Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Monday, June 3, 2019

Argument Preparation: Five Tips for Preparing a Successful Argument

This is a guest post by Albert Navarra.  Albert Navarra has been practicing law in California since 1999 and has a background in philosophy, education, and writing. He also has a passion for making complicated subjects simple.

Great arguments are not accidents. They are the result of great preparation. So get ready.

First, clarify the main point of your argument. Distill the root of your argument down to its essence. What exactly are you arguing about? What is the issue? What is the disagreement? What do you want to accomplish? What is your point? Or, what is the other person’s point?

Once you know the answers to these questions, you have the foundation upon which your argument will be based. Here are five key points to consider when you are preparing an argument, whether that argument is tailored to a judge or your client.

    Practice. If your argument is scheduled to happen sometime in the future, then you’ll have time to practice. So you should practice. If you lack confidence, you’ll probably be eager to practice so that you don’t mess up. Fred Astaire was a virtuoso dancer, but not particularly confident. So he practiced, a lot, and it paid off. If you are especially confident, you might decide you don’t need practice. But you should practice too. You’ve nothing to lose by practicing. And you’ll probably end up being even more confident!

    So what should you practice? Everything. If your presentation is limited to a certain number of minutes, practice to make sure you can finish in time. Record yourself to make sure you speak clearly and at a comfortable rate of speed, not too fast or slow. If you have a camera, record yourself to see how you look. You should look alive and keenly interested in your audience; that will make your audience interested in you. Keep your head up, look at the imaginary people you are speaking to, and use hand gestures to emphasize important points. Things happen during arguments, but the more you prepare and practice, the fewer surprises you will face, and the better you will perform.

    The Other Side of the Coin. If you can’t see the “other side of the coin,” you will probably lose the coin. You must be able to see the issue the way your opponent sees it so you can make your argument stronger. Otherwise, you are blind to weaknesses in your argument and strengths in your opponent’s argument.

    There are two ways to anticipate what your opponent will say, and thereby “know your enemy.” First, the “easy” way: turn your point upside down and argue the exact opposite. If you are arguing that lowering taxes increases job creation, consider the argument that lowering taxes does not increase job creation. How would that argument go? What reasons might someone give in support of that claim? Are they good reasons? Are they weak reasons?

    Then there’s the “hard” way to anticipate counterarguments. Try to think of new points you have not even thought of yet. Your opponent might say that even if lowering taxes increases jobs, there are other points to consider. Lower tax rates produce less tax revenue. So if government spending is not reduced, lower tax rates may increase annual spending deficits and the total national debt. These counter-arguments are new points that you may not have thought of originally. Anticipate counterpunches, or get knocked out.

    Say things that matter. To realize the joy of argument and all the wonderful things it can bring, you need to think about and say things that matter. Don’t just say things because it feels good to say them. Say things because they are relevant and help prove your point.

    Start by arguing relevant facts. And spend most of your time on the most relevant facts. A fact is relevant if it tends to prove your point; these are the fact you emphasize when you are proving a point. For example, let’s say you argue that there is an economic recession. Relevant facts would be decreased income levels, decreased gross domestic product (GDP), decreased consumer spending, and increased unemployment. These facts, if true, would tend to prove your point.

    So, it’s important to identify the relevant facts in an argument. But it’s not enough to simply argue relevant facts. To persuade, you need to argue the most relevant facts. Focus on the facts that matter the most.

    The difference between “sufficient” and “necessary.” Causation is the idea that one thing causes another. A common issue is whether something is “sufficient,” all by itself, to cause another thing; or whether it’s just one of several things that are “necessary” to cause another thing.

    “Practice makes perfect.” What’s the flaw in that statement? The saying assumes that practice, alone, will cause you to become perfect at something—that practice is “sufficient” to cause perfection. But all the practice in the world won’t make you perfect if you are practicing the wrong way and following bad habits. And if you are not well-suited for the activity, even the best practice won’t make you perfect. You can take singing lessons from the best instructors in the world, but if you are tone deaf, you still won’t sing well. So practice is “necessary” to become “perfect,” because one cannot improve without it. But it’s not “sufficient” to be perfect. Distinguish what is “sufficient” from what is “necessary.”

    Make strong analogies. Arguing by analogy is a fantastic way to make a point, and it’s basically making a connection between what you’re trying to prove and something else. But the analogy must be strong. So what’s a strong analogy?

    First, a strong analogy has several important similarities. But the similarities must also be relevant. If they’re not, then the analogy is weak. For example, one might argue that relationships are like investments. You get out of them what you put into them, right? And with investments, it’s important not to “put all your eggs in one basket.” You should diversify your investments and spread them around. That way if any one investment loses money, your entire portfolio won’t lose money. Your spouse or committed partner says that your relationship is “just like an investment.” So the two of you should be free to date other people, to “diversify” your relationships. How does that sound? Not so committed, it seems.

    When someone uses an analogy to persuade you about something, you need to recognize that an analogy is being used. Listen for words such as “like” or “the same as”. Then see if there are enough important similarities for the analogy to be strong and persuasive. Strong, persuasive analogies have several important similarities; weak ones don’t.

    If you want to produce a winning argument, then you must hone your skills. Practice your argument ahead of time, be willing to see the “other side of the coin”, say things that matter, know the difference between “sufficient” and “necessary”, and make strong analogies. These strategies will get you ready to deliver a successful argument and enjoy it.

This article contains excerpts from The Joy of Argument by Albert Navarra. You can learn more about the Joy of Argument by clicking here.

Find the Joy of Argument on Amazon.

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