Persuasive Argument: What It Is and How to Build One

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Thank You for Arguing" by Jay Heinrichs. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is a persuasive argument? What are the key building blocks of an argument that is meant to persuade?

A persuasive argument consists of three steps: choosing a goal, choosing a tense, and choosing an appeal. In a persuasive argument, you’ll typically use Aristotle’s three classical persuasive appeals—ethos, logos, and pathos—to achieve your goal.

Continue below to learn how to construct a persuasive argument.

The Building Blocks of a Persuasive Argument

What is a persuasive argument? A persuasive argument is one that proposes a viewpoint and attempts to get the reader to agree. In his book Thank You for Arguing, Jay Heinrichs explains that, in rhetorical terms, the purpose of an argument isn’t to beat your opponent, but to persuade them. He says persuasive arguments have three essential parts: a clear goal, a focus on the right issue, and the right audience appeal

1) Choose Your Goal

First, he says, determine the outcome you want. There are three possible goals: 

  1. Mood: You want to put your audience in the mood to listen to you, so your persuasion will have a greater effect.
  2. Mind: You want to change your audience’s mind so they’ll make the choice you want.
  3. Willingness to act: You want them to act or do what you want them to do. This is the most difficult of the three goals—no matter how well you connect with your audience or make your case, you can’t get them to do something unless they want to.

(Shortform note: The authors of Crucial Conversations explain that having your big-picture goals in mind helps you avoid negative behaviors—such as trying to punish the other person or agreeing in order to keep the peace—that sabotage your chances of having a mutually agreeable outcome. Additionally, clear goals can enhance your flexibility and creativity in an argument. Since you’re guided by the idea of where you want to end up rather than how you’ll get there, you’re free to use any tactic that moves you toward the goal.)

2) Choose the Right Tense

Heinrichs explains that, according to classical rhetorician Aristotle, all arguments boil down to three issues: blame, values, and choice. You can usually identify the issue at the center of your argument by paying attention to the tense you and your opponent are using.

Blame: past tense. Rhetoric focused on the past usually aims to seek justice, and it isn’t a productive way to argue—instead of finding a solution, you and your opponent point fingers and decide what “punishment” the other person deserves. This might look like, “It’s not my fault the night was ruined. You invited Jan to the party,” or, “Of course I’m angry. You forgot to pick up dinner.”

(Shortform note: The authors of Difficult Conversations call fights in which both parties fixate on blame the “What Happened” conversation. In these types of conversations, Heinrichs—as we’ll see—would suggest switching the conversation into future tense and focusing on possible choices. However, this switch is easier said than done. The authors suggest a smaller step out of the blame game: the “contribution system,” where each person names their own contribution to the issue. While this system still deals in blame, in a sense, it puts a stop to finger-pointing and justice-seeking.)

Values: present tense. Rhetoric of the present aims to separate wrong from right, using tribalistic language to unite groups against a common enemy. Heinrichs says this “us versus them” mentality creates division, so it isn’t helpful to your goal of consensus-seeking. Politicians often rely on this rhetoric to appeal to your values while vilifying the opposing party: This bill is wrong for the American people, yet my opponent supports it.”

(Shortform note: Present-tense rhetoric is the opposite of the “I” statements that experts recommend for conflict resolution. Whereas “I” statements are meant to pit both parties against the problem (“I feel that this bill will be detrimental to numerous neighborhoods in the city”), present-tense rhetoric pits both parties against one another (“You’re wrong about the effects of this bill”).) 

Choice: future tense. Rhetoric of the future centers on deliberating among different choices to come to a conclusion that all parties agree with. Focusing on choices leads to productive arguments that end in consensus, without getting stuck on fault or wrong versus right. 

If you notice your conversation lapsing into past or present tense, Heinrichs recommends regaining control by asking a future-focused question, such as “What can we do about it?” or, “How do we avoid this in the future?” 

Other Questions to Consider

While Heinrichs suggests a few helpful questions to get your conversation onto a future-focused track, they rely on the other person having a suggestion on how to move forward. If the other person doesn’t have a suggestion, try asking in a different way:

What do you want?If the other person doesn’t know the exact path they’d like to take forward, this question helps them articulate their desired outcome. From there, you can deliberate about the best next steps.

If we could do it again, what would it look like?If the other person doesn’t have a clear idea of what they want or how to avoid the same issue in the future, this question helps them retrace their steps and see where things might have gone wrong. 

Change the focus. If you keep getting stuck on issues of the past or present, try making a suggestion that splits the problem into the issue and the solution and directs the conversation toward the solution. For example, you might say, “It seems like we’re getting stuck on who made this decision. Let’s refocus on how we’re going to get this project done on time.”

3) Choose Your Argument’s Appeal

By now, you’ve determined your goal and know to focus on future-tense issues of choice (the first two building blocks of rhetoric). Lastly, Heinrichs says, you’ll use Aristotle’s three classical persuasive appeals—ethos, logos, and pathos—to achieve your goal.

  1. Ethos helps you change your audience’s mood by showing that you’re the type of character they should listen to and trust.
  2. Logos helps you change your audience’s mind by using their own logic and rationale to demonstrate why your choice is best for them.
  3. Pathos helps you awaken your audience’s willingness to act by using vivid stories and intense emotions as motivators.

(Shortform note: Heinrichs doesn’t make it explicitly clear if you’re meant to use one or all three of these appeals in an argument. To clarify: You’ll use all three, but will give more weight to whichever appeal is most important to achieving your goal. For example, if you’re an outsider to the audience you’re speaking to, you’ll have to spend extra time on ethos so they see you as someone worth listening to. If you’re not sure which appeal will serve you best, aim to strike a balance among all three.)  

Persuasive Argument: What It Is and How to Build One

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  • Smarter ways to argue and evaluate others’ arguments
  • How to persuade people to do what you want
  • How you can get a bully to talk himself down

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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