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Style Over Substance

To qualify as a fallacy of this sort, an argument is rejected explicitly because its proponent is lacking in style and grace. “He was such a jerk. I couldn’t believe anything he said.” In this case we have a fallacy of irrelevance. The truth needn’t be pretty. As Edward R. Murrow observed, “Most truths are so naked that people feel sorry for them and cover them up, at least a little bit.” Most often, the persuasive power of style acts subtly, even subconsciously. A debater who is stumbling over his words, unorganized, unsure of himself, and “uuhming” repeatedly will struggle mightily to earn a fair hearing for his argument against an opponent whose words proceed effortlessly and mellifluously. A written argument filled with typos and grammatical errors loses credibility even if the argument, given a chance, is sound. Often we grant implicit trust to a source who is attractive and seems to “have it together”. In such cases, great style, or the lack thereof, has the effect of predisposing us one way or the other to an argument that should be judged on its own merits.

  1. A Nivea Bodywash commercial shows a series of socially challenged adolescents commenting on their preferences in bodywash. The first remarks, "Dude, who uses a bodywash to get clean?" Another, "This won't increase my ability to mate." And yet another, standing behind his tricked-out economy car, "They need to feel me, they need to hear me, they need to see me. Above all they gotta smell me. You know, they need to be attracted somehow." Finally, a handsome, debonair thirtysomething beside his sleek black sedan, holding a bottle of Nivea Bodywash, says: "It doesn't dry your skin. It doesn't reek. Isn't that the point? It works for me." » Though there is some substance in this pitch — the moisturizer and subtle scent — style is clearly leveraged. Will you trust the goofy teenager or the real man?
  2. "Obama looked like I feel for the first few days after I get back from vacation: listless, too relaxed and wishing I was still on vacation. His mind was elsewhere. His answers were measured, thoughtful and nuanced — the only problem was this wasn't a crowd that was looking for nuance. They were looking for what McCain offered up: straight, concise and clear answers." (Joseph, "Saddleback: A Watershed Moment?" at, 2008.) » Though most commentators would probably agree that Obama bested McCain in terms of style throughout the subsequent campaign, in this early face-off many gave McCain the nod because his direct and assured answers connected with the audience and communicated a sense of experience and clarity of conviction. Unfortunately, much of the political commentary on television reinforces "style over substance", reducing to a discussion of style and rhetoric rather than a reasoned analysis of the logic and evidence of each candidate's argument.
  3. "There's no question that the most influential of all conspiracism related to the Kennedy shooting came late to the party — Oliver Stone's Oscar-winning 1991 film JFK. The most remarkable thing about this murky melodrama is that it manages to incorporate all of the above theories, and even more, in a confusing melding of fiction and fact served up with an aura of documentary truth. ... If we took the time to tear apart every deception, fib, whopper, misrepresentation, obfuscation, misdirection, or artful piece of propaganda, we'd all be here until Oprah gets cancelled." (Hodapp et al., Conspiracy Theories and Secret Societies for Dummies, p. 73.) » Note here how Stone's use of a pseudo-documentary cinematic style establishes a presumption of credibility.
  4. In Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, the viewer sees George Bush before a speech in the Oval Office, gazing blankly into the camera for what seems like an eternity while he waits for the "and action". Similarly, in Expelled, the viewer sees Richard Dawkins being "dolled up" for the camera before Ben Stein makes his entrance for their interview. In each case, the opponent is shown in an unflattering light to prejudice our attitudes toward what they represent. These devices recall analysis of the 1960 debate between Nixon and Kennedy. "Even as the debate was just underway, the hot light needed for the cameras cast Nixon as a nervous contestant with sweat pouring down his face. The contrast with the light hearted countenance of the Democratic candidate was not lost on the nation. Kennedy's optimistic smile won this aspect of the contest." (Saunders, "Five O'Clock Shadow" at, 2008.) Roger Ebert comments on the scene from Expelled: "As Stein goes to interview him for the last time, we see a makeup artist carefully patting on rouge and dusting Dawkins' face. After he is prepared and composed, after the shine has been taken off his nose, here comes plain, down-to-earth, workaday Ben Stein. So we get the vain Dawkins with his effete makeup, talking to the ordinary Joe." (Ebert, "Win Ben Stein's Mind" at Chicago Sun Times, 2008.) These filmmakers know all too well that the style of their subjects has an effect on the viewer's feelings toward them and take advantage of this human tendency to advance their point of view.
  5. "Moscovici suggested that there was nothing distinctive or compelling about the message of the early Christian minority... He argued that one could not plausibly attribute the ascendancy of this religion to '...the cognitive value of its doctrine.' Rather, ... it was the conviction, courage, and certainty — elements of behavioral style — with which these early advocates (and martyrs) expressed their faith that won converts. It was not what they said that explained their influence, it was how they said it." (Kerr, in Dreu et al., Group Consensus and Minority Influence, p. 201.) » Noting an effective style can be used to suggest that there needn't have been any substance, because the style itself was sufficient to persuade. That may or may not be, but in this instance, their "courage" and "conviction" does beg the question of whether there were substanstial grounds for such assurance.
  6. "The summit took place in a private chateau in Geneva. Mr. Reagan arrived first. As Mr. Gorbachev's limo pulled up, the president bounded down the stairs looking young and eager, without topcoat or hat. Slowly out of his car emerged Mr. Gorbachev, bundled for the brisk weather with big hat, thick scarf and huge overcoat. Compared to the sprightly man in his 70s, the Soviet leader looked as cold and lumbering as the country he ruled. After shaking hands and posing for the cameras, Mr. Reagan pointed at the chateau in a gesture of welcome. They climbed the stairs together, Mr. Gorbachev a bit slower, and Mr. Reagan slipped his hand under Gorbachev's arm — just in case he needed some support to make it to the front door. The Soviet delegation got the picture. 'I felt like we lost the game during this first movement,' pressmeister Sergei Tarasenko recounted years later. 'We started with the wrong move.' While Mr. Tarasenko watched with disappointment from one side, we watched with trepidation from the other. So far, so good; the president personified a vigorous and forward-looking America. But that was stagecraft. How would our man do on statecraft in the high-stakes summit sessions?" (Adelman, "Remembering Reagan" at
A winning style is a powerful tool of persuasion and should be taken seriously. The most straightforward response is simply to point out the irrelevance of style to truth. "No matter how you dress it up, this claim is either true or false." The goal is to help the audience see through the art of delivery to the substance of the argument.

Rhetorical Strategies

When an opponent exceeds you in manner and eloquence, several approaches can be helpful in keeping the substance of the argument preeminent. 1) One strategy is to disrobe their argument by distilling it to its naked premises and conclusion. "So what you're saying is, A..., B..., and therefore, C.... Does that really follow?" Using this strategy, a lack of eloquence can be an asset. 2) Often its worth acknowledging the rhetorical and stylistic prowess of an opponent, giving voice to the unspoken sentiments in the audience. "Wow! That was a poetic and moving speech. Three cheers for delivery. Now let's look more closely at the substance of your claim." 3) To underscore the irrelevance of style to truth, there is "old reliable". Because he is so often cited without due cause, and because some will understandably take offense at such an allusion, perhaps Hitler isn't the best example. However, though he is widely acknowledged to have been a charismatic and effective communicator, we almost universally regard the substance of his ideology as profoundly misguided, to say the least. Depending on the audience, a better example may be available. 4) A fourth strategy is to find an ally whose style equals that of your opponent's and have them make the case in your stead. That way, style itself will not win the day. If that's not feasible, quoting likeminded allies who have a better way with words may compensate for a lack of eloquence.

The Happy Marriage of Style and Substance

While style is no substitute for a sound argument, it can be its partner. In my work as a graphic designer, my tagline is: "Design is Credibility". The truth is that most any audience will judge you on style. In print and on the Web, the audience is likely to make a snap judgment as to whether a brochure or website is worth their time, and that judgment will most likely be made superficially. My pitch is that, if you think you have a good product, don't let a lack of professionalism in presentation prevent a potential customer from considering it. Likewise, if you are brusque or arrogant in a debate, the audience may disregard anything you have to say no matter its cogency. There is no shame, no betrayal of reason, in pursuing a winsome style when it is on behalf of what you consider a sound argument. Indeed, the shame is to fail to do everything in your power to ensure that a lack of style does not impede a good argument. When style is in service of substance, of truth, a happy marriage it is.
On the effect of television, reinforcing style over substance...
"The problems include limited access to mass media outlets afforded to some voices in our political process; 'sound bite' journalism that covers campaign strategy more than policy pronouncements and emphasizes conflict over consensus; and overreliance on the medium of television, the logic of which makes politics 'an activity of style over substance, image over reality, melodrama over analysis, belief over knowing, awareness over understanding.' The primary cause of these problems, [Robert] Denton argues, lies in 'contemporary news values.' As a business, the media must maintain high circulation (or ratings) in order to make a profit by selling advertising. The incentive to make the news entertaining is overwhelming. But information that is most useful in a democratic system may often be subtle and complex — boring, to some." (Nelson et al., Shades of Gray, p. 14.)
On changing style to retain a hearing for the substance...
"It has often been said that the last thirty years have been cursed by the triumph of style over substance. If that is the new reality, then psychologists are clearly at a disadvantage in the marketplace of ideas. We stand a chance of regaining some advantage by changing our style to better match the epistemologies of those not trained in our ways. If what we offer is truly substantial, it will easily survive a change in our style. If what we offer is not substantial, we have no business as a discipline." (Stam et al., The Analysis of Psychological Theory, p. 90.)
David Hume on the power of eloquence...
"Eloquence, when at its highest pitch, leaves little room for reason or reflection; but addressing itself entirely to the fancy or the affections, captivates the willing hearers, and subdues their understanding. Happily, this pitch it seldom attains. But what a Tully or a Demosthenes could scarcely effect over a Roman or Athenian audience, every Capuchin, every itinerant or stationary teacher can perform over the generality of mankind, and in a higher degree, by touching such gross and vulgar passions." (Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 1748.)
On Christopher Hitchens and taking one's own eloquence as vindication of one's ideas...
"It gets to a point, eventually, when you just love the way you can make ideas sound, are so impressed with the rhythm and authority, the impressiveness of expression that you can grant to all your thoughts, and the effortlessness with which your thoughts seem to organize themselves, that you just think in overpowering publishable sentences and circumvent the process of checks and balances that generally goes into working an idea into an expression. ... Eloquence obliterates self-doubt; self-doubt, I think, is a key character trait of moderate, tolerant, consensus-based liberalism. And Hitch's political makeup is in a lot of ways akin to the postwar Leftists who were voraciously well-read and secular and eggheaded but ultimately turned to the right as much out of a sense of their own superiority — on account of being voraciously well-read and secular and eggheaded... And this, this absolute conviction in the rightness of the words coming out of one's mouth, it results in writing that sounds so ******* stupid, the wasting of words on ideas that don't deserve them. Just because you can make it sound good doesn't mean you can make it fundamentally true, or even consequential." (Mark, "Christopher Hitchens and the Utter Creeping Moronism of Eloquence" at L Magazine, Sep. 23, 2008.) "I've toyed with the idea viewing of Hitch as a sort of intelligent idiot savant combining an excellent memory with a dash of Tourette Syndrome and an amazing gift for speaking and writing eloquent but essentially vacuous prose." (Greywolf, "Christian Manichaeism" at Christopher Hitchens Watch, Dec. 1, 2008.)
On the apparently gauche wisdom of God...
"The end of verse 17 [1 Cor. 1:17], like the tail of a scorpion, hides a pointed barb. Paul contends that his preachng was not supposed to be 'with eloquent wisdom' (NRSV). He was not called by Jesus Christ to hone his rhetorical skills or to transform the gospel into a clever philosophical system. He was called, on the contrary, to preach a simple, unpolished 'message of the cross'. The earliest readers of this letter would sense immediately that Paul is poised to sting those in Corinth who were inclined to put style over substance and to value human wisdom over gospel truth. By filling their sermons with impressive oratory and sophisticated ideas, these folks only succeed in 'emptying the cross.' Verses 18-25 expose this Corinthian love affair with human cleverness for what it is — a stark rejection of God's way of working in the world." (Fisk, First Corinthians, p. 9.)