by Carla D. Bass, Colonel, USAF (Ret) and author of “Write to Influence!“
Need to persuade others to your point of view? Representing a contentious position at a meeting?
Try these seven tips to frame a winning argument. They comprise a two-pronged strategy – composing and then presenting your message – and apply to written products and in-person exchanges.
1. Know the topic.
Your credibility rests squarely on this. First, ensure participants agree on the issue to be resolved and parameters of success. Then, research the subject thoroughly to argue from a position of strength and knowledge. Identify key points and fortify them with supporting evidence, the strength of which can make or break your case. Think around the corner – anticipate and answer questions your communication might elicit. Next, identify the counterarguments and their underlying rationale. Communicate with those holding contrary views, who might welcome the opportunity to elucidate!
2. Know your audience.
Identify key participants’ opinions on the topic at hand. Know who supports and who opposes your position. The latter is especially important. Think like an investigative reporter to comprehend contrary opinions and competing agendas they might reflect. Like a coach readying his team for the big game, you must discern the various views and strategies in play and prepare to address them.
3. Form a like-minded coalition.
Prior to the meeting or sending a communication, collaborate with members of the group who agree with your stance. Hopefully, their thoughts are based on facts and rationale similar to yours. Ascertain the degree of their support. Will they quietly concur or keenly advocate? Discuss the anticipated countervailing views to discover new facts, deepen your understanding, and determine how best to respond; perhaps colleagues can provide additional insight.
4. Address possible courses of action.
Propose two or three credible alternatives to resolve the issue, further demonstrating your expertise and enhancing your credibility. Then conduct a trade analysis, highlighting the efficacy of each in conjunction with the issue at hand. Next, contrast the alternatives amongst themselves, noting individual strengths and weaknesses. Conclude with your recommendation. Ensure that all aspects of the issue have been fully addressed… or at least to a level of satisfaction based on available time. Be prepared to discuss items not discussed and why.
5. Present all positions objectively.
Counter the alternatives presented and participants’ opposing views while advancing your own. Do so equitably and rationally, displaying accurate observation, sound reasoning, and specific facts, as necessary. This is an essential element of analysis and composition. It means treating a subject thoroughly, honestly, consistently, and accurately while diligently avoiding bias and self-interest in presenting the material. In Hollywood parlance, it means addressing “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Conveying material with the goal of persuasion is acceptable if your message is courteous, professional, forthright, and unprejudiced.
6. Triage and sequence the information.
Determine how much material you can address in the allocated time and space (the latter applies to written communication). Begin by identifying aspects of the issue upon which participants might agree. This generates positive momentum and rapport that, hopefully, will facilitate resolving more difficult aspects that follow. Prioritize your points from strongest to weakest recognizing some will fall below the cut line.
7. Build to the crescendo.
Bottom-line up front (BLUF) is not always the best approach in messaging. This seems counterintuitive in today’s intense, fast-paced business environment. However, BLUF is precisely the wrong approach when addressing a disputatious issue or one requiring a difficult decision or even when leading a series of meetings to reach a consensus. Why? Without laying the groundwork, you risk alienating the audience in the opening minutes of your communication – game over before you swing the bat. Instead, build to the crescendo by setting the context. Logically and factually present the circumstances that promulgated the current situation. When engaged in a series of meetings, memorialize interim decisions and reiterate them at the onset of each gathering to baseline and provide context for the ensuing discussion.
Consider this scenario, which applies the above-mentioned tips (shown with italics).
A company must take a 20 percent budget cut. You led a 4-person team that conducted a 5-week study on how to best accomplish this. Your charge now – brief results of the study to the corporate board, propose courses of actions, and recommend a solution. Attendees will be edgy at best, overtly hostile at worst. Why? They feel threatened, fearing job cuts – their own and those of their staffs; implications of budget reductions for their respective lines of business; resulting diminution in their corporate spheres of influence; and on a larger level, devaluation of the corporation’s stock prices and debasement of its credibility and reputation.
How do you proceed? Certainly not with the BLUF! Set the context. Briefly recap circumstances that culminated in this predicament. Be thorough, honest, and accurate – not judgmental or condescending. Next, review the organization’s baseline resources. Done correctly, you are establishing credibility while simultaneously cultivating tacit agreement of attendees.
Continue to build credibility by scoping the study. Explain its duration, number and experience of team members, the methodology, and perhaps sources of information foundational to your report. You’ve now set the stage, preparing the audience to consider difficult choices.
Next, present a few courses of action, highlighting advantages and disadvantages of each. Again, be thorough, honest, and accurate in presenting them. Since you already identified board members from whom to expect resistance and their concerns, you are equipped to address them. Conclude with your recommendation. Contrast it with the alternatives presented and indicate how it will best benefit the company. While conducting the study, you also identified those who concur with your evaluation and the strength of their support. Hopefully, these like-minded individuals will champion your recommendation during the deliberation and, if your recommendation is accepted, throughout its implementation!
Author of “Write to Influence!” Carla D. Bass, Colonel, Air Force (Ret), served 30 years active duty, working directly with general officers and civilian equivalents, ambassadors, congressional delegations, and foreign dignitaries. She wrote letters for executive-level signature; reports for senior military leaders; hundreds of personnel appraisals; nominations for awards, congressional fellowships, and other competitive packages. Carla developed her writing methodology and taught thousands of Air Force personnel for 15 years.