The Straw Man Fallacy

by Peter Paskale

As the big bad wolf will gladly confirm, it’s way easier to blow-down a house of straw.

And so it is with arguments. An argument made of straw is easier to demolish than one that’s made of stone. Why would anybody therefore want to build themselves such a poor and flimsy straw-bale argument?

Precisely because they want to blow it down. All by themselves.

It’s such an accepted strategy within communications that is even has a name – The Straw-Man Fallacy, and it’s why NRA commentator Dom Raso is claiming gun rights should be extended to blind people.

Mr Raso is an awesome speaker. He’s also highly credible, and that’s important for the success of a Straw Man Fallacy, because the straw-man involves tricking your audience.

Mr Raso’s argument is that blind people are being denied their Second Amendment rights to carry guns, and on the basis of his evidence, and putting my own views on guns to one side, I would have to say that I agree with him. To deny blind people the same rights  as the rest of us would be discrimination unfairly based on a physical disability. This however, is where the straw-man comes in, because the Gun Control Act of 1968 makes no mention of blind people.

While the Act does list various groups who are prohibited from carrying guns, blind people are most definitely not amongst them.

Mr Raso therefore, has powerfully won an argument against a case that doesn’t exist, and that doesn’t exist for the very reasons that he cites in his video. It’s all rather odd and circular, but done for a reason, because creating a Straw Man Fallacy is only stage one of a larger communications strategy:

Step One: The straw-man

Let’s say that blind people represent group A. Mr Raso’s straw-man has now led you, the audience, to inaccurately believe that blind people are unfairly discriminated against under the Gun Control Act.

Step Two: The demolition

Our speaker now builds a powerful case for why that is wrong. He creates a compelling argument, against an illusionary target of his own creation.

Step Three: The extension

If Mr. Raso can prove that Argument A demonstrates unfair prejudice, then we as an audience become pre-inclined to believe that maybe groups B & C are also being prejudiced against.

Step Four: The precedent

While Argument A was an illusory straw-man, groups B & C will be real. The successful straw-man however, will have created a precedent under which it can now be successfully argued that groups B & C, who are genuinely listed under the Gun Control Act, should also be able to carry fire-arms.

Maybe I’m being Machiavellian again, but usually when a speaker invokes a straw-man fallacy, it’s step one. Showing how easily you can blow down the house of straw is only a prelude to panicking the occupants of the house of stones into quitting the building with  less of a fight.

Mr. Raso makes a fabulous case, and I believe this is the prelude to something bigger.

Changing minds, when minds are set

Don’t give battle in vain. When audiences hold entrenched views, full frontal assaults only deepen the entrenchment.

by Peter Watts

King Richard III causes just such entrenched reactions here in the UK, and it looks like we’ve just dug him up from his resting place of 500 years beneath a public car-park in the northern English city of Leicester.

When “bad King Richard” was originally interred, the poor chap had just suffered a particularly fatal piece of Tudor military hardware to the back of the head before being tied naked to a horse and put on public display for 48 hours. By that time very dead, the ex-King had been buried in what was then a Priory.

The rule of the Tudor Dynasty saw Richard III’s reputation buried along with him. Chief among the cultural stars of the period was William Shakespeare, and when he wrote his play, Richard III, it was with both eyes firmly set on pleasing his Tudor sponsors.

Shakespeare’s Richard was penned as as a dwarf and hunchback, with one arm shriveled to a stump. In the cultural shorthand of Tudor England, all three conditions were cruelly synonymous with evil.

The image stuck, and came to be regarded as fact. A neat demonstration that it is always the victor who gets to write history. Despite this however, a tiny minority have always continued to claim that Richard III was a good, if short-lived monarch. That he passed laws to protect the poor, and made early moves toward enshrining freedom of speech. The cult of good King Richard has always been regarded as a perverse, minority view.

If you wanted to stand up and present that minority argument for good King Richard though, how would you go about it when audiences have been conditioned to have closed minds?

Hyperbole will fail. Force will fail. Every blow you make will be met by an equal and opposite counter-blow.

Gentleness is the only solution, along with structural use of facts in such a way that they can create doubt.

For example, let’s take that skeleton of Richard III. If it turns out to be consistent with the physical descriptions of Shakespeare, then the Shakespearean portrayal may be true, but if the skeleton is that of a strapping man, then the Shakespearean version must be questioned.

We can express this with the rhetorical form if A equals B, then C. If skeleton equals twisted, then Shakespeare equals true (or at least more likely to be so).

If B however can be proved invalid, so that A no longer equals B, then the preposition C must also fall, and Shakespeare’s Richard III along with it.

There is a saying “tread lightly on my dreams, for they are my own”. The same logic applies to people’s deeply held opinions.

When you need to challenge those opinions, do not, as Richard III is said to have done, do battle in vain.

Tread lightly, carefully position new facts, and whereas it would be too much to expect to effect change in one blow, know that you may have opened up cracks that allow new insights to shine through.

PS: That skeleton? It turned out to be a tall, muscular man, with both arms very much functional, and only a slight deformation of the left shoulder, causing it to appear slightly higher than the right. Maybe that perverse minority were right, all along.

8 Points for Presentation Structure

by Peter Watts

Preparation is everything.

While we focus on our content, and sometimes fuss about our slides, it’s essential we never forget about the framework holding everything together.

  • How will we introduce and conclude?
  • How should we segment the content into logical bite-sized pieces?
  • How do we pull together our fundamental arguments?
  • How can we handle the questions at the end?

That’s why I’ve put together this page with links to the various Presenters’ Blog topics on the subject of presentation structure.

Behind each of the following links, you’ll find ideas and tips for successfully navigating the stages of successful presentations:

Introductions
The skills you need to find your feet during the crucial opening moments.

The Main Message
Identifying the key themes you want your audience to walk away with.

The Argument
Presentation protein is held in the sinews of your argument. Here’s how to make it compelling, relevant, and nutritious.

Divide and Conquer
Lessons from the actress Carrie Fisher as she controls content by dividing it into manageable stepping stones within her one-woman show.

Be Competitive, But Don’t Present Your Competition
The best competitive pitching structures follow the golden guideline: “Counter competitors, but avoid attacking them”.

Concluding Your Presentation
How to ensure your final words, are memorable words.

Handling the Questions At The End
Audience members ask questions for a whole variety of reasons. Step-by-step ideas for how to handle those different types of question.

Handling The Question That Mustn’t Be Answered
Occasionally we are asked a special type of question: The hostile question. What to do on the rare occasions when an audience member lobs a curve-ball.

If there are additional structural topics that you’d like to hear about, do let me know in the comments box.

Presentation structure: Creating a compelling argument

by Peter Watts

Between the introduction and the conclusion of any presentation, lies the main body of it’s content; the argument. This crucial section comprises the facts and persuasive reasoning that must support your case and convince the audience. 

If two words alone could describe your goal when constructing and then delivering the argument, those two words would be “Prove It!”

During your introduction, you offered a proposition to the audience, suggesting that due to situation A, you believe they should implement solution B. The argument will reveal to the audience the mechanics of your reasoning, and two elements must be considered: structure and relevance.

Structure

The argument is unlikely to comprise just a single fact. You will have multiple points that you want to explain, and each of these points should be regarded as a mini presentation in it’s own right, with it’s own tiny agenda, body, and summary. The technical term for each of these mini presentations is a “division”, referring to the dividing up of your content. As you move from one division to the next, tell your audience that this is what you are doing, and why the content of the division supports your original thesis:

“So, our XYZ product, by providing increased reliability, will help you to increase customer satisfaction. Let’s move on now to consider our next point which is……”

This division of content, accompanied by clearly stated transitions, makes it easier for the audience to concentrate and follow your logic. If, for example, you have three points to make, and 15 minutes in which to make them, the audience then find themselves having to concentrate in short five minute blocks rather than for a prolonged 15 minute discussion.

A further advantage of this approach is that in the event that members of the audience lose track, due to the human habit of allowing their minds to wander, then they won’t have long to wait before the next section comes along when they can re-join the flow of the presentation.

Relevance

Audiences need to clearly recognize why your presentation is uniquely relevant to their interests. “What does this have to do with me?”. To answer this question facts must be customized to the daily realities of the people in front of you.

Consider what is important to the audience. If you are presenting to a board of hospital trustees for example, then link your facts to the welfare of patients, to improved and swifter diagnosis, or to the more effective use of research funds. If you were presenting to the management team of your own company, make sure you have links to company goals, or to challenges currently faced.

Customizing a presentation in this way does not need to be a lengthy exercise. Just one or two relevant illustrations per fact will be sufficient.

Stepping Stones

By regarding the body of the presentation, the argument, as being a series of relevant and interlinked mini presentations, even the most complicated subjects become more manageable for both you and the audience.

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