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A Summer Challenge: Let Your Voice Ring Out: Writing a Persuasive Piece Today.

Authored By: 
Ian Rusten, History Teacher

In the age of selfies and 140 character social media posts, is the art of persuasive oration dead? Can a hashtag win the 2016 election? Do we want more than a soundbite? Sure, we can state our opinion, “I like (particular candidate),” but do we remember how to provide a reason for our claim and how to back up that claim with relevant evidence?

Persuasion is the act of convincing someone to do or believe in something. Historically, orators such as Socrates, Winston Churchill, Frederick Douglass, John F. Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. worried not just about creating a speech with a single sentence to be repeated again and again on MSNBC, but wrote speeches and essays and articles with a message and a goal of convincing others to support their message. Images, too, have been powerfully manipulated or used to persuade the public. Think of the images of soldiers returning home in coffins and children decimated by Agent Orange which profoundly affected many Americans sitting at home watching their new televisions and reading their daily newspapers.

Look at the Lincoln-Douglas debates or the Federalist Papers; would they been written or orated today or would they have been condensed into a one page document posted on Facebook for the world to see and reposted with a snappy tidbit? The Lincoln-Douglas debates were a series of formal political debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858 as they campaigned for a senatorial seat in Illinois.  One candidate was selected to go first and he spoke for one hour.  The second candidate then spoke for an hour, which was finally followed by a half-hour rebuttal from the first speaker. This is quite a different framework than our current political debates. But as a nation, would we today have the attention span for a debate in this format? 

Similarly, at the inception of this nation, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay worked together to produce a collection of 85 essays and articles, coined “The Federalist Papers,” supporting the ratification of the Constitution. These papers, all with one purpose, carefully and slowly laid out a critical argument in support of the Constitution. They provided reasons, evidence to support their reasoning, and addressed the concerns of their opponents. Would a newspaper today publish a similar series of persuasive pieces all with one purpose?

Why does it matter? Can’t we just post a picture of a political candidate add a #threewordhashtag and call it a day? The art of oration, of persuasion is at the root of democracy.  It’s a vital part of active citizenship.

I want to challenge you this summer to have your voice heard. But do more than shout, persuade! Find an issue, do some research, choose an argument, write a blog post or editorial or speech to express your viewpoint.

Take the time to choose an issue that is important to you (say the election of 2016, or a recent law, or Supreme Court decision, or a local issue of importance to your community).

Consider the following questions as you write a persuasive piece:

·      What is the issue?

·      What is your point of view toward the issue?

·      Is there credible evidence to support your point of view? Where would you find it?

·      Is there a counterargument? If so, what is it? How can you refute it?

·      Who is your intended audience? What type of piece will you write (ex: speech, editorial, blog post)?

·      How are you going to persuade your audience to agree with you?

I challenge you, members of the Selfie-Generation, to turn the camera around again. Look outside yourselves, choose an issue, and let your voice ring out! 

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