When I was in high school, I sat at a lunch table with a bunch of really smart kids. I don’t know if you would call us nerds, or dorks, or whatever, but we were the ones who were in all of the AP classes together, and Latin, and calculus, and, well, you get the point.
But we were still teenage boys which meant that there was a lot of testosterone and arguing at that table. This confluence of brains and competition meant that you were judged in no small way by your ability to engage in debate and hold your own.
Oh, how I wish that I’d had this book then! But failing my invention of a time machine, Thank You for Arguing is still a fantastic resource to use today to understand and hone your rhetorical skills in our everyday lives.
Developing an understanding of the tools of rhetoric can elevate your ability to influence others and protect you from being manipulated. On a larger scale, if everyone had these skills, our modern society would be better off because deliberative argument is a key piece of a dynamic and involved citizenry.
Ideas, Implications, and Questions
- I think one of the most powerful concepts that Jay notes is the difference in framing an argument in the past, present or future. Or as he calls them – Blame, Values, or Choice (pg 29). He write, “… the most productive arguments use the future tense, the language of choices and decisions.” (pg 3). When you look at debate that goes nowhere, you realize quickly that it’s because the conversations are mired in the past or the present.
- “Rhetoric could help lead us out of our political mess.” (pg 274) The ability to keep our conversations firmly focused on the future is the opposite of current political discourse. I also think this perspective has a lot of ramifications in the business world. Unfortunately, very few people are solution-focused, which is inherently future-oriented. I think many of the successful professionals I know are successful because they are good at keeping conversations looking towards the future.
- One of my coaches first shared the question “do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?” with me. I think an important, but oddly counter-intuitive corollary to that question is the statement, “To win a deliberative argument, don’t try to outscore your opponent. Try instead to get your way.” (pg 19) Too often we get stuck in the emotions behind a debate and we attach a lot of meaning to it that doesn’t have to be there. I think it makes sense to debate, and try to win (fairly and compassionately), and then move on.
- A lot of rhetoric is based on ideas thousands of years old, but the basics of influencing each other haven’t changed much. So my guess is that people haven’t changed much either. The “big three” of a persuasive argument that Aristotle wrote about still hold true (pg 40). They are worth noting because most people forget at least one of them:
- Ethos – character
- Pathos – emotion
- Logos – logic
- Jay includes a great summation of how to plan for a good argument (pg 287):
- Set your goals and the argument’s tense.
- Think of whether you want to emphasize character, logic, or emotion.
- Make sure the time and medium are ripe for persuasion.
- I also want to include his structure on a how to arrange a speech. It’s a good template for persuasive argument (pg 296):
- Of course, around all of these ideas is a great primer on rhetorical devices, tools, and strategies that are framed in modern language and with modern examples. It’s funny that people think rhetoric is an academic pursuit, because as Jay shows over and over again, being a skilled and knowledgeable arguer can provide countless benefits in our daily conversations.
Should You Read this Book? Who Should Read this Book?
Thank You for Arguing is a engaging look at rhetoric, the study of how to effectively persuade others in speech and writing. It’s as good a modern textbook as I’ve found, and I wish that more people would study the subject. As they say, a rising tide raises all ships. If we all knew how to construct better arguments, the world would be a better place. But you should definitely read this if you are:
- In sales. All salespeople are influencers, and honing your rhetorical skills will improve your everything from your sales presentation to your closing percentage.
- Interested in being an informed and engaged citizen. Democracy hinges on it’s citizens being able to argue deliberatively. Our current political leadership shows a complete dearth of logical and rhetorical ability and change has to start with the people.
- A leader. Leadership hinges on motivating others to action, and the foundation of motivation is the ability to use language to influence.