Elements of Political Communication: Spoken message guidelines – Debates

Quite a bit of material exists on the effects of national political debates, and the results are fairly conclusive: They often reach a larger audience than any other campaign event.[1] Understand, however, that the venues and audiences of local political debates will vary widely and will differ significantly from those on national television. Although local election debates and candidate forums do not often help your campaign attract the wider audience associated with national races, they do allow you to reach a more engaged audience; this group is often much more likely to be composed of active voters and donors. These events are formal opportunities to communicate your political message to that specific audience.

Six political candidates sit behind a short desk in a church. People fill up most of the pews in the church, and a lone microphone sits in the middle aisle.
Local forums have many different qualities. These factors will affect the style and substance of the debate.

This chapter focuses on the issues related to local political debates or forums in particular. Further reading on this issue beyond the referenced works in this chapter can be found in the speech guides section of references.


Often, event organizers may not know the answers to more specific questions, but pressing for answers often reveals important information. Learn as much as possible about the conditions of the event before it begins. Questions should include:

  • Where will the event be held?
  • Will candidates be speaking directly to the audience, or will they address a moderator?
  • Are questions pre-written, or will the audience submit them in writing?
  • How much time will each candidate have to answer each question?
  • What kinds of questions have been asked at this event in previous years?
  • Understand your objective in reaching this audience: Are you trying to convince them just to vote for you, or to support your campaign in some other way?

Your candidate or representative should practice his or her performance in an environment similar to (or if possible, the same as) the debate environment. The more your candidate learns about election issues in this environment, the more likely he or she will be able to recite it during the debate.[2] At many local forums, audience members submit their own questions. If possible, have supporters prepare their own questions prior the debate. Questions should be directed at all candidates, and they should allow your candidate to emphasize his or her own strengths.