Weak arguments are like chains: If one claim breaks, the whole argument falls apart.
Lawyers—i.e., people who argue as a profession—know better. Instead of linking chains, lawyers weave claims into cables of arguments strong enough to convince judges and juries. Unlike fragile links, if one thread frays, the cable stays strong.
I know, you’re not a lawyer. But your readers are more like a jury than you might think. The hyperavailability of online content means that readers are, in effect, constantly hovering over the close tab button, ready to quit reading. You might not be a lawyer, but your readers are certainly judging.
Content that converts must first persuade, so content marketers would do well to learn from professional persuaders. By learning how to make cables of arguments, content marketers can make their ideas more convincing.
Weak arguments are like chains: If one claim breaks, the whole argument falls apart.
The Cable Method vs. the Chain Method
All content makes an argument of some sort. Even the most basic listicle argues, at least implicitly, that a given series of items is worth looking at. To improve your arguments, you first need to explicate them (at least for yourself, in the outline stage) and then think about the structure of the claims that constitute them.
The Common Form of Strong Arguments
Weak content relies on one argument; stronger content relies on a chain of arguments; the strongest content weaves together a cable of arguments.
An amateur arguer tends to conceive of arguments as a chain, as one claim interlocking with and leading to the next claim. If every claim holds, then you have a strong argument. The flaw in this framework is that if you have one weak claim, then the chain slips, and the entire argument falls apart.
Lawyers, professional arguers, instead conceive of arguments as cables. “A cable's strength,” in the words of law professor Wilson R. Huhn, “relies not on that of individual threads, but upon their cumulative strength as they are woven together.” In other words, numerous, parallel claims and conclusions come together to form one argument that is more than the sum of its parts.
The power, however, comes from variety, not numbers. The goal isn’t to overwhelm readers with numerous arguments but to compel readers with different types of arguments.
The Arguments All Lawyers Share
Over the centuries, lawyers have built up ways of making arguments that judges recognize (and opposing lawyers, if they’re smart, can recognize and combat). These five arguments, operating under what legal philosopher H.L.A. Hart calls “rules of recognition,” are considered valid and legitimate ways to create law.
There are five arguments: text arguments, which use documents and statutes; intent arguments, which use the documented intent of the law’s author; precedent arguments, which use statements by other judges; tradition arguments, which use cultural norms; and policy arguments, which use any kind of evidence to prove that a given interpretation of the law will bring about a better state of affairs.
Each of the five arguments uses different evidence, but each is more compelling when used in conjunction with other arguments.
Build Your Own Persuasion Tool Kit
Of course, as a content marketer, your job is a little different. You have many more arguments at your disposal, but your readers don’t operate on rules of recognition. It’s your job to not only make the argument but convince the reader to believe the argument. There’s no law to appeal to.
The best way to make these arguments compelling is to typify and categorize them. If you know what kind of argument you want to make, you can better scrutinize how well you realized that argument.
Here’s a non-exhaustive list of arguments you can use to start building your own persuasion toolkit. Throughout these examples, we’ll use Hiten Shah’s article Ahead of Its Time, Behind the Curve: Why Evernote Failed to Realize Its Potential as an example of each argument and as an example of weaving the arguments together.
1) Best Objection
Readers don’t want to feel convinced. Your strong argument may, counterintuitively, inspire doubt because it’s so strong. Readers will think you’re duping them. A best objection gives readers the chance to entertain the other side, making them feel as though they have come to an objective conclusion.
Writers will address a counterargument (weak writers will use a straw man, strong ones will use an iron man) to show that they have truly considered all the evidence and that their argument still holds.
A best objection is necessary for Shah to make his point in “Ahead of Its Time, Behind the Curve: Why Evernote Failed to Realize Its Potential.” His point is surprising, counterintuitive, controversial. Your first instinct, especially if you're a Evernote fan, is to reject the argument. That's why Shah highlights your objection within the first few paragraphs, writing, “Evernote was and remains one of the best examples of what a freemium product can be.” Shah goes on to spend paragraph after paragraph explaining the vision behind Evernote and the (limited) success that vision led to.
Though the focus of the post is on Evernote’s failure, Shah uses prime real estate at the top of the blog to explain why Evernote succeeded. A best objection lowers the defenses of your readers, inviting them to consider your claims.
2) Repeat Yourself
Your best arguments don’t exist inside articles; they exist across them. Advertisers have long known readers need seven impressions to buy. A similar principle applies to writing: Readers need to see multiple arguments, in multiple types, across multiple occasions to be convinced. The bigger the idea (i.e., the more readers need to change their beliefs or behaviors to agree with it), the more times you’ll need to convince them.
Writers repeat arguments, often best contained within coined concepts, across articles to persuade readers of bigger ideas. This is a time where the library versus publication distinction comes into play. If your blog publishes one article after the next, your arguments may repeat, but they won’t compound. If your blog is instead a library or a playground, then readers will encounter your arguments again and again.
“Ahead of Its Time, Behind the Curve: Why Evernote Failed to Realize Its Potential,” for instance, complements articles like Why Trello Failed to Build a $1 Billion+ Business and The Most Important Turning Points in Microsoft’s History. These articles contribute to the central argument that every business faces pivotal decisions that can forever change its trajectory.
When a blog uses repetition effectively, reading an article produces a kaleidoscope effect: the deeper you look, the more you see patterns that interlock and repeat themselves. Every article becomes an instance of a larger argument.
3) Narrative Storytelling
Narrative arguments make the case that readers should accept a conclusion because it follows from a logically coherent narrative. Writers will often write about a personal story or tear down an example from another company and use that narrative to reveal a conclusion they want the reader to accept.
Narrative arguments use the human brain’s natural predilection for simulation to produce compelling concepts. In her book How Emotions Are Made, neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett writes that simulation is the “default mode for all mental activity.” When you face “ambiguous, noisy information from your eyes, ears, nose, and other sensory organs” your brain simulates corresponding experiences to “impose meaning on the noise.”
One of the reasons stories are so powerful is that when readers read your story, they’re simulating the story in their heads as if it were really happening. Their neurons are firing, their heartbeat is pounding, their pulse is quickening—it’s all, in a sense, real. When readers then face ambiguous situations in their own lives, they remember your narrative as vividly as they remember other events from their own lives. Your article, via narrative, becomes an experience they can reference.
In Shah’s article, he starts with a startling argument and rappels from argument to argument, retelling Evernote’s history just as it analyzes its failures. He sprinkles in quotes from people at Evernote and uses images from Evernote’s early design.
As you read, your brain is simulating the experience of working at Evernote—the successes and the failures. Momentum builds on vividness, and by the time you’re done reading, Shah’s conclusions feel inevitable and his ideas unforgettable.
4) Data Analysis
Data arguments marshal previously unused or unanalyzed information to support a claim. Writers use data to show that their claims are rooted in objective evidence and that readers should follow what the data implies.
You’ve seen the weakest form of this argument dozens of times. Many an article starts with: “According to a 2020 survey, chatbots will ...” Stronger forms of this argument present data that readers haven’t seen before, and analyze it to reveal a conclusion that feels rooted in the objectivity of the presented data.
“Ahead of Its Time, Behind the Curve: Why Evernote Failed to Realize Its Potential” threads data into its premises, noting that, for instance:
- “In 2002, Microsoft controlled almost 94% of the client-side operating system market” (supporting the claim that Evernote’s founder was smart to target the Microsoft OS).
- “The product had more than 125,000 users before Evernote emerged from its closed beta” (supporting the claim that Evernote’s growth had been steady and organic).
- “The company had around 230 employees worldwide, tripled the number of developers working with Evernote’s API, and more than tripled its userbase from 12M to more than 38M in just one year” (supporting the claim that the company was in a good position to launch a business plan).
At every turn, Shah uses data to prove his point. The result is an article that feels startlingly controversial (just look at that headline!) and objective.
5) Social Proof
Social proof is an appeal to collective authority. The argument is that because numerous people (ideally, experts in their fields) believe something, then readers should too. Writers will use survey answers, interviews, or community feedback to leverage a reader’s innate tendency to follow the crowd.
Social proof is effective because, according to a legion of psychological studies, humans have a tendency to follow social norms, even when they disagree with individually held beliefs. An article without any social proof sets off a deeply held cue in the human brain: Is this claim correct? By following it, am I going to deviate, dangerously, from the crowd?
In “Ahead of Its Time, Behind the Curve: Why Evernote Failed to Realize Its Potential,” Shah is making an argument too unique to lean on survey answers, and yet, he weaves in social proof. Shah argues, for instance, using the screenshot below, that Evernote wasn’t focused on fixing the issues users card about.
In another section, Shah cites a pair of Tweets to evidence the distrust Evernote customers had for Evernote’s new CEO.
In these examples, Shah gives you permission to believe his argument because he shows that other people believe its supporting claims. His argument carries the weight of the Evernote userbase rather than relying on his authority alone.
Create an Impression of Inevitability
Not every article has to be a Hiten Shah-esque tour de force (see, this is me using best objection). The takeaway is that every time you write, be conscious of the arguments you’re making and the arguments you could be making in parallel.
The next time you create a survey, think about what data could support the social proof the survey will produce. The next time you write a narrative, think about what your reader’s objections might be. The next time you craft a content strategy, back up and look at how the arguments of each article support the arguments of the next. What are you building to?
Arguments that aren’t parallel are a mess of threads instead of a tight cable. Your reader is as likely to get tripped up as convinced. Just like a lawyer, the overarching goal is to demonstrate that multiple types of arguments offer the same conclusion: yours.