They stick in our minds. They range from anecdotes that bore the life out of us to epics that capture the imagination of generations. They are the paintbrush of the rhetorician, painting a more tangible picture of ideas and concepts that previously only existed in the abstract. Stories. They are incredibly powerful rhetorical tools but are sadly abused and misused by much of the homeschool debate community. The potential impact of stories in debate is often squandered due to either negligence, apathy, or a simple misunderstanding of how useful they can be and the idea that stories serve as little more than an easy way to fill time in an intro.
This is a shame. Stories can be used to great effect in debate rounds if they are used more intentionally and with more emphasis. If they are used at all in a round, stories are usually brief and lack detail. They are afterthoughts, used as a timesuck in lieu of a more persuasive opener or as a funny or interesting anecdote. There is nothing necessarily wrong with using these kinds of narratives – they can make you look very personable and relatable to a judge, and oftentimes they are effective in that capacity. But using them for that purpose and that purpose alone ignores the full potential of how persuasive narratives can be.
The reason stories have so much potential lies in their ability to bridge the gap between explanation and understanding. In Made To Stick, Chip and Dan Heath put it this way:
“A story is powerful because it provides the context missing from abstract prose… This is the role that stories play — putting knowledge into a framework that is more life-like.”
Stories take the abstraction of your arguments and put them into the real world. When you use the framework of narratives to frame your arguments, you are creating a world in which your arguments exist. If you know your Plato, you know this is exactly what he did in The Republic. Socrates created an entire hypothetical city in order to frame his conception of justice. This gives your audience context, and puts the ideas you are trying to explain into a paradigm that is easy to understand and, most importantly, more relatable.
People naturally want to frame your arguments using familiar ideas and relate them to parts of their lives that give them greater understanding. If you try to explain how hot fire is, people will automatically recall the feeling of that heat. If you try to explain the frustration of failure, the same thing happens. People naturally want to relate ideas to stories they understand, and you can help them do that.
There is science to back this up, too. Stories affect the brain in two interesting ways that give them great rhetorical potential. First, hearing stories (especially character-driven stories) causes the brain to synthesize more oxytocin. Oxytocin is a neurochemical that increases our desire to cooperate by enhancing our sense of empathy. Using a character-driven story in your case can cause the judge to empathize with those feeling the brunt of the problems you are presenting, or the impact of a disadvantage that you are trying to link into. The applications are endless.
Second, stories activate more parts of the brain than simple explanation. When I describe how vanilla smells, the olfactory part of your brain activates. If I describe to you the twists and turns of a terrifying roller coaster, a similar reaction takes place. In essence, the world you create with your story not only causes your audience to visualize, but feel your argument. As the Heath Brothers put it, “stories are like flight simulators for the brain.” To sum up the effect of stories on the brain, behavioral psychologist Susan Weinschenk had a similar notion, “…you are literally using more of your brain when you are listening to a story. And because you are having a richer brain event, you enjoy the experience more, you understand the information more deeply, and retain it longer.”
If you want to try using more than whimsical anecdotes in your debating, here’s a few things to remember:
1. Take Your Time
I know that it’s a natural inclination as an intermediate/advanced debater to feel like you need to cram in as much information into your speeches as you possibly can, but less really is more. Take your time. The more vivid your story, the more real it is to your judge. Vividity requires detail, and detail takes time. Will this require making your story a central focus of your arguments? Absolutely. But as has been talked about in multiple Ethos posts before this, you should be trying your best to identify the crux in any debate. Identify that pivot point, and use our stories to sway the argument in your favor. Slow down. Be detailed. Be thorough. Winning the most important argument in the round is far more important than winning auxiliary issues. Going back to their flight simulator comparison, the Heath brothers noted that “the more that training simulates the actions we must take in the world, the more effective it will be.”
2. Think Big
Your story needs to be an illustration of a bigger idea. Narrative frameworks are going to be inherently more difficult to use in more squirrely and small-scale cases, especially when those cases have scattered justifications and rely on spreading the opposition as opposed to having a focus (Which you really should try to have. Trust me. It’s great.).
3. Use the 3 Rs
Relevance. Make sure your story clearly and undeniably links to your case and topic area. If there is any lack of clarity as to the relevance of your story, you are just begging to be drawn into a debate of technicalities where the other team tries to pick apart your narrative to the point of completely losing sight of your message. If you want to be able to stay on message, keep the relevance of your storytelling airtight.
Realism. Is your story a clear outlier? If the judge feels like your story is just the result of a combination of unlikely circumstances, it loses persuasive value. Your stories need to be realistic and reasonable enough to be effective in persuading the judge that the problem you describe is more that an isolated and cherrypicked example.
Relatibility. This is the most important aspect to focus on when crafting the delivery of your story. Focus on aspects of your story that your judge can personally relate to. Emphasize details of the lives of those involved in your story. Illustrate their humanity. Give names. Describe how the problem your plan fixes impacted the life of them. Be detailed. You want to paint a picture, and details are an essential part of that picture.
4. Use your stories as your platform
If you’re going to take the time to use this kind of narrative, use it to weave a web of arguments. The different parts of your argumentation should be present in the different aspects of your story, painting a picture of your theme and overall focus. See the example 1AC for an illustration of this.
5. Be Consistent
Please. Please do this. If you’re going to spend a lot of time in your opening constructives establishing a narrative and just drop it in your later speeches, don’t bother spending time on it in the first place, If you drop anything, it should be your mic at the end of the round.
In the end, stories are powerful rhetorical tools. As with any act of persuasion, it can be used to lead others to the truth or manipulate their perception of the facts. It’s easy to pick an outlying story and present it as evidence of something broader. It is always the duty of the debater to use the information and skills they have to inform and enlighten, not to mislead and manipulate. Here’s an interesting TED talk on the potential dangers of misused narratives.
So go tell stories. Capture the imagination of your audience. Use your narratives to paint a picture of your arguments, and you will be one step closer to winning over your audience with flying colors.
More interesting reading on narrative for the interested:
Brennan Herring competed in Team Policy Debate for 4 years. Throughout that time, Brennan placed in the top 4 teams at several qualifying tournaments and competed in the final round at the Region VII Regional Invitational. As a debater who was largely self-taught, Brennan found that the most important part about understanding the resolution in an intellectually honest way was to be open minded. To not only open himself to acknowledge opposing ideas, but to surround himself with so many of them that he was forced to reevaluate and strengthen his beliefs. This mindset is one he try to instill in his students, and one that he hopes to embody as a member of the Ethos team.