The art of persuasion 2: How to argue

What is an argument?

In the Argument Clinic, a sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, an absurdist comedy series, a man pays for a five-minute argument. The customer goes to a room where a man behind a desk hurls abuse at him. The customer interrupts saying he paid for a five-minute argument, and this is not an argument. The abuse hurler apologizes explaining this is Abuse, Argument is next door.

Next door, the customer complains when he is simply contradicted.  “This isn’t an argument,” he says.

“It is.”

“No, it isn’t”

The customer says, “An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.”

The “argument provider” rings a bell, and tells him time’s up.

The purpose of an argument is to persuade.

Six structures of argument

Aristotle thought that an argument could be divided into two: facts and proof. But Marcus Tullius Cicero, Roman Consul, expanded this to a six-part process.

  1. Exordium
  2. Narration
  3. Division
  4. Proof
  5. Refutation
  6. Peroration

These six parts have been in use for two thousand years, so you may have heard of them by different names. Narration, for example, is also confusingly called prosthesis, or diegesis. Let’s look at each of these six components.

  1. Exordium

Do you have a moment?

Exordium is the hook, the clickbait, the grabber.

Listen up! I’m going to tell you something important! The purpose of the introduction is to claim attention and connect with your audience. Hey! I’m one of you, too. Here’s who I am and why you should listen to me.

  1. Narration

What are we talking about?

Once you’ve established yourself, now is the time to describe your point and its scope.  Cicero writes that narration (what he calls a statement of facts) should be briefclear, and plausible.

  1. Division

If you’re going to argue, you need an opponent. There’s no point in trying to persuade someone who already agrees with you. Here we list our agreement and disagreement.

Set boundaries: Start with what you and your opponents agree upon, then list items in dispute.

4. Proof

Time to create support for your argument. The rhetorical proof is the ability to withstand a damaging attack. Your proof should deflect and resist opposition. It is an insurance policy.  Your proof is why you’re right.

  • You are right because that’s how we do things around here: appeal to normal practice.
  • You are right because you are bigger than me.
  • You are right because what you say is fashionable, other people agree with you: social proof.
  • You are right because you cite an authority, someone your audience recognizes.
  • You are right because you wrote the book: appeal to expertise.
  • You are right because you have data: appeal to rationality.
  • You are right because of the brilliant story you just made up.

Aristotle calls proofs you make up technical proofs.

Proof is plausibility.

  1. Refutation

This is where you destroy the nonsense your opponents are spouting. Proof is defensive. Refutation goes on the attack. It is unwise to attack the person (ad hominem), but sensible to attack their ideas and behavior. You take each point in turn and destroy it. You show why each of your opposition’s ideas is irrelevant, costly, ill-considered, catastrophic, and will lead to bloating, headaches, and a bad day.

  1. Peroration

Sum up with feeling. Peroration is the climax and relies on pathos. With your opponent’s ideas in tatters, reiterate your main points. Restate your connection to your audience. Speak to their good character and sensible ideas in following your wise course of action.

End on an emotional high.