Daniel T. Richards

Daniel T. Richards

Digital Strategist. Rhetorician. All Around Swell Guy.

Dead Sopranos Can’t Sing: Arguments “From the Stronger”

If I can’t beat my grandpa at basketball, then I can’t beat LeBron James. Fact.

We hear this kind of argument a lot. It can be humorous, poignant, often compelling. It’s a favorite of lawyers and children and a great set up for Horatio Caine jokes.

It’s called argument a fortiori (ah-four-tee-OR-ee) or “argument from the stronger.” And it can be hours of rhetorical fun.

Here’s why…

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Exordium: A Very Good Place to Start

How do I begin? That’s a troubling question for many rhetors. With the truck loads of content being produced on a second-to-second basis, there’s a certain anxiety to creating your own. It’s more than “blank page syndrome.” It’s wondering, “Why would someone want to listen to me? What could I say that would make them want to listen?”

::sigh::

Luckily for modern rhetors, classical rhetorical scholars can give us some important insights about attention grabbing and introductions. They even had a special name for this part of your discourse: exordium. Basically, it means “the beginning.” The great thinker and rhetor Cicero explained:

An exordium is an address bringing the mind of the hearer into a suitable state to receive the rest of the speech; and that will be effected if it has rendered him well disposed towards the speaker, attentive, and willing to receive information.

Cicero lays out three goals for the exordium: Make the audience attentive, open (“teachable”), and/or favorable. While these aren’t the exhaustive ends of a good introduction, they’re a good place to start.

Let’s have a look at each goal…

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If I Only Had a Brain: The Straw Man Fallacy

It’s easier to fight a punching bag than it is to fight Anderson Silva. (Certainly less scary.) Yet if you dominated a punching bag it wouldn’t be fair (or rational) to claim that you won a fight with the MMA star.

It works the same way in rhetoric. But less blood. (Usually.)

Too often when we argue we “defeat” something that doesn’t exist. We take a weak, pathetic, offensive version of our opponents’ arguments, beat them up, and announce that we’re champions. It’s the logical fallacy of building a “straw man argument.” No belt for you!

The term “straw man” has an ambiguous origin, but the concept is simple. Imagine a soldier, for instance, setting up a scarecrow, stabbing it with a bayonet, then declaring victory over the enemy. Delusional. The straw man fallacy operates in a similar way during debate. It’s the presentation of your opponent’s argument as an unsubstantial or easy-to-defeat version of itself. It may “look” like the original argument, but all the meat is gone.

The straw man fallacy is an evasion of reality, taking one proposition and replacing it with something entirely different. In the end, the rhetorical effectiveness is suspect at best. An audience can usually tell if something seems too bad to be true.

Take this debate on education for example:

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I <3 Your Sweater; Here's Why You're Wrong

Does the guy you’re arguing with have nice teeth? Maybe he’s an outstanding orator or just deeply passionate about his views. Perhaps he owns a sweet Christmas sweater.

Tell him.

Acknowledge what you like, what the audience likes; emphasize the positive.

Too often in arguments, we focus on “winning” or dominating our opponents. We want to make them look bad because, by contrast, we look good. This stirs up feelings of anger and aggression or sometimes fear and hatred. It’s us vs them! Aside from having detrimental effects on your poise, this attitude can harm your ethos and make you an ineffective rhetor.

Remember: the goal of your rhetoric is not “to win” but, instead, to achieve a certain goal. If you can “lose” the argument but still accomplish that goal, then what does “winning” really get you?

Learning to be a better rhetor means recognizing what’s in your long-term self-interest. Making someone look bad might make you feel good in the moment, but it’s not an effective strategy for growing your ethos, the most precious currency in your rhetorical vault.

One of the most counter-intuitive but effective ways to boost ethos is by complimenting your opponent and your audience…and meaning it!

Here’s why and how:

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Poise(d) to Persuade

Robert Benchley: “My good man, would you please get me a taxi?”
Uniformed Man: “I’m not a doorman. I’m an admiral in the United States Navy.”
Robert Benchley: “Alright then. Get me a battleship.”

I bet you rarely agree with people who cry when you ask them tough questions—or buy things from salesmen who wave their arms and scream at you. (Wacky waving inflatable arm-flailing tube men notwithstanding.)

But what about a politician who stands on his convictions, who fights for them with enthusiasm—or a salesman who knows everything about the product and exudes confidence? Sold!

When you’re giving any form of public talk, sales pitch, or even sharing an opinion with your friends, one factor that can make or break the outcome is how you manage your demeanor. Do you get angry easily? Do you speak softly with little conviction? Do you make eye contact?

It’s all a matter of poise, and it can affect your ethos for better or worse.

We often hear about poise as a single attribute. Either someone has it or they don’t. Like the flu. But upon reflection poise seems to be a more complicated concept. I’ve seen people “lose” their poise mid-speech, and I’ve seen people “gain” it after stumbling out of the gate.

So what exactly is poise?

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Kairos: Right Time, Right Place

It’s Friday night and Ellen is grabbing a drink with her coworkers before heading home. What a long week! Everyone is ready for some down time, some sleep, and a chance to clear their heads.

The relaxing effects of the booze kick in, and Ellen’s mind starts to wander. She doodles on the napkin while her coworkers chat and laugh. She smiles and looks down at her doodling hand. Suddenly she realizes her doodles are a coherent image—an idea to resolve a stubborn issue with the Stevenson account. It’s genius! She shoves the napkin in her pocket and interrupts her colleagues to share.

But they’re not as excited—their faces stone and demeanor stoic. Their cocktail glasses hang motionless in the air. Ellen is certain the idea is good, but she can’t seem to get through to them. They keep pointing out inconsequential “flaws” in her plan, almost pushing her away with irrelevancies. Defeated she sits back and finishes her drink before walking home.

What happened?

All of us have been in Ellen’s place, felt her frustration. It’s easy to get discouraged when you have an idea that seems clearly right and yet you fail to persuade. Will Ellen try again on Monday to convince her coworkers? Or will she drop the idea, defeated, thinking it must not be as great as she thought? What would you do?

Unfortunately, too many people abandon an argument prematurely or, conversely, doom their argument to failure unnecessarily by neglecting the rhetorical concept of kairos.

Kairos is

the right or opportune moment (the supreme moment).

Author  Eric Charles White described kairos more poetically as

“a passing instant when an opening appears which must be driven through with force if success is to be achieved.”
Kaironomia: On the Will-to-Invent

The rhetorical concept of kairos refers to the ideal moment for rhetoric to occur. You may have a correct audience analysis and a killer argument, but if the time and place aren’t right, the odds turn against you.

Consider a swimming instructor peddling his craft in the middle of the desert. Or a psychic who wants to read palms at a Skeptics Convention. Extreme examples, yes, but now consider your own experience. Do you always persuade under ideal circumstances? Talking politics at work, meeting a potential client at a funeral, asking a girl out on the Metro—none are ideal.

Sometimes we have no choice about where we’re called to persuade by the rhetorical situation. But I conjecture that in more cases than not we do have some say about place and time. And it’s time to start caring!

Let’s look at the two major considerations for strong kairos: Setting & Timing.

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Concede to Win

Eloquence: Concede to WinWe’re all guilty of letting an argument get out of hand. Where values run deep, emotions run high. It happens. The Internet is lousy with methods for avoiding rhetorical rumbles. From meditation to yoga to breathing exercises to finding “your happy place” (Nick’s), it’s hard to fathom that you might need or want another method to keep tension down during a debate.

So here’s another one: Agree with your opponent.

If it sounds crazy, that’s because it is. Crazy effective. And unlike chi-oriented or mental methods, the concede technique will not only help you keep cool but also further your rhetorical goals. Two birds, one concession.

Remember that “winning” an argument is not a rhetor’s goal. And you can often achieve your goal while “losing” the argument. One of the fastest ways to achieve your goals is to let your opponents think they’ve won.

Here are three techniques for staying calm and conceding your way to victory:

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Know Yourself: 5 Goals of Persuasion

It has become a cliché that the first rule of rhetoric is “know your audience.”

That rule is !#@$.

OK, that’s a bit excessive. (I blame coffee.) The rule itself is fine—great, even. What I take issue with is the order of importance. Most rhetoricians are obsessed with audience analysis…and for good reason. Understanding your audience’s context is vital for being a successful rhetor.

But even more important is a rule that people don’t usually consider. And it should be the new cardinal rule of persuasion:

Know yourself.

Not only is knowing yourself essential for establishing genuine ethos (the most important rhetorical appeal), it’s also the foundation for the construction of every argument: What do you want to accomplish?

Sounds easy, right? Yet entering an argument without a clear goal is the most common mistake I see rhetors make across the board—from amateur to professional—and it only leads to frustration, anger, and name-calling. The Dark Side of the rhetorical Force.

Most people assume that “to win” is the goal of every argument. But what does it mean to win? And what if you could get what you want without “winning”? #CharlieSheenNotHappy

Before spending  energy in an argument, consider these broad rhetorical outcomes:

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