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Using your arguments to best effect

Making your arguments count

So you’ve finally got a date in the diary for that crucial, make-or-break meeting – with a potential new customer about working together, with an investor about providing new funding, with your boss about the added responsibilities you want to take on, with the Board about the company’s financial strategy. Given the importance of the occasion, you’ve done your homework and you’ve ensured you have a list of sure-fire, incontrovertible arguments at your finger-tips which, once exposed, can’t fail to persuade the new client/ the investor/ your boss/ the Board to agree to your proposal.

And yet every day, in meetings around the world, irrefutable arguments are nevertheless refuted. They fail to carry the day. They fall on stony ground – or, more literally, on deaf ears.

Success is clearly not just about the quality of your argument; it’s also about how you deploy them. Often even the most potentially powerful arguments are scattered to the wind in meetings because they’re deployed in ways which give the other person little incentive to listen to them, no help in understanding them, no opportunity to react to them.

So here are some simple ideas for ensuring that once you’ve invested time in developing persuasive arguments, you give those arguments the best chance of producing the outcome you want.

  1. Don’t expose your arguments until you’ve told the other person what you want to happen once you’ve taken them through those arguments.
  2. Don’t expose your arguments until the other person has declared him- or herself ready to listen to them.
  3. One argument at a time – and a maximum of three. In a meeting, less is invariably more.
  4. Get the other person’s reaction to each argument before moving on to the next one.

Let’s consider these ideas.

Position or goal first, arguments later

Most of us were taught when we wrote essays at school to argue ‘deductively’ – and we’ve carried that order of doing things through into our business lives: “Taking into consideration ……., and also because of ….., and not forgetting……, I think we should make no dividend payment this year…….”

But how can someone listen intelligently and analytically to your arguments until they know what position or objective you want those arguments to support? It’s both more efficient and more effective to reverse the order. “My recommendation is that we should make no dividend payment this year. And I’m happy to go through my reasons for making that recommendation. What do you say?”

At the beginning of the meeting, it will underline your professionalism and arouse the other person’s curiosity if signal that you HAVE the necessary arguments with you, but exposing them needs to come after the announcement of your meeting goal, not before. “I’ve undertaken a very thorough financial analysis looking at ROI, cash-flow, hurdle rate etc. which I’m ready to take you through in detail. Once I’ve done that and answered any further questions, I hope you’ll give your approval to my request for an additional budget of £100k.”

Arguments in a void generate only counter-arguments

Consider what happens when you start getting arguments out without having had the courtesy to first tell the other person your position or your goal. The other person knows you want something from them once you’ve gone through your arguments, but if they don’t know what that something is, they’ll necessarily be on the defensive. They won’t want to risk endorsing your argument for fear that you’re taking them somewhere they don’t want to go. (Indeed, getting people to agree with arguments before the goal is clear is one of the most common methods of manipulation taught to salespeople.) Until the other person knows where you’re going with your arguments, you’re most likely only to generate counter-arguments.

The lone wolf is stronger than the pack

We all tend to believe that the more arguments we get out in favour of our proposal, the stronger our position will be. But piling argument upon argument (“…and another thing……, … and have you considered…..,…and what about……,….and by the way…..”) is both unproductive and smacks of desperation. Find your three strongest arguments and stick to those. Expose them one at a time and ask the other person what he or she thinks of each of them. An argument will only ever produce something useful for you when the other person reacts to it; so if you get out an argument and immediately follow it with another without pausing to get feedback, that first argument will have been scattered on the breeze and will produce nothing.

Two contrasting examples

  1. Deductive: “There’s a major opportunity for us this year to expand into the semi-submersible widget market which is enjoying double-digit growth at the moment but that’s going to require major investments in plant over the next two years. We’ll also need to spend a lot more on marketing. And there’s the write-off on our hydrogen-powered widget production line to consider. And we need to keep something in reserve for potential law-suits. So all in all, I hope you’ll understand why I’m recommending that we suspend the dividend payment this year.”


  1. Inductive: “Before today’s board meeting, I’ve thought carefully about what I believe our dividend policy this year should be. I’ll take you through my thinking in detail – and once I’ve done so, I hope you’ll endorse my recommendation that we should suspend our dividend payment this year. How does that sound to you as a way of proceeding?”




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