In this week’s blog post, I’ve been thinking about the power of stories and how we might use those stories within debates.
A debating speech isn’t the same as a story. Often, when students begin debating, we have to encourage them to move away from personal stories and anecdotes, in favour of structured speeches full of logical analysis. ‘I know someone who…’ might be true, but that doesn’t prove your point is true in the majority of cases.
However, I’ve been recently thinking about the power of stories. As an English graduate, this isn’t surprising, but what I’ve been particularly interested in is stories and economics (and anyone who knows me will testify how truly surprising it is that I would ever choose to think about economics).
When I debated for England, our coach wanted us to learn a little bit of economic theory, so we’d be better able to take on economic debates. I was tasked with learning about comparative advantage, then explaining it to my coach and teammates in a short speech. The memory of those two minutes, as the faces of my audience rotated between bewilderment, confusion, and mirth, are hard-wired into my brain. I couldn’t work out how to make this dry theory into content that was clear, let alone interesting.
I still don’t love economics. I read about it, understand it, and then ten minutes later I feel as though I’ve lost all that knowledge. Partly in an effort to combat that, and partly to liven up my commute, I’ve started listening to the Planet Money podcast. I’d highly recommend it.
They explain an economic idea, concept, or puzzle, but they explain it through human stories that feel real, interesting, and important. It makes the abstract real. I’ve been recounting one or two of their stories, to a group of students I work with, once a week. It is a great way to get them thinking about ideas of supply and demand, government intervention, and all sorts of other economic concepts. Maybe one day I’ll try and come up with my own Planet-Money esque story about comparative advantage. Or maybe not.
Anyway, back to debating. To win a debate you need your points to be clear, and you need to explain your logic. You can’t expect the judges to fill in the gaps or give you credit for your implicit assumptions. I think this is part of the game, and a great way to help students develop analytical skills that they can also use in their academic work.
But will a classic ‘debate-style’ argument, with three sub-sections always be the most memorable? Will it be most likely to change minds? Similarly, does every idea need to be explained in exactly the same way? Dry, logical, step by step? Probably not.
Look to science. Metaphor (a tool of storytelling, if not a story in of itself) is part of the way scientists explain their work. Metaphors are part of the way we comprehend and understand the world around us.
When debaters act outraged at their oppositions argument, or lower their voice to emphasise the gravity of a situation, they are creating a kind of make-believe world in which they are the heroes and their opponents are the villains.
Stories can illuminate ideas, entertain audiences, and communicate a feeling. Surely we want speeches that do all of that?
Perhaps the advice I should be giving isn’t ‘don’t tell stories in a debate’ after all.
Perhaps there is a place for stories, or at least elements of storytelling, in debating.
We just need to start telling ourselves a different story about what a ‘debate speech’ is, and why we debate in the first place.