The Two Most Important Factors in Making a Persuasive Argument
Last night I asked:
[I]n your opinion, what are the two most important factors in making a persuasive argument? What MUST you have going for you in order to convince your audience?
There were a lot of interesting answers, and most of the answers contained good suggestions for making arguments better. You could probably ask this question of 100 people and get 100 different answers.
Also, I don’t mean to suggest that if you have only the two factors I describe, you don’t need anything else. A successful argument is usually the result of many factors and facets. I just happen to believe that two of them are more fundamental than any other.
Without further ado . . . the envelope, please!
- 1. Credibility.
If you don’t think I’m credible, you’re not going to believe a thing I say. I could have the best arguments and evidence in the world — but if there is no credibility to back them up, you won’t believe them. (Credibility can mean many things: an ability to cite a credible source demonstrates credibility.)
I’ll discuss objections to this in the comments, but I think this one is obvious.
It’s the second one that I didn’t expect you to get:
- 2. An audience that is capable of being persuaded.
If there’s one thing I have learned over years of making arguments in different contexts, it’s that you can’t persuade someone who refuses to be persuaded.
Commenters here have seen this in the behavior of commenters they call “trolls.” The “troll” has a different point of view — and when you argue with him, he is unreasonable in his responses. If you make a good point, he refuses to acknowledge it, or he mischaracterizes it. If you prove he’s wrong about argument A, he moves to argument B. Show him he’s wrong about that, and he moves to argument C. Refute argument C, and he goes back to argument A — and acts for all the world as if he’s never heard your argument refuting argument A.
You can run around in circles with people like that for the rest of your life. They can’t be persuaded.
RELATED TRIAL LAWYER DIGRESSION: This is why, for example, peremptory challenges are critical in jury trials. Because there are some people who will never be convinced no matter what your evidence is, and no matter how well you put on the case.
If you accept a panel with such a person, the case is already lost.
You can’t deal with such issues purely with cause challenges, because such people don’t always identify themselves. They often think they are open-minded. They will sit there and look at you with big innocent eyes and tell you they’d keep an open mind.
BACK TO THE BLOG WORLD: Unfortunately, most discourse on the Internet is of this nature. People who read political blogs tend to be political partisans. They have a point of view on most issues, and you will not talk them out of it. If you try, prepare to be frustrated.
What’s worse, there seem to be so few people truly capable of listening to your argument, understanding it, and responding to it. Most people offer canned talking points and don’t truly engage. When you find one who does, it’s a rare treat. Savor it. It doesn’t happen often.
So why argue with trolls? You’re not going to persuade them.
There are really only two reasons: 1) because you find it entertaining, or 2) to persuade others who might be persuaded, by knocking down the arguments of your troll, who cannot be persuaded.
You might even fall into this category on some issues. Answer me this: what is your most foundational belief? It could be a belief in God, or that it is wrong to kill the innocent, or something else. Take a second and decide what that belief is for you. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Now imagine me trying to convince you that you’re wrong.
Not happening, is it? Because you’re not capable of being persuaded on this issue.
Thanks for listening. I know some of you may disagree with my two factors. Some of you may feel very strongly I’m wrong, in fact.
If that’s how you feel, let me know. We’ll talk about it.
But chances are, there’s nothing I can say that will change your mind.
UPDATE: I changed one sentence in response to a comment from JRM: from “you can’t persuade someone who doesn’t want to be persuaded” to “you can’t persuade someone who refuses to be persuaded.” That’s more in line with what I meant, and what I said in my bullet point #2.