Winning Your Argument


Scott McGrew

One of my favorite books of all time is Rules for Radicals. Written many years ago, it’s a guide at how to win an argument or protest. The gist of the book is in order to make your point, you must identify the one symbol or idea that encapsulates your entire philosophy. People, it’s assumed, can’t follow a long detailed argument, but they can understand one simple idea.

A good example of this is global warming. A very complex argument, but Greenpeace hit on a very simple and effective symbol: they built an ark. One idea, that the world’s water levels are rising, encapsulated in a symbol we all understand.

Sometimes, you can use something bad to promote something good. Remember the Livermore Library debacle? The library hired an artist to create a mosaic with the names of famous authors. No one noticed artist Maria Alquilar spelled many of the authors’ names incorrectly. The library then paid Alquilar to come back and fix the mistakes. Paid her? They should have embarrassed her into coming back for free by putting up a sign that said “Kids, come inside the library and learn, so you don’t end up like Maria Alquilar.” How quickly do you think the artist would show up to make a fix then? And no doubt on her own dime. This uses Alinsky’s rule of ridicule. People will do anything to avoid ridicule.

You can draw attention to your cause by making something very simple sound complex and modern. Recently, a school district announced it was going to install “special locks” to protect children’s classrooms during a lock down. These locks are simply dead bolts that you would find on the front door of any home. But the school got news coverage. For putting locks on its doors.

Another tactic: simply ignore that which causes you problems. Just like Kentucky Fried Chicken avoids the “fried,” Hillary Clinton no longer calls herself “Hillary Rodham Clinton” or even “Hillary Clinton.” She just calls herself “Hillary.” Her signs say Hillary, even her website is titled simply “Hillary for President.” Her full name does not appear at all in her official online biography, and the word “Clinton” only appears once, when it mentions the man she married. Even in major position papers, she does not use her own last name. “If the Bush administration won’t, as president and commander in chief, Hillary will end this war” reads her position on Iraq.

And avoid the fights you cannot win. Halo 3 recently sold more than $170 million dollars worth of games in its first day of sales. Strangely, you hear little objection from the usual people who are upset about violent video games. People like Hillary [Clinton], State Senator Leland Yee, and even Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Why? They’re not saying, but I have to believe it’s easier to complain publicly about obscure games that sell few copies than it is to take on the most popular piece of entertainment in the history of entertainment – bigger first day sales than the world’s most popular movie, Spiderman, bigger first day sales than the the world’s most popular modern novel, Harry Potter. The public has let its opinion of the Mature rated Halo 3 be known – it likes it. Yee, Schwarzenegger and [Clinton] may simply know its not a winnable fight.

Rules for Radicals is good for PR folks, for journalists, writers, political operatives (obviously) and anyone else who likes a good argument. It’s out of print, but you can still find copies on

Scott McGrew
NBC11 Business & Tech Reporter


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