How to use argumentation and persuasion in essays

The purpose of this article is to give you some hints on how to write an essay that clearly sets out an argument so as to persuade your reader.

If you are doing this as part of your academic study then there are a number of ways in which you can ensure you do this. Equally, the better your essay makes an argument, as opposed to just repeats information, the higher your marks will be. If you are aiming for a 2:1 or higher, then learning how to argue in an essay, in a persuasive manner, is critical.

The first important point is that actually in an academic setting it does not matter if your reader agrees with you - the key test is that the argument used is persuasive. If you are writing a report, recommendation or briefing note in a work context, you probably do need to gain agreement as well as acknowledgement of the skill you have shown in mustering the facts and constructing the argument. Even so, the skill of fitting the information around a clear argument will help your readers to understand the main issues and why you have come to certain conclusions.

So, what is an argument in this context?

At its simplest it is a point of view, expressed in a structured way. Typically an essay question will ask you to 'discuss X's theory' or 'what are the implications of …. ', or 'it is claimed that … '. All these invite either yes/no answers or a balanced response along the lines of 'maybe' or 'sometimes'.

So, how do you go about this?

The best way is to split your response into four key elements:

  1. A hypothesis;
  2. Your information;
  3. Your argument;
  4. A judgement as to whether your argument answers your hypothesis.

This structure applies if you are writing a 750 word essay or a 60,000 word doctoral thesis. The idea is you start with an assertion (your hypothesis), gather the relevant information (either from the literature or your own experimental work), draw that information together to form an argument and then offer a judgement that the information either supports or disproves your original hypothesis.

To take an example, there are a large number of theories on human motivation used in the behavioural sciences and in management research so an essay could ask you to: 'Evaluate the applicability of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs in terms of leadership in organisations'.

So, your argument could be one of:

  • It is not at all relevant;
  • It is applicable but not to the issue of leadership;
  • It is relevant.

So your hypothesis (ie argument), should be set out very early in your essay. Something like:

'Most modern research into human behaviour rejects the model of motivation presented by Maslow'.

That is a clear statement. The next stage is to gather the evidence. In this case, and almost regardless of your hypothesis, what you would need would be a summary of what Maslow said, a summary of other relevant research (that supports and/or challenges his views) and a summary of the research that seeks to link motivation theory to the issue of leadership. If you are writing a 750 word essay this has to be brief but is still important (otherwise your argument is just a statement of opinion).

You then need to construct this information into a persuasive argument that supports your original hypothesis. So, in this case, I would mention the main contradictory findings and also controversies as to the nature of leadership etc.

Finally the need is to evaluate your own argument. How strong is it, are there any contradictory elements? Can you say with confidence that you have proved your hypothesis, or is the real outcome less clear cut. So a concluding statement becomes something like:

'Having reviewed the evidence there seems to be a disagreement between researchers who come from a background in psychology (who largely now reject Maslow's model) and its continuing use in some leadership and management theories'.

If you had the time, an interesting next step would be to reformulate your hypothesis to explore why there was this divide between some management theorists and psychologists. In a one-off essay, pointing to this divide in your conclusion is sufficient.

The effect on your reader is to present a clear idea of how you are using the information available. This is important, as a mass of facts, stuck down on paper with no interpretation, makes it very hard for a reader to understand why you are including the material. The argument gives this a focus that the reader can follow. Finally, an open evaluation of the material you have gathered will support the view that you have presented an academic argument - i.e. a view, tested by the information available that is modified, or confirmed, in the light of that information.

At the core, the skill of writing an essay that contains a persuasive argument is to have the confidence to set out a clear view at the start. This opinion then needs to be tested against the available information and at the end you need to critically judge the accuracy of your original assertion. It is this process that underpins most of the articles in academic journals and it is one reason why so many of them end with the words 'in the light of the research presented in this paper, it is clear there is a need for further research'. In other words the original hypothesis (argument) has been supported, but additional information has been uncovered that now needs to be evaluated.