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How to win an argument like Justice Antonin Scalia

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia knows a good argument when he hears one.

In his new book, Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges, Scalia and co-author Bryan Garner share advice that applies not only to lawyers, but to any professional trying to get their point across.

Scalia spoke Wednesday morning at the Northern Virginia Technology Council’s Titans event, and shared 11 of the more important points he makes in the book, as well as some commentary on them:

Know your audience: “As I told you, I’m not going to talk about the lawyer parts of my book because I know my audience, and you’re not mostly lawyers. But knowing your audience applies to anybody,” Scalia said. “It’s important to know who you’re talking to,” he added. Otherwise, you run the risk of having what you're saying fall on uninterested ears.

Know your case: “You will never persuade somebody when you display in your presentation that you don’t know any more about the subject than they do,” Scalia said. While doing this, however, it's important not to be a snob about it, which is another point Scalia makes.

Never overstate your case: “When you exaggerate, it’s the easiest way to lose your credibility,” Scalia said. This is also very easy to do, so be wary.

Lead with your strongest point: “Put your big gun up front,” Scalia said.

Never begin or end an argument with rebuttal; keep that in the middle: “If you begin your argument that way, you appear excessively defensive, and if you end the argument that way, the last thing ringing in the decider’s ears is the other person’s argument,” Scalia said.

Don’t make complicated arguments

Concentrate your arguments: “Machine arguments are never persuasive,” Scalia said.

Treat your audience as respectful, intellectual equals

Control the semantic playing field: “Consider American Airlines. Some lawyers would who have represented the company have called them AA in their briefs, perhaps as a space saver. That passes up an opportunity for some little reinforcement. If American Airlines is your client, you have the opportunity to call your client American,” Scalia said. Unless this is an international case, the people who are listening to your argument are American, he added.

The final two points are more about written arguments, but are still important.

Be clear and concise

Don’t use hackneyed language

About the Author

Mark Hoover is a senior staff writer with Washington Technology. You can contact him at mhoover@washingtontechnology.com, or connect with him on Twitter at @mhooverWT.

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