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Recently, I have been thinking more and more about how the skills we learn in formal rhetoric (i.e. debate) transcend the lectern into real-life. Primary among these skills is the ability to market an idea. Whether you realize it or not, we are constantly marketing ideas. So won’t you agree it is prudent to learn how to market ideas effectively? This is by no means an exhaustive list. Rather, this post is meant to be kept simple, to hone on three keys. Other techniques, such as crafting common ground, would do you well.

(Please note: I am not speaking – or writing –  from a pedestal. Paradoxically, my experience with persuasive tactics does not come from employing these techniques with success as much as from not employing them successfully and then seeing how well it worked [Hint: Not well].)

1) Smiling

One day this past summer, I was mowing a neighbor’s lawn. An elderly man came walking down the street. I looked up and smiled at him and tried (unsuccessfully) to say “Hello” over the roar of the engine. His countenance already more cheerful, the man walked up to me, shook my hand, looked me in the eye, and emphatically said, “Thank you.” Perplexed, I asked him what his thanks was for (after turning off the lawn mower so he could hear me). Smiling himself now, he said, “The world needs more smiling. And I thank you for that.” Half a minute later he strolled away, and I haven’t seen him since. I may forget his name, but I will never forget his words.

I’m guessing you’ve already heard that first impressions matter. A lot.

Smiling is the best and easiest way to make a good first impression. A smile makes you appear more trustworthy, attractive, and intelligent, which are all important towards giving you a favorable first impression, (ignoring the fact that these are all desirable qualities no matter if you are debating or not). A smile signals to the judge you are human with feelings. A smile makes the other person see you as one of them. Every time – well, almost every time – I smile at someone, they smile back. Instantly, I feel I have a personal connection with that person.

I cannot highlight this enough. If you want high speaker points, give the judge a reason to like you and if you want to persuade, appear relatable.

I want to add: We shouldn’t smile just because it may win us debates. We should smile because it is a good thing to do: smiling is friendly and warm and humane. But do remember Solomon said “There is a time for everything” (Ecclesiastes 3) and Aristotle believed in the golden mean; smiling should be done in moderation: we don’t want people running around like the joker.

2) Simplicity

Last year, my debate partner and I were trying to persuade audiences to embrace free trade. Almost immediately upon choosing the case – being the nerdy debaters we were – we were thrilled at the voluminous amount of empirical evidence that free trade increases prosperity on net. It was overwhelming. We cited so many statistics, studies and reasons to support free trade we completely lost our judges. In fact, the most important and compelling reason for free trade was lost behind the deluge of information: freedom. We weren’t persuading as much as we were bombarding — and our ballots reflected that.

The KISS motto is “Keep it Simple, Stupid”. A simple message beats a sophisticated one any day.

Bill Clinton became President of the United States with the simple theme of “It’s the economy stupid” (what’s with simplicity and the word “stupid”?) and Donald Trump became President of the United States with the simple theme of “Make America Great Again.” If I asked you to remember the themes of their political opponents, do you think you would remember? Chances are you would be less likely to remember them as you do Clinton’s economy mantra and Trump’s MAGA. Catchy themes are sticky.

I think whoever is in charge of marketing at Geico insurance company deserves an award. Geico’s motto of “15 minutes can save you 15 percent or more on car insurance,” usually preceded by a hilarious action-sequence, is sooooo simple and catchy and they repeat it ad nauseam (repetition is the third key) it is sooooo easy to remember (and who says no to a talking gecko?). But here is the brilliance of the motto. The motto is simple AND meaningful at the same time! Unlike other company mottos’, Geico’s, although catchy, isn’t vague. Geico manages to sell the idea – you save 15% on car insurance company by switching to Geico –  behind their company in a few words. Remember: be simple but meaningful; short but not superficial.

Steve Jobs, perhaps the most effective communicator of the last century, exemplifies this well. Take this ad narrated by Jobs. There are a good many things to take away from this video, but the most important idea is how the video clearly pushes the theme “think different”. The viewer is not only left with the impression that “thinking different” is a desirable quality and that the different idea will inevitably prevail, but that Apple “thinks different”. That’s how you sell an idea: before you actually present the idea, spend time building up the impression that the theme behind it is desirable in such a way the audience already agrees with you. The crucial part is to link your idea to the theme. This does two things to persuade. First, you start on common ground with your audience, dispelling preconceived biases or notions. Second, your message stimulates positive emotions in the audience’s mind, since a desirable theme is a positive one. I think you’ll find this approach is a much easier (and effective) means of presenting ideas than you might think. If you look closely at any major advertisement, you will find the same basic framework; building common ground from universally-appealing themes is the commercially-accepted tactic.

After many frustrating rounds, my partner and I wisely chose to change how we defended free trade. We weeded out most of our quotes, studies, and warrants. Instead, we spent a substantial amount of time elaborating the beauty of freedom. We talked about how the freedom to trade is an extension of private property rights. We discussed how freedom dignifies and empowers individuals and families to better themselves. We made sure to repeat the statement “freedom is fairness”. Our new case defending free trade was much more simple. Free trade became more meaningful, sticky, emotional, positive, and appealing – both to the audience and for ourselves. Much to our jubilation, we enjoyed a tremendous amount of success with this case (almost undefeated) as long as we kept it this way. Whenever we switched from the most simple version of our case, free trade lost. Whenever we switched back to the most simple version of our case, free trade won. Read Isaiah and Brennan’s articles for superb analysis on thematic debating.

3) Repetition

I tried to think of a synonym to “repetition” that started with the letter S… but alas alliteration ailed (sorry I had too).

“Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth.” – Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels

Repetition truly works.

Psychologist Lynn Hasher said, “Repetition makes things seem more plausible…And the effect is likely more powerful when people are tired or distracted by other information.”  

Who can blame someone for only remembering the repeated idea when they are bombarded with too much information?

Marketers repeat the same advertisements over and over because repetition works. Thomas Smith wrote in his 1890 book Successful Advertising: Its Secrets Explained,

“The first time people look at any given ad, they don’t even see it.

The second time, they don’t notice it.

The third time, they are aware that it is there.

The fourth time, they have a fleeting sense that they’ve seen it somewhere before.

The fifth time, they actually read the ad.

The sixth time they thumb their nose at it.

The seventh time, they start to get a little irritated with it.

The eighth time, they start to think, “Here’s that confounded ad again.”

The ninth time, they start to wonder if they’re missing out on something.

The tenth time, they ask their friends and neighbors if they’ve tried it.

The eleventh time, they wonder how the company is paying for all these ads.

The twelfth time, they start to think that it must be a good product.

The thirteenth time, they start to feel the product has value.

The fourteenth time, they start to remember wanting a product exactly like this for a long time.

The fifteenth time, they start to yearn for it because they can’t afford to buy it.

The sixteenth time, they accept the fact that they will buy it sometime in the future.

The seventeenth time, they make a note to buy the product.

The eighteenth time, they curse their poverty for not allowing them to buy this terrific product.

The nineteenth time, they count their money very carefully.

The twentieth time prospects see the ad, they buy what it is offering.”

This certainly applies to forensics: just like you can market a product, you can market an idea. Steve Jobs understood this well.

The Bible perfectly illustrates the use of repetition. Scripture is filled with repeated narratives, verses, themes and ideas used to highlight something important. For example, the constant use of the phrase “I am the LORD your God” in the book of Exodus impresses to the reader that God is due complete obedience.

Do the same with your speeches. Repeat your theme every speech. Mention it in every introduction, in every conclusion, and in every point. Repeat key facts, justifications, and warrants every speech. Repetition is an easy way to make communication more effective, but combined with simplicity and it becomes a potent weapon.

A Word of Caution…. And Encouragement

If you have a body and a mouth, you have the ability to communicate. If you have a mind, you have the desire to communicate. Every single day we influence others with ideas of our own. Persuasion can be used for good or for bad. The Nazis used repetition as a method of propaganda to make their racial-theories believable. You have the opportunity to persuade – for good or for bad.

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