Make sure your argument is a good one

Don’t say stupid stuff and a few other timeless persuasion techniques

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

“Don’t say stupid stuff” – that was the first principle of my college level writing and public speaking classes.

I rarely said it out loud, but it was the organizing theme of each day’s work. Most of the time I hinted at it as we looked at stupid statements made by politicians (though they were too easy of a target most days) and other public figures.

For better or worse, you don’t need to be a professional rhetorician to recognize that there is a lot of “stupid stuff” out there.

Like most of us, I’m glad that the 2018 mid-term election is behind us. Those endless mailers and non-stop political ads on television and radio with their negative – and usually incoherent if not outright deceptive – implications were, to me at least, proof that gibberish and noise seemed to be the reigning form of  communication if not argumentation.

Logical fallacies were embraced – and when false statements were fact-checked, virtually every candidate “doubled down” on their rantings.

The election season may be over, but weak – if not contradictory arguments continue.

One textbook I used several years ago was titled “Everything’s an argument.” It’s an interesting premise. Every statement, every action and certainly every decision is an argument.

Another text book I used made the statement that “Slogans are where thinking stops.” Slogans are, almost by definition, statements that are considered to be universal, transferrable and the final word on any subject in any context.

In other words, instead of the hard work of thinking, or considering the peculiar aspects of this situation or the individuals involved, a slogan is repeated until the conversation – if not thinking itself – evaporates.

A few years ago I was on a jury. As part of our orientation, the judge emphasized that our verdict was to be based, not on the size, color or tattoos of the defendant. Or even their prior record. Our verdict should be based solely on the evidence – the facts only.

I know it seems hopelessly naive and old fashioned, but could you imagine living in a world where our leaders and policy makers based their decisions on actual facts and data that could be confirmed and verified?

In the business world, good – or bad – decisions tend to have nearly immediate repercussions – especially for smaller businesses.

There is almost a direct correlation to the size of a business and how divorced it can be from the consequences of its own poor – if not disastrous – policies and decisions.

“Too big to fail” applies, by definition, only to massive corporations with entanglements that would bring down too many other businesses, industries even entire national economies. Small businesses fail all too often. Their margin of profit is far too limited to afford endless lawsuits or golden parachutes or stock option or any of the other perks available in global entities.

Small business can only afford to be honest. Massive corporations can afford armies of  high–priced lawyers to fight off any accusations of price-fixing or deceptive practices.

In short, small businesses can’t afford to do – or say – “stupid stuff.”

One lie, bad decision, or marketing mistake could be the end of a small business.

Large businesses have the luxury of living by the show business adage “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” They know that any lawsuits, scandals or product recalls only further cement the brand name in the minds of potential future consumers.

In other words big businesses and agencies can afford to do – or say – “stupid stuff.”

Our communities are made up of many hands, many decisions and many conversations. Photo: Morf Morford
Our communities are made up of many hands, many decisions and many conversations. Photo: Morf Morford

We in Tacoma seem to be besieged by public policy decisions lately. It could be plastic bags, guns, Click! or dockless scooters, the particular issue doesn’t really matter. My hope is that we deal with issues on their merits and make decisions based on actual evidence and our shared sense of character and identity instead of fantasies or imagined fears.

I’ve been attending City Council meetings and a variety of public hearings on the Port of Tacoma interim regulations related to the proposed (and under construction) LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) facility on the east side of the Port of Tacoma.

It’s been a fascinating – if sometimes disheartening – series of arguments.

One of the principles of making a successful argument is to keep on the subject. At public hearings, person after person meandered in favor of – or in opposition to – the LNG site.

Almost any topic, from plastic bags to taxes or certainly, guns, is immensely more complicated than first thought, and how one approaches and defines both the topic and its impact on our lives has a lot to do with how successful our argument is.

At a variety of hearings and meetings I heard too many muddled statements that could have been made by either side.

I’d like to clarify what I tell my students when it comes to making a solid argument.

First, respect those on the other side of your  argument. Your argument will be much stronger if you consider the values and motives behind your adversary’s position. Your opponent is not evil – or deceived. If you fairly restate the opposing position, your statement will be stronger, and no matter how the vote goes, the two sides can – and will probably need to – productively work together.

Publicly shaming or ridiculing your opponent will not make you look good – and it certainly won’t encourage them to listen to you or agree with you  – or work with you if you “win” the argument.

When it comes to the LNG, for example, both sides want prosperity, a safe community and a clean environment. If we can at least begin with common values and assumptions, maybe we could keep those central on that, or any other issue that comes up.

Second, consider what argument or evidence would get you to change your mind. If you say nothing would  change your  mind,  you have already lost the argument. If you refuse to take your opponent’s view seriously, why should they listen to yours?

If you can’t listen or compromise, why should they? Few people enjoy a stalemate. Progress requires listening and mutual respect.

“If you would persuade, you must appeal to interest rather than intellect.”  – Benjamin Franklin

There’s another old saying that seems stunningly innocent in our “win at any cost” era – “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”

If you play the game fairly, you will be welcome in any community, business or relationship. If you play unfairly, even if you “win,” no one will want you on their team, or in their neighborhood. And they will warn others against ever trusting you.

I may be old fashioned, but my sense is that “winning” – especially at a great cost to others – is never worth it.

A reputation for treating others fairly – if not generously – will serve you well if you intend to stay in your community, or business, or relationship.  (1*)

As Aristotle put it, about two thousand years ago, in spite of our current all-too-cynical cultural climate, human-beings are always on the search for truth, we always want to know what is solid – who or what we can rely on.

Here are the three elements, as proposed by Aristotle, to convince anyone on almost any topic.

#1. Persuasion by character.

We are more easily persuaded by those that appear more trustworthy.

#2. Persuasion by emotion.

Depending on our emotional state we way be more or less inclined to adopt a certain belief. Appeals to fears or unrealistic fantasies, for better or worse, seem to always be effective.

#3. Persuasion by logic.

Believe the evidence. If a conspiracy theory seems so unlikely and crazy that it seems like a completely unhinged person made it up, they probably did.


(1*)    For a few more strategies on working together in spite of our differences, I suggest this TED Talk –


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