On Persuasion

Perhaps you’ve complained, as I have, that the quality of public discourse seems to degrade during a presidential primary. Shouts, insults, arguing with opponents … persuasion takes a back seat to scoring points.  

Advocates for free-market policies are given many opportunities to communicate, whether in debates, radio programs, discussion panels, point/counterpoint articles or simple conversations. But communication, if measured only by the volume and intensity of words, is insufficient. True persuasion requires more.  

  • Credibility is key. You cannot persuade effectively when your credibility is in doubt. Facts matter. Tell the truth and know that people will quickly detect exaggerations. Mackinac Center policy recommendations are rooted in our research, and our Guarantee of Quality Scholarship invites rigorous scrutiny of our data, assumptions and methodology. 
  • The human mind is hard-wired for stories. If you cannot explain how a policy proposal would help (or hurt) individuals, your idea won’t persuade many people. Facts matter, but imagination, emotion and moral judgments can be engaged through a fable or anecdote. “Once upon a time” remains one of the most powerful phrases we know. 
  • Seek earnestly to understand the other side of the argument. Be curious. Ask questions. Examine your own assumptions. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt wrote in “The Righteous Mind” that most moral systems are rooted in six fundamental values: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. Liberals, conservatives and libertarians tend to emphasize different sets of these values, says Haidt. Understanding the other side of the argument sharpens your own and can illuminate common ground. 
  • Simplify. Not to be confused with oversimplification, simplification eliminates distractions. Don’t talk above the heads of your audience. Eliminate jargon. MichiganVotes.org Senior Editor Jack McHugh does this when he describes legislation using concise, plain language. He calls it the “demystification” of bill descriptions. For example, the official bill description of House Bill 4418 says: “A bill to amend 1949 PA 300, entitled ‘Michigan vehicle code,’ by amending section 722 (MCL 257.722), as amended by 2012 PA 522.” The MichiganVotes.org description: “To allow an exception to seasonal road weight limit restrictions for trucks hauling tree sap used to make maple sugar.” Which one tells you more? 
  • Substance matters, but so does style. Debates over ideas are rarely a closed-circuit conversation; debates have observers and the observers generally apply a standard of decency to those in the arena. Communicate respect, even in disagreement. An attack on the character, motivation or intelligence of your opponent is a lazy and off-putting device. On a related note, even a rudimentary understanding of logic and common logical fallacies can elevate a civil debate. 
  • Learn from your mistakes. A persuasive communicator doesn’t hammer the same point repeatedly. Knowing one’s audience provides the ability to fine-tune or abandon a point that doesn’t resonate. 

There are no guarantees in the battle for ideas, but communication that conveys respect, substance and humor can dramatically elevate an argument.