Would you enjoy having the power to turn your most hated enemy into your friend, your problems to opportunities, lead into gold? Well that is the power of persuasion, and you can learn to do it with a bit of effort and a small slew of words. Persuasive writing, also sometimes called argument, is the most difficult and most valuable type of writing because it persuades the reader to either agree with your point of view or at least to sympathize with it. The best approach to persuasive writing is to form a tentative thesis and then learn what the evidence indicates about your tentative thesis. If the evidence supports your thesis, then begin using the evidence to create a logical argument. Well-written, effective persuasion uses logic and evidence to structure a convincing argument. Persuasive writing should also anticipate audience objections, establish credibility, and maintain a reasonable tone throughout.
Regarding topic selection, there are two pitfalls to beware of: 1. avoid topics that have become hackneyed (that is old and already exhaustively used) 2. and avoid beginning with too broad an argument. Additionally, even if a topic is suitably narrow and not trite, ask yourself if you can add anything to the discourse about the topic that has not already been written or said. If you have a fresh perspective, then write about it. If you don’t have anything to write about the topic beyond what you have already read and heard, search out another topic. Stale writing is painful to read and commits the sin of redundancy. Be original. Here are some topics to avoid as if they were the plague:
- Prayer in schools
- Legalized prostitution
- Legalized marijuana
- Internet pornography addiction
- Gender neutral bathrooms
- Video games and violence
None of these subjects are inherently bad or good as topics, what makes them undesirable is that we have all heard and read about them so much that everything that can be said and written has been already. Make it fresh by using fresh material.
Persuasion is written using either an inductive reasoning argument or a deductive reasoning argument. Inductive reasoning is reasoning from specific data and then drawing your conclusion based on what the data indicated. Deductive reasoning is beginning with a general premise from which you draw a specific conclusion. Here is an example of inductive reasoning for further edification:
According to our survey, 434 of the 500 households questioned say they would like to subscribe to cable television. Therefore, the majority of households in our city would subscribe if cable were available. (446)
This inductive argument is only valid if the survey research was properly administered to enough of the right people to get a random sample and if the questions were worded so as not to prejudice the respondents. So, when dealing with data in your inductive argument, be cautious and use the scientific method of gathering empirical data.
Remember that deductive reasoning draws a conclusion from two or more premises. The following is an example of deductive reasoning:
The police do not give speeding tickets to people driving less than five miles per hour over the limit. Sam is driving seventy-nine miles per hour in a seventy-five miles per hour zone. Therefore, the police will not give Sam a ticket. (447)
You see, the conclusion is only true if the premise that police only ticket drivers going more than five miles over the posted limit is also correct. If it is not correct, if police sometimes do ticket drivers for going less than five miles over the limit, then you cannot safely conclude that Sam won’t be ticketed. Again, caution and careful thinking are necessary. Persuasion can be tricky.
Now let us look at a syllogism, which is a three-part structure in deductive reasoning consisting of a major premise, minor premise, and the conclusion.
- Anything that increases radiation in the environment is dangerous to public health. (major premise)
- Nuclear reactors increase radiation in the environment. (minor premise)
- Therefore, nuclear reactors are dangerous to public health. (conclusion)
The major premise is a generalization of a widely-held belief. The minor premise is a specific situation. We arrive at the conclusion by applying the major premise (generalization) to the minor premise (specific). You may be tempted write only a major premise and conclusion, skipping the minor premise. However, the careful reader will see what is missing, so use the whole syllogism.
Another common pitfall in using syllogism is to present a major and minor premise that your audience accepts but drawing a conclusion from those premises that your audience does not accept.
- The deer population in our state should be preserved. (major premise)
- During hunting season, hundreds of deer are killed. (minor premise)
- Therefore, the hunting season should be discontinued. (conclusion)
The conclusion jumps to conclusions. Readers may agree that the major and minor premise are true, but still not be convinced of the argument because killing hundreds of deer may not harm the deer population—what if there are millions of deer and only hundreds are culled by hunting? Make sure that your conclusion is logically supported by your premises. Getting the syllogism right will pay off tenfold in the writing of the rest of the paper.
A basic grasp of Aristotelian appeals will facilitate powerful persuasive writing. The assertions you make in your persuasion must be crafted with care. Aristotle (384-322) a Greek philosopher and student of Plato, wrote about logic, ethics, politics, poetics, and rhetoric. He pioneered the study of how people use language to persuade. He wrote, Rhetoric (360-334) and in so doing he invented traditional rhetoric, and the art of persuasion in speaking and writing. He believed that there were three “artistic appeals” used in argument or persuasion to engage the reader. These three artistic appeals, ethos, pathos, and logos, are called “artistic” because Aristotle believed the writer or speaker had to shape these appeals creatively.
The first and best of these appeals is the logical appeal called logos. In logical appeals the writer uses all the best techniques of persuasion: logical precision; factual evidence; reasoning from evidence; empirical research. Writers may use established, formal, logical conventions of claim and support, observation and conclusion, the logical acts of inference, proof, and reasoning. The guiding principle is that all human claims must pass logical tests before we accept them, no matter who makes the claim (ethos), or how much we feel the position is right (pathos). The focal point of a logical appeal is the topic itself, and the basic appeal is “Believe this claim because I present logical support to justify the claim.”
The next best artistic appeal is the ethical appeal, or ethos, which is when the writer presents him/herself and the subject so that the audience perceives the writer as informed on the subject, respectful of the audience’s needs, reliable, trustworthy, and competent. This can be thought of as the car salesman/brain surgeon appeal because it says, “Trust what I am telling you because you trust me not to steer you wrong,” and it is the second weakest type of appeal, but not so weak that you don’t need it. Sometimes a doctor or a car dealer do have the necessary and true information we need. The focal point of this appeal is the author’s credibility.
Lastly, the weakest of the appeals identified by Aristotle is the emotional appeal, or pathos. It is characterized by the writer’s use of language which engages only the emotions of the audience. This appeal relies heavily upon an acute awareness of an audience’s emotional vulnerability, recognizing that people are complex, having various desires, needs, values, hopes and fears. The focus is myopically on using language to manipulate the emotions of the audience. Pathos in persuasion is greasy and creepy, and unfortunately it works. The basic appeal of this type of argument is “Believe me and my claim because what I wrote made you feel that I am right.” Unfortunately, many people do not differentiate between feeling and thinking, and these people are the architects of most of the worst things humankind has done, and they accomplished all that horror with propaganda and logical fallacies.
Two more pitfalls, far more serious than a faulty premise or two, are fallacious argument and propaganda, both deadly poison to the successful persuasion. Currently, there is so much propaganda and fallacious argument in our popular culture. It might seem that the only kind of argument is the dirty, nasty, ill-mannered kind. But the reverse is true. Whilst entertainment news programs and politicians bombard us with that kind of tripe, the clear majority of intelligent people still practice logic and decency in their thinking. That said, let us examine what persuasive techniques Hitler and other types of liars use to lie convincingly and fool the public.
The fallacious argument and propaganda are the tools of liars. They rely on specious reasoning, which means that the conclusions in these arguments do not follow the premises, causes, or effects. Like with a pathos based appeal, science, evidence, and reality play a role in these arguments only as props to be misinterpreted and misrepresented (making statistics lie is a good example of this) if they are used at all. Propaganda deliberately uses people’s emotions, prejudices, fears, ignorance, and shortsightedness to persuade them to believe and act in ways that are not at all in their own best interest. Sometimes, a propaganda argument may seem to be based on logic while it is actually based only on fallacious reasoning.
The horrid truth of the matter is that many, many people believe this kind of persuasion, as current events make apparent. The even more horrid truth is that people have been believing in, dying and killing for, hating for, and hurting for, ideas that someone who knew about propaganda and how to use it put into their minds (think scapegoating, war, prejudice, hatred—these were never spawned by truth and logic). Hence, it can’t be over stressed that writers and others who think for themselves must learn to spot and avoid the following propaganda techniques.
Glittering Generalities— words that have favorable or unfavorable connotations without justifying the use of the terms: just war, super-predator, welfare queen.
Transfer— attaching a favorably connotative symbol to an unrelated issue: the American flag, babies, the national anthem.
Testimonial—attributing testimony or counter-testimony to a product or issue which the person testifying is not qualified to pass judgment on.
Plain Folks—appealing to the average person’s habits and values in a patronizing manner.
Band Wagon—appealing to people’s desire to belong to a group.
Sex Appeal—playing on people’s vanity or gender.
Card Stacking—using a combination of the above devices to win support by deception, thus stacking the evidence unfairly.
Similarly, fallacious argument, an argument riddled with logical fallacies, is the second type of persuasive poison. Logical fallacies are flaws in our reasoning, sometimes deliberate, and sometimes unintentional, but always wrong. Fallacious arguments will seem plausible, and usually have great persuasive power. Whether done intentionally or through ignorance, making even a single fallacious argument in your writing invalidates the entire argument. A writer’s failure to examine his or her own underlying subjective assumptions (often prejudices), failure to establish evidentiary support, or failure to use precise language, all contribute to logical fallacies in writing. Logical fallacy has its own set of techniques. Understand them and then avoid them.
Red Herring—begging the question, ignoring the context of the argument, or bringing in a false issue.
Begging the question—arguing that a claim is true by repeating the claim in different words, also called circular reasoning.
Confusing Chronology with Causality—also called, post hoc, ergo propter hoc, e.g. “after this therefore because of this” is assuming if one thing preceded another it also caused it.
Argumentum ad Hominem—attacking the man rather than the issue.
Hasty Generalization—jumping to a conclusion without evidence.
Black-White or Either-Or Fallacy—stereotyping, drawing faulty or inadequate causal relations, or considering only two alternatives when others may be available.
False Analogy—forming comparisons between two or more things that should not be logically compared.
Equivocating—misleading or hedging with ambiguous word choices.
Failing to Accept the Burden of Proof—making a claim without presenting a reasoned argument to support it.
Non Sequitur—or “does not follow” is a drawing a conclusion that doesn’t follow logically from the preceding statements.
Over-reliance on Authority—arguing that something is true based just on the opinion of one expert and ignoring research to the contrary.
Oversimplifying—giving simple answers to complicated questions and often doing so by cheap appeals to emotion rather than reason.
Slanting—also called cherry picking, this happens when writers select and emphasize only the evidence that supports the claim and suppress evidence that does not.
Slippery Slope—pretending that one specific thing always leads to another specific thing.
Sob Story—playing upon readers’ emotions to cause them to make unjustified conclusions.
Straw Man—Setting up an argument against a claim that no one has ever actually made and that everyone agrees is weak.
At this point, you may want to choose from that list of topics we advised you never to use and write a persuasive essay using as many of the logical fallacies and propaganda techniques as you possibly can. If homework doesn’t suit you, then read on for directions on how to structure a convincing argument.
The last important techniques for convincing persuasive writing are concerned not with the people who already agree with your view, but with the ones your writing must win over to your view. To reach this part of your audience, you must anticipate the opposing arguments, refute those arguments, establish credibility as a trustworthy and knowledgeable person, and at all costs, maintain a reasonable tone throughout the writing.
In anticipating opposing arguments, you may want to address these either by a fair summary of the opposing points, or by reviewing and contrasting the opposing views as you present your own. There is no official best way of integrating opposing views, but it must be done. Whatever way you decide to present the information, use the opportunity to establish common ground with your opposition where you can. Common ground reminds us that we are all ultimately on the same side in our desire to solve a problem although we may have different ideas about how to do so. People believe their side is supported by intelligent and decent people, and for them to change sides, they must continue to feel they are on the intelligent and decent side or they will not change their opinions.
Another albeit ancillary benefit of presenting the opposing arguments and respectfully and meticulously refuting those arguments is that it establishes your credibility as a knowledgeable source. Use facts, cite research, establish your familiarity with your topic. Use a balanced cross section of sources so that you are fair and not self-interested in some nefarious way. Again, being fair and friendly helps the people who disagree with your position to like you and think of you as a reasonable person with whom they could agree, so take the high road in persuasion, and stay on it.
Many thanks always to these treasured books
Hacker, Diana. Rules for Writers: A Concise Handbook. 2nd ed. New York: St. Martin’s 1988.
Baker, Rance G. and Billie R. Phillips. The Sampler: Patterns for Composition. Heath: Lexington 1979.