How to Win Any Argument

Pass the Business Card Test (Because You Must Have a Core Argument).

One day someone may try to present you with the Christopher Columbus Award. The award is no honor. It's given to would-be persuaders who have no idea where they're going; upon arriving, don't know where they are; and, when finishing up, haven't a clue where they've been. To avoid being a Christopher Columbus Award recipient, the next time you seek to get others to think what you think, strive instead to pass the Business Card Test:

To start, write your core argument on the back of a business card. If your core argument doesn't fit, then it's vague and uncertain. Work to clarify, sharpen, and simplify it.

Here's how to craft a core argument that passes the test:

You have facts, and you have an analysis. Now ask yourself, "What do I conclude from all of this?" Once you reach your conclusion, you're still far from being done. The next step is to ask yourself, "What do I conclude from that conclusion?" By repeating this process several more times, you will strip away all superfluous data, leaving only your core argument.

If your core argument passes the Business Card Test, give yourself a pat on the back. It's never easy to turn your prize ox into a bouillon cube. Being able to accurately simplify your thoughts is an intellectual achievement.

My Five Favorite Logic Tricks:

Here are five of my favorite logic tricks for crafting a bulletproof core argument:

Logician trick #1: Craft a core argument by redefining the issue.

If the issue is abortion, the big issue is whether the subject of the abortion is a "what" or a "who." If the subject is a "what" (something which isn't yet human), then freedom of choice can be advocated. If you define the subject as a "who," a human being, then abortion could be condemned as manslaughter.

Logician trick #2: Craft a core argument by redefining elements of the issue.

Pro-choice advocates argue that you define a human as having characteristics A, B, C, and D. Because an embryo at the instant of conception has none of these characteristics, it's not yet human.

Pro-life activists argue that at the instant of conception, the embryo possesses all the genetic material necessary to be a human being.

Logician trick #3: Craft a core argument by redefining the scope of the issue.

Pro-life advocates argue, "If we kill defenseless embryos, how can any member of society expect to be treated with compassion and mercy?"

Pro-choice advocates argue, "If a woman is denied freedom of choice within her own body, how safe are any of our freedoms?"

In both arguments, the issues are expanded. The scope of the argument is no longer simply the destiny of an embryo but the larger issues of mercy, morality, compassion, and freedom.

Logician trick #4: Craft a core argument by showing an if/then correlation.

Trace evidence of material used to make bombs was found in the wreckage of TWA Flight 800. The Paris-bound plane left New York and exploded off the coast of Long Island, killing all 230 people aboard. The conclusion reached by some experts was "If there was bomb residue, then the plane was blown up." It was later determined that the telltale bomb residue was left by a U.S. military unit that had chartered the plane earlier.

Logician trick #5: Craft a core argument by expanding the realm of the possible.

If something is possible without special effort, then it must be possible with effort. A small child easily learns Spanish when it is his or her native language. Certainly, then, an English-speaking college student could easily learn Spanish. (Author's note: I am living proof of the fallacy of this logic. I faithfully attended class, but still I died an excruciating death in Spanish 3.)

Support Your Core Argument with Three Portable Points (Because Too Little is Too Little and Too Much is Too Much).

The use of threes is a trick passed among comics as some mystical rule. The greatness of a joke is in the punch—in the unexpected. People think in patterns of three. Break the pattern's expectation, and you'll get your punch—and hopefully some laughs. An example: "These dresses come in three sizes: small, medium, and tent." (The humor doesn't come through when it's a four-word pattern: "small, medium, large, and tent.")

There's a magic about threes. Threes are best remembered and carry maximum impact.

Advertisers know we're culturally attuned to messages that contain clusters of threes. Consider the following examples:
  • "The few, the proud, the Marines."
  • "Trustworthy. Reliable. Friendly." (Ricoh Business Machines)
  • "Italian. Sensual. Warm." (Disaronno Amaretto)
  • "Snap, Crackle, Pop" (Rice Krispies)
  • "Real Food. Real Life. Real Results." (Weight Watchers)
Write down the three main points that support your core argument, reasons why the other person should buy into your core argument. To maximize impact, ask yourself, "What do I know? What do they know? What do they need to know?" The best points are what I call portable points—three points out of all the possibilities that you would like the other person to "take home."

But what if you have more than three main points? It's best not to strut all your stuff at one time.

Play Your Points by the Numbers (Because You Want to Power Up).

You've discovered that having three portable points in support of your core argument is a highly effective tool. To power up your portable points, play them out by the numbers.

You'll see what I mean when you compare these two plays:

Play 1: "There are important reasons for us to oppose the multiplex..."
Play 2: "There are three important reasons for us to oppose the multiplex..."

Play 1 is humdrum and flat. Play 2 is seductive. A listener will want to start writing down what you're about to say. A reader will quicken his or her reading pace to discover what the pages ahead have in store.

There's only one difference between the two plays—it's the number three. The actual number isn't important. I was induced to read these articles because of their intriguing numbered themes: "Five Ways to Quickly Lose Weight," "Professional Photographers Share Their 10 Best Tips," "Six Deadly Phrases That Will Kill Any Deal." Could you have flipped past any of these articles without giving them the chance to strut their stuff?

The way you present your argument depends on whether it is in a pleading, verbally, to a group or one-on-one. How to Win Any Argument is about making, managing, and moving your argument so others will see what you see, feel what you feel, and believe what you believe.

About the Author:

Robert Mayer is a lawyer and mediator with the Los Angeles law firm of Mayer & Glassman Law Corporation and the author of How to Win Any Negotiation Without Raising Your Voice, Losing Your Cool, or Coming to Blows and How to Win Any Argument Without Raising Your Voice, Losing Your Cool, or Coming to Blows. Visit his website at

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