Five Ways to Make a Point

back of the napkin by dan roam
Take a look at this article from, written by UC Prof Mike Davis. The words that came to mind when I read it were succinct, witty, provocative, and well-researched. He manages to capture the essence of what has led our civilization to the brink of collapse in just two pages, packed with data, rhetorical questions and persuasive argument. This is the kind of writing that moves people to action, to change their minds, and to pass along the essay or its contents in conversations with others, virally.

Davis is, I expect, preaching to the largely converted. His work is rhetoric, which despite its modern negative connotations means simply persuasive, effective oratory (the word predates the printing press and hence initially referred to speech, not writing). Whereas some people believe that debate is the best means of persuasion, I have come to believe that most people will only accept an assertion or idea if they’re ready for it. If they’re not, a debate will only tend to polarize their view, put them off. Rhetoric at its worst can inflame ignorance, but at its best it can inform and stimulate those who are already inclined to believe something, so that they can then decide how to act on it, and pass on their learning, rhetorically, to others who are so inclined.

A rhetorical question is not (necessarily) one for which the answer is self-evident, but rather one presented for persuasive effect, to provoke thought consistent with the arguments the speaker has just made or is about to make. It is intended to evoke emotion, either positively or negatively. If the audience is ignorant, inclined to groupthink, insecure, frightened or incapable of critical thinking, it can be dangerous (“Are we going to let these people take what we worked so hard for?”)

If the audience is informed, independent, self-confident and thoughtful, however, such questions are powerful and useful, because they force you to think, and sometimes to challenge conventional wisdom, to think differently. They are often preceded or followed by another useful device, the rhetorical or oratorical pause. Such a pause (which many speakers are afraid to insert into oratory in case it merely causes audience discomfort) is intended to cause tension, to force the audience to try to anticipate what will come next, or to reflect on what has just been said that was presumably important.

Davis’ article is so compelling, I think, because of a combination of new information, provocative questions, and great rhetoric.

Recently I’ve been listening, paying more attention to conversations: their flow, their pacing, their iteration of ideas and comprehension and meaning, the power politics often present inside them, their effectiveness. Because Generation Millennium has somewhat rediscovered (texting notwithstanding) the oral culture of the pre-Gutenberg era, I’ve been listening to them practice conversation. Their ability to achieve comprehension (largely by successive approximation, iteratively, Q&A, action and reaction, until consensus is reached) is extraordinary: very effective and hopelessly inefficient, but done so quickly that it succeeds. But it is the opposite of rhetoric. Good rhetorical oratory rarely contains the most frequent two words in Gen Millennium speech: “I mean“.

I also find that modern conversation contains few rhetorical questions or pauses: There is simply no time for them. And there is little time for information. When information is presented that is new, and not consistent with the worldview of the listener(s), and not presented in the context of a simple “A or B” dichotomy (“Is Obama better or worse at…?”), it is as if the audience simply doesn’t know what to make of it. If you listen to this speech (thanks to David Parkinson for the link) you can see how new information that makes an oversimplified debate more complex leaves the audience (in this case mass media talking heads) utterly dumbfounded. If the new information doesn’t fit, it is discounted, ignored, considered as outrageous, an affront. You didn’t answer our simple dumb question!

Which of course it is: It is intended as an affront (literal meaning of affront: in your face). While this may not work in the context of dumbed-down mass media reporting, it can be extremely effective when the audience has the patience, curiosity and self-confidence to be affronted.

Generation Millennium has learned one traditional (and now rare) conversational skill: storytelling. They have discovered that the easiest way to create a context for understanding is to tell a straightforward (“and then...”) story, instead of preparing and presenting an analysis. They ‘get’ that if they understood what happened, and what should be done about it, then so will the audience if they hear an accurate narrative that ‘recreates’ the speaker’s learning.

Recently I’ve learned of another effective means of communicating information in a presentation or conversation: the use of simple visuals. I would highly commend to you Dan Roam’s new book The Back of the Napkin, which explains how to use elementary visuals, skilfully sketched by hand on a napkin or whiteboard while the audience watches, to convey information and to persuade (the illustration above is from that book, and a video explaining the ideas in the book is here). It draws on the fact that we are all programmed, in our pre-civilization DNA, to learn, discover and understand visually, not by reading text. One of my most popular conference presentation subjects is Adding Meaning and Value to Information (largely through visuals), and most of my presentations now have no bullet points, just pictures that I talk to.

So in short I think there are five techniques that can be used to make a point effectively, in a conversation, presentation or written article:

  1. Present new information, clearly and articulately.
  2. Ask provocative questions.
  3. Tell memorable stories.
  4. Use visualizations to convey meaning. 
  5. Employ powerful rhetoric — be clear, logical, clever, funny, well-paced, original, truthful, concise, provocative, and passionate.

All of these things take practice. There is no better way to get better at them than by putting yourself out there, and asking your audience for their honest assessment of what you did well and how you could do better.

How would you score yourself on the use of each of these five techniques? I think I’m pretty good at #1. I don’t do #2 nearly enough, or well enough. I’m still poor at #3 (I need to craft and memorize my stories). I’m getting better at #4 but I need to practice sketching, and making my visualizations clearer and less dense. Dan Roam says: “All good pictures do not need to be self-explanatory, but they need to be explainable.” And my rhetorical skills need a lot of work: I still often lack the courage of my convictions, and I tend to be too serious and too long-winded.

How about you (that’s a rhetorical question)?

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2 Responses to Five Ways to Make a Point

  1. Cliff Allen says:

    There is a fundamental problem in communicating new, complex concepts to people outside your own circle of associates. Researchers and academics who live with a new concept or discovery develop new words (or new buzzwords) to speed communications within their circle.However, once the experts at the top of the mountain try to convince others of the value of what they’ve found, they face a skeptical audience. It usually takes a professional communicator familiar with the field to solve this problem. To do this the communicator (i.e., reporter, author, marketer) reads the technical journal articles, studies the charts and tables of statistical proof, and converts the finding into concepts that can be understood by those further down the mountain.This process continues several times until the concept can be expressed on a napkin.You’ve highlighted the two ends of this process with a long, detailed article that is “preaching to the largely converted” and a communications technique that his readers can use to help the “unconverted” understand his concepts.

  2. David Parkinson says:

    My self-assessment shakes out pretty well along the lines of yours, Dave. I’m downright crappy at #3, though, because I have an aversion to manipulative storytelling and ‘argument by anecdote’ in the mainstream culture. I know that storytelling isn’t always a manipulative technique, but the fact that it so often is makes little bells go off in my head whenever someone deploys it. Maybe I need to work through that, because I recognize (intellectually, if not on the gut level) that it is a tremendously powerful technique with the power to convey profound truths in simple language.

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