How to Structure an Argument (Cheat Sheet)

Most of what follows applies in formal debating scenarios. With a bit of practice and experience, though, the basic format could be used during less structured debates (with one or two modifications), and even heated everyday arguments. No it can’t. Yes it can…

Here’s how you go about winning an argument:

  1. State your thesis clearly. Don’t make it too complex and unwieldy. This will help you keep your argument on track, and prevent your opponent from trying to shift the debate parameters.
  2. Provide background and / or a context. What is at stake? Why is this worth debating? Why should the audience care?
  3. State your burden of proof. (State what it is that you need to prove in order for your argument to be valid.) This is akin to providing a checklist up-front that you can use later to prove that your case was stronger.
  4. State your substantive evidence in a clear and simple way. Present and defend each point carefully and separately. Quote experts, cite facts, provide examples and argue by analogy (find something that resembles the issue and prove that if this is true, your point must be too). Use different pieces of evidence that support each other. Don’t simply let the evidence speak for itself – explain why each piece of evidence supports your case.
  5. Anticipate disagreements and develop a plan on how to deal with them.
  6. Summarise your position carefully and simply. Show that you have met your burden of proof. Link your individual points into an overall position. Try to end with a thought that lingers in the audience’s mind.

A few things to remember:

  • Try not to use personal examples. Saying ‘I can personally attest to’ or ‘in my experience’ is not a solid way to argue.
  • Try not to include too many points. Rather chose a few important issues are argue them more intensively.
  • Listen attentively to your opponent, raising well-timed and relevant points against their case.
  • Turn your opposition’s objections into evidence for your own case (while casting them a pitying look).
  • Use humour where appropriate.
  • Give your strongest points first and last.
  • Learn to spot and avoid logical fallacies.
    Your argument is invalid.

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