Why Debate Skills Are a Lifeline In Times of Crisis

Advocates for Debate Spotlight: Todd Trautman


Todd Trautman Portrait

Todd Trautman is the Senior Manager of Data Analytics at Cigna and a former debate coach and competitor. He supports the MNUDL as an Advocate for Debate.

In the second week of March 2020, Todd Trautman was on vacation. By the time he got back to his Colorado home and returned to work as the Senior Manager of Data Analytics at Cigna, the world was upside down. 


“I lead a team of data analysts and business advisors at Cigna. Our team name is Emerging Health Trends, and obviously the most important trend right now is COVID-19!” Todd says. “Once I got back, I went straight to work and didn’t take any time off for months.” 


In the near-year since mass shutdowns began across the United States, Todd has been hard at work to respond to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. He’s also remained a steadfast supporter of our organization as an Advocate for Debate. That’s because he believes debate skills are indispensable in a crisis. 


Read on to learn about how Todd Trautman is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, how his experience as a former debater and coach influences him now, and why debate may help us cope with COVID. 


How are you responding to COVID-19 at work right now?  


I spend a lot of my time thinking about how to help patients with COVID-19, asking questions like: What will it mean for our healthcare system going into 2021, thinking about all the deferred care and behavioral health issues that are emerging as people are alone? What does isolation do to loneliness and resilience? What can we do to mitigate the issues? 


We’ve spent a lot of intense and late nights figuring out what this is all going to mean, financially and clinically. There have been other health crises, but this is unprecedented.


However, we think it’ll be very different by the end of summer. The epidemiologists who work for me are saying that the current rate of vaccine rollout will allow enough of us to have people vaccinated by the end of July. 


Have you always worked in healthcare? 


I sort of stumbled into healthcare after pursuing data analytics. It’s an exciting area to work in. Perhaps too exciting right now. Before that, I pursued communication studies and political science at Concordia College, did my Master’s at Kansas State University, and went to University of Illinois for my PhD. 


Todd Trautman, Bob Groven, Cort Sylvester featured in a Concordian article written by Barb Pavivic (now Schmitt).

Todd competed in speech and debate at Concordia College. What familiar faces and names can you spot in this article from the March 10th, 1989 issue of the Concordian?


When did you begin debating?


I joined during college. I did a mock debate in college class and that was fun, but really, I joined because there were people on the team I wanted to get to know better. 


While competing, one thing that really stood out to me was the opportunity to travel. I remember many long van rides driving up and down the interstate, and even a time where my teammate lost the key! (laughs) I got to see so many campuses throughout the nation. It opened my eyes and mind to see what life was like on other campuses. 


After I graduated, I realized I wasn’t done with debate, and I began coaching as a graduate student. I coached debate at Kansas State University while getting my Masters in Communication. 


What are some highlights from your time as a coach? 


Well, there were some competitive highlights, but that’s not really the part that stands out to me. When you’re coaching, you get to know students on a personal level in a unique way. You really get to understand the students’ strengths, and their dreams, and what motivates them. That creates a connection. 

That’s something people might not realize about debate. It’s really about the connections you make within the community. 


I worry that some people have the idea that you have to debate at the highest level to benefit. No doubt, there’s a lot of hard work that comes into debating at a high level. The sheer number of hours will prepare you for anything you pursue. But I disagree with the idea that it’s not worth it otherwise. Regardless of competitive success, you still remember those people you competed against and learned from. They all become part of your community. It’s not just the people who go to the TOC or win State. You remember and value those other relationships just as much. That’s why I’m glad we’re continuing to drive to alternative approaches that don’t require 20 hours a week of preparation. How else can we create these types of experiences for more people? There are other benefits happening. 


What do you see as the benefits of debate? 


Public speaking, the ability to form an argument, the ability to think of both sides of an issue – we all know these benefits. I’d like to add that it also gives you a framework, a vocabulary, and a philosophical approach of thinking about issues that’s useful to me even today. I didn’t become a lawyer like many former debaters. But even today, I use the skills I learned. 


For example, back in April, we spent a lot of time thinking about how to define COVID-19. It’s not immediately obvious. Students are doing that right now with the criminal justice reform topic – they’re defining the scope. Is it police reform? Or something else? Soon, I’ll be having a discussion on the “long haul COVID” term. We have to define exactly what that is now. That skill of being able to think carefully about definitions that has served me well. 


Also, I have a better than average ability to do note taking. From debate, I know exactly where those skills developed! 


When working as a manager-director, I’m often part of technical discussions. One group of engineers will have an idea, and another will have a different idea. I’ve been promoted due to my ability to find a path forward through technical discussions even when I’m not the expert in the room. My ability to do that is rooted in debate. Computer systems are so complex now that one person can’t do it in their basement now. That myth of Bill Gates inventing Microsoft in his dorm room, it’s just not possible today. There are committees with varying ideas, and debate can teach you how to move forward when you’re dealing with competing expertise and perspectives. 


I had one professor who told me that a communication degree is most useful five years after you graduate. I wasn’t hired for my communication skills, but I’ve been promoted for my communication skills. I now present to the most senior leaders in a 70,000 person, multi billion dollar enterprise, dealing with one of the most important public health crises in the country. That’s from debate – not just from the technical skills. You need to have the combination of both.


More broadly, why do you think debate matters now?


With COVID-19, there are so many unknowns. There are three buckets: things we do know, things that we simply don’t know, and things we kind of know. People of good will can disagree about what belongs in each bucket, but we can hopefully at least agree on what we do know. Debate teaches you to really sort through that information and what is sure fact. In the larger public, we are having a lot of struggle sorting out what is known and what we don’t know. A lot of people struggle with the grey continuum. Encouraging participation in debate will help students think through these multiple perspectives. 


Todd provides a monthly gift to support our programs as an Advocate for Debate. If you are able, please consider trying this budget-friendly method of supporting debate. You’ll help sustain our organization through these turbulent times! Learn more and give today.