Making an argument means trying to convince others that you are right or persuade them to take a particular action. Important not just in college/ university, this skill will be necessary for any professional position you hold.
Many of our assignments in COMM 6019 — our research report, blog post, oral presentation, etc. — are meant to make an argument. Let’s learn a little more about the aspects that can make specific arguments more persuasive in general, as well as more persuasive for specific audiences.
Components of an Argument
Making an argument in a report, essay, or other piece of college/ university writing is somewhat like presenting a case in court: there are conventions to be followed, and one must make a persuasive case. Workplace reports are no different. In fact, even the the arguments you are used to hearing or participating in with friends about something that is uncertain or needs to be decided follow the same rules as a formal argument, and use the same main component—although the strength and organization typical or a formal argument may be missing.
For instance, typically a question starts the discussion. The claim, or thesis, tells people what you consider a true way of describing a thing, situation, or phenomenon or what action you think should be taken. The reservations, alternatives, and objections that someone else might bring up in your sources , or that you imagine your readers logically might have, allow you to demonstrate how your reasons and evidence (maybe) overcome that kind of thinking—and (you hope) your claim/ thesis comes out stronger for having withstood that test.
Here’s a dialogue version of an argument, with the most important components labeled.
Marco: Where should we have my parents take us for dinner when they’re here on Sunday? [He asks the question about something that’s unsettled.]
Rupi: We should go to The Cascades! [She makes her main claim to answer the question.] It’s the nicest place around. [Another claim, which functions as a reason for the main claim.]
Marco: How so? [He asks for a reason to accept her claims.]
Rupi: White table cloths. [She gives a reason.]
Marco: What’s that have to do with how good the food is? [He doesn’t see how her reason is relevant to the claim.]
Rupi: Table cloths make restaurants seem upscale. [She relates her reason for the claims.] And I’ve read a survey in Columbus Metro that says the Cascades is one of the most popular restaurants in town. [She offers evidence.]
Marco: I never read the Metro. And Dino’s has table cloths. [He offers a point that contradicts her reason.]
Rupi: I know, but those are checkered! I’m talking about heavy white ones. [She acknowledges his point and responds to it.]
Marco: My dad loves Italian food. I guess he’s kind of a checkered-table-cloth kind of guy? [He raises another reservation or objection.]
Rupi: Yeah, but… Well, I know The Cascades has some Italian things on the menu. I mean, it’s not known for its Italian food, but you can order it there. Given how nice the place is, it will probably be gourmet Italian food. [She acknowledges his point and responds to it. There’s another claim in there.]
Marco: Ha! My dad, the gourmet? Hey, maybe this place is too expensive. [He raises another reservation.]
Rupi: More than a place like Dino’s. [She concedes his point.]
Marco: Yeah. [He agrees.]
Rupi: But everybody eats at The Cascades with their parents while they’re students here, so it can’t be outlandishly expensive. [She now puts limits on how much she is conceding.]
As you can see, we have claims, objections, refutations, etc. here, but some claims are somewhat vague/subjective/insufficiently developed and the structure is loose. What makes a successful argument, then?
Order of the Components
The order in which the components should appear in your persuasive reports, presentations and other assignments may vary, but one common arrangement is to begin with an introduction that explains why the situation is important—why the reader should care about it. Your research question will probably not appear as such in the introduction, but your answer to it (your thesis, or claim) usually appears in the last sentence/ the last few sentences of the introduction.
The body of your paper follows and consists of:
- Your reasons the thesis is correct or at least reasonable.
- The evidence that supports each reason, often occurring right after the reason it supports.
- An acknowledgement that some people have/could have objections, reservations, counterarguments, or alternative solutions to your argument and a statement of each.
- A response to each acknowledgement that explains why that criticism is incorrect or not very important. Sometimes you might have to concede a point you think is unimportant if you can’t fully refute it.
Let’s see how this might work in a short persuasive email.
To: Ralph Niblet, CEO
From: Hannah Vuong, Communications Manager
Subject: Migrating to MailChimp
Date: Sept. 1st, 2021
Last week, you asked me to research whether we should switch our email marketing software from Constant Contact to MailChimp. I think that we should go with MailChimp for the following reasons:
- MailChimp is free for a business of our size, while Constant Contact costs us $57 a month.
- MailChimp integrates with Salesforce and would allow us to use our database more effectively. I spoke to Sam Cho, who currently administers our Salesforce account, and he shared many exciting ways that we could integrate the two platforms without much effort. He also offered to host a webinar to train our staff.
- MailChimp allows us to segment audiences more effectively. I’ve included some links to a few blog posts that illustrate what we could do. A lot of our current unsubscribes happen because we can’t target emails to specific groups of customers effectively. Our email marketing report from last quarter showed that 70% unsubscribed because of emails that were “not relevant.”
Some colleagues have voiced the objection that they already know how to use Constant Contact and they find MailChimp less intuitive. We will also have to migrate our existing data and clean it. I believe, however, that these barriers can easily be overcome with employee training and good data migration practices.
I am happy to show you a demo of MailChimp this week if you are free.
In this short text, Hannah uses a few sources:
- A price comparison done by using pricing information from MailChimp and Constant Contact’s websites
- A discussion with Sam Cho.
- Blog posts
- The company’s email marketing report.
- Interviews with colleagues.
She also uses all of the components of a good argument. First, she states her thesis. Then, she gives reasons and provides her evidence in support of those reasons. In her last paragraph, she acknowledges objections and responds to these objections.
Sometimes, when we engage in research, it can be tempting to limit ourselves to citing sources that support out points—especially if we have little time and/or we really want to convince our readers (coworkers, upper management, etc.) that our claims are correct. However, a crucial part of working with sources is that they should help us to reach the right decision. Finding a source that disagrees with some of our claims is actually a gift from this perspective:
- It allows you to think in advance about what objections your audience might have and prepare a response. You won’t be surprised at a meeting. For example, if you are considering buying a new piece of software, you should read some negative reviews. You might find out that the people who had a bad experience had a business context that you don’t share. Maybe they are in a different industry or they tried to use the software for a different purpose.
- If you cannot come up with a response to potential objections (a refutation), you might have to change your initial plan/ claim. It is better to make this discovery in the research phase rather than waste time and money doing something that is not a good idea. For example, if you find a lot of negative reviews of a piece of software, you might choose not to purchase it or ask the software representative for a longer time to try it out.
This section on making an argument was developed with the help of “Making Good Arguments” in The Craft of Research, by Wayne Booth, Gregory Colomb, and Joseph Williams, University of Chicago Press, 2003.