How To Create Rock Solid Arguments
In Your Dissertation, Thesis Or Assignments

The 6 Essential Ingredients (With Examples)

By: Derek Jansen | August 2017

Arguments happen all the time and that’s okay.

Whether we realise it or not, we have arguments every day. We may quarrel with a significant other over dirty dishes, disagree with an acquaintance over a political hot topic, or even argue with ourselves over the fact that we procrastinate too much. On a more serious note, we also face arguments in our professional and academic lives. For example:

  • We debate in class or write assignments on how a company should resolve a particular crisis
  • We propose and defend our theses, both orally and written
  • We give a presentation to our boss(es) on how best to target a specific market segment

The point with arguments is that we try to convince someone (or ourselves) that we are right. So why don’t we always win our arguments? The art of persuasion is not a natural gift to all of us (it definitely isn’t for me). I’ve learned that I can’t stand on my passion and beliefs alone; I need cold hard facts to back me up.

Arguments need facts

This blog post will not make you an expert (and I do not claim to be an expert) at argument, but it will provide you with a framework and checklist to help you build strong arguments within your assignments, exams and dissertation or thesis. After all, strong, rigorous arguments are a mainstay of mark-earning work.

So, what do you need in an argument?

A strong argument has six essential ingredients:

  1. A clear, well-communicated objective/conclusion
  2. Premise(s) backed by relevant evidence
  3. Sound logic
  4. Clear qualifications
  5. Acknowledgement of counter-arguments
  6. Emotion and energy

I’ll discuss each of these in this article.

Ingredient #1: A clearly stated
objective or conclusion

First, an argument, just like any other assignment or research project, will go nowhere without an objective or conclusion. If you do not have a clear focus, you risk confusing yourself, your audience, and your marker. Therefore, you need to ensure that you are very clear about the point you are trying to make (your conclusion or objective). Sounds simple, but you’d be amazed just how many students are unclear about what their point is and, consequently, end up going nowhere slowly.

Throughout this post, I’ll use the example of Company X and its Product Z:

  • Company X’s Product Z had great success in the UK, with over 100% ROI within the first two quarters.
  • Strong demand for a product like Product Z exists in Germany, France, and Spain.
  • Market competition Product Z is relatively low in the targeted European countries.
  • Therefore, Company X will most likely launch product Z in Germany, France, and Spain.

The objective of my argument is to convince you that Company X will most likely successfully launch product Z in the targeted European countries. With this conclusion in focus, I will be able to identify and weigh my strategic options, and then articulate the best way to achieve the objective.

So, the ultimate goal of the argument is to convince someone to agree with your conclusion… but why? Why are you trying to change someone’s mind? It’s not just to get great marks. You must have reasons for your conclusion – these reasons are called premises.

Ingredient #2: Well-grounded premises

Once you have your objective, you need to clearly communicate your premises. Premises are the building blocks that underpin your conclusion (objective); they provide evidence to lead the audience to agree with your conclusion (Side note: I use proof and premise as synonyms so that I remember the importance of including premises in my arguments). While there can only be one conclusion in an argument, there can be one or (ideally) many premises to support the conclusion. For example, in the case of Company X and Produce Z: two premises are that demand exists in these target countries, and market competition is relatively low.

Great premises have (at least) two requirements:

  1. They must be backed by credible, verifiable data; and
  2. They must be relevant to the conclusion.

Data trumps gut

Strong arguments are not based on gut instinct. An argument without data-backed premises is, by definition, baseless. Let’s return to the above example: Demand exists in these target countries, and market competition is relatively low. To make these great premises, I need to add credible data points. For example:

  • An independent consulting firm conducted a market research study of 6,000 people in the targeted countries, and results revealed that high demand exists for a product like Product Z.
  • The data collected from an independent consulting firm is a verifiable, citable source. Always double check your sources to make sure you understand and defend them.

Remember, data may not always come from an independent source – it may be outsourced/sponsored by a company, or a company may have an internal research arm. Be ready to ensure the credibility of the information if/when you are asked.

  • IBISWorld’s latest industry report shows that market competition Product Z is relatively low in the targeted European countries.
  • IBISWorld is a well-recognized provider of industry information and may be a source that your marker recommended. Similar to the point above, this data point is credible and can easily be verified.

To gather information, I suggest you prioritise using class- or school-prescribed sources first; use additional sources to complement, not replace, the class recommended sources.

Relevance is essential

While your premises must be data-backed, they must also be relevant to your conclusion. In other words, relevant premises have evidence that is clearly and logically linked to your conclusion. Be wary of following into the “my premise is true so it must be relevant” trap. If a premise is deemed irrelevant, your argument loses weight because you appear to lose focus.

For example: Company X recently built a state of the art manufacturing facility in the United States.

Your marker will ask: how is this a manufacturing facility in the US connected to your conclusion? The answer is, that premise does not connect. Yes, it is true, but it does not seem logical that a manufacturing facility is strategically linked to a product launch in Europe. Use logic to make sure that your premises are relevant.

Ingredient #3: Sound logic

Ensuring that your arguments are underpinned by firm logic is… logical. You want to convince your audience, so you need to make sense when building and stating your argument. When making your argument, select your line of reasoning: deductive or inductive.

Arguments need logic

When making your argument, select your line of reasoning: deductive or inductive. Logically (pun intended), sound deductive reasoning means that your conclusion can be deducted from your valid premises; cogent inductive reasoning means that your conclusion can be inferred from your strong premises.

Deductive reasoning

In deductive reasoning, the premises are a series of consequential statements that lead to the conclusion. To form a conclusion through deduction, you use general premises to point to a specific conclusion. Deductive reasoning is typically focused on the past or present: the general premises have been tested and lead to a specific past or present conclusion.

To identify if an argument is sound, you first check whether the argument is valid. Then, assess if the premises are true or false. Here is an example of deductive reasoning:

  • Premise: Most tech companies have a Chief Innovation Officer.
  • Premise: Company X is a tech company.
  • Conclusion: We may conclude that Company X has a Chief Innovation Officer.

In the above example, the premises start general and then get more specific as they get to the conclusion. Deductive arguments are classified as valid or invalid and deemed to be sound or unsound. To check the validity of the argument, ask this question: Assuming that the premises are true, does it logically follow that this conclusion is also true? If the answer is yes, like with the example above, then the argument is valid. It is important to note that the premises do not actually have to be true in order for an argument to be valid. For example, Company X could actually be a healthcare company. However, the argument is still valid because it makes sense that if Company X were hypothetically a tech company, it makes sense that it would have a CIO.

To see if the argument is sound, next check to see if the premises are actually true. An argument is not sound if it is based on false premises. Since in our example we have maintained that Company X is a tech company, we know that premise to be true. Based on other information, we also know that most tech companies have a Chief Innovation Officer. We have two true premises, so we have a sound argument. If Company X actually turned out to be a healthcare company, then we would have one false premise. The argument is therefore unsound because it is based on a false premise.

Inductive reasoning

Inductive reasoning is the opposite of deductive reasoning: specific premises infer a general conclusion. Inductive reasoning is typically geared towards conclusions that will happen in the future. In other words, the conclusion is a prediction that will be tested through future observation. The example we have been using throughout this post is an example of inductive reasoning:

  • Premise: Company X’s Product Z had great success in the UK, with over 100% ROI within the first two quarters.
  • Premise: An independent consulting firm conducted a survey of 6,000 people in Germany, France, and Spain, revealing a strong demand for Product Z.
  • Premise: IBISWorld’s latest industry report shows that market competition Product Z is relatively low in the targeted European countries.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, Company X will most likely successfully launch product Z in Germany, France, and Spain.

Inductive arguments are classified as strong or weak and deemed to be cogent or uncogent. In terms of strength of an inductive argument, there is a little more grey area than when gauging the validity of a deductive argument. The validity of a deductive argument is pretty clear cut: you assess if a conclusion from the past or present is either true or false. However, in an inductive argument the conclusion is a prediction, so you cannot be 100% sure if it actually true or false. Therefore, you ask: Assuming that the premises are true, is there more than a 50% chance that the conclusion will actually happen? If the answer is yes, like in the example above, then the argument is strong.

Just as with deductive arguments, the next step in assessing an inductive argument is evaluating the truth of its premises. A true premise is backed up with data. For example, in the above argument, the premises contain data. If, after verification that the data is true, then the argument is cogent. If it turns out that the data is false – for example, if market research reveals that there is not much demand for Product Z, then the argument is not cogent.

To summarise, the visual below provides a decision-tree of how to evaluate both deductive and inductive arguments.

logic steps

Pro tip: Look at the argument’s premise and conclusion indicator words to identify if or inductive reasoning was used. Words that refer to the past or present are used in deductive reasoning; words that refer to the future, or form a hypothesis, are used in inductive reasoning.

That was a lot of information to throw at you. Here are the main points to take away:

  • In deductive reasoning, validity and soundness are different concepts. Validity refers to the feasibility of the conclusion; soundness refers to the truthfulness of the premises.
  • In inductive reasoning, strength and cogency are different concepts. Strength refers to the feasibility of the conclusion; cogency refers to the truthfulness of the premises.

Ingredient #4: Clear qualifications

The conclusions you draw in your argument are not universally applicable (surprise!); there will typically be limitations to the generalisability of your argument – in other words, it will not necessarily be a sound argument in all contexts (in fact, very little is every universally true or relevant). For example, it may only be true in a certain country, for certain people, in a specific organisation, at a certain time of year, etc.

Before finalising your assignment or dissertation and concluding that you have solved the world’s problems, consider the situations in which your arguments might not work. In doing so, you identify your argument’s qualifications.

Remember to use qualifying indicator words (such as “in many cases”, “most”, “predictably”) to help explain your conclusion. For example:

  • Premise: Company X’s Product Z had great success in the UK, with over 100% ROI within the first two quarters.
  • Premise: An independent consulting firm conducted a survey of 6,000 people in Germany, France, and Spain, revealing a strong demand for Product Z.
  • Premise: IBISWorld’s latest industry report shows that market competition Product Z is relatively low in the targeted European countries.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, Company X will most likely successfully launch product Z in Germany, France, and Spain.
  • Qualification: However, Company X must consider cultural and importation barriers that can hinder the success of Product Z’s expansion.

Ingredient #5: Acknowledgement of
the counter-arguments

Similarly to qualifying your argument, a good argument needs to anticipate the opposition. There will almost always be counter-arguments to any argument – very little is cut and dry. Therefore, analysing and addressing counter-arguments shows the marker that you have put in considerable time and thought to develop the best scenario.

Good arguments acknowledge the counter arguments

Additionally, if you have a strong defence against an opposing view, you may very well be likely to turn naysayers into advocates. Potential challenges you can anticipate and address are:

  • A different conclusion may be drawn using your own premises
  • A question of the importance or validity of your premises
  • There may be significant drawbacks to your conclusion

You have some options in addressing counter-arguments:

  • Point out and prove errors in the counter-argument.
  • Acknowledge the strength or validity of the counter-argument, but show why it is not as strong or valid as your original argument, or within your particular context (i.e. a specific industry or country)
  • If the counter-argument points a flaw in one aspect of your conclusion, rewrite your conclusion in a more detailed manner.

Here’s an example:

  • Premise: Company X’s Product Z had great success in the UK, with over 100% ROI within the first two quarters.
  • Premise: An independent consulting firm conducted a survey of 6,000 people in Germany, France, and Spain, revealing a strong demand for Product Z.
  • Premise: IBISWorld’s latest industry report shows that market competition Product Z is relatively low in the targeted European countries.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, Company X will most likely successfully launch product Z in Germany, France, and Spain.
  • Counter argument: Product Z will face tremendous cultural and financial barriers if launched across Europe.
  • Response to counter-argument: The launch will occur in phases. Company X will first beta test Product Z in order to understand how to tailor the product and better understand how to import and market the product.

Ingredient #6: Emotion and energy

Lastly, arguments need to do demonstrate a level of emotion in order to be convincing. This might seem contradictory to my previous point about arguments needing to be built on data-backed premises, but it’s not. Simply put, your argument needs to be fueled by data and demonstrated and communicated with emotion and energy.

good arguments have energy

 Imagine standing up in front of your class and just saying, “We need to implement strategy X because we will increase our market share” without intonation. No matter how great your prepared argument is, you will lose the attention of your audience if you do not exhibit emotion and energy. We’ve all had that one lecturer who drones on and on, and we quickly lose interest in the subject. Don’t be like that lecturer. Be you. I’m not saying to gesticulate wildly and shout at top volume; it is possible to be poised and passionate at the same time.

Remember: emotion can also be felt in writing. Think of your favourite author, journalist, or researcher. How does she write? She must show emotion in her writing in order to keep you engaged. Try to channel that passion/emulate her writing to make sure that your voice can be heard in your writing.

Wrapping up

In this post, I have discussed six elements of a good argument. Build your arguments using these ingredients and you will no doubt improve the quality of your academic work. Here’s the checklist for quick reference:

  1. Have a clearly stated conclusion.
  2. Clearly communicate strong premises that are fact-based relevant to your conclusion.
  3. Use logic to formulate your argument.
  4. Note what under what circumstances your argument will and will not work (qualifications).
  5. Anticipate and address opposition to your argument.
  6. Show that you are not only knowledgeable but passionate about your argument.

These elements will help you convey to your marker an articulate, sensible argument that was created after the consideration of several scenarios.

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