How to convince people

There’s a common flaw in most arguments. It’s that they never go deep enough. There’s often passion, shouting and vehement critiques of one’s opponent. But most debates, especially political ones stay on a superficial high level. If you already agree with the argument, this high level can provoke strong emotional reactions, and if you’re experiencing those emotional reactions you’re likely to wonder how anyone could hear such words and fail to be compelled. On the other side, the exact same words provoke profound disgust.

The problem is that words are not precise carriers of meaning. There is no central agency in charge of defining how a word must be interpreted. Dictionaries are just representations that scrabble to keep up with changing public thought and usage. Words are our only means of representing something from the complex and emotive imagery in our minds, so we make them fit our purposes, rather than vice versa. What makes some academic writing so dense is that it’s packed with terms that have meanings that depend on knowledge of other terms. Understanding the written work as a whole relies on your bringing in a number of other mental models that have been learned previously.

Similarly, most arguments operate in the same manner. They depend on terms that have implicit meanings that are known both to the speaker and the listener. Terms that mean much more than their simple dictionary definition. The problem is that the listener thinks he understands these terms, and interprets the argument based on his own perception of the components the speaker is using to build it. So with the same words, making use of the same logical components of argument, two entirely different pictures emerge in the mind. Unlike the confusing academic text, the listener is not aware of his lack of understanding of the mind of the speaker. The speaker too, realising his message has not been hard, repeats his argument louder and stronger, often turning to authority to bolster her message in the absence of agreement.

This goes right down to the core of who we are as human beings. At the root of thought, there are many confusing things some of which are impossible to articulate and share in any meaningful way. Between this low level thought and the high level terms we use to communicate ideas, lies the many layers of the mental models we assemble to understand the world. Often the reason we’re using these high level terms is because this structure of meaning which starts from basic human instincts is emotive and challenging to communicate. The lower layers can be implicit and not based in rational thought, usually experiential or sometimes handed down by an authority figure in our lives. So it just seems so basically obvious and true that there seems like no need to communicate these values.

The free market is a divisive concept. It underpins much of our daily activity and invokes strongly polarised feeling. It’s also a concept where one’s experience is crucial to the way it is perceived. Technical arguments on this matter are generally irrelevant to convincing people. What really matters is the listener’s concepts of freedom. What does freedom mean to you? What does earning money and paying for something mean to you? For some people it means being unfairly separated from what is naturally theirs, then being forced to toil to get it back. Paying for something is a hideous compensation for someone who has gotten what they have through force and greed. For others it means seeing that everyone is fairly rewarded for their innovation and graft, meaning that every payment is gladly handed over to a decent honest person, as to not do so would be to upset the balance of fairness in the universe.

It’s difficult to argue rationally at this level. Neither of the positions taken on economics can be empirically proved true or false. Yet to the speaker, they inherently are true because they’ve seen them in the world. They inform their actions; to the anti-capitalist, any businessman will have an ugly hue to them, an imagery of evil that makes sympathy impossible, and any argument based on the image of a just and smoothly functioning system will fall at the first gate. We should be arguing based on the a prioris of human nature, we simply forget to do this since we don’t consider these perceptions of value as reliable evidence.

In fact, it’s the only evidence we have. The great myth of conventional economics is that it’s rational to its core. At the root of much economic theory lies homo economicus, a person who takes actions based on a perfect rational calculus. While everything on top of this has internal coherence, there is nothing to support the root assertion except belief. We depend on mental models to make sense of and act in the world around us. Since the universe is infinitely complex, we have to simplify it down into models and images. These mental models are not rational, nor are they generally perceived as thought. Einstein claimed to perceive the abstract spaces he was dealing with in feelings in his muscles, rather than through mathematical symbology (for more on why pictures are important, see Bret Victor who demonstrates this point brilliantly: In the process, we can end up with images that are vastly different from others with different experiences.

I recently watched this video ( and although I found it moderately interesting, I switched off after a few minutes. Some time later, I was having a discussion with my friend Calum, when the topic came up. When Calum discussed it, he talked about a vision of being able to simply talk to computers without having to learn a specialised language. This point tapped into something I found exciting, an image built at some point in my life, rooted in some deeper aspiration common to all humans. These images are not expressible in words, but ‘learnable programming’ is an attachable concept, something that I can now be excited about, that motivates me to find out more and work in that area. I’ll forget about this attachment to a higher value, while the feelings live on, but if I want to excite someone else, I’ll have to go through that same process of attaching it to the root for them.

We should make an effort to dig deep, rather than keep fighting in an effort to convince with high level terms. I believe that since these terms ultimately tap into a lowest common denominator of human thoughts - images we hold in common - it’s possible in many seemingly intractable cases to find harmony with this manner.

I have a strong fascination with public transport. I enjoy reading about it, hearing about new infrastructure projects, seeing new train lines open. This doesn’t make any sense to most people. My interest in turn is based on a love of maps, systems and diagrams. Systems like London’s network of underground lines are a way of understanding and making sense of the world. I seek to understand and make sense of the world because of the basic human desire to find significance and control in an infinitely expanding and confusing universe. It’s only the last point where I have something in common with most members of the human race, and without this point, communicating my interests is fruitless.

We need to argue based on the full stack. be experiential. Communicate the whole body of thought in your expression, not just the superficial end point. This should inform the way we go about both politics and protest. It’s tempting to base protest in shouting as loud as possible. Sometimes this works if your message is simple or you have the power of numbers. But this strategy is based in the desire for personal satisfaction, to win. If we want to act pragmatically to build a better future, we need to learn to be better communicators in all areas of our lives.

“Advocates of ‘free trade’ want to push this process to its logical conclusion: a
few industry monopolists with ultimate control over everyone else. Advocates
of ‘fair trade’ want to mitigate this process via government regulations, which
superfi cially impose ‘humanitarian standards’. We despise both positions.
Private property – and capitalism, by extension – is intrinsically violent and
repressive … When we smash a window, we aim to destroy the thin veneer
of legitimacy that surrounds private property rights”

Above is an example of a statement that convinces nobody but the choir. The paragraph is dense because it relies on definitions of other things which are not clear: free trade, private property rights, fair trade.

This is a lot easier when people have a lot of experiences in common. Hence why people with similar backgrounds tend to enjoy each others company, by confirming each others beliefs and having the same aspirations sprout out of them. The bigger the gap between experiences, the more likely disagreement becomes. Thinking does not precede fighting. Thinking is the fight. Physical force, the ultimate mover, relies on approval of those in whom power is invested. If the powerful actors no longer approve, no action will take place. By using physical force of your own you’ll just be tilting the scales, readying them for their inevitable swing back to the other side when your opponent fights back, since no individual can stand to have the world be in opposition to his aspirations.

“I can’t talk to them because they won’t listen to reason”, is a likely retort to this argument. This statement is not even wrong. They won’t listen to reason because your terms carry meanings for them which makes your argument nonsensical. Equally, you must open yourself up to the experience of others, to understand their full stack and how it depends on emotive imagery. Only then can we truly communicate.

Practical exercise: try explaining something to someone you know well that you’ve previously disagreed upon or something you love but holds no interest for them, but for every time there is a disagreement or lack of convincing explanation, dig deeper to what that term means to you, notice what imagery appears in your mind when you explain that term.