Anatomy of an argument: Fact or fake news?

By Leonard Hennessy
Separate fact from fiction with critical listening.
Separate fact from fiction with critical listening.
You can’t believe everything you hear, right? It’s no joke. But fiction only becomes dangerous when it is developed as an organization’s side of the story intended to distort the public’s understanding or even the record of facts.

     Every organization, government, company or religious institution presents an accounting of events meant to paint itself in the best possible light. Politicians do it too. But how do you know what's true and what isn't? How can you tell if you are hearing fake news?
     Let’s assume that every speech or written word that an organization makes in public is its argument. It is what the organization wants the public to know and believe. By listening critically and taking a moment to deconstruct that argument, we can better understand the motivation behind an organization’s public statement and scrutinize that organization in the process. 
     We can approach critical listening by recognizing the underlying structure of argument, identifying a stated objective and working backward from that objective to derive a true objective. In other words, we will deconstruct the argument -- separating what is said from what is meant
     To understand, let's imagine there is a company called NotReal Tech Inc.
     NotReal is a multibillion-dollar corporation that produces technology to increase farming productivity. The firm has been around for 35 years, is in 48 countries and has U.S. employees in San Francisco, Kansas City and Omaha. It has solid working relationships with host governments, and the company's stock is rising. For years, it has cultivated an image of altruistic forward thinking. 
     Even so, their last CEO left amid undercurrents of financial scandal. The new CEO was hired from the sports beverage industry. And recently, the firm has had issues interacting with representatives of another country.  

      The overarching narrative
      Each part of a prepared speech, essay or press release is structured to maintain a consistent and overarching image. This defines the identity of public figures or organizations and offers insight into how they operate. In both government and industry, it is referred to as the narrative
       In high school or the first year of college, most of us encountered the standard formula for essay writing: x=y because of a, b and c. In short: x=y is what an organization's representatives claim in public. It’s their side of the story. They back up that claim by then saying, "It is so because of these three reasons, a, b and c.” 
     And that’s it. Sure, there’s an introduction and a conclusion for the more formal stuff, but that formula is the fundamental format of how laws are made, societies’ values are realized, mass opinions are swayed and con artists convince their followers that they’re right -- at least for a little while. 
     But you know those two or three main supporting arguments I mentioned? They aren't always strong or even factual. In some cases, weak arguments are made using the public's perceptions and fears. To understand, think about a time when someone you know became upset in an attempt to win your sympathy. Soliciting an emotional response is the weakest way to support an argument.
      Now, back to our example: NotReal has had a good year and is looking at continued stock gains in the second fiscal quarter. But last month a deal with a partner company fell through when that firm unexpectedly went bankrupt. NotReal’s stock took a hit, but was on the verge of a rebound when the new CEO appeared on a cable news program and made a bewildering statement about U.S. trade policy -- "Our country should pull out of all trade deals with Ireland."
      Within a minute, that quote had gone viral on Twitter. Within five minutes, the firm's stock began to sink. Two hours later the CEO’s verbal misstep had been replayed dozens of times on cable channels.
      Later that day, the company's public affairs department clarified the CEO’s statements, explaining that what he meant to say was not what he said!
      But there's more.The press release also said the CEO was committed to ensuring that government representatives in Spain were satisfied that their domestic companies would be well-supported by NotReal's agricultural products.
      This dovetails with the firm's narrative that NotReal is altruistic and progressive. It is also Damage Control 101. The press release is shifting the audience’s attention to government representatives in Spain. Consider that Spain has nothing to do with the original flub on trade policy.
       Even so, the stock is no longer plunging and the company has changed the subject.

      Deconstructing an argument
      So here’s what I consider to be the most essential part of the critical listening: identifying what the organization wants you to know. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? All you have to do is listen. It is often the first major point.
       But don't just listen, listen critically. An organization's public statements offer clues about its values, how it operates and whether it is worthy of public support.
       NotReal’s press release offered a revised set of comments clarifying what the CEO meant. But this version of the CEO's statement was not even close to what he said. 
       What the firm wants its audience to believe is that NotReal's leadership is competent and has a solid understanding of how U.S. trade policy works. This fits into an overarching narrative that the firm is worthy of the public’s trust.
       The other side of that coin is that in the future the public may suspect that these press statements are hiding lies.

      Fact or fiction?
      Think about the structure of the organization’s argument: the one main point with two or three supporting statements. Remove any one of the supporting points and ask yourself if the argument is still valid.
      You may find that the primary message is the only crucial point.
      So, what about the other one or two reasons the organization has for delivering this statement? It could be that the one point is the only thing it wants the audience to remember. The organization using it as a lever to shift beliefs in a particular direction.
      Why do organizations go through the effort to shape and reshape public perception? Why are they constantly polishing their narrative -- and supporting it with either facts or lies?
       A few years ago, I retired from a military career and became an actor. For any scene, an actor should be thinking: What’s my motivation? It’s a useful question particularly if you are trying to deliver an authentic performance for a good script or screenplay. For just a moment, imagine yourself as the head of an organization that has put out a statement. Think of it within the context of that organization’s overarching narrative. What is its motivation?
     Three big answers are money, power and influence. 
     Recall the types of organizations I mentioned in the first section: governments, companies, religious institutions, etc.  Money, power and influence could drive any of them to a level of desperation so great that they would lie in a heartbeat -- even to an audience of devoted constituents.
      So, what was the motivation for NotReal's press release?  First and foremost, to keep its stock from plunging (money). Secondly, to assure its partners and foreign government representatives that their business dealings would be competently conducted (power and influence).

      Back to you
      If you don't like a speaker, you are more likely to spot inconsistencies in the person's arguments. But if you do like speaker, you should still listen critically.
      The strong and weak passages of a speaker's argument reveal his or her intentions. Polished public speakers will sound like they believe what they are saying. Their goal is to get the audience to believe it as well. And that brings this conversation back to you, the listener. Your piece in the equation is critical listening. 
      Is their argument well-supported? If not, either they don’t care or they don’t have anything valid to say! If they don’t care what they’re saying, they’re not worth hearing. If they don’t have anything more powerful, they want something else from you.
      And they may be trying to deceive you.

      Leonard Hennessy is a retired naval officer, freelance writer and actor.


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