We started by talking about the difference between fighting and arguing: that arguing has the goal of achieving consensus, and that, when arguing, you should have a reason (a point) behind what you are doing.
Then we took a trip back in time to Aristotle’s Rhetorics, for ammunition to use in debate. Those included Character (experience, reputation, education, in other words, why we should listen to you), Logic (numbers, “research shows”, and if/then statements), and Emotion (stories and powerful words that bring awe, anger, anxiety or sadness).
We also armed ourselves with two other rhetorical tools.
- The “on the other hand” technique (“Pain is bad. On the other hand, pain is a warning if we are doing something we shouldn’t do. On the other hand, we should be smart enough not to touch pots that come directly out of the oven. On the other hand…”)
- The “Yes, and” technique, where you take the other party’s argument and turn it against them or reduce it to absurdity.
After the first debate (“Boys and girls should go to separate schools’), we were ready for an advanced technique, verb tenses.
- The past tense is forensic and deals with blame and justice.
- The present tense is demonstrative and is good for values, such as praise, condemnation and identity.
- The future tense is deliberative. It helps us make choices and is a great way to end debates (and presentations in general).
Finally, the second debate (“Large conferences and sporting events are good for the local economy”) showed us the true power of argument. The two sides really went at the subject, bringing in the concepts of specific research, empty houses and stadia, fat children, and the dreaded word, taxes. But the rhetorical coup de grace, even though brought by the losing side, was when the word “imagine” came up, causing us all to stop and think, maybe even to rethink, our original positions.
Aristotle would have been proud.
Jonathan Talbott, TIP