Winning Arguments-the Principles and Tools of Rhetoric

I am reading a book ( Winning Arguments: From Aristotle to Obama – Everything You Need to Know About the Art of Persuasion) at the moment about winning arguments and the use of rhetorical tools and principles. I am writing this blog post to help me understand the book better because I firmly believe writing is learning and the act of writing out the notes I have taken assist me to understand the principles and arguments better.

1. Set your goals

The first thing you need to do to win an argument is to be clear what your goal is. It is easy to lose sight of the end goal or objective when you get drawn into an argument and there is a risk of getting dragged into a fight for the sake of a fight.

2. Choose the tense

All issues come down to one of three things:

  • a) values
  • b) blame
  • c) choice

Each of these categories of issues have a tense associated with them: values (present tense), blame (past tense), choice (future tense).

To win your argument you need to choose your tense and choosing the future tense can be useful strategy.

Tools of argument

Cicero gave us the tools of argument as

  • ethos (character/trust)
  • logos (logical argument)
  • pathos (emotion)

Ethos: do you have virtue? Practical wisdom? Selflessness? Do you have decorum (do you fit in)? Does your audience or listener like you? Trust you?

Pathos: do you have sympathy with the other side?

Logos: a tactic to use is concession-that is, concede the other side’s argument

Check out how to speak like a leader, which touches on this use of rhetoric.

I have touched upon Cicero’s philosophy in this video:

Cicero’s 3 pillars of effective communication

3. Control the mood

  • Tell a story
  • use pathos (emotion) to stir action
  • use plain language
  • plain words
  • control the volume (understatement?)
  • don’t announce the emotion in advance

4. Turn the volume down (to reduce audience’s anger)

  • Use humour
  • passive voice
  • backfire (calm the other’s emotion by overplaying it yourself eg mea culpa)

5. Gain the high ground

  • start from a commonplace
  • what are the values of the audience?
  • their beliefs?

6. Persuade on your terms (strategy of definition)

  • facts
  • redefine terms
  • opponent’s argument is less important
  • discussion is irrelevant

Then, switch tenses to the future.

Framing-placing the argument within the bounds of your rhetorical turf

  • find commonplace words
  • define issue in broadest context
  • deal with problem in future tense

This is all about stance-that is, the position you take at the beginning of an argument.

  • Facts
  • definition
  • quality
  • relevance (whole argument is irrelevant)

7. Control the argument with logos


  • deductive logic
  • enthymeme (deductive logic stripped down)
  • inductive logice (argument by example: fact, comparison, story)

8. Defense

Logical fallacies:

  • the false comparison
  • the bad example
  • ignorance as proof
  • the tautology
  • the false choice
  • the red herring
  • the wrong ending

9. Don’t argue the inarguable

  • switching tenses away from the future
  • inflexible insistence on the rules
  • humiliation
  • innuendo
  • threats
  • nasty language/gestures
  • utter stupidity

10. Persuasion detectors (know who to trust)

  • apply the ‘disinterest’ test
  • check the extremes


  • disinterest
  • practical wisdom
  • virtue

11. Speak your audience’s language

Use words to gather an audience around you

12. Make them identify with your choice

13. Use schemes, figures of speech, tropes

14. Kairos-seize the moment (timing)

15. Use the right medium

  • phone
  • email
  • letter
  • instant message

Sight is mostly pathos and ethos; sound is mostly logos; smell, taste, and touch are emotional

16. Persuasive talk (speechmaking)

Cicero’s 5 canons of persuasion:

  • invention
  • arrangement
  • style
  • memory
  • delivery

Cicero/Obama speech

  • introduction
  • narration
  • division
  • proof
  • refutation
  • conclusion

17. Summary


  • think goals
  • set the tense
  • know your audience’s values
  • use ethos, logos, pathos (in that order)


Concede, if necessary and turn tense to future

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