Addressing criticism in advance.

April 2, 2007 — 5 Comments

I can’t take the original credit for catching the applicability and transcendence of such an anecdote, but I can expand on it. Tucker pointed me towards Vincent Bugliosi–the man who tried Manson (Helter Skelter is the #1 crime bestseller of all time) and the Palliko-Stockton murders, and said I could learn from Bugliosi’s rhetorical strategy. And that his method of pre-emption was particularly clever.

“Whenever I know the defense is going to present evidence damaging to the

prosecution, I try to introduce the evidence myself. That strategy tends to

shave a few decibels off the defense’s trumpets, and it conveys to the jury my

willingness to see that all evidence, unfavorable to the prosecution as well

as favorable, comes out–that I am not trying to suppress it back in the

judge’s chambers or in open court.”Vincent Bugliosi, “Till Death Do Us Part”

And so the above passage is the one I really latched on to. Remember that the prosecution goes first in closing arguments, which can indeed leave them open to attacks on context or interpretation. But Bugliosi turned this curse into an asset. Instead of waiting for criticism from the defense, he criticized himself–pointing out the prosecution’s own weakness, or at least acknowledging the jury’s potential to see one. And thusly, when it comes time for the defense to mouth the same words, they appear shill or redundant. Like he says, it doesn’t eliminate the validity of the critique, rather the volume at which it is said. You frame the debate on your terms, and then the response, at least to some degree, is under your control. Of course, no one is arguing complete transparency of strategy. Machiavelli would roll over in his grave at that. In this case, you’re simply using the appearance of nobility or truth to your benefit–and the cost is slight illumination of a few specifically chosen faults. After all, if someone is willing to talk openly of something, it can’t really be that bad, right? That is the impression you want to give.

The implications of this is twofold. One, realize that when you see transparency or seemingly self-deprecating honesty, be suspicious. Realize that there may be ulterior motives. That perhaps your attention is being directed at something with the hope of a superficial glance at the present instead of an investigative one on your own recognizance. Two, see how rarely our leaders or businesses use this to their advantage. How often is the Bush administration secretive about things that we would have likely dismissed had then been forthcoming. And how this repeated mistake has lead to almost a universal mistrust of the government and thus a strategic crippling. There is an abundance of political theorists who think Clinton could have avoided his historical scarlet letter had he addressed the accusations openly and in advance–much in the same manner that Gavin Newsome recently has.

Accordingly, this will become something I’d like to incorporate into my daily strategy. Putting forth–in open court–the manageable weaknesses that I have, and think that if attacked I could sustain. Mark Cuban said something recently to the effect of “lies in sunlight are less dangerous than ones that live in the shadows.” People are very much aware of this fact; so when you put debatable issues out for all to see, their ominous nature disappears. From this, their potential to harm you is lessened. What Bugliosi did was take criticisms off the table, ironically, by pushing them closer towards the center. So for instance, in some sort of political discussion, look three or four arguments ahead and bring them up yourself. Tacking on a “but I still don’t think that changes the fact that…” blocks a check or even a checkmate from occurring. Then, that you seem more honest than your counterparts is an added benefit.

When you look at your own actions, or that of your company, or of your friends, ask “How could I defeat myself?” Play devil’s advocate, always. And then incorporate those opposing strategies into your own. Turn the counterargument into collieries of the original–and by default the counterargument is no longer an effective one. As John Boyd advocated, you’re simply getting inside their loop and making it your own. As with all strategies, there are exceptions, but I think the applications of this one, in both business, war and life are pretty large.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

5 responses to Addressing criticism in advance.

  1. This is a classic copywriting technique as well. Tell people the problems up front, and you build credibility compared to most marketing shlock.

  2. The example that came to mind for me while reading this is Eminem’s character from 8 Mile. Near the end of the movie when he is rap battling he takes all of the guys ammunition before he can go, and when it is the other guy’s turn he has nothing to say.

    Does this fictitious example compare with what Vincent Bugliosi did?

  3. Of course it does. You’re absolutely right.

    Tucker has very much done the same thing–and for that reason, when you see negative article about him, the writers seem shill and biased.

    Arnold did it too, in the recall election. He put his past indiscretions on the table which very much took them off the table at the same time. By admitting that he made mistakes, that he took steroids, that he was a womanizer, he eliminated those as potential criticisms from the Democratic opposition. And accordingly, he skated through to a governorship.

  4. Funny. I was just reading about this earlier today. This is actually a common tactic for the personality disordered.

  5. Good web site! I adore many of the articles which have been written, in addition to particularly the reviews posted! I will without doubt be touring once again!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Text formatting is available via select HTML. <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>