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Monday, November 1, 2021

How to debate #17 - using stories

 We all love stories. Anyone who has ever read a bedtime story to a young child and seen the total absorption in their eyes, the sense of being transported to another world, knows that. So does anyone who has ever sat up into the small hours watching episode after episode of a boxset on Netflix even though they have to be at work or school in just four, no just three, no just two hours. One more story, Daddy. One more episode. Stories are addictive, and immersive.

They’re also a powerful tool if you want to persuade people. That’s why politicians love to wheel out stories about members of the public when they’re campaigning in elections (such as David Cameron citing the story of a black man he met once to support his policies on immigration during the 2010 UK General Election), and why so many adverts consist simply of stories with little or no connection with the product (such as the annual tear-jerker that is the John Lewis Christmas advert). Using stories to persuade has been a standard technique since anyone can remember; the Ancient Greeks called it enargia.

The problem with stories is that they are usually not true. And even if they are true, they tend to be about one person, or one situation; in other words, they are anecdotes. We learnt in this earlier post that an argument based on an anecdote is a bad argument. Why? Because it makes general conclusions out of individual examples; a sample of one, or even of two or three, is not sufficient to prove anything. The plural of anecdote is not data.

So should debaters steer clear of stories? Are they not a legitimate form of argument? Will they be called out by the judges? The answer is it depends on the story, and how you use it. Used rightly, stories can support arguments.

Let’s take an example. Say you are proposing the motion ‘This house would allow EU citizens to work in the UK.’ You want to make the point that a shortage of workers from the EU is causing a shortage of essential goods, because there are not enough people to drive lorries or pick fruit. This is a strong argument for the motion. It can also be supported by a story. But there’s a bad way of doing this, and a good way.

Bad use of a story

‘My Mum had to wait an hour to get petrol yesterday so I was late for football practice. And we couldn’t make trifle for my sister’s birthday because the Co-Op had run out of bananas. So that shows that stopping EU people from working here is wrong.’

This story may be true, but, however touching, it is only about one family in one place. It doesn’t illustrate the systemic issues across the whole economy associated with restrictions on immigration.

Good use of a story

‘Look around Brexit Britain and what do we see? Queues of cars snaking out of petrol stations, blocking traffic; empty shelves in supermarkets; unpicked fruit rotting on trees. Families who should be looking forward to Christmas are now wondering if they will be able to buy their children the presents they are so looking forward to; wondering, even, if there will be a turkey on the table this Christmas Day. This doesn’t look like the global powerhouse we were promised; this looks like a failing state.’

The speaker uses the techniques of storytelling to make us listen. She creates a vivid picture in our mind (gridlocked cars, empty shelves, rotting fruit), and also introduces unresolved tension (Will this be fixed by Christmas? Am I going to get any presents?). But she does this in the service of a serious argument. The examples she gives provide real and substantial evidence to support her argument, because they illustrate systemic faults across the whole economy caused by the new restrictions on immigration. Of course, she could have made the same point by providing a bunch of disembodied statistics, but that would have been much less memorable, and much less emotionally powerful.

So do use stories in debates. Just make sure that they are directly connected to your argument and your evidence. Do it right, and you will turbo charge your persuasive powers.

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