How to win an argument in writing

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When I was young and naive, I foolishly thought that a career in academia would be the ideal place for someone who disliked conflict. My plan was to tuck myself away in the library for most of my days, curl up with my stack of books, and crank out lectures and articles. What could be more tranquil than a working life spent reading, writing, and teaching?

Boy, did I get that scenario wrong. Not only does teaching late adolescents require high-level conflict negotiation skills, but scholarship itself is grounded in a culture of combat. Publishing academic research requires the mindset and mental agility of a gladiator.

Fortunately, in the world of business writing, I don’t have to put on the whole armour of scholarly inquiry very often. But I do often help clients create logical written arguments that set out to contradict or deflate an established position. In such situations, the combat moves I learned as a scholar prove useful. They enable writers to dismantle a false argument without appearing aggressive or becoming entangled in personal attacks. 

What I learned in the scholarly arena

I remember vividly my first experience of academic combat in live action. As a doctoral student at the University of Toronto back in the early 90s, I had the opportunity to witness a guest lecture by a young scholar interviewing for a faculty position. During the question period, faculty lobbed queries at the candidate as if they were grenades. I didn’t know whether to run, duck, or just cover my eyes.

For years afterward, I recalled that experience as the equivalent of watching a Christian get thrown to the lions. What I eventually learned, of course, was that paradigm-shifting, which is the goal of academic exploration, is not a gentle sport. To put forward a new way of thinking, you must be willing to take a bold stand and defend it to the teeth.

At the same time, even the fiercest academic debates are governed by a certain decorum. What may once seemed to me cruel bloodsport actually works as a kind of dance. Like bullfighters or fencers or martial artists, scholars presenting academic arguments move back and forth both with and against their opponent. They know how to deflect and deliver blows with diplomacy.

This deftness in dealing with an opposing perspective seldom gets taught as part of business writing, but it’s a crucial skill for anyone writing to change the status quo.

Two traps to avoid

Whenever you’re arguing for doing something in a new way, you are arguing against doing it the old way. For instance, if you’re arguing for building a light rail system to relieve city traffic, then you’re arguing against making the personal vehicle the default for city transportation. 

I notice, though, that writers without experience in the academic arena tend to fall into one (or both) of the following mistakes:

  • They neglect to address the existing argument for maintaining the status quo. 
  • They confuse the opposing point of view with the person or people holding it.

Either of these false moves can land you in trouble. If you’re shy about showing weaknesses in the opposing point of view, you’re playing only a defensive game. Without an offence, you don’t have much chance of success. On the other hand, if you address your offence at people instead of ideas, then you’ll come across as aggressive and mean-spirited. This is not a winning strategy either.

To avoid these traps, consider your perspective and the opposing perspective as competitors in the market of the reader’s mind. Leverage the power of clear definition and positioning to give your ideas an incisive edge.

Five ways to undermine your opponent without being underhanded

Taking a page from the way academic writing works, you can craft a compelling business argument by using these five combat moves:

1. Get crystal-clear on your own argument

To create a written argument is to engage in an intellectual contest. It’s your idea against an existing idea or set of ideas, and the goal is to win the audience’s support. But how can you do that if they can’t clearly differentiate between your new concept and the concepts they’re already familiar with?

Before you enter into combat, clarify—down to the nth detail—your own argument. A simple (and critical) test to try is this: state your main idea in a single, complete sentence. If you can’t do that, then you may not have clearly formed a coherent argument. You may merely have chosen a topic, and you may need to do some more work to clarify the specific position you’re taking on the topic.

For example, here’s an idea that’s not yet fully-formed into a position statement: Imminent decline of the ping pong industry in Asia

In contrast, here’s a genuine position statement expressing the core of an argument:

As the ping pong industry Asia shows signs of declining, it’s the perfect time to introduce a new augmented reality game: Patter Pong.

2. Acknowledge the strengths of the opposing position

Every false argument contains a smidgen of truth. If you look hard enough at what your opponents are saying, you’ll find they’re getting some things right. Those might be small things—but that’s all you need to gain the upper hand. 

By acknowledging what the opposition does well, you can show how your approach builds on the groundwork they’ve laid. This is a powerful way to gain the trust of an audience that’s skeptical about moving away from a known idea to the upstart idea you’re introducing. This tactic also makes you seem reasonable and fair, and that’s a great foundation for building trust.

3. Be gracious about the weaknesses of the opposing position

When you point out the holes in the opposing perspective, do so gently, recognizing the limitations or challenges that cause them. Perhaps, for example, the conclusions your opponent has reached are perfectly natural for someone who hasn’t had access to new data that wasn’t previously available.

The more generous you are as you acknowledge your opponent’s weaknesses, the more likeable and fair you seem as a contestant in the arena. And as you politely point out the gaps in the opposition’s knowledge and logic, you’ll subtly build up your own profile as the expert among experts.

4. Back up your claims about your position

It takes two basic ingredients to make a viable argument: claims (contestable statements about a topic) and evidence (supporting details to support the claims).

A simple recipe, but many business writers fail to follow it, and their arguments fall apart as a result. In my work as a writing trainer and coach, I see two common issues: lack of evidence and evidence that lacks credibility.

If you think you might be prone to the first issue, make it a habit to perform an “evidence check” on your drafts. First, identify all the statements you’ve made that someone could reasonably debate. These are your claims. (“Water is wet” would not qualify as a claim, but a statement such as this would: “Water has become the most valuable natural resource on the Earth.”) Second, check to make sure that for each claim you’ve provided at least one piece of compelling evidence to justify it. Such evidence might include hard data, quotes from recognized experts, and examples from your personal experience. The more important the claim is to the success of your argument, the more pieces of evidence you’ll need to back it up.

5. Admit to the limitations of your position

This final move may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s truly a master-level maneuver. Besides pointing out the weaknesses in the opposite point of view, acknowledge your own biases and the limits on your perspective. 

By showing such self-awareness, you’ll demonstrate transparency. By showing you have nothing to hide, you’ll come across as someone who’s humble, honest, and genuinely interested in finding the truth. In the competition for your audience’s belief and trust, such qualities count as gold. 

Think of these five writing tactics as the fancy footwork of a skilled combatant who defeats their opponent so gracefully that the struggle looks more like a ballet than a fight.

Remember Muhammad Ali’s mantra, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”? That’s a great mantra for anyone writing to advance a new idea. Let your argument develop so gracefully and graciously that readers appreciate not just the clarity of your position but also the positivity and confidence with which you advance it.


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