Just for the sake of argument, let’s say that on both the public stage and in private rooms, we haven’t raised the level of oral argument and rhetoric in general.
While often used in the pejorative, rhetoric is rightfully defined as the “art of influence, friendship, and eloquence – and “it harnesses the most powerful of social forces, argument.”
In 2007, Jay Heinrichs wrote a funny and provocative book, “Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion.
The book deftly introduces rhetoric concepts and ideas that provide a clear, logical and eloquent tool kit for creating more effective arguments.
He writes, “the ancients considered rhetoric the essential skill of leadership – knowledge so important that they placed it as the center of higher education. It taught them how to speak and write persuasively producing something to say on every occasion, and make people like them when they spoke.”
In his book and in his talks, Heinrichs often tells the story of his son George and the toothpaste tube.
One morning, as he stepped out of the shower and into the luxurious warmth of a towel, Heinrichs reached for a tube of toothpaste and discovered that it was empty.
The nearest new tube was in the depths of his freezing basement. He opened the door – steam escaping into the void and called for his teenage George.
“George!” he yelled through the door, “Who used all the toothpaste?”
“A sarcastic voice answers from the other side of the door. “That’s not the point, is it, Dad “The point is how we’re going to keep this from happening again!”
“You’re right,” Heinrichs said. “You win. Now can you please get me some toothpaste?”
To score some points against Dad was a small victory but a victory that had been years in the making. Heinrichs had been teaching his son for years how the most productive arguments use the future tense, the language of choice and decisions.
Yes, there is a kind of grammar for argument. Heinrichs has fondness for Aristotle, who devised a form of rhetoric for each of the tenses – and Aristotle had his own fondness for the future tense.
One of the tools of argument espoused by Heinrichs is controlling the tense. “If you find an argument spinning out of control, try switching the tense,” says Heinrich.
“Try this in a meeting. Hold your tongue well into the discussion.If an argument bogs down in the past or present tense, switch it to the future -- you’re all making good points, but how are we going to….”
Heinrichs offers up a variety of tools – from using emotion effectively to Stalin’s Timing Secret – to help create a master class in argument and ultimately the art of persuasion.
Like my friend Dan Pink (In his book, To Sell Is Human), Heinrichs delves into murky areas – the thin line between persuasion and manipulation. In many ways, the stick can look deceptively like a carrot. (And the reverse is equally valid).
If you want to be a more creative and compelling persuader, I suggest you get or download a copy of Heinrichs' book, Thank You For Arguing.
And if you have a spare hour and fifty minutes or so and want to see two weapons of mass argument (William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan go head to toe on the Panama Canal (With Sam Ervin, a young George Will and Pat Buchanan) this old C-Span video has gems strewn about.