Gimme An Example

How can we prove that something is true and the importance of telling your story the right way?

The Questions That Stem From an Argument

When you make an argument, there is an important question that naturally stems from it. People will ask themselves ‘is this true.’ For example, if someone said that we should keep our cats indoors to protect the cerulean warbler bird, we have to prove keeping their cats indoors would actually have an effect on the bird population. 

Typically, when we say something it is an assertion. For example, me saying that ‘keeping Bobby, your cat, indoors would save the birds’ is an assertion. However, to prove that it is true, I would need to provide evidence, either in an exemplar or a statistical form. For example, if I then said that 2.4 billion birds were killed by free roaming cats alone in the US last year[2] and Bobby snacked on my canary, I could prove that my argument is true. 

Level of Detail

Fundamentally, when you’re giving an example, you are telling a story.

One of the things that’s important to think about when it comes to examples is your level of detail. If you use too little detail, your audience won’t have an emotional attachment to the unfortunate soul of the story or the story might not seem credible. However, if you use too much detail, the person you’re trying to convince might lose interest.

You want to balance your examples to make them both credible and compelling. 

A good rule of thumb on this is to include two non-relative details along with each credible one. At the beginning of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, King says “five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.”[3] The same thing would be achieved by the simple sentence that ‘a great American signed the Emancipation Proclamation.’ However, the 2 tangential details, namely that it happened “five score years ago” and that the speech is happening in the shadow of the great man’s statue make the fact seem more authentic and personable.

Continuation of Example

If you’re telling multiple different stories across an argument to prove your points, it can be hard to find the time to introduce each character individually. As a result, many strong orators will use a threaded example throughout their argument.

This is something we try to do at Kinnu too. For example, if you take our Macroeconomics Pathway, you might be able to learn about Jimmy, who eats pies. Throughout different teaching points about Aggregate Supply and Demand, Jimmy is continuously referred to. Perhaps Jimmy has won the lottery and it will mean that he can buy more pies. Or, alternatively, if Jimmy has fallen into poverty then the pie industry might take a dip. As a result, the connection you make to Jimmy can be successfully sustained. You don’t need to reintroduce a character every time you’re adding a layer of complexity to the same generic idea.

When to Use a Personal Anecdote

Sometimes, it can be even better to use a personal anecdote. This helps to build the Aristotelian value of Ethos, which is the credibility of the speaker. By stating that you suffer from the same problem, you can build relatability and trustworthiness.

For example, in 1952, Vice Presidential candidate Richard Nixon was accused of taking political donations and using them for personal expenses. In his defense speech, he continuously referred back to the story of his life and the life of his family. By talking about his challenge in getting a mortgage and affording insurance, he was able to relate to an American audience struggling to balance their own familial books. As a result, he was able to make himself seem relatable.

Personal anecdotes are particularly good examples in cases where an audience member might be suspicious of the speaker’s motives, such as with Nixon’s funding, or their authenticity, like with a major political figure taking a sudden interest in environmentalism.

What Kinds of Personal Anecdote to Tell

When telling a personal anecdote, it can be difficult to strike the right emotional balance. While you hope that the level of detail associated will allow the audience to feel an immediate emotive connection, telling it also requires the example to apply universally so your audience can draw meaningful conclusions from it.

For example, if you’re telling a story about the time you won the lottery and the difficulty with finding things to spend the money on, you are unlikely to receive much sympathy from your audience. In short, they will struggle to find your anecdote relatable and, as a result, they won’t find the conclusions drawn from it to be applicable to their lives.

As a result, when telling a personal anecdote, it is important to ground it in your audience’s personal experiences. Try to think of anecdotes which will be relatable to other people – if talking to a family, it is much better to say that the idea struck you at the family dinner table over a pizza than to say you had it while skydiving in Buenos Aires. Even if what you are talking about is unusual, try to pepper it with details showing the normality of other parts of your life situation.

Should I use Names?

When telling a story, another big example is whether to use the names associated with your examples. Should you mention that it was Hugh who dropped the coin? Or should you just say that a friend of yours dropped it?

On the one hand, a frequent use of names can make an example seem more real and easy to relate to. On the other hand, adding a specific name can detract from the universality of the example’s applicability – sometimes it is better to remember that this is something that could happen to everyone.

Often, when it comes to the questions of whether to use names as part of an example, you will want to consider what the point of your example is. Are you trying to argue that this is a specific problem that applies to specific people or a generalized one? For example, if you are campaigning for people with Multiple Sclerosis, it might be better to use a named example because it will allow people to feel more compassionate toward the emotive case study. However, if you are talking about how climate change is going to hurt your grandchildren, it might be better to use generic terms.

Showing Examples are Representative

Another problem with examples is showing that they are representative. Often, the reason why you would tell a story is because it is more emotionally powerful than a statistic. It is easier to care about Johnny, an 85-year-old who loves dinosaurs, who is dying alone and afraid because of a lack of healthcare insurance provision than it is to imagine 55,000 patients. This is because, when it comes to pathos, or the emotional component of an argument, the human mind is only capable of caring about the number of people it can visualize. In fact, the British psychologist Robin Dunbar has proposed that the human mind is only capable of caring about 150 people at any given time[5] and being emotionally stable.

However, this opens up the criticism of an example being an isolated incident. How do we know that Johnny isn’t just 1 unfortunate case? After all, it’s impossible for the government to care about everyone, all of the time.

As a result, it is important to contextualize the number of people affected by something. If you say that there are 50,000 different Johnny’s, and all that would be needed to save all of them is a dollar from each person in the US, then suddenly the policy seems very reasonable. Often, statistics are needed to show the relatability of examples.

Making Examples Memorable

Another important aspect of using examples is making them memorable. Sure, you might decide that you care about Johnny when his mother is making a passionate speech in some convention center, but what about later? What will make you donate or vote when you go home? How can the example stay in your head and sink in?

Well, often the devil is in the details.

If you are talking about someone who is selling something at the market to demonstrate price inflation, it is much better to use kiwis or aubergines than apples and oranges. The reason for this is that the unusual nature of the fruits you’ve chosen will stick in people’s heads. When appropriate, use examples that are both accessible but also memorable. However, you also need to be careful not to be too outlandish, or you’ll end up distracting your reader from the point you’re trying to make.

Disproving Counter-Examples

When having an argument, it is often the case that you’re not going to be the only person giving arguments and using examples. In fact, often you’ll be faced with examples of your opponents, which you’ll want to discredit.

Unsurprisingly, the grounds for disproving an example are often similar to the things you have to think about when making it. The 2 things you can think about are firstly whether an example is applicable to all situations, or whether it’s just an isolated case. For example, imagine that you’re having an argument with your brother about what to order for dinner. He’s said that a couple weeks ago that the burrito place you like delivered the food cold. However, he neglected to mention that you’ve ordered thousands of times from the same place before and have never had the problem before.

Proving that an example is not representative is a great way of reducing its importance for the audience.

Co-Opting Counter-Examples

The second thing to think about is looking into the wider context behind the example and deciding whether there are any factors that your opponent has neglected to mention.

For example, again imagine that you’re having an argument with your brother about what to order for dinner. He recently mentioned that your favorite burrito place delivered the food cold a couple of months ago. However, he neglected to mention that, when it did, they offered a full refund. When you add that detail, it makes the place seem even more honorable and reliable, adding to its merits. Now, you’ve turned their example into your example.

In co-opting the counter-example, not only have you taken away evidence from your opponent but added it to yourself. As a result, co-opting case studies or examples can be a powerful tool when it comes to providing and arguing based on evidence.

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