In arguments, rhetoric, sparks, structure

Hegel believed that simply stating an argument was enough to bring counter-arguments immediately to mind.

If a presenter ignores these arguments, what do we do? Most likely we ask ourselves why. Is he afraid of their power? Doesn’t he know that these arguments exist? Is he trying to trick us into believing the situation is a simple one? Does he think we’re idiots? What is clear is that in these circumstances, the presenter may well lose us – our attention and, more seriously, our support.

If, on the other hand, he includes these arguments, we’re likely to feel he’s honest and he’s reasonable (he can see both sides). He also doesn’t face the embarrassment of later being asked a difficult question that makes him look shifty, as if he had something to hide. Perhaps the main benefit is that he gets the chance to talk about the counter-arguments at a time – and in the way – that’s best for HIM. In this way, he can reduce the power of the counter-argument and at the same time boost his own credibility – what lawyers call ‘stealing their thunder’.

Of course there is still the question of when to mention the counter-argument. If the audience are pretty much on your side, it probably makes sense to make your case first, then deal with the counter-arguments before your conclusion. If, on the other hand, the audience are potentially hostile to you, it may be far better to begin by discussing the opposing view. If you don’t – if you begin by making your own case, what are the audience likely to be thinking? Again, that you’re trying to pull the wool over their eyes. If you deal with the counter-arguments early and effectively, you clear the way for your own case.

Of course, the key word is ‘effectively’. In The Dynamics of Persuasion, Richard M. Perloff cites the research of Mike Allen (1998) and Daniel J. O’Keefe (1999). They found that

“two-sided messages influence attitudes more than one-sided messages, provided one very important condition is met: the message refutes opposition arguments.”

In other words, you have to demolish the counter-arguments.

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