Some people, of course, bring credibility with them every time they speak. When a Nobel Prize winner in physics makes a speech about the need to control proliferation of nuclear weapons, we assume that he or she speaks with authority. But most people do not have this kind of credibility. When you write an argument, you must work to establish your credibility by establishing common ground, demonstrating knowledge, maintaining a reasonable tone, and presenting yourself as someone worth listening to.
Establishing Common Ground. When you write an argument, it is tempting to go on the attack, emphasizing the differences between your position and those of your opponents. Writers of effective arguments, however, know they can gain a greater advantage by establishing common ground between their opponents and themselves.
One way to establish common ground is to use the techniques of Rogerian argument. According to the psychologist Carl Rogers, you should think of the members of your audience as colleagues with whom you must collaborate to find solutions to problems. Instead of verbally assaulting them, you should emphasize points of agreement. In this way, rather than taking a confrontational stance, you establish common ground and work toward a resolution of the problem you are discussing.
Demonstrating Knowledge. Including relevant personal experiences in your argumentative essay can show readers that you know a lot about your subject; demonstrating this kind of knowledge gives you authority. For example, describing what you observed at a National Rifle Association convention can give you authority in an essay arguing for (or against) gun control.
You can also establish credibility by showing you have done research into a subject. By referring to important sources of information and by providing accurate documentation for your information, you show readers that you have done the necessary background reading. Including references to a range of sources—not just one— suggests that you have a balanced knowledge of your subject. However, questionable sources, inaccurate (or missing) documentation, and factual errors can undermine an argument. For many readers, an undocumented quotation or even an incorrect date can call an entire argument into question.
Maintaining a Reasonable Tone. Your tone is almost as important as the information you convey. Talk to your readers, not at them. If you lecture your readers or appear to talk down to them, you will alienate them. Remember that readers are more likely to respond to a writer who is conciliatory than to one who is strident or insulting.
As you write your essay, use moderate language, and qualify your statements so that they seem reasonable. Try to avoid words and phrases such as never, all, and in every case, which can make your claims seem exaggerated and unrealistic. The statement “Euthanasia is never acceptable,” for example, leaves you no room for compromise. A more conciliatory statement might be “In cases of extreme suffering, a patient’s desire for death is certainly understandable, but in most cases, the moral, social, and legal implications of euthanasia make it unacceptable.”
Presenting Yourself as Someone Worth Listening To. When you write an argument, you should make sure you present yourself as someone your readers will want to listen to. Present your argument in positive and forceful terms, and don’t apologize for your views. For example, do not rely on phrases—such as “In my opinion” and “It seems to me”—that undercut your credibility. Be consistent, and be careful not to contradict yourself. Finally, limit your use of the first person (“I”), and avoid slang and colloquialisms.