I recently participated in an online discussion concerning a very contentious public matter. It involved a labor dispute in a town that I have ties to. In order to gain a better understanding of the labor dispute, I took it upon myself to read statements that both sides had issued.
The statements from "Side A" were extremely factual and free of hyperbole. "Side B's" statements were devoid of factual information and full of hyperbole, if not borderline ad hominem attacks. Presented with these two forms of expository writing, it was clear who was winning the debate - whether or not they should have been winning the debate.
Here are just a couple of tips that people need to keep in mind when they are advocating a position:
1) You need facts. Find some. Even if you don't have the most facts in support of your argument, you need to find some facts that do. Assuming the dispute is not over well-settled scientific laws, there are facts out there that can be developed on both sides of an argument.
2) If the other side has facts, you need facts to rebut their position. You will never win a debate if you merely make general accusations about your opponent's facts. Merely stating that your opponent's facts are "misleading" or "biased" does nothing to educate the audience. Come back with your own facts that demonstrate why they are misleading. If you are unable to do so, your audience will quickly think that you are not being truthful.
2) Don't lie. If you lie, you lose credibility over much more than the lie itself. Why should your audience believe anything else you say? You must be more trustworthy than your opponent. You will never be more trustworthy if you infuse lies into your argument. Sometimes people do not intend to lie but are nonetheless wrong. If you learn that you are wrong, don't be embarrassed. Fix it. Relish in the fact that you set the record straight once you learned that you were mistaken. If you do so, you are more trustworthy than before you made the mistake. The person listening to your argument knows that you truly care about speaking the truth. They will have this in mind when they listen to whatever else you have to say.
3) Attack the points that matter. Attacking everything under the sun makes you appear confused and desperate. Attacking matters that are irrelevant to the actual controversy suggests that you can't actually attack relevant points. Fire straight shots from a cannon. Don't fire lots of small ammo in all sorts of directions.
4) There is nothing wrong with appealing to emotion, if you have previously developed a factual basis. Just because you care deeply about something does not mean that other people must care as deeply. Facts decide, not you. Don't appear to be arrogant or patronizing. If you haven't developed a factual argument, adding emotion is like trying to build a house without laying the foundation. It won't hold.
5) Take the high road. Ad hominem attacks are the strategy of the weak. If you are right, you aren't afraid. If you appear to be afraid, you appear to be wrong.
6) Don't attack a portion of an argument in which you are beat. In court, arguments are generally comprised of many elements. A skilled debater can identify where they are beat. They don't blindly advocate a position. If you are beat on one element, move on. Why give the other side the pleasure of watching you sink? To win in court you (generally) just need a slightly more persuasive argument than the other side. So relax. It's okay if you don't have every little thing on your side. Move the attention quickly to matters that you give you an advantage.
What's sad to me is that, in the matter that I was following, "Side B" had my sympathy coming into things. Nonetheless, their debating tactics pushed me away from their side. Poor advocacy skills can have a very detrimental result. I've just seen this first-hand.