Monday, 25 October 2010

Assume Nothing!

Last week, I attained the right honourable position of Judge Samantha Lizars. Only for about 2 hours admittedly, and not actually in a court room. Rather in a classroom, for one of the London heats of the nationwide Debating Matters contest.

The competition is aimed at encouraging A level students to have a go at debating. They are expected to be able to stage an argument on a tough subject, and then to defend and build their position under questioning from judges (the likes of me) and their peers. Many adults would rather chew off their own arm than have to do such a thing, so in my eyes just taking part is pretty brave. The experience is a really valuable one, especially if you keep at it, and good debating skills are applicable pretty much everywhere in life.

On the debate that I judged there was one particular mistake/lesson that stood out for me, as someone who makes a living from persuasive communication. It's worth mentioning, not to point and laugh at the school kids who had a go and made a mistake, but because so many professional people make this clanger day in and day out and don't even notice.

The topic being debated was, The Monarchy - arguments for and against an unelected head of state in the 21st Century.

On the face of it, this debate looks pretty one sided. The pro-republic argument has cool-headed logic, rationale and democracy on its side. By contrast, the pro-monarchy argument has its power in emotion and instinct. While emotion might be a powerful force in real life, it is a slippery platform to base an argument on during a debate.

But of course (and I know you know where this is going) the pro-republic team lost the debate. And why? Because they thought everyone agreed with them! They didn't think for a second that anyone really believed in the monarchy, because their experience tells them otherwise.

If you're 16/17 and surrounded by lots of people just getting to grips with politics and full of social ideals, supporting the monarchy just isn't cool. Anyone who does, isn't going to be loud about it, and it's easy to see how one could fall into the trap of not taking the opposing argument seriously.

Bad luck chaps. Thanks to this assumption, they didn't present many facts but rested on opinions. When they were asked serious questions they swatted them away like flies. As a result, they just weren't persuasive, because they didn't really believe they needed to try to be.

Scores of business leaders make this same error in their communications to their employees. They fail to consider how their audience really thinks and feels, assuming everyone wants the same as them. Lots of service agencies also make the same error, being sloppy in their efforts to persuade their clients of the things they think are obvious.

So I'd like to congratulate the losers of this round of Debating Matters, since they will now doubtless go on to be champions of the world at everything. They have already learnt from experience what so many of us fail to grasp: Presumption leads to lazy communication and lazy communication leads to losing stuff. Employees, clients and I'm afraid, school debates.


Rick said...

It's not one-sided at all.

The pro-monarchy argument has plenty of rational points and the pro-republican logic is based on arguments that might have had some substance in the 1920s but which have little relevance today.

Apart from that, I agree with the general thrust of your post ;-)

Sam said...

Ah Rick you're preaching to the converted. I'm a monarchist through and through. I was impartial in my judging though!

I do think though that the pro-republic argument has lots of easy wins to pick from. The pro-monarchy argument has to work harder to prove it's about more than pomp and ceremony.