Persuading vs. Arguing: What’s the Difference?

Hey everybody! Today I’m going to talk to you about a skill we all need to be good at, which is PERSUASION. Basically, that means being able to get what you want. But before we get started, I want to explain the difference between persuasion and manipulation. Persuasion is convincing others to help you get what you want using evidence, logical reasoning, and emotional appeal. Manipulation is convincing others to help you get what you want through deception or intimidation.

Still from Disney’s Treasure Planet: Scroop threatens Jim Hawkins.

It’s important to avoid manipulation for a couple of reasons. First of all, people don’t like being manipulated. So it requires increased effort to be effective each time you have another request. In contrast, if you’re effectively persuasive, and someone chooses to help you, it strengthens your bond with them, and that means they’re more likely to continue helping you. So the first reason not to use manipulation is that it’s less effective.

The second reason to avoid manipulation is that it’s kind of just a rotten way to treat other people. I don’t know about you; I don’t want to speak for anybody but myself. But for myself, I don’t want to be a rotten person. So I try not to manipulate people.

So, next, I want you to think of a time either that someone else convinced you to change your mind about something, or a time that you did that to someone else. And write a comment telling me about it.

This post builds on the concepts discussed in my video in the Introduction to Writing series, “Essay Structure Basics,” so feel free to go review that at any point and come back to this when you’re ready.

To write an effective persuasive essay, it’s important to understand why the topic is important – why people should care about it. The challenge with this is that you don’t always get to write about what’s important to you. Sometimes a teacher assigns the topic. Or it might be something you have to do for work, so it’s something for your boss or for the company.

In each of these cases, the key to writing persuasively will be to figure out and understand why other people care about this topic. This is also an important skill; it’s called empathy. Human beings are social creatures, but we’re also individuals. This means that while each of us has a unique set of likes and dislikes, interests, passions, experiences and skills, we also have an inherent need to connect with others. Empathy is what allows us to manage those sometimes-conflicting needs without escalating into actual conflict.

Still from Disney’s Treasure Planet: The mutineers attack!

Well, when it works, anyway.

And if you do have to figure out why other people care, that will help you with the next step: figuring out how to make your audience care about the topic. If you’ve started with something that’s important to you, please don’t just assume that everyone else will already share your view. That’s kind of the point of persuasion. And in order to be effective at it, you need to demonstrate respect for the different experiences that will have led other people to develop views that contrast and even conflict with yours.

I want to clarify and emphasize this: Sometimes people will have views that you find to be very, very wrong. Like, “holy smokes, how can you even THINK that way?” kinds of wrong. You don’t have to pretend that you agree with them – in fact, you shouldn’t. That goes back to the difference between persuasion and manipulation. But it’s not effective to mock or shame them, and you should show respect for the people themselves, and for their lived experiences that have resulted in what their views are. People don’t believe things for NO reason, and when you forget that, you become less effective at persuasion.

So ideally, you want to begin doing some research before you even start brainstorming what you want to say or how you plan to say it. Think of it as “pre-search.” What evidence supports your idea? What evidence counters it? Why isn’t there one solid point of view on this topic that everyone agrees with?

Speaking of which, if there is one point of view that a large majority of people support over any others, then the topic probably isn’t a good one for persuasion. There’s not really much point in trying to convince anybody that the sky is blue, for example. Or whether or not it’s raining.

So, once you’ve done your “pre-search,” think about your “should.” In both persuasive and argumentative writing, you’re trying to convince your audience that something should happen. Maybe a law should be passed – or the existing laws should be more consistently enforced. Maybe funding for a program should be increased, or decreased. Maybe your “should” is that a change that is being proposed should not be enacted.

That “should” is going to be the core of your thesis statement – a one-sentence statement that directly expresses your main idea. This is the one idea you want your audience to connect with and, hopefully, do something to promote. But to get them to do this, you need to convince them.

The difference between a “persuasive” essay and an “argumentative” essay is the type of support used, which affects the tone and style of the writing. A persuasive essay relies more or even mostly on appeal to emotion, while an argumentative essay relies more or mostly on concrete, empirical data. However, this distinction rarely applies outside of school work, where you’re trying to show your skill at a particular type of writing. So make sure that you’re aware of which style your instructor wants you to use for a given assignment.

In the media and in writing for industry or professional organizations, articles and essays that attempt to convince the audience of a particular point are more likely to blend persuasive and argumentative styles. You also find this in speeches, such as at political campaign rallies or TED talks. It can be difficult to do this effectively, though, and avoid the “mood whiplash” of bouncing back and forth between informational argument and emotional persuasion. That’s why writing at school tends to focus on the styles one at a time.

In any case, you do need to have evidence to back up your points. Unfortunately, “because I say so” is really only a supporting reason when it’s used by a parent… and let’s be honest, it’s not all that effective at convincing the audience even then.

Still from Disney’s Treasure Planet: Jim getting fussed at by Mrs. Hawkins.

Make sure to look at as much evidence as possible in your research, and not just the evidence that supports your position. Look for individual anecdotes as well as larger studies and data pools. Be sure to review the information carefully to make sure that the conclusions you draw from it are valid. Consider the source: what was the method used to gather the information? How recent is it? How many people were involved in the study or the survey? How did the researchers make sure that they used a broad segment of the population, that it wasn’t JUST men or JUST women or JUST college students, for example? Or, is it a more focused study that could help you understand, say, a difference in attitudes between college students in 1990 and college students in 2020?

If the amount of information you have at hand seems overwhelming, that may mean that you need to focus your topic more specifically. You’re not going to become a climate change expert in a week. But you might be able to learn a lot about one aspect. Instead of researching the effects of fossil fuels, you might specifically look at the effects of electric vehicles as compared to standard gasoline powered cars.

On the other hand, if it seems like nothing (or very little) has been published about your topic, you probably need to talk to your instructor. You may need to re-phrase your search terms or look at the subject from a different angle. Describe what you’ve been doing as clearly and specifically as you can, so that your instructor can identify any potential problems.

When you start going through the evidence you’ve collected, what stands out to you? What do you notice? Do you see any ideas or facts that come up repeatedly? Do different sources rely on the same or similar information? Those may be points to focus on; other people seem to think they have particular importance.

Everything has to connect to and support your “should” – your thesis. That core idea needs to be in the back of your mind at all times. That’s going to help you sift through the information and identify what matters most. You want more than just a list of facts and information. That’s boring. Nobody’s going to care based on that.

What makes the essay truly yours is the way you use that information, and how you respond to it. Your analysis of the research should explain its relevance to your thesis, and how it shows that this idea matters and should be enacted, or supported, or … whatever it is you’re saying should happen.

And once you’ve done that with your information, you move on to the conclusion, where you look to the future. Give your audience a vision for how, once they support your “should” and put your idea into action, the world will be a better place. Their lives will be more meaningful, more prosperous, and ultimately, filled with joy.

Still from Disney’s Treasure Planet: Jim in the rigging.

Be careful, though. You go too far, and you risk having them roll their eyes and go “yeah, right.” So don’t actually exaggerate. Be passionate about the importance of your idea. It matters. It really does.

And you can convince your audience of that.

You can watch a video version of this post on my YouTube channel.

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