TWO SIMPLE TIPS TO IMPROVE YOUR ARGUMENT SKILLS
Whether you’re arguing to a judge, jury, or spouse, the most powerful form of persuasion always involves the listener coming to their own conclusion—hopefully the one you’re aiming for—after filtering whatever you have to say through a frame or lens that you helped formulate. Achieving this typically involves the following two step process:
(1) Creating the right frame or lens for the listener to filter whatever you have to say through (context); and
(2) Showing, rather than telling, the listener the facts that will help the listener reach her own conclusion through the lens you helped create.
Without question, the first element is the most important. The main reason two people from polar-opposite political stances will likely never be persuaded by the other person’s point of view is because all the information received is filtered and seen through a biased lens conforming to their preconceived biases (confirmation bias). Thankfully, outside of politics, these preconceived biases tend to be less prevalent (or at least more malleable) affording us the ability to either create or mold a lens through which your argument will be seen.
Having argued hundreds, if not thousands of times, in front of judges, I can safely say that establishing a lens through which your argument will be seen as soon as you open your mouth is critical. Failing to do this results in one of the following: (a) the listener creating her own lens; (b) the listener using a preconceived lens, (c) the listener using no lens whatsoever, or (d) particularly for attorney’s, having your opponent establish a lens for you that benefits his position.
Studies show that “Belief Perseverance” leads people to cling to a lens once they’ve established it as their own even if later conflicting evidence is presented to the listener. This typically means that once the listener adopts a lens to view or filter all subsequent information through, that lens is there for the remainder of the argument. With that being said, it is imperative that the lens be established as early as possible before the listener creates her own lens to view your argument through.
But what is a lens? It’s simply a common-sense perspective for your listener to adopt and view your argument through. The trick is picking something that cannot be refuted and is unquestionably accepted as true. Ultimately, the lens involves your overall point and objective for your argument masked in a simple and fundamental truth your audience cannot disagree with.
If the first thing I tell a judge or a jury is, “Engineers and contractors are not allowed to needlessly endanger human lives by cutting corners when they design and construct buildings,” then every sentence that follows will be viewed through the lens that engineers and contractors are not allowed to cut corners when designing and constructing buildings for the health and safety of human beings. Obviously, the point of my argument would be to convince the listener that my opponent has somehow cut corners and negligently designed and/or constructed something risking human life. However, if I fail to establish a neutral and well-accepted lens and start rattling off facts or argument, I risk losing the listener to his or her preconceived biases. Rather, I set up a lens that cannot be refuted at the onset of my argument. Nobody can disagree with the fact that engineers and contractors are not allowed to cut corners and needlessly endanger human life. The key to establishing the proper lens is stating something that cannot be reasonably disputed. I’d be hard pressed to find somebody who is willing to tell me with a straight face that sometimes it’s OK to cut corners and needlessly endanger lives with negligent construction if it saves enough money for the developer.
Using the engineer contractor lens stated above, once that lens is established, the judge will ask herself after each and every sentence that follows whether or not each fact I present constitutes cutting a corner involving the design or construction of the building needlessly endangering human lives. The overall objective of establishing a lens is for the judge or listener to begin a series of rhetorical questions in her head after every point you make subsequent to establishing the lens.
In a court setting, sample lenses can be as simple as,
"The Plaintiff must follow the rules of civil procedure at all times."
"The Defendant is not permitted to obstruct justice and employ delay tactics."
"Businesses are not allowed to defraud consumers in order to make a buck off of them."
"A party to a contract cannot arbitrarily breach a provision in a contract that the party previously agreed to."
"Truck drivers cannot get behind the wheel of an 18-wheeler when they're sleep deprived."
"Insurance companies cannot cut corners in their investigation in order to underpay a claim and maximize profits (apologies to all you insurance defense guys reading this).
Outside of the legal setting, lenses can be just as effectively established so long as the lens is not an opinion, but as stated above, an irrefutable fact that cannot be reasonably disagreed with, through which your argument will be observed.
Once the lens is established, you simply show the listener the facts that will lead the listener to conclude (on her own) that those facts fall in line with whatever lens you established. The old adage of “show don’t tell” is fundamental at this stage. Which is why establishing a lens from the get-go is so important.
Sadly, I’ve seen time and time again, arguments that start with a long recitation of facts, one after the other—with no context (or lens) for the judge (or listener) to view those facts through—only to establish the point they’re trying to make at the end of the argument. Arguing in this manner runs the risk that the judge views those facts through her own lens making up her mind before the attorney gets to make his point—or—glosses over those facts requiring her to backtrack and apply your conclusion to her vague recollection of what you previously mentioned. Remember, your listener may have a million things going through her head while you speak to her and it is your obligation when you present your argument to make things easy for her and guide her towards your objective with as little resistance as possible.
A simple formula to remember is:
1) Establish a lens as soon as possible;
2) Show facts that, when viewed through the established lens, forces the listener to ask herself, “OK. Does this fact fall in line with the lens or not.”
If the listener, in her mind, says “yes” after each of the facts that you show her, you’ll be in as good a position as you can to win your argument.
Lastly, I’ve had a Bukowski quote scotch taped to my office wall for about 8 years now that made a huge impact on me as a litigator. Lately, I’ve seen it circulating on social media taking away from it’s cool factor. Regardless, it says, “Style is the answer to everything. A fresh way to approach a dull or dangerous thing. To do a dull thing with style is preferable to doing a dangerous thing without it. To do a dangerous thing with style is what I call art.”
Style is nothing more than owning and being your true self when you perform—regardless of what you’re doing. Whether you’re loud, soft spoken, funny, or have a foreign accent and enjoy telling bad jokes—own it and make it a part of who you are in the courtroom.
“The greater the gap between how you act in the courtroom and who you are in the rest of your life, the greater your problems in court.” – Rick Friedman.