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Evil oratory – how to beat knock-out arguments

There are countless knock-out arguments. Sometimes people use them on us, sometimes we get to make them. Today we would like to focus on how to get better at wielding them. If you can recognize your opponent’s intentions early, if you can recognize “the signs”, you will be better equipped to do so. All the different types can be found in every society—among men and women.

1. The ignoramus

The Latin term “ignorare” refers to someone who is limited in knowledge. At some points in history it was seen as desirable to be part of the proletariat. The term no longer has any positive connotations. “The proletariat” tends to refer to uneducated populists. Their communication is marked by poor grammar. Their approach to life is a lot like driving: either they turn left or right, or they drive straight on ahead. Simple, right? They love telling people about their life formulas, offering little tips for how to be successful. Their down-to-earth decision making skills stand them in good stead in humdrum matters—even if the foundation of their worldview is shaky at best. They rarely put a foot onto philosophical grey zones. Instead, more often than not, they can be found with their buddies, listening to loud music in a parked car. Ignoramuses make no secret of the fact that they see little value in introspection.

“You tell me why I should discuss this with management? They don’t even care about what we do? Are you really so naïve as to believe that?”

2. The divider

On the opposite end, linguistically speaking, we have the divider. You need to be intellectually engaged and well informed to be able to subtly divide people and their opinions. Like a fox, the divider lies in wait, hoping for just the right moment in which to snag their opponent and make unexpected arguments. These argumentative opponents are experienced speakers—which makes them particularly dangerous. Before you know it the discourse will have become aggressive and the consensus lost. Dividers pretend to be interested in a compromise, but that is a ruse. Their communication serves only their vanity. The discord they create is completely intentional. Harmonizers who are present tend to avoid a disagreement while dividers feel right at home in its company. They love to disrupt and confuse everyone concerned. That’s why they love posing killer questions that strike at your conscience.

“You need to be decisive. Are you sure you really want to win this segment of the market at any cost?”

Killer questions defending yourself against them is not easy

Killer questions defending yourself against them is not easy

3. The chatterboxes

In contrast to the dividers, the chatterboxes don’t say what they mean, they love talking around an issue. Their voice sounds helpful, but it is much too loud. Convoluted sentences, side anecdotes and storytelling gimmicks are the rich linguistic resources they use to convey their impoverished content. Some of them are even charming flatterers who use compliments to throw rose petals at their opponents’ feet. In fact, it can be damaging to your image to be introduced by someone like this, someone who paves your path with sugary, vacuous verbiage. A clear “yes” or “no” rarely come out of their mouths. They perennially say things like: “Well, it depends…” and “I wouldn’t put it that way”. Chatterboxes are relativists. They never publically state their position on anything—they are born opportunists who live by the motto: “You wash my back, I’ll wash yours”. They prefer to keep all their options open while promising the world to everyone. They love being the center of attention. Their “look at me” attitude tends to destroy the mood.

“I agree, it reminds me of my last project team, which was spread across three countries. I can definitely say blah blah…”

4. The diva

The diva lives up to her title, and not just in discussions. These women’s voices are often much too high in everyday life. They tend to be very touchy and have a strong literal interpretation of everything. They are insecure and come from simple backgrounds, having fought their way to the top by pulling themselves up with their own bootstraps. Some of them went to University, which they never get tired of mentioning. Understatements are rare among them. She tends to ask tactless questions to disconcert her opponents. Humor can be used, particularly successfully by men, to lure the diva out of her inquisitor position. She looks for any opportunity to get special treatment in order to be the center of attention. She is ever eager to correct everyone, although no-one at the table would ever honestly believe that she is the smartest person in the room. People tend to identify her as ambitious, as indicated by the fact that she is always talking. Her permanent complaining, her incessant fidgeting and her inane texting are very annoying. Her prada shoes and admittedly attractive body cannot make up for any of her faults. She is not very likeable and her sense of humor is all but absent. Beware of her killer questions. They mean business. If you agree with her she will misquote you at the earliest opportunity. If you refuse to comment she will interpret that as disloyalty. Her seemingly harmless rhetoric is barbed and poisonous.

“Do you like the atmosphere here? I mean, we are paying € 3,000 for the evening. I would hope my company would get more for its money. Don’t you agree?”

5. The innocent

This person seems to be neat, well-behaved and boring. The only thing keeping him from becoming a divider is his own boring personality. He is a simple techno/bureaucrat, concerned only with his own little world, pretending to be more interesting than he really is. Since this can’t be disproved in the normal business world he usually gets away with it. His language is listless and vapid, except for one aspect: He loves to state contradictions and to make serious problems seem innocent. “Well, I didn’t think it was that bad,” he might say. Even though he makes few contributions himself he is eager to make life difficult for everyone else by disrupting the discourse. He does not enter the conversation to move it along or to add value. No no, the innocent interrupts to make irrelevant points. This helps him seem neutral and objective, which he visibly enjoys. In reality he creates communication barriers that he expects everyone else to deal with to get the conversation going again, while he stoically retracts himself and observes the chaos from behind a crooked smile. He is a true grouch who, in contrast to the diva, cannot even muster the energy to be contrary. So he has specialized in interrupting discussions instead of firing off content torpedoes. He likes to ask questions, requesting information that neither moves the discussion along nor adds to the group’s general knowledge. His comments are totally forgettable and hollow.

“You are exaggerating again. You told me you need two weeks to complete the changes. But according to your own statement it turns out to be three weeks. The new adaptations were not that difficult, especially considering that the features offer benefits.”


You will encounter all sorts of characters within a short time during a project—none of whom will have been chosen by you. Those who can adapt to new people are at a clear advantage. They should also avoid the following:

  • Justifications: if your opponent manages to get us to justify ourselves in order to save face, then he has already won the verbal battle, especially when coram publico is involved, e.g. in meetings.
  • Non-reactions: Those who do not react to killer phrases make it clear to everyone that it is okay to treat them that way. Bad idea. Instead ask: “Why exactly?”
  • Adding fuel to the fire: We tend to identify with likeable people. Sometimes this means being the kind of person who can stay relaxed under pressure, not resorting to counter-attacks. De-escalation is what is needed.

Tatjana Lackner trains leaders and top-level international firms. She founded the SCHULE DES SPRECHENS in Vienna, a training academy for radio and television moderators. She made a name for herself in the daily newspaper DER STANDARD, analyzing the rhetoric of Austrian politicians. As a leader she supplies her 46 trainers with fresh perspectives on a regular basis in addition to co-authoring books and CDs. She received the award “best young entrepreneur” in her youth. The public speaking strategist works as a sub-editor at universities. She also regularly gets booked as a keynote speaker at events.

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