Emerging trend: Mass. debating tech community swells with events


Massachusetts has long been a home for avid debaters. Look no further than Faneuil Hall in Boston for the famous painting of orator Daniel Webster as proof of how strongly rooted that heritage is. Look presently to our public schools and the great work being done by the Boston Debate League to give our youth a valuable skill set. But perhaps most interesting and relevant to regular readers here is what may be the start of the debate event trend in the tech community.

In the last few weeks I’ve had notes about tech community debates show up in my inbox; I can’t believe it’s a coincidence (though, admittedly, the prominent role of a Devin in each group would have to be coincidental). In the search for a creative twist on the standard panel discussion and networking event, it seems that great minds in Massachusetts have a convergent interest in flexing their mental muscle against each other on stage. While each format focuses on a specific theme for the night, the variety appears in how these events structure the rules of engagement for their opponents.

The first one to show up in my inbox was a note from Master Slam founder Devin Bramhall (formerly of Springpad, now Product Marketing Manager at Shareaholic). Bramhall said she wanted to create “a storytelling competition and a debate smashed together into one. It’s like ultimate fighting for intellectuals.” Competition comes in the form of 6 people who debate one topic in fast-paced arguments on stage in front of a live audience. Each competitor has 90 seconds to make their argument – no notes, no props – then they are scored by a panel of judges. The two people with the highest score from Round One go to the next round where they’re asked one final question. They have 60 seconds to respond and the person with the highest cumulative score wins.

At the inaugural event, the topic was Marketing vs PR; Mark O’Toole of HB Agency made the case for PR through a great story about a flight attendant who helped him out of a jam, by giving him $100 to fly home at the end of Spring Break in 1985. At the last slam, Android vs iOS for Startups, one of the contestants from MobeeApp lit up the crowd when he rapped his argument.

Another interesting wrinkle is the “wild card sign up,” where one person can join the competition the night of the event (everyone else is signed up in advance). This person is the least prepared, so it’s a long shot that they’ll win. But at the very first slam, Ryan Connors of Verndale gave such an impressive wild card argument that he won the whole competition and a year’s worth of free beer from Harpoon.

The next Master Slam scheduled for May 20th at WeWork on Melcher Street will feature the topic Crowd Funding vs. Angel Funding for Early Stage Startups, with competitors from Splashscore, Drync, Scoopr, and Six Foods.

Closer on the calendar will be April 16th’s Great Startup Debate at Workbar in Central Square. The first event in the newly launched series partnership between Workbar, TUGG, NEVCA and Nutter pits opponents against each other in a format loosely modeled on Oxford debate with charitable prize dollars at stake.

Devin Cole, Director of Special Programming & Outreach at Workbar (and former co-editor of the very blog you are reading now, not to be confused with the other Devin Cole or Fake Devin Cole), suggested that they wanted to have a debate around a clear resolution instead of the typical panel because “the social dynamics of a panel tend to push people toward being constructive and collaborative. This would be a great thing in a normal setting, but on a panel, it often causes major issues to remain unexamined because no one is pushed in their opinions.”

The event will take up the following issue:

Resolved: SEC regulations should require that, in order to go public or remain publicly-traded, U.S. companies will need to have a majority of women on their boards of directors.

Women are today under-represented on corporate boards. (When Twitter went public in 2013, it had zero women on its seven member board.) Yet a majority of the U.S. population are women, and according to the Boston Consulting Group, American women control 73 percent of household spending. Public companies would greatly benefit from having a majority of their board members be women, and the government should pass legislation requiring all public companies achieve that goal.

Upon registration audience members will declare their position. After the debate an audience vote will be taken. The winner will be the side who sways the pre-debate vote. A charitable prize pool will be distributed accordingly: 80% of proceeds will go to the TUGG non-profit chosen by the winners, 20% to a TUGG non-profit chosen by the losers. As if that weren’t enough, the winners’ names will be etched onto a Series trophy – Stanley Cup style – to ensure permanent bragging rights.

For this debate, the Affirmative case will be represented by Dave McLaughlin of Vsnap and Malia Lazu of Future Boston Alliance on behalf of Dream Big!, while the Negative case will be represented by Olivia Dufour of NTT Data and Jon Karlen of Atlas Venture on behalf of Science Club for Girls. In rounding out the discussion, BetaBoston’s own Scott Kirsner will handle the moderating (and peacemaking) duties for the evening.

So for those of us looking forward to a refreshing change of pace from the typical tech community networking event, let’s hope the new love for debates in Greater Boston leads to some productive conversations around meaningful issues. At the very least, we can all assume it has to be better than this.

(Perry - Paul debate, Reuters)

Chad O’Connor is a communication consultant, teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Organizational Communication and Culture at Northeastern University, and is editor of this blog. Connect with him on Twitter @chadoconnor.