The Surprising Strategy to Winning any Argument
The surprising—and winning—strategy to making persuasive points in any argument
There is no bigger current affairs show on British television than the BBC’s Question Time. For more than 40 years, millions have tuned in week after week to watch the country’s leading politicians and pundits argue and debate the news in front of a live studio audience.
In January 2015, I was invited to join the Question Time panel. It was the week after the Charlie Hebdo terror attack, in which two French Muslim brothers had murdered 12 people at the offices of the satirical newspaper in Paris. In the weeks and months running up to the attack, offensive and racist cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published by Charlie Hebdo had caused outrage and protests across Muslim-majority countries.
I knew the show’s producers were keen to have a Muslim voice on the panel—and, to be honest, I was keen to be that voice. In fact, I was beyond grateful to have access to such a huge media platform from which to try and push back against the usual Islamophobia that is unleashed in the wake of every ISIS- or al-Qaeda–linked terror attack. But I knew it wouldn’t be easy, and I knew I had to do it with a light touch.
That night, the opening question from the audience was about the violence in Paris and the Charlie Hebdo cartoons: “Free speech is good, but where do you draw the line before it becomes harmful and offensive?” And, for the opening response, host David Dimbleby handed the stage over to me.
I began by making clear that I was appalled—by the massacre in Paris, by homicidal maniacs abusing my religion to justify their crimes.
“As a Muslim, I’m not going to pretend that depictions of the Prophet Muhammad in a very racialized, sexualized, even terroristic way don’t offend me. Clearly, they do. Why wouldn’t they? But as a Muslim, I also have to say, what offends me, what outrages me much, much more is the spilling of innocent blood in the name of Islam, in the name of my religion, and in the name of my Prophet.” Then I pivoted to the broader issue of free speech and the right to offend. Much of the debate in the news at the time concerned whether other media organizations in the West, including in the UK, should also be publishing offensive cartoons of the Prophet, in the name of “free speech” and in “solidarity” with Charlie Hebdo. I thought it was a bizarre argument. Why should we be offending the world’s Muslims again and again to score a point against a bunch of dead terrorists? But it was a sensitive subject, innocents had been killed, and I decided to use humour to try and push back against that line of argument.
“On the specific question of free speech ... we do have limits on free speech. Some people have been acting over the last week as if there is an absolute, untrammelled right to say whatever you like, whenever you like. That’s not true. There are legal limits and there are moral limits. Forget things we ban. There are things we just don’t say out of taste, out of decency. Sorry to be crude, but you have the right to fart in a crowded lift; you just don’t do it, though, do you? And when you do it, and if somebody attacks you for it, that attack is outrageous, but you don’t expect everybody else in the lift to fart in solidarity with you.”
I admit, it was a risky joke to make. But the audience erupted in laughter and applause. I believe I may in fact have been the first person—and probably also the last!— to say “fart” on-air in the history of Question Time. But that light-hearted analogy, first coined by journa-list Gary Younge, allowed me to make a key point about limits on free speech—and it became a moment that everyone would remember in an otherwise very serious discussion that night.
Laughter, as the old saying goes, is the best medicine. But it’s also one of the best ways to win an argument, one of the crucial ingredients of a good speech, and one of the few rhetorical strategies that an audience will always appreciate. So make them laugh. And don’t be afraid to lighten the mood. In my experience, humour serves three purposes in a speech or debate:
Punch Lines Build Rapport
“If I can get you to laugh with me,” the British comedian and actor John Cleese once remarked, “you like me better, which makes you more open to my ideas.” Being funny is one of the “best ways to connect” with, and win over, an audience. When you’re making people laugh, you’re making a connection with them—regardless of whether they share your age or gender ... or even your politics! A laughing audience—whether it’s a few people or a few hundred people—is also a relaxed audience. It’s an audience that’s not just paying attention but much more willing to hear you out and also take your side. Think about it: if they’re laughing and enjoying what you’re saying, they can’t also be annoyed by you and disagreeing with what you’re saying. Remember: the audience wants to see you have a sense of humour, a lighter side, a human side, because that’s how they connect with you. Plus, here’s one other point to consider, says media trainer TJ Walker: if they’re laughing or smiling it also means they’re not bored or snoozing; they’re not on their phones or checking their email. They’re sitting up, they’re “paying attention,” they’re engaged. By you.
Levity Lightens the Mood
Yes, I know it may sound odd: Why would you use humour to deal with serious stuff? Isn’t humour only for lighter topics? Well, no, not necessarily. Sometimes, if you do it right, as I did on Question Time in 2015, then humour can help you make your point even in the midst of the most sombre, weighty, and important settings. There are times when you’ll have to give a speech on or debate an issue that requires you to present contentious or provocative ideas to your audience. Sometimes your audience will come in with a less- than-open mind. How do you go about opening their minds? Using wit and humour allows you to present contentious ideas in a way that doesn’t come across as threatening or jarring. A good joke is like a key; it can open a mind that’s deadbolted shut, prompting people to consider ideas that they’d never have considered if they were delivered more somberly. One of my favourite quotes, often attributed to Oscar Wilde, says: “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.” Laughter can help deflect or disarm tough questions from your opponent—and even from the crowd. And, yes, it can help you get your (very serious) argument across in a way that really resonates.
Laughter Hurts Like Nothing Else
Don’t be afraid to make fun of your opponent or their arguments. In 2020, I did it to the hard-right British news-paper columnist Melanie Phillips, who has been accused of making homo-phobic remarks throughout her career (which she, of course, denies). In an Intelligence Squared debate in London with me on Zionism and anti-Semitism, Phillips—the arch-conservative, the champion of “family values”—tried to defend Israel from criticism by bragging about how pro-gay that country is. Oh, the chutzpah! So here’s how I began my remarks in London that night.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we have been witnessing tonight a deeply cynical proposition deliver a farrago of strawmen, distortions, deflections, false accusations, and of course straight-up pro-Israel propaganda. Then again, hearing Melanie Phillips come here and champion the rights of gays in Israel in order to defend Zionism was well worth the entry ticket in and of itself.”
It got a good laugh— but it also served as a powerful reminder to the audience in the hall just how shameless and hypocritical the other side was. To be clear: you have to be careful in such situations. You must be absolutely sure that your joke at the other person’s expense will be effective. If it isn’t, then you are the one who could end up looking ridiculous! Still, in my view, it is often worth the risk because, in my experience, a good gag about your opponent is worth its weight in gold. You have to deliver it with confidence, though. Most professional stand-up comedians would agree that the combination of confident delivery and stage presence helps them get laughs in a way that lesser mortals might struggle to do. To sum things up, humour can help you build a rapport with the audience, tackle a serious subject, and take down an opponent. You have to be careful, however, and prepared. As the ancient Roman rhetorician and educator Quintilian once put it, “Humour is risky, since wit is so close to twit.”
Excerpted with permissions from Win Every Argument: The Art of Debating, Persuading and Public Speaking, by Mehdi Hasan, Pan Macmillan, March 2023
To read RD's interview with Mehdi Hasan, click here