≡ Menu

Why doesn’t the best argument always win?

The best argument doesn’t always win. In politics, in business, in the street, in the home. Why not?

In 2016, politics captured our attention at deeper levels

News distribution, content forms, language, culture and information consumption continued to morph (no surprise), but I consequently found myself wondering if and how public speaking guidance might also need to change. I don’t mean first at the level of specific issues and policies that appeal or not, but at the foundation. Have communication and argument principles we valued as useful, somehow become out-of-date and less relevant in any spreading new order?

Though it is neither the only nor oldest source of, let’s say for now so-called communication wisdom, Aristotle’s Rhetoric remains the major classical fount of greater Western (and some Eastern) reflection about communication. So, I returned to Rhetoric, curious to see if I would find any obvious holes.

Eight of Aristotle’s statements I enjoyed

Consider any one:

  1. Of the modes of persuasion furnished by the spoken word there are three kinds. The first kind depends on the personal character of the speaker; the second on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind; the third on the proof, or apparent proof, provided by the words of the speech itself. (1:2) [Pointing to the three appeals of ethics, emotion and logic.]
  2. There are three things which inspire confidence in the orator’s own character—the three, namely, that induce us to believe a thing apart from any proof of it: good sense, good moral character, and goodwill. False statements and bad advice are due to one or more of the following three causes. Men either form a false opinion through want of good sense; or they form a true opinion, but because of their moral badness do not say what they really think; or finally, they are both sensible and upright, but not well disposed to their hearers, and may fail in consequence to recommend what they know to be the best course. (2:1)
  3. In making a speech one must study [Ed. at least] three points: first, the means of producing persuasion; second, the style, or language, to be used; third, the proper arrangement of the various parts of the speech. (3:1)
  4. Naturalness is persuasive, artificiality is the contrary. (3:2) [All the way to Heidegger and beyond, this remains constant. The trick is nailing it in stylised professional contexts.]
  5. It is a general rule that a written composition should be easy to read and therefore easy to deliver. (3:5) [Use effective tools for speech-delivery success.]
  6. To express emotion, you will employ the language of anger in speaking of outrage; the language of disgust and discreet reluctance to utter a word when speaking of impiety or foulness; the language of exultation for a tale of glory, and that of humiliation for a tale of pity; and so in all other cases. (3:7) [Seems obvious, yet lost so often in praxis.]
  7. The form of a prose composition should be neither metrical nor destitute of rhythm. (3:8) [A soundbite works in iambic pentameter because, like Twitter, it is a  modern form of poetry.]
  8. Hyperboles are for young men [and politicians] to use; they show vehemence of character; and this is why angry people use them more than other people. (3:11)

The need for persuasive arguments and effective communicators is great on any day

Specific content, along with contexts in which we express ourselves, are always evolving. (Autocrats who favour The Prince might read this.) Skills must also develop, but on reading Aristotle’s Rhetoric, it seems to me that across the expanse of recent human history (i.e. at least two millennia), certain common underlying qualities of human communication and argument effectiveness remain largely unchanged and relevant and therefore worthy of rumination and practice. These common sense foundations apply in any kind of communication wherein appeal matters. I looked for holes but found springs, or what Scots might call common sense.

Aristotle knew that the best argument doesn’t always win. His Rhetoric leads us a good distance in exploring why. My prediction is that Rhetoric will outlast those who ignore it.

I hope 2017 is a great year for you.

This post first appeared in Rhetorica Update Vol.8 Iss.1, 9 Feb 2017.


19 Mar 2020

Rhetorica remains open and I am ready, willing and able, should you need me to coach and train your organisational spokespeople in the art of effective public communication.

I can work online with you, where travel restrictions, etc., prevent our meeting face-to-face. (As at today, travel outside Australia is not an option.)

Send me a note, if you need to get in touch: <<myfirstname at my business URL>>.

Kind regards and best wishes


A couple of clips

I recently came across this spoof, revealing the not-so-hidden stylistic structure of a stereotypical news bulletin.

And here’s a UK interview gone unnecessarily horribly wrong.

Check it out here.

Storytelling truth in public life

Most of us know storytelling is a vital source of truth in public as well as in personal life, but many people dislike others saying and writing so. Too often, storytelling is presented in a weird and whacky way, or by people who for some reason seem unqualified. This devalues the proposition.

Earlier this year I researched, wrote and presented an academic paper to a peer-reviewed conference on the usefulness of storytelling in public life. I wanted to cut away myth, identify experts and get down to what we know for sure. I’m NOT presenting that in detail here.

I offer the following points (in true interweb fashion) without any attribution whatsoever. I do this because these are the claims I see as being self-evidentially true. See what you think.

Seven reasons to add stories to your repertoire:

  1. People enjoy stories because they are part of what makes us human. We voluntarily give up our own time, stand in queues and pay money to read, hear and watch — to be immersed — in a sustained, pleasurable story (e.g. a movie or play). In every generation stories are personally, socially and culturally natural and acceptable. Stories are so desirable and memorable, good ones transcend their original means of distribution.
  2. Stories transmit emotion, complex ideas and meaning, so are a significant part of how we interpret and connect with ourselves, each other and the world. A story can carry a heavy cargo from one mind into others. A story may seem trivial, yet be far from superficial.
  3. Leaders, professionals and innovators use stories to influence people. From Plato (even though he distrusted art) to Jesus to Marx, from Homer to Bunyan to Chekhov, from Shakespeare to Lincoln to Spielberg. From Edison to Churchill to Buffet. Stories are a peak and perfection of communication.
  4. Stories give license to say or mention anything you can think of, and often to do so in ways we could not or would not normally. Stories can be fictional, and true, at the same time on several levels.
  5. Stories have fun with words, jargon-free, so are highly inclusive. Everyone (mostly) gets it. No-one is excluded by a lack of knowledge.
  6. Producing culture confers credibility on its creators. Commissioning and creating stories of lasting value are genuine, generous acts of innovation.
  7. Stories remove the taint of narcissism from marketing.

Writing historical fiction for key Sydney location

200 George Street, Sydney

200 George Street’s wood and glass facade. The building will become EY and Mirvac’s new Sydney headquarters.


If you live or work in Sydney’s CBD, you may have noticed an impressive new office tower going up at 200 George Street.

While the building is innovative, the site itself is historically rich and significant to New South Wales.

Late last year I received a commission from Mirvac to write a series of short historical fictions, starting with the site’s early-colonial history.

That history includes the beginnings of European settlement at Sydney Cove (aka Warrane), our nation’s biggest ever bank robbery (in comparative terms), convicts, entrepreneurs, Rum Rebellion connections, Australia’s newspaper origins, fires and deaths, opium and gambling dens and race riots.

My stories are now in final draft stages and will be made available on-site, in readable and audio formats in due course, as part of the building’s heritage commitments.

There’s a lot more I’d like to tell you about this creative project, but for now, I’ll wish you well until next time.

Topping-off Ceremony

The topping-off ceremony held earlier this month, celebrating completion of the main structural works for 200 George Street, Sydney.

The power of preparing

There is power in preparing.

Hundreds of years before Socrates and Aristotle and a thousand before Cicero and Quintillian, another sage wrote, “There is more hope for a fool, than for someone who is hasty in their words.”*

Three millennia later, we still do not perform at our best without contextual preparation.

Today, news travels so fast, preparation can be urgent and important. Most people seem to understand this, but it’s easy to under- and over-estimate the needed effort.

At a minimum, preparation is thinking first. About audience, occasion and aim.

The next level puts it in writing. For brief engagements, a few jotted points, in your own shorthand. Not a script. Structured for memorability and clarity.

After drafting comes compressing and self-editing to clarify and confirm claims, facts, sources. And what about predicting predictable questions, with appropriate responses?

Many still use the Five Canons of Rhetoric – invention, arrangement, style, memory and delivery – as a preparation template. There are also others.

And we haven’t even touched room management, visuals or event management.

Many people would like to perform well, but only some put in the necessary preparation. Preparing well is akin to being ready.

Effective preparation and practice are useful, learned, contextual skills. Practice improves practice. Experience can lessen its demands, but not its value.

Let’s get metaphysical

Let’s get metaphysical.

Then Plato said to Aristotle, "Let's get metaphysical."

Then Plato said to Aristotle, “Let’s get metaphysical.”

Aristotle called metaphysics the ‘queen of the sciences.’

Some people like to do it often. Others prefer annual check-ups. Regardless, a personal or corporate metaphysical is sometimes the only way to personal, relationship and group progress.

Put simply, metaphysics relates to being and knowing. It’s reviewing beliefs, identity, ideals, desires and sense of meaning. In corporate settings, it’s understanding purpose, values, direction and vision, not what the website says, but what really is.

Metaphysics is more than facts and opinions. It coalesces into narratives inside us, casting ourselves and others in roles we play. Changing scripts can be hard and take time.

Strategy and planning are not metaphysical per se, though they flow deeply from metaphysical rumination.

Apple seems a curious case in point. I used to know their vision and values and why I wanted their products. Today, I’m less sure. Their 38% gross margin goal shouts loudly. And Virgin Galactic’s recent accident raises big metaphysical questions for its management. Their answers will affect public support and that company’s future.

In the graphic below, put what you like in the outer layers; what’s key is in the core: in the metaphysics.

When you get metaphysical, remember what Dwight Eisenhower apparently said: “Plans are nothing. Planning is everything.” Enjoy the journey, the discussion and the process.

Let me know if you’d like more info about a Personal or Corporate Metaphysical.

Thanks for reading and best wishes until next time.

sanfran police mtg

Handling hostile audiences isn’t easy, but is sometimes necessary.
I recently had serious fun with senior public servants workshopping the required skills. Specific contexts warrant specific approaches, but the following general points may also help:

  1. Facing hostile audiences is fraught with risk, but sometimes a person of position has to front up. Effective handling probably won’t win everyone, but it will win some and moderate others.
  2. Beware advice from the Internet. One webpage advises telling jokes to lighten a heavy atmosphere. Another says confront hecklers toe-to-toe. Really? Maybe in standup comedy.
  3. Don’t over-formalise: stiffness distances people rather than breaking down barriers. How we set up a room as well as how we dress, sit, stand and speak influences audience response. Let personality and warmth infuse or at least peek through professionalism. Emotionalism hinders, but ignoring emotion is unhealthy and unhelpful.
  4. Communication is about process and timing as much as content. Nut out a simple plan that lets your meeting blend spontaneity and flexibility with purpose, including: a) your meeting aim, b) your key content points and shorthand for any critical detail, c) a rough process or timing and order, and d) action outcomes. Allow some discursive conversation. It’s essential for relationship.
  5. Too many attempts at empathy are token, weak, ineffective. People with over-wrought emotion are not ready to be rational. If the extent of empathy is, “I understand your anger…” some listeners think, “No you don’t.” Replace worn out 1990s phrases with natural, authentic responses, delivery and intent. If we say, “I can see you’re really upset, but, it’s important for us to focus on blah blah blah,” listeners hear the but coming, negating the blip of empathy before it. Try inverting phrase order to let empathy linger, as in: “It’s important we discuss in a moment how to improve the situation, BUT FIRST, on the issue of blah blah blah (pick something real, even if it’s not major or central), I’d really like to say I’m sorry.”
  6. Too often “I can’t help you” or “There’s nothing more I can do” is an excuse. Even if we can’t concede something substantive for policy, resource or other good reasons, we can try to concede something. People who feel powerless or disrespected get angrier. Be creative. Maybe offer to make a phone call, write a note, follow up, or put in a good word. Show care by trying to understand and lighten people’s loads, even when we don’t agree.
  7. Mastery researcher K. Anders Ericsson says skill grows through deliberate practice outside our comfort zones with correct feedback. Don’t leave hostile meetings to chance. Simulation builds experience that fuels your brain when you need to think on your feet.

Keep making the world a better place.

P.S. If you’re interested in activism tactics, you may be interested in my post about Saul D. Alinsky’s Rules For Radicals, also on this site.

Accuracy matters, so please use the right word

If accuracy matters in communication, using the right word is smart.

On the weekend I heard a guy speak, who travels the world with an important message. He’s a smart guy, a PhD, but he used the word travesty when it seemed certain he meant tragedy. Several times it sounded like he used the word tenant, when the word tenet was what he meant.

Someone will say to me, “Antoni, get over it. You know what he meant,” which is fair advice and true; but it doesn’t change the fact that some of us will think slightly less of a person’s skill, character or judgment if they continue using the wrong words.

The wrong word miscommunicates and possibly rankles.

If you’re going to use a word in public, please: 1. use the right word and 2. say or spell it correctly. If you’re unsure, look it up. If you’re still unsure, use another, safer word. Even if it’s pedestrian.

American author John Gardner said that writers (and I say by extension, speakers) ought to be like circus knife throwers: experts in an exact art. Missing ought not be an option.

Using the right word, in the right way, may not be as great as using the best word, but it’s a lot better than using the wrong word, or using the right word wrongly.

Yes, many words are confusing. That’s why Paul Brians put together this excellent and helpful webpage.

Now that’s off my chest, I’m back to work.