9 Ways to Construct a Compelling Argument|
Whether you’re writing an essay or debating something on social media, knowing how to construct a good argument is a useful skill.
But especially in the circumstances that we’re deeply convinced of the rightness of our points, putting them across in a compelling way that will change other people’s mind is a challenge. If you feel that your opinion is obviously right, it’s hard work even to understand why other people might disagree. Some people reach this point and don’t bother to try, instead concluding that those who disagree with them must be stupid, misled or just plain immoral. And it’s almost impossible to construct an argument that will persuade someone if you’re starting from the perspective that they’re either dim or evil.
In the opposite set of circumstances – when you only weakly believe your perspective to be right – it can also be tricky to construct a good argument. In the absence of conviction, arguments tend to lack coherence or force.
In this article, we take a look at how you can put together an argument, whether for an essay, debate speech or social media post, that is forceful, cogent and – if you’re lucky – might just change someone’s mind.
Almost all good essays focus on a single powerful idea, drawing in every point made back to that same idea so that even someone skim-reading will soon pick up the author’s thesis. But when you care passionately about something, it’s easy to let this go. If you can see twenty different reasons why you’re right, it’s tempting to put all of them into your argument, because it feels as if the sheer weight of twenty reasons will be much more persuasive than just focusing on one or two; after all, someone may be able rebut a couple of reasons, but can they rebut all twenty?
Yet from the outside, an argument with endless different reasons is much less persuasive than one with focus and precision on a small number of reasons. The debate in the UK about whether or not to stay in the EU was a great example of this. The Remain campaign had dozens of different reasons. Car manufacturing! Overfishing! Cleaner beaches! Key workers for the NHS! Medical research links! Economic opportunities! The difficulty of overcoming trade barriers! The Northern Irish border! Meanwhile, the Leave campaign boiled their argument down to just one: membership of the EU means relinquishing control. Leaving it means taking back control. And despite most expectations and the advice of most experts, the simple, straightforward message won. Voters struggled to remember the many different messages put out by the Remain campaign, as compelling as each of those reasons might have been; but they remembered the message about taking back control.
One of the most commonly used rhetorical fallacies is the Strawman Fallacy. This involves constructing a version of your opponent’s argument that is much weaker than the arguments they might use themselves, in order than you can defeat it more easily.
For instance, in the area of crime and punishment, you might be arguing in favour of harsher prison sentences, while your opponent argues in favour of early release where possible. A Strawman would be to say that your opponent is weak on crime, wanting violent criminals to be let out on to the streets without adequate punishment or deterrence, to commit the same crimes again. In reality, your opponent’s idea might exclude violent criminals, and focus on community-based restorative justice that could lead to lower rates of recidivism.
To anyone who knows the topic well, if your argument includes a Strawman, then you will immediately have lost credibility by demonstrating that either you don’t really understand the opposing point of view, or that you simply don’t care about rebutting it properly. Neither is persuasive. Instead, you should be fair to your opponent and represent their argument honestly, and your readers will take you seriously as a result
It’s worth taking the time to read about logical fallacies and making sure that you’re not making them, as argument that rest of fallacious foundations can be more easily demolished. (This may not apply on social media, but it does in formal debating and in writing essays). Some fallacies are straightforward to understand, such as the appeal to popularity (roughly “everyone agrees with me, so I must be right!”), but others are a little trickier.
Take “begging the question”, which is often misunderstood. It gets used to mean “raises the question” (e.g. “this politician has defended terrorists, which raises the question – can we trust her?”), but the fallacy it refers to is a bit more complicated. It’s when an argument rests on the assumption that its conclusions are true. For example, someone might argue that fizzy drinks shouldn’t be banned in schools, on the grounds that they’re not bad for students’ health. How can we know that they’re not bad for students’ health? Why, if they were, they would be banned in schools!
When put in a condensed form like this example, the flaw in this approach is obvious, but you can imagine how you might fall for it over the course of a whole essay – for instance, paragraphs arguing that teachers would have objected to hyperactive students, parents would have complained, and we can see that none of this has happened because they haven’t yet been banned. With more verbosity, a bad argument can be hidden, so check that you’re not falling prey to it in your own writing.
Every argument rests on assumptions. Some of these assumptions are so obvious that you’re not going to be aware that you’re making them – for instance, you might make an argument about different economic systems that rests on the assumption that reducing global poverty is a good thing. While very few people would disagree with you on that, in general, if your assumption can be proven false, then the entire basis of your argument is undermined.
A more controversial example might be an argument that rests on the assumption that everyone can trust the police force – for instance, if you’re arguing for tougher enforcement of minor offences in order to prevent them from mounting into major ones. But in countries where the police are frequently bribed, or where policing has obvious biases, such enforcement could be counterproductive.
If you’re aware of such assumptions underpinning your argument, tackle them head on by making them clear and explaining why they are valid; so you could argue that your law enforcement proposal is valid in the particular circumstances that you’re suggesting because the police force there can be relied on, even if it wouldn’t work everywhere.
If you think that you’re right in your argument, you should also be able to assemble a good amount of evidence that you’re right. That means putting the effort in and finding something that genuinely backs up what you’re saying; don’t fall back on dubious statistics or fake news. Doing the research to ensure that your evidence is solid can be time-consuming, but it’s worthwhile, as then you’ve removed another basis on which your argument could be challenged.
What happens if you can’t find any evidence for your argument? The first thing to consider is whether you might be wrong! If you find lots of evidence against your position, and minimal evidence for it, it would be logical to change your mind. But if you’re struggling to find evidence either way, it may simply be that the area is under-researched. Prove what you can, including your assumptions, and work from there.
So far we’ve focused on how to construct an argument that is solid and hard to challenge; from this point onward, we focus on what it takes to make an argument persuasive. One thing you can do is to choose your evidence with your audience in mind. For instance, if you’re writing about current affairs, a left-wing audience will find an article from the Guardian to be more persuasive (as they’re more likely to trust its reporting), while a right-wing audience might be more swayed by the Telegraph.
This principle doesn’t just hold in terms of politics. It can also be useful in terms of sides in an academic debate, for instance. You can similarly bear in mind the demographics of your likely audience – it may be that an older audience is more skeptical of footnotes that consist solely of web addresses. And it isn’t just about statistics and references. The focus of your evidence as a whole can take your probable audience into account; for example, if you were arguing that a particular drug should be banned on health grounds and your main audience was teenagers, you might want to focus more on the immediate health risks, rather than ones that might only appear years or decades later.
A platitude is a phrase used to the point of meaninglessness – and it may not have had that much meaning to begin with. If you find yourself writing something like “because family life is all-important” to support one of your claims, you’ve slipped into using platitudes. Platitudes are likely to annoy your readers without helping to persuade them. Because they’re meaningless and uncontroversial statements, using them doesn’t tell your reader anything new. If you say that working hours need to be restricted because family ought to come first, you haven’t really given your reader any new information. Instead, bring the importance of family to life for your reader, and then explain just how long hours are interrupting it.
Similarly, being specific can demonstrate the grasp you have on your subject, and can bring it to life for your reader. Imagine that you were arguing in favour of nationalising the railways, and one of your points was that the service now was of low quality. Saying “many commuter trains are frequently delayed” is much less impactful than if you have the full facts to hand, e.g. “in Letchworth Garden City, one key commuter hub, half of all peak-time trains to London were delayed by ten minutes or more.”
As we noted in the introduction, you can’t construct a compelling argument unless you understand why someone might think you were wrong, and you can come up with reasons other than them being mistaken or stupid. After all, we almost all target them same end goals, whether that’s wanting to increase our understanding of the world in academia, or increase people’s opportunities to flourish and seek happiness in politics.
Yet we come to divergent conclusions. In his book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt explores the different perspectives of people who are politically right or left-wing. He summarises the different ideals people might value, namely justice, equality, authority, sanctity and loyalty, and concludes that while most people see that these things have some value, different political persuasions value them to different degrees. For instance, someone who opposes equal marriage might argue that they don’t oppose equality – but they do feel that on balance, sanctity is more important. An argument that focuses solely on equality won’t sway them, but an argument that addresses sanctity might.
It’s tricky to think of the last time you changed your mind about something really important. Perhaps to preserve our pride, we frequently forget that we ever believed something different. This survey of British voters’ attitudes to the Iraq war demonstrates the point beautifully. 54% of people supporting invading Iraq in 2003; but twelve years on, with the war a demonstrable failure, only 37% were still willing to admit that they had supported it at the time. The effect in the USA was even more dramatic.
It would be tempting for anyone who genuinely did oppose the war at the time to be quite smug towards anyone who changed their mind, especially those who won’t admit it. But if changing your mind comes with additional consequences (e.g. the implication that you were daft ever to have believed something, even if you’ve since come to a different conclusion), then the incentive to do so is reduced. Your argument needs to avoid vilifying people who have only recently come around to your point of view; instead, to be truly persuasive, you should welcome them.
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