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  Writing for Business and Pleasure
  Copyright by
Stephen Wilbers

Rules of Evidence

Persuasive writing

First published June 23, 1995

 Rules of evidence are key to persuasive writing

by Stephen Wilbers

Most of us think of ourselves as intelligent, logical, rational beings. Naturally, we expect the people we work with to possess the same traits.

Why is it, then, that we so often feel surrounded by fools and incompetents? The answer: We are surrounded by fools and incompetents.

Walk into any office, and you’ll see them clustered by the water cooler. Take the elevator to another floor, and you’ll spot them sitting at their computers with dazed eyes and expressionless faces. Throw open a few doors, and you’ll find them huddled in small groups dreaming up new ways to make you miserable.

They’re everywhere. The great mystery of the business world is, who are these knuckleheads, and where do they all come from? Well, let’s be honest. All too often, we are they.

There are times, I suspect, when we don’t seem as intelligent, logical, and rational to those around us as we think we are -- particularly when we’re trying to advance a point of view or defend a position in the heat of an argument.

To help prevent you from sounding like one of them, I recommend that you observe four simple rules of evidence and avoid seven common fallacies when writing persuasively.

To be effective, the evidence you use to support your argument must be sufficient, complete, accurate, and relevant. Anything less may undermine your credibility and leave your audience unconvinced.

To be sufficient, your evidence must meet the needs of the situation and satisfy the doubts of your audience. To be complete, it must include all the necessary facts and information. To be accurate, it must correctly reflect the situation in question and be free of misleading information. And to be relevant, it must be pertinent to the issue at hand.

Likewise, to come across as the intelligent person you know you are (rather than as the fool you hope you’re not), avoid these common fallacies:

Presenting a false premise, as in asserting that employee morale is low when in reality only a few, vocal employees are unhappy.

Wrongly assuming that a premise is accepted by the audience, as in making a claim such as, "Our only option is to close the branch office," when in fact other options are being considered.

Providing too few examples to support an assertion, as in citing the successful advertising campaign of one competitor as a reason for revamping your own advertising strategy.

Offering irrelevant evidence or examples, as in alluding to the management practices of one country when trying to solve a culture-based problem in another country.

Making ad hominem (or "to the man") attacks, as in questioning the intelligence, competence, or ethics of the person advancing an argument rather than refuting the argument itself.

Overgeneralizing a conclusion, as in making faulty assumptions regarding an entire group, race, class, or sex on the basis of the behavior or example of a few individuals.

Overstating a conclusion (or seeking to derive a broader conclusion than the evidence warrants), as in claiming that, because a new product has sold well in one part of the country, it will sell well in all parts of the country.

So think twice before you let fly with a retort such as this: "Those bozos can’t even manage their own budget, and now they’re telling us to reduce our costs. We’re the only department even trying to hold down costs. Nobody around here appreciates how much we’re able to accomplish with so few resources."

A more considered response might better reflect your skills of persuasion -- to say nothing of your competence and intelligence.