Crafting an Argument for Ocean Planning? Consider How Aristotle Would Do It

The Skimmer on Marine Ecosystems and Management

Success in management often comes down to convincing people to behave a particular way. Provide a persuasive argument and your audience is more likely to follow your suggestion. Provide an unpersuasive argument...good luck.

That may seem like simple advice, but crafting a convincing argument is as much art as science. Ask any manager who has entered a public meeting thinking, "If we just reason with the audience, they will agree our plan is the right one." Relying on pure logic and appealing only to the audience's heads can sometimes get you nowhere. That is just the way people are.

The art of persuading and motivating audiences is known as rhetoric, and several of its basic rules were laid down in ancient Greece by Aristotle. The rules apply just as well today as they did 2500 years ago. In the field of ocean planning, they may hold real value for those trying to convince others of the need for particular management measures - whether the audience to be persuaded is the general public, stakeholders, or even bureaucratic agencies themselves.

The gist of Aristotelian rhetoric is that there are three powerful tools of persuasion:

  • Logos, appealing to the listeners' logic;
  • Ethos, appealing to their character; and
  • Pathos, appealing to their emotions.

Although ocean planners might assume logos is the most powerful of these tools - "If we just reason with the audience..." - it turns out it is often not. Sometimes an effective argument uses all three tools.

Jay Heinrichs travels the world teaching Aristotelian rhetoric to companies, government agencies, and other institutions. BusinessWeek magazine profiled him this past March (www.businessweek.com/articles/2012-03-14/jay-heinrichss-powers-of-persuasion) and his 2007 book Thank You for Arguing was a business bestseller. He also writes two blogs, Word Hero (www.wordhero.org) and Figaro Speech (www.figarospeech.com), on effective communication. MEAM asked Heinrichs for his thoughts on applying Aristotle's lessons to the ocean-planning field:

MEAM: In the US, the federal government has initiated a region-by-region process of coastal and marine spatial planning for US ocean waters. According to the government, this process will "decrease user conflicts; improve planning and regulatory efficiencies and decrease their associated costs and delays; and preserve critical ecosystem function and services" - an argument that seems fairly logos-based. How would you make an argument in support of the marine spatial planning process?

Jay Heinrichs: The analogy is your best method here, I think. But not a conservation-based analogy. You might want to talk about the need to avoid "collisions" of competing uses, with the process being a kind of virtual "traffic cop". This is more or less a logos approach, but one that uses an audience's existing comfort with the need for regulation on streets. If that language seems too informal, imply the traffic analogy with frequent use of the words "colliding" and "potential collision".

Pathos generally isn't appropriate in this formal context. And ethos can be tricky unless there's a trusted spokesman or representative who can speak for the initiative in terms the audience is comfortable with.

Overall, the focus should not be on regulation or "planning" so much as on the need for efficiency and for maximizing the use of marine resources over time. I always liked the approach of Gifford Pinchot, founding head of the US Forest Service, who spoke for the "greatest good, for the greatest number, over the greatest time."

You might also consider using the word "conservative" to support your argument. It is conservative to streamline regulations. And it is conservative to seek the orderly maximization of resource use over time.

MEAM: The regional planning processes in the US will be run by administrators and scientists who are largely untrained in negotiating with the public. What exercises can you recommend for these people to help them develop their balanced arguments?

Heinrichs: I conduct workshops that last at least half a day, in which we rehearse the arguments and anticipate the other side's language. My immediate advice would be to avoid sounding clever. Instead, look for analogies and other figures of speech that please the persuadable audience. In my workshops, I teach the art of the synecdoche: taking a pleasing part of something and making it represent the whole. But that's a complicated tool that needs some explanation. This stuff is not easy.

MEAM: The term "marine spatial planning" itself may not resonate particularly well with ethos or pathos thinking. Should stakeholders be expected to agree to tradeoffs in the name of good "marine spatial planning", or would you recommend another term be used?

Heinrichs: I would strongly recommend an informal term to supplement "marine spatial planning". The word "planning" smacks of bureaucracy and interference with free markets. "Enhanced mapping" or "active mapping" might be easier to swallow. In my work, I look for the least controversial part of an issue and use that as a basis for branding and labeling.

For more information: Jay Heinrichs, New Hampshire, US. Web: www.figarospeech.com

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