In persuasive presentations, we often appeal to commonplaces — opinions, attitudes, or perceptions that are widely held by a particular group. Like common sense, these attitudes are (supposedly) common to all members of a group. As persuaders, we can speak to a common point of view. We’re on common ground and we can move forward together.
The problem, of course, is that commonplaces aren’t so common. Indeed, many commonplaces have equal and opposite commonplaces to counterbalance them. One commonplace advises us to look before we leap. Another reminds us that he who hesitates is lost. On the one hand, we root for the underdog. On the other hand, we admire the self-made man – who is anything but an underdog.
It seems that we can find a commonplace to suit almost any argument. Want to lower taxes? There’s a commonplace for that. (The government is inefficient. You earned it. You keep it. etc.) Want to raise taxes? There’s a commonplace for that. (We’re all in this together. We need to help each other. etc.) And “good” commonplaces can be twisted to support “bad” causes. As Shakespeare reminds us in The Merchant of Venice, “The devil can cite scripture for his own purpose.”
In my persuasion class, I ask students to write papers in which they argue a point. By and large, my students are quite adept at deploying commonplaces to support their arguments. I notice that they often deploy commonplaces that they believe in. To be persuasive, however, we need to consider the commonplaces that the audience believes in. I shouldn’t assume that you think like me. Rather, I should seek to understand what you think and use that as a starting point for building my argument.
The concept of using the audience’s commonplaces is as old as Greek rhetoric. It got a boost last year when the sociologists Robb Willer and Matthew Feinberg published their research on argumentation and moral values. Their basic finding: we are more persuasive when we frame arguments for a political position around “the target audience’s moral values.”
Feinberg and Willer point out that liberals and conservatives have different moral values (or commonplaces in our terminology). They write “…liberals tend to be more concerned with care and equality where conservatives are more concerned with … group loyalty, respect for authority and purity.”
They then tested how to persuade conservatives to take a liberal position or vice-versa. For instance, how would you persuade conservatives to support same-sex marriage? They found that conservatives are more likely to agree with an argument based on patriotism than one based on equality and fairness. Conservatives tended to agree with an argument that, ““same-sex couples are proud and patriotic Americans … [who] contribute to the American economy and society.” They were less likely to agree with an argument couched in terms of fairness and equality.
Aristotle taught us that the best person to judge the quality of food is the one who eats it, not the one who prepares it. The same is true for arguments. You can’t judge how effective your argument is. Only the audience can. The moral of the story? Get over yourself. Learn what the audience is thinking.
I find that I often disagree with people. It’s not that I’m a bad person or that I have evil intentions. I just have a specific and somewhat idiosyncratic way of looking at the world that doesn’t always fit with other people’s views. There’s certainly nothing wrong with being out of step with the world. There are, however, good reasons to consider how to deal with it.
When I was younger and snarkier, I dealt with it by being competitive. I focused on winning. I’m pretty good with words and I could often come up with a snappy comeback or putdown. I could be sarcastic and snide. I could put the other person in his place. If I left the other person speechless, so much the better. That just proved that I had won the encounter. I felt superior.
Now that I’m a bit older, I realize that it’s more important to win over than to win. When I sarcastically put someone down, I doubt that I won many hearts and minds. Instead of winning people over, I pushed them away. Humiliating another person may feel good but it doesn’t do good.
I’ve learned that the best way to disagree is to begin by agreeing. You start by finding some point of agreement with the other person’s position. It may be small or large, but it allows you to start by validating what the other person has said. You say – metaphorically or literally – “Yes, I’ve heard you. I understand your position.” The other person feels affirmed and recognized.
Then you change the frame, shift the focus, or alter the timeline. Here are some general-purpose ways to do just that:
The general technique is known as concession-and-shift. It’s been in use at least since the days of Aristotle and his rhetorical colleagues. The idea is simple: start on a positive note rather than a negative note. Agree before disagreeing. If your interlocutor senses that you’re agreeable and reasonable, she’ll be much more likely to listen to your side of the argument. That’s exactly what you want.
The United Kingdom is deeply embroiled in the Brexit debate. It’s the classic question: should we stay or should we go? Polls suggest that the electorate is almost evenly split. What can this teach us about persuasion?
Let’s take an example from a man with an opinion. Michael Sharp is a fisherman from the lovely little port of Brixham on the south coast of England who favors leaving the EU. The New York Times quotes him as saying,
“I definitely want out. … All those wars we’ve had with France, Germany — all the rest of them since God knows when, since Jesus was a lad — we’re never going to get on with them, are we?”
Now imagine that you support the opposite side – you think the UK should stay in the EU. How might you persuade Mr. Sharp to agree with you? Here are four different rhetorical approaches you might try:
A) “What a silly thing to say. We’re friends with France and Germany now. You’re 70 years out of date.”
B) “What a parochial and small-minded attitude you have. You should broaden your horizons.”
C) “All the experts say we should stay in. The top bankers and managers say it will wreck the economy to leave.”
D) “I know what you’re saying. But I’ll tell you what I’m worried about. The Russians. If we’re squabbling with the French and Germans, the Russians will divide and conquer. That’s what they’re good at. It’ll be worse for all of us.”
Which alternative is best? As always, it depends on what you want to accomplish. Let’s look at the choices.
Alternatives A & B – in both cases, you strongly suggest to Mr. Sharp that he’s wrong, stubborn, and not very smart. If your goal is to feel superior to Mr. Sharp, this is a good strategy. On the other hand, if wish to persuade Mr. Sharp to your way of thinking, you’ve just shot yourself in the foot.
Alternative C – an appeal to authority can work in some situations. But not here. Many Brexit supporters think the authorities – better known as the elites – can’t be trusted. “They don’t care about us. They’ve sold us out. If they say we should stay, all the more reason to leave.” In this case, quoting the elites is self-defeating. (It’s probably a poor tactic in arguing with a Donald Trump supporter as well).
Alternative D – this is a rhetorical technique known as concession-and-shift. You begin by agreeing with the other person. In this case, you concede that Mr. Sharp is right. This makes you seem open-minded and reasonable (even if you’re not). Then you shift to new ground and bring in a different perspective. Since you’re open-minded, Mr. Sharp is more likely to be open-minded in return. He’s more likely to listen to your thoughts and understand your position. That’s the first step in persuading him to your point of view.
Concession-and-shift is a form of rhetorical jujitsu. You don’t push back. You don’t deny the other person’s position. You don’t try to humiliate the other side. Rather, you accept their position and move on. In its simplest form, you say, “You have a good point. But have you considered …”
Concession-and-shift can work in many different situations. It’s a useful tool to master and remember. And it helps us achieve the ultimate goal of rhetoric – to argue without anger.
When our son, Elliot, was 17 he decided that he needed to get a Guinness logo tattooed on his ankle. I wasn’t adamantly opposed but I did think that he might tire of wearing a commercial logo before too long. (If he had wanted a Mom Forever tattoo, I might have felt differently).
So how to convince him? I wanted to change his mind, though not his values. Nor did I want to provoke a stormy response that would simply make the situation worse – and actually make him more likely to follow through on his plans.
Ultimately, we had a conversation that went something like this:
Elliot: So, Dad, I’m thinking I should get a Guinness tattoo. It’s a really cool logo. What do you think?
Me: I don’t know. Do you think you’ll like Guinness for the rest of your life?
Elliot: Sure. It’s great. Why wouldn’t I?
Me: Well, you know, tastes change. I mean I thought about getting a tattoo when I was your age… and, looking back on it… I’m kind of glad I didn’t.
Elliot (shocked look): Really? You were going to get a tattoo?! What were you going to get?
Me: I wanted to get a dotted line tattooed around my neck. Right above the line, I’d get the words, “Cut On Dotted Line” tattooed in.
Elliot: (more shock, disgust): Dad, that’s gross.
Me: Oh, come on. Don’t you think it would be cool if I had that tattoo. I could show it to your friends. I bet they’d like it.
Elliot: They always thought you were weird. Now they’d think your gross. It’s yuck factor 12.
Me: Really? So, you don’t want to go to the tattoo parlor together?
Our conversation seemed to help Elliot change his mind. As far as I know, he hasn’t gotten any tattoos, not even Mom Forever. Why? Here are some thoughts:
It’s about trust, not tattoos – I don’t think that Elliot cared that much about the tattoo itself. He was actually running a Mom/Dad test. He wanted to know if we trusted him to make the decision on his own. We did trust him and didn’t take the decision out of his hands. That’s a big deal when you’re 17. It can also be a big deal for people in your company. They want to know that you trust them. Sometimes they’ll put it to a test. As much as possible, let them make the choice. Just counsel them on how to make it wisely.
It’s about judo — we didn’t try to stop Elliot, we merely tried to change his direction. That’s a useful guideline in most organizations.
It’s about imagining the future – like most teens, Elliot was focused on the present and near future. He couldn’t imagine 30 years into the future – except by looking at me. If he thought I would look gross with a tattoo, he could imagine that he would, too. The same is true of many companies. We make decisions based on near-term projections. It’s hard to imagine the farther future. But there are ways to do it. Ask your team to imagine what the world will look like in 30 years. You could start by reminding them how much it’s changed since 1985.
It’s about sharing – did I really think about getting a Cut On Dotted Line tattoo? Of course, I did. But my father sat me down and talked a little wisdom into my head. I just passed it on.
What are you going to pass on?
Let’s talk about logic for a moment. When you hear the word argument, you may think of a heated exchange of opinions. It’s emotional and angry. A logician would call this a quarrel rather than an argument. In the world of logic, an argument means that you offer reasons to support a conclusion.
An argument can be valid or invalid and sound or unsound. Here’s an example of an argument in a classic form:
Premise 1: All women have freckles.
Premise 2: Suellen is a woman.
Conclusion: Suellen has freckles.
We have two reasons that lead us to a conclusion. In other words, it’s an argument. Is it a good argument? Well, that’s a different question.
Let’s look first at validity. An argument is valid if the conclusion flows logically from the premises. In this case, we have a major premise and a minor premise and – if they are true – the conclusion is inescapable. Suellen must have freckles. The conclusion flows logically from the premises. The argument is valid.
But is the argument sound? An argument is sound if the premises are verifiably true. The second premise is verifiably true – Suellen is indeed a woman. But the first premise is not verifiably true. All we have to do is look around. We’ll quickly realize that the first premise is false – not all women have freckles.
So, the argument is valid but unsound. One of the premises that leads to the conclusion is false. Can we safely assume, then, that the conclusion is also false? Not so fast, bub.
This is what’s known as the fallacy of fallacies. We often assume that, if there’s a fallacy in an argument, then the conclusion must necessarily be false. Not so. It means the conclusion is not proven. The fact that something is not proven doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s false. (Indeed, in technical terms, we’ve never proven that smoking causes cancer in humans).
Our example demonstrates the fallacy of fallacies. We agree that the argument is valid but not sound. One of the premises is false. Yet, if you know Suellen, you know that the conclusion is true. She does indeed have freckles. So even an unsound (or invalid) argument can result in a conclusion that’s true.
What’s the moral here? There’s a big difference between not proven and not true. Something that’s not proven may well be true. That’s when you want to consider Pascal’s Wager.