Thursday, June 2, 2011

Speaking Science: Practice out loud with others to sharpen persuasion skills

Putting across your point of view persuasively is a critical factor in eloquent speaking, whether you're giving a keynote or presenting new ideas to your boss and colleagues in a meeting or conference call. And according to two Columbia University education researchers, practicing out loud with others--in mock Q-and-A sessions or debates--might be the best way to sharpen your persuasive reasoning skills, all the more reason to build time into your prep for out-loud practice sessions.

When Deanna Kuhn and Amanda Crowell studied ways to build these skills among middle-school students, they took two different approaches over the course of a three-year program. One group of students developed their persuasive stance on controversial issues—from euthanasia to the juvenile court system—in a traditional way, writing several essays and participating in teacher-led discussions of the topics.

The second group of students built their persuasive arguments through dialogue—a lot of it. They hashed out the issues with their fellow students using chat software, moving through multiple rounds of debate with peers who agreed and disagreed with their stance. The intensive dialogue ended with a whole-class debate on each topic.

The result? The students who talked it out were much more persuasive when it came time to write an essay on a new topic, despite having less writing practice than the traditional group.  Too often, Kuhn and Crowell say, students see these essays as an exercise in stringing together a set of statements rather than a conversation with a specific audience. The chat group in their study probably sharpened their persuasive skills as a result of having audiences who challenged and broadened their point of view in real time, they suggest.

Most students don’t come to middle school with these skills, Crowell emphasized. Adults need to practice them, too, she says, since these aren't skills you will pick up naturally as you get older. She said many adults still lack “an understanding that while the world is uncertain and people disagree, you can still take a position, support it with evidence, and attempt to steer the world in the direction that would make it a better place. We want to move them to that place earlier,” she said, “so that as they encounter issues that they care about they will engage them in a sophisticated manner rather than just shrugging their shoulders and hoping for the best.”

(Freelance writer Becky Ham reports and writes our Speaking Science series.)

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