Views from NAU: How to win an argument (most of the time)

people arguing

*Editor’s Note: The “Views from NAU” blog series highlights the thoughts of different people affiliated with NAU, including faculty members sharing opinions or research in their areas of expertise. The views expressed reflect the authors’ own personal perspectives.

By Sarah Walker

Director of NAU Debate and Forensics 

Most people will tell you they hate arguing, and to be honest, I don’t really blame them. Arguments can be stressful, and even the lowest of stakes can bring out someone’s competitive streak. But fear not! I’ve become an expert in argumentation and debate, and, consequently, one of those few who truly enjoys a good argument on almost any topic. As the director of NAU’s Debate and Forensics (that’s speech, not CSI) , I can help!  

Whether you find yourself in a disagreement over who the best Avenger is or you are gearing up to hit the campaign trail and know there will be fights along the way, you can follow these lesser talked about tips to give yourself a leg up in any verbal duel.  

  1. Know your audience: In any argument or debate, you need to know who your audience i, and what they care about. This includes knowing about the views that oppose yours as well. The more you know about who you are persuading, the better tailored your points can be to the topic. Keep in mind, if you’re arguing with a colleague, partner or roommate, your opponent might be your audience. That knowledge is important too.  
  2. Find simple ways to talk about the topic: Most arguments require that the contestants have a working knowledge of the relevant definitions, problems and solutions on a topic. But jargon is not actually very persuasive. Think about what level of knowledge your audience is at, and tailor your language to their intellectual level. Make sure your descriptions and metaphors are accurate though! Life is not always a box of chocolates, and you don’t want to spread misinformation.
  3. Preview and review your points: We all hate feeling lost in a conversation. This advice sounds unhelpful if you are having an interpersonal disagreement, but an audience tends to agree more with the speaker they can most easily follow—including your partners and roommates. The best arguments lay out a clear roadmap and then deliver their audience safely to the conclusion with clear language, evidence and logic.  
  4. Make sure your audience knows you care: Be sincere in the points you are making. If your plan or advocacy has downsides, be honest about what those are. It is OK not to have all the answers. Sincerity and passion will get you a long way with an audience.  
  5. Win (or lose) gracefully: Debates and arguments don’t always have a “winner,” but how you act in the moments before or after a heated exchange are factors in argument success. Always aim to be the coolest head in the room. Save your personal attacks, snark and eye-rolling. These kinds of responses rarely seem as charming in reality as they appear on television and can decrease both your opponent’s and the audience’s trust in you.  
  6. Watch others argue: Football teams watch replays of games, and scholars attend seminars on effective teaching; watching debates and taking notes on the speakers is a great way to learn effective organization, creative tactics, and in some cases how not to get a point across. There are hundreds of examples of debates online just waiting for you to explore. And if live spectator sport is more your style, may I recommend coming to watch NAU students debate against students from the other two state universities at the NAU hosted Regents’ Cup on April 30. It’s the perfect opportunity to learn more about argument building, and you can show school spirit at the same time! 

 Remember, not every argument can be won, and even with these tips you might find yourself accepting defeat. Be teachable. Admit when you are swayed, or you discover you’re wrong. Bring good faith and good intentions to any argument, and even if you aren’t the winner, you can avoid losing every time.  

NAU Communications