I heard about Denzel Washington’s new movie, The Great Debaters, and read a piece by New York Times writer Lisa Belkin today on her own experiences in debating.
I joined the debating union at my university because public speaking was something that frankly scared me. I was a quiet kid in high school, the one who pulled out a hair net to work in a hospital kitchen after class and had worked to ditch both a lisp and a Scottish accent as a child. In my first try at debating in college, I stammered out a defense of Queen Elizabeth II (what’s not to love?)—and lost. Another time, I was so taken with the wit and logic of an Irish opponent that I essentially agreed with him and sat down.
But over the years, I have come to appreciate all that debating gave me. The most important, I think, was an ability to stand up and let myself be heard, regardless of the criticism I might face. Even in the face of bold stupidity, few of my colleagues were likely to match the withering imitation of me that a speaker did one year before a large crowd at Fordham University. Debating also made me realize that facts have little weight when not presented in a persuasive package.
I often wonder if my kids will find joy in debating, as I did. I hope so. It was the most valuable skill I carried away from college.
How can you manage smarter? Bloomberg Businessweek contributors synthesize insights from the brightest business thinkers, critique the latest management trends, and comment on leaders in the news.