Below are a few guidelines on how to present your arguments to have an impact when debating in public.
It’s About the Audience
This is the primary thing you should be paying attention to. If your goal is to troll people or just let off some steam, it’s your life, but don’t think you’re helping. If you want to help the cause, just understand one simple rule: focus on the audience, the bystanders. When you get into a debate (formal setting, or informal over the lunch table, whatever), you have a real potential to influence the thinking of people who are observers, but not participants, in it. The person you’re debating with is focusing on their arguments, they’re not receptive to anything you’re saying. It’s the onlookers, who aren’t invested, who can be influenced. And if only one of the two debaters understands that, s/he’s got an advantage.
Be The Big Man
I use “big man” here in the anthropological sense; before there were hereditary chiefs, there were “big men,” who didn’t have titles or official authority. They were just men who had won the respect of the tribe through competence, wisdom and generosity. People are hardwired to respect the views of someone who acts like the big man. The big man is confident, but never boastful. He speaks his mind, but is always willing to listen to what others have to say. He’s patient and kind, and he cares about the tribe. Most of all, he shows complete disinterest in maintaining or increasing his status, winning out over people, making himself look good or making others look bad. The big man is the natural leader that we follow despite his protests that he’s just a regular guy, not the tyrant who demands status and power.
Never Raise Your Voice
When you raise your voice you sound hostile, scared, or both. You don’t want to sound like any of these things. Wear this look: you’re interested and curious in what the person is saying, you’re having a pleasant time debating him, but you’re just a touch (just a touch!) bored, because you’ve heard all this before. If the other guy gets emotional and starts raising his voice, great. Let him go on like that a bit, then politely, and with a smile, say “hey man, no need to raise our voices, right?” The same goes for interrupting; you should never interrupt, and if the other person does, correct them gently and without tone. This makes you the adult in the conversation, and the one who’s acting like a leader.
You don’t want to seem preachy, or like you’re trying to press your views on others. You want the other person to seem like that. So you can forward your position, while seeming like the nicer person, by asking a lot of questions. It’s important that you ask them in a curious way, not a confrontational one. Use questions to draw them out into making claims, then deflate the claims – if possible, with more questions. Although it’s tempting, when you draw them out into an absurd or logically unsound statement, to leap in for the kill, it’s more persuasive to the audience that you finish him with a pointed question that he struggles to answer, than for you to be the one to point out his error. So, don’t burst his balloon, let the audience watch it sag and deflate. People are moved to sympathy when they see someone under attack, but when they see him flailing about helplessly, he becomes laughable and pathetic.
Don’t Work the Crowd
The essence of manipulation is that it can’t be overt. Your goal is to persuade the observer, but you have to appear completely focused on your debater. Don’t act like you’re on a stage, even if you are. Bystanders need to feel like they’re watching you two through a one-way glass. If they feel involved, that will bring group dynamics into play that put you, as the holder of the minority position, at a great disadvantage. If your debater tries to rope in support, you want to try to politely rein it back in to one-on-one. If it becomes about majority rule, guess what: you lose.
Keep Your Positions Reasonable and Modest
Don’t let the debate be There’s a God vs. There Isn’t a God, FIGHT! Ideally, you want to frame the debate so it’s your completely reasonable position vs. his rather overreaching position. So, back in the day, I would try to draw the other guy into debating God vs. No God, while I only argued that it’s not unreasonable to question the existence of a god. So he’s trying to hold up bolder, more easily refuted claims, and your claims are easier to defend – and he seems like a bit of an asshole even to attack those claims.
Be Generous with Worthless Things
Give your opponent things that don’t help him, but make you look good. A favorite one is reminding him “it’s your right to think what you want.” The subconscious message is that you’re giving this person his rights. That puts you above him in status, but without making you look aggressive. Make a show of conceding small points that don’t interfere with your arguments: “OK, even if I allow you X, how can you explain Y?”
Common Sense Arguments Are Better Than Obscure Facts
Don’t draw on too many obscure facts to make your points. You don’t want to seem pedantic, and your goal is not to show off your depth of knowledge. Also, how does the audience know that you aren’t just making shit up? The old standard “if a god is necessary to explain the existence of the universe, because nothing can just always have been, then who made god?” is a classic for a reason – anyone can get it, immediately, and it requires no outside justification. It’s a self-contained little mind virus. Whereas, bringing up how a sloppy translation from Aramaic to Greek probably created the virgin birth out of thin air… it sounds stuffy, it’s not sexy and frankly a lot of people are going to wonder what kind of person reads up on this kind of thing. It’s not a normal thing to know about, if you haven’t yet begun your freethought journey.
[props to /u/rapiertwit]