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.

The customer goes next door where another man contradicts everything he says.  “This isn’t an argument,” he says. “It is,” contradicts the man behind the desk.

“An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition,” says the customer. The “argument provider” fails to give satisfaction, rings a bell, and tells him time’s up. The customer leaves.

An argument isn’t a contradiction or a place to blow off steam. An argument’s purpose 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 idea to a scheme of six parts.

  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?

Listen up! I’m going to tell you something important.

Exordium is the introduction. In a previous post I wrote about the three pillars of rhetoric, ethoslogos, and pathos. Ethos is the spirit of the community; the beliefs and values your audience holds in common. This is where you claim attention and make a connection between you and your audience. A successful introduction puts your audience in a receptive state of mind.

People will listen to you because of who you are and what you’ve done. Are you a subject expert? Do you hold the position of responsibility? Can you speak to the interests, values, and beliefs of your audience? Have you written a book about your topic?

Know your audience. and demonstrate your relevancy. Establish your credibility.

  1. Narration

Once you’ve established yourself, now is the time to describe your subject and its scope.  Your topic must be relevant, something your readers care about. Cicero writes that narration (what he calls a statement of facts) should be briefclear, and plausible.

Imagine a prosecuting attorney laying out an argument:

Members of the jury, on the night of the fourteenth, the defendant broke into Gigantic Donuts and made off with the contents of the cash register and eight boxes of Gargantuan Custard donuts. Later that night, police officers (who have a nose for these things) followed a trail of half-eaten donuts leading to the defendant’s home where he was taken into “custardy,” and booked for burglary and littering.

Narration answers the question: What are we talking about?

  1. Division

There’s no point in trying to persuade someone who already agrees with you. If you’re going to argue, you need an opponent. The division is where you lay out points of agreement and disagreement.

Keep your points to just a few. Cicero advises just three points. Too many and you’ll confuse your audience.

Start with what you and your opponents agree upon. Then list items in dispute. Now you’ve established the boundaries of your discussion, it’s time to put logos to further use.

  1. Proof

Here’s where you support your argument. A rhetorical proof isn’t mathematical certainty. The proof is the ability to withstand something damaging. Your proof should deflect and resist attack. It is an insurance policy that anticipates objections. 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 what you say is fashionable, other people agree with you: social proof.
  • You are right because you cite an authority, someone your audience recognizes. This is why the internet is littered with quotes.
  • You are right because you wrote the book: appeal to expertise.
  • You are right because you have data: appeal to rationality. (The definition of an expert is someone from out of town with a presentation.)
  • You are right because of the brilliant story you just made up.

Aristotle calls proofs you make up technical proofs. Look, I just made an appeal to authority. You can believe me because Aristotle said it.

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.

Whether you’re writing a book, a speech, or an article, give your audience an experience that will lead to change.

Pay attention to structure because that is the glue that holds your argument together.