One of my favorite books of all time is entitled “Made to Stick”, by Dan and Chip Heath. Throughout the book, they explain what makes certain ideas stick in people’s minds. They explore everything from societal-changing advertisements to folk tales that won’t go away. But throughout the book, there’s a common underlying assumption: People need to be persuaded. The existence of a good idea on its own doesn’t mean people will accept the idea – how you package the idea is what makes it “sticky”.
You’ve probably had rounds before where you felt that you won an extremely important argument, or “won the flow”, but the judge didn’t vote for you. Those moments can be infuriating. However, in those rounds where you felt you won the argumentation but still lost the judge, the issues boil down to persuasion. Learning to persuade will win you rounds, increase your speaker points, and help you become a better communicator in the real world.
Before we get into how to persuade, let’s cover exactly what persuasion is. Persuasion may sound like an abstract concept at first, and the dictionaries aren’t that helpful. The first several definitions on Google are simply “the action of persuading someone” or “the act of convincing”.
In the context of Speech & Debate, here’s what I mean by persuasion: “The ability of an argument to be the reason the judge votes for you”.
You can tell if you’re persuasive if the arguments you view as important are listed in the judges’ reasons for decision. If you give an application in Lincoln-Douglas that you view as round-winning but the judge doesn’t mention it, the judge was likely unpersuaded by the application. They didn’t view it as being important enough to vote on.
So how can you turn arguments into reasons the judge votes for you? I’d like to offer three keys.
Key 1. Time
How long you spend on an argument cements it in the judge’s mind as being more important. Put yourself in the judge’s shoes: If someone spends only ten seconds on a point, would you view the point as important? When you spend less time on an argument, judges are less willing to vote for you based on that because it seems like such a small part of the round.
A few weeks ago I competed in the first Stoa parliamentary tournament of the season. My partner and I won the tournament with a 5-1 score. In the round we lost, I made a key mistake: I didn’t spend enough time on the arguments that mattered the most. In my constructive, I gave five contentions, three applications, two burdens, and several direct responses. My partner gave four new arguments in his constructive as well. Each argument had enough technical impact to win us the round, but because we were spread so thin, the judge wasn’t convinced by any of our points.
When I came home and saw the ballot, it was clear we didn’t persuade the judge. All the arguments I personally saw as being round-winners weren’t even mentioned on the ballot. Had my partner and I spent more time on fewer arguments, the judge may have viewed those arguments as being more important as well. As it stood in that round, the judge had no idea what we were emphasizing, because everything had an equal amount of time.
Here’s my recommendation: Spend extra time on the arguments you think have the highest chance of winning the round. You can emphasize an argument not just in your rhetoric, but also in how long you spend on it.
Key 2. Clarity
When we think of persuasion, the first things that come to mind may be fancy figures of speech like parallelism and antithesis, or an emotional tone. But before any of that can be useful to persuasion, the judge must first understand your argument. Even if you have the world’s best rhetoric and vocal tone, you won’t be able to consistently persuade without clear explanations.
Focusing on explaining the premises of each of your arguments as clearly as possible is absolutely crucial to persuasion because if the judge doesn’t understand your argument, they won’t vote for you based on it.
When I’m trying to make an argument as clear as possible, I ask myself “what are the premises of my argument?”. Then, I work-off of those premises as I deliver the argument.
Key 3. Emotion
If you competed in NCFCA Lincoln-Douglas in 2019, you probably remember the application of “Bangladesh” on the negative side. The resolution was that “When in conflict, fair trade should be valued above free trade”. Most affirmatives contended that fair trade entailed restrictions on companies violating human rights – think Nike sweatshops.
The application of Bangladesh on the negative side was an instance where the U.S. passed a law outlawing companies from buying from Bangladeshi sweatshops with child laborers. However, rather than the child laborers going back to their families, they were forced into worse jobs, such as stone crushing and street hustling.
During my year of competition with that resolution, the application of Bangladesh was the bulwark of my negative case. The case only had two losses throughout the entire season. What made it so persuasive was the emotion behind the application. Rather than explaining the intricacies of economic theory and worker displacement, the application of Bangladesh gave an emotionally powerful, real-world example of children being forced into stone crushing because of fair trade restrictions.
Most affirmative cases had an emotional advantage at the beginning of the year with their stories of abused sweatshop laborers. The application of Bangladesh turned persuasion in the negative’s favor by packing an emotional punch that countered the affirmative narrative.
Always be looking for how you can create an emotional connection with your judge.
The ideas that stick aren’t always the ideas that are good. More often than not, they’re the ideas that are emotional, the ideas that are clear, the ideas that seem important. In order to make your arguments something the judge is willing to vote for you on, you have to persuade.
About the Author
Kyle Lee has competed in both NCFCA and Stoa. His accomplishments include over fifty top-three finishes, the record for the most first places won at a single NCFCA tournament (seven firsts in one go at the 2020 Bothell WA, NCFCA Qualifier), first place Lincoln Douglas debater & speaker at the 2020 NCFCA Online National Championship, and first place Team Policy debater & speaker at the 2020 Stoa Online National Championship.
Outside of speech and debate, Kyle is an avid rock climber, holds a second-degree black belt in Karate, and enjoys writing music in his free time.