March 28 2013
Billiards and the Art of Persuasion
I only beat my dad at the game of pool once. He had stage 4 cancer at the time, so it probably doesn’t count. My pool technique is simply flawed: I like to hit the cue ball hard, sending balls rocketing across the table toward the pocket with a loud crack. It’s satisfying, when it works, but more often than not, the ball hits the pocket so forcibly it bounces out. My dad’s style was markedly different. With quiet confidence, he hit the cue ball softly and strategically and would clear the table before my eyes.
The art of persuasion is a bit like billiards; finesse beats force. It’s easy to imagine the opposite is true. I’ll admit I’ve daydreamed about delivering a hard-hitting speech packed with statistics and elegant phases to family members or friends who immediately cast aside their long held beliefs convinced that my position is the one right path. In real life, such mighty oratory is often met with defensiveness or disengagement. Hit the ball too hard and it bounces out of the pocket. Rousing speeches are better for stirring the faithful to action than for convincing the unconverted.
The new Republican National Committee Growth and Opportunity Council report recommendations seem to understand this. While the report is not without controversy, there are some insights worth considering about how to reach women. The GOP needs to do a better job listening and making connections with women and they “need to talk about people and families, not just numbers and statistics…women need to hear what our motive is — why it is that we want to create a better future for our families and how our policies will affect the lives of their loved ones.”
This is advice Republicans need to hear and internalize: Persuading women requires listening, making connections, asking thoughtful questions, using analogies, and providing examples in addition to statistics.
Too often, Republicans dismiss the emotional arguments on the Left as inferior to arguments based solely on reason. Yet as Aristotle wrote, effective rhetoric requires more than iron-clad logic. One needs ethos, a speaker with credibility, pathos, an argument that makes an emotional connection, and logos, reason. Facts and figures aren’t enough. An effective speaker must connect with the audience in an authentic way and present an argument that speaks to both heart and mind.
When Americans were polled about which candidate “cared about people like them” after the 2012 election, President Obama came out far ahead of his opponent, particularly among single women, 67 percent of whom cast their vote for the incumbent.
I understand these women. Twenty years ago, when I was a young, single Democrat, I would have voted for Obama. For all my feminist bluster, I felt overwhelmed by the uncertainties of life. It didn’t take much to make me feel like a victim of circumstances. Promises of free health care and free college education strongly appealed to someone who was worried she might not be able to provide them for herself. I feared poverty and my heart ached for those trapped in it. My faith in government was misplaced, but my anxiety and concerns were legitimate.
Any effort to reach out to single women must begin with empathy for those feelings. Without listening and understanding, it is not possible to establish ethos as a speaker. Having established credibility, the speaker must use logic and emotion to demonstrate why government-led solutions have failed in the past and why reform is necessary. I wouldn’t have been convinced by complaints about how much poverty programs were costing taxpayers; but, accounts of how welfare dependency is leaving children without fathers and discouraging people from taking jobs that lead to better economic opportunities would have planted a seed of doubt in my mind.
Ultimately it was such stories that caused me to rethink my liberal positions and to leave the Democratic Party. Hard-hitting arguments with Republican friends did little to change my mind. Simple, quiet questions are what sent me on my journey from Left to Right.
As the Republican Party grapples with how to better communicate its principles and policies, the RNC recommendations are a good place to start. If we want to get out from behind the eight ball, we would do well to remember that in the art of persuasion, as in the game of billiards, finesse beats force every time.