I was listening to speeches in class and in meetings in the past few weeks when it suddenly dawned on me: the speaker has never questioned the initial position. For example, I heard something similar to the following:
“Everybody knows that cancer in kids is bad, so tonight I want to convince you to donate to the Children’s Cancer Fund.”
Why is this the death of persuasion?
Well, in this case, there are a couple of things going on. The first lies in the topic itself. When it comes to certain things, like children or cancer, it’s impossible to really argue without looking like a huge jerk. Who would actually claim that cancer is good or that it is somehow acceptable for children? Right away, an audience will feel compelled to keep quiet or even blindly agree. Cancer in kids really is bad! No argument. No persuasion.
Ah, but the speaker is really trying to get the audience to donate to a fund that fights cancer in kids. Again, built on the assumption that cancer in kids is a bad thing, what arguments do you really need? It’s bad! Donate now! The persuasion is built right into the self-evident nature of the assertion/assumption.
Without getting into a lesson in rhetoric (specifically logical fallacies), what we can see here is that the issue is side-stepped: How many children fall victim to cancer (and, where’s the evidence)? If it’s one million, that’s bad news, and maybe we ought to do something (like donate some money to that fund)! If it’s one, it’s tragic… but I’m not sure how many want to contribute to a fund that is dedicated to wiping out cancer in one kid.
Again, that sounds so draconian, but think about this: every dollar donated to helping this one kid is a dollar not out there helping other kids. What about childhood hunger? Or abuse? Or homelessness? Or any number of problems that many other children suffer from? This doesn’t say that the one cancer patient isn’t important, but how do you begin to weigh that? After taxes and paying the bills, there’s only so much money to donate. How do you decide?
However you do, that is the beginning of persuasion. That’s where the speaker must spend time.
Weakening Informative Speeches
Making these kinds of claims as truth not only impedes the process of engaging in a persuasive debate whose outcome ultimately will determine attitudes and actions, but also weaken informative speeches. Let’s tweak the purpose just a bit:
“Everybody knows that cancer in kids is bad, so tonight I will show you how you can get involved in fighting this terrible thing.”
Well, now persuasion has been entirely eliminated as a process. The speaker assumes that everyone not only agrees that cancer in kids is bad and (as noted earlier) that this is a large enough problem that resources need to be allocated to fight it, but also that we already wish to do so, but simply lack the knowledge.
This is problematic, as the audience may very well smile and nod, but there’s nothing keeping them from checking their smart phones during this speech. Assuming that the audience already agrees with the problem and its need to be addressed only makes it that much easier for an audience to disengage. Why listen to instructions for something the audience has no stake in? If they don’t agree in the beginning, they certainly won’t follow through in the end.
Kill the Assumptions
The simple cure for this, as I have preached now for years, is to question the basic assumptions made before any speech. This is easily accomplished by looking for evidence that any statement made is true, and then to measure the scope of that statement, particularly when any claim is emotionally driven. Challenging any assumptions made by the speaker or the audience will only serve to strengthen the speech, and may even lead to better arguments, better decisions, and better actions.