Professionals might not think that high school debaters could teach them anything, but parents know that often, some of our greatest lessons can come from those much younger than us.

This past weekend I served as a judge for the Provincial High School Debating Championship, called the Law Foundation Cup.  Stakes were high as the winning team goes on to represent B.C. in the nationals.   The sessions I judged were the semi-finals – 3 rounds of impromptu debates where teams were given their topic and side fifteen minutes before the debate.  They were not allowed to speak with their coaches or access any books or the internet during that period. They could rely only on their memories, and their debating skills.

As I walked the hallways of St. George’s school looking for my next room, I found the hallways littered with teams of two lying on the floor with their backs against the wall, quietly talking and madly writing in their notebooks.  They weren’t joking around to relieve tension, complaining to organizers about the unfairness of so little prep time, or trying to hear their opponent’s conversation.

The calm, determined intensity with which they worked reminded me of my much earlier days studying dance.  When all you can rely on is your own skills in the moment, you stop looking for excuses and focus instead on what you can possibly do.  Before the curtain goes up – or in this case, before the moderator starts the timer – anything is possible.  Your arguments might be stronger, yet you can still lose by inferior clashing.  Your evidence might be weaker, but if you can throw off your opponents with more difficult questions, you may win.  There are only two variables: how well you prepared, and how well you perform.

Of these, the most important is preparation because it is the largest component of your life within your control.  Preparing for a debate involves learning and honing debating elements (formation of arguments and evidence, clarity of debate structure and requirements, effective clashing, strong rebuttal, succinct and compelling summaries). These skills don’t depend on a given topic – a debater must be able to utilize them effectively within the context of any motion.

In the business world, the success of a professional’s career is also dependent on both preparation and performance. And like the debaters, professionals can have far more control over the preparation period.  The business equivalents of the elements required are as follows:

  • Become an expert in your field – seems obvious but most professionals don’t have a personal business plan and when they do, those plans rarely include actions to continually improve credibility.  Never rest.  Identify the ways in which you can improve, and plan for experience, education and mentoring that will gain you that added expertise every single year of your professional life. Are you the very best in your industry? Then figure out how to be a better mentor.
  • Continually market yourself – doing great work is a good start, but that’s not enough.  Regardless of where you are in your career, and how well known you are within your profession, ensure that your plan always includes outreach to touch referral sources, existing clients, and potential clients and referral sources. Targeted marketing is a good start, but also consider broader reputational activities such as writing, speaking, media interviews, etc.  Too nervous to speak to a crowd? Shoot a video.
  • Broaden your value – professionals work with clients, and clients like well-rounded individuals.  They like to see that their professionals are multi-capable and have interests beyond the area of expertise they’ve been hired to advise on.  And diverse experience exposure tends to provide professionals with broader context, resulting in more realistic and considered decisions.  So do community work through coaching, or on a board.  Develop and practice some hobbies.  Become more than someone who simply practises your profession.
  • Differentiate yourself – As long as you are in competition for work, you need to better your opponent.   Many professionals believe that their experience is sufficient to win.  The fact is, most clients deciding between two professionals believe that either of them could do the job.  At that point, they’re simply looking for a reason to pick one over another.  Often, that reason is the perception of a negative.  Make their job easier by giving them a positive differentiator – something that makes you stand out.  More experience (or perhaps a secondment) with that particular industry?  A book you’ve written on the subject?  More successful trials in that area?  Do you speak another language that might be relevant to this area?  Take the time to figure out what you have (and your competitors don’t) that might help put you over the top in the eyes of your target client – and then let them know that information to make their decision a bit easier.

At the end of the day, the debates were won based on how competitors performed in the moment.  But it was obvious who had taken the time to properly prepare.  And guess what?  Your target clients will be able to determine that with you, too.