Win Every Argument: The Art of Debating, Persuading, and Public Speaking by Mehdi Hasan – Here are my Five Lessons and Takeaways

Win Every ArgumentHe knew not just how to craft a reasoned argument but also how to compose himself under pressure. He knew how to reach his audience, in their hearts, their minds, and the very core of their identity. …The point of this book is to show you all the tools and tactics that Diodotus, and all the world’s greatest speakers and debaters, employed. So you, too, can win every argument.

Philosophically, I consider argument and debate to be the lifeblood of democracy, as well as the only surefire way to establish the truth.

Arguments can help us solve problems, uncover ideas we would’ve never considered, and hurry our disagreements toward (even begrudging) understanding.

Or to quote Winston Churchill, “Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king.”

Simply put, this book is all about teaching you how to win.          

People often ask me: “Can what you do really be taught?” The short answer is: yes. The longer answer is: yes, if you have the right teacher and are willing to listen, learn, and put in the hours. Anyone can win an argument. Let me teach you how.

None of the fundamentals of debate—be it storytelling, bringing receipts, critical listening, connecting with an audience—can be achieved if you aren’t calm.

Mehdi Hasan, Win Every Argument: The Art of Debating, Persuading, and Public Speaking


As much as I hate to disagree right up front with an author, I have to do so in this case.  I liked Win Every Argument: The Art of Debating, Persuading, and Public Speaking by Mehdi Hasan.  It was filled with good advice.  It made sense.  But, can we really win every argument?  Well…

Well… alas, we are not in an era when all of his good advice will work.  We have too many who are not open to argument. And therein lies the problem.

But, for those who are, this book is a wonderful and substantive tutorial.  He draws deeply from classical rhetoric, especially Aristotle.  He points to research, and insight, from plenty of sources.  And, if both you and the “other” person in the argument are both honest actors, then you could really get somewhere using his advice and counsel.

I presented my synopsis of this book at the May First Friday Book Synopsis.

A personal note:  I did my graduate work in Communication:  Rhetoric and Public Address at the University of Southern California.  He covered terrain I know fairly well.  And, I think I can say that he pretty much got it right. This is a good book to read.  Just remember, it does not guarantee success when both “sides” are not honest actors…

In my synopses, I always begin with What is the point?  Here is the point for this book:  All messaging is an argument, with the messenger seeking to persuade the recipient (audience) to adopt his/her argument. This book has great steps to follow on how to win that critical argument.

And I ask Why is this book worth our time? – Why this book matters!  Here are my three answers for this book:

#1 – This book is a practical tutorial on the wisdom found in ancient rhetoric.

#2 – This book is filled with real-word examples of arguments; especially political arguments; especially arguments in modern media settings.

#3 – This book is accessible.  It teaches the basics or communication and argument in a way that is understandable, and connects.

I then include a few pages of Quotes and Excerpts from the book – the “best of” Randy’s highlighted Passages.  Here are quite a few of the best I included in this synopsis:

I’m not arguing, I’m just explaining why I’m right. — Anonymous  

Designing a presentation without an audience in mind is like writing a love letter and addressing it “to whom it may concern.” — Ken Haemer, design expert  

The whole point of human rights is that it is the nasty and odious people who need human rights the most, and need the protection of the law the most, because if we don’t extend it to them, there’s no point [in having them].    

French essayist Joseph Joubert, who is said to have remarked: “It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.”  

I grew up appreciating the value of being able to “refute the reasons on the opposite side.” 

To me, there is nothing—nothing!—more important than practice and preparation. 

Designing a presentation without an audience in mind is like writing a love letter and addressing it “to whom it may concern.” — Ken Haemer, design expert 

The whole point of human rights is that it is the nasty and odious people who need human rights the most, and need the protection of the law the most, because if we don’t extend it to them, there’s no point [in having them]. 

Commander Spock, the ultralogical, uber-rational Vulcan; and Captain Kirk, the red-blooded, hotheaded human. …Why pretend we’re Vulcans when we’re not? We’re humans who rely on our gut reactions; on our emotions, our feelings, our instincts.  

A good story “lights up” the emotional regions of our brain in line with the storyteller; if the speaker talks about the fear or inspiration they felt in a moment of struggle, we “mirror” it. We feel it, too.  

It is difficult for me to overstate to you the power of simply sharing stories with your audience.   

“Your language will be appropriate if it expresses emotion and character,” writes Aristotle in Rhetoric. “To express emotion, you will employ the language of anger in speaking of outrage; the language of disgust and discreet reluctance to utter a word when speaking of impiety or foulness; the language of exultation for a tale of glory, and that of humiliation for a tale of pity, and so in all other cases.”   

If you’re in a debate and you believe your opponent is misleading the audience, don’t just describe what they are saying as false or inaccurate—call it a lie! Don’t just describe your own position on an issue as valid or correct—declare it the truth! You want capital-letter nouns, vivid adjectives, bold verbs. You need decisive language if you want to move your listeners.  

Before he can inspire them with any emotion he must be swayed by it himself. 

For a start, in order to make an argument “to the person,” you need to know everything you can about that person. …You need to be familiar with their past statements and actions, and especially any scandals or controversies they may have been involved in. 

Cicero, for instance, may well have been a master of vitriol and abuse. But that’s not ultimately why we remember him as being great. He was also a debater par excellence, who put in the time and effort to reason, persuade, and convince his audiences. So should you.   

One study of doctors and patients found that eye contact was “significantly related to patient perceptions of clinician empathy.”  …“participants were more likely to believe statements by a speaker looking at them directly, compared to a speaker with averted gaze.” Surprise!   

Trap them with their own words. …using your opponent’s own words against them is a powerful way of discrediting both their claims and their credibility, thereby gaining an upper hand in the argument. 

Steve Bannon, in an interview with journalist Michael Lewis in 2018, summed up the rationale behind the then president’s approach. “The Democrats don’t matter,” Bannon told Lewis. “The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”  

To borrow a line from the fictional TV anchor Will McAvoy, in the opening episode of HBO’s The Newsroom, “The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one.”  

There are two types of speakers: those that are nervous and those that are liars. — Mark Twain 

Your words account for just 7 percent of your overall message. Seven percent. That’s it. In contrast, your tone of voice accounts for 38 percent of it, and your body language accounts for a colossal 55 percent. This is the famous 7-38-55 rule.

“Reading a child’s story, out loud, provides you with a fabulous opportunity to explore the range of your voice and bring more variety into it.”

A great argument, like a story, has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Churchill, the master orator and debater, called this the “accumulation of the argument.”

After sharing my selection of highlighted passages, I then present points and principles from the book.  Here is much of what I included in this synopsis:

  • Prelude
  • Yes, this book is plenty about political arguments. But, ignoring the author’s politics, think about how much “politics” enters into any organization and interaction…… 
  • So, so many stories…
  • (Lack of pathos) – Michael Dukakis, when asked: Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer? — Where was the passion or anger? Where was the heart? Where was Dukakis, the person, beneath all his talking points? — Dukakis’s approval ratings, noted Simon, dropped by 7 percentage points the day after the debate. “It was a question about Dukakis’s values and emotions,” Susan Estrich, his campaign manager, later conceded.
  • George H. W. Bush, looking at his watch during the Town Hall debate with Bill Clinton
  • Churchill; a student of rhetoric — The orator, wrote a young Winston Churchill in his 1897 essay “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric,” “is the embodiment of the passions of the multitude.
  • (“Zinger”) — Lloyd Bentsen vs. Dan QuayleSenator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy. …The line “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy” is widely considered to be, in the words of the Los Angeles Times, “the biggest VP debate moment in history.” — And, more than a decade after that debate, even Quayle grudgingly admitted in an interview that the zinger was a “good line.”
  • Keep this in mind:
  • Connect with your audience — {• “Identification” – Kenneth Burke) – Use stories, illustrations, words, that both you and your audience know, respect, and can relate to. – Kind of: “we are alike, you and I.”}.

{R.M. – Six essentials… – adapted by Randy from The Rhetorical Situation by Lloyd Bitzer)

  • The right speaker, speaks – (ethos)
  • The right message, to – (logos; mythos)
  • The right audience
  • Remember: anytime an audience is present, you cannot, cannot, afford to ignore them or take them for granted. The audience is the key.
  • In the right way, at – (pathos)
  • The right time, with
  • The right result}
  • Know your audience:
  • The key benefit of knowing your audience is that it grants you the ability to modify the language you use to make your case.
  • Whether you’re trying to sell an argument or, for that matter, sell a product, you should also change how you present your speech, depending on who is in front of you.
  • Everything from varying tone and volume, to varying content and emphasis, matters. You would adjust your tone—strong or soft, serious or conversational, more passionate or less. …And these strategies speak to the hardest part of public speaking: adapting.
  • To be clear: I don’t want you to change your entire argument, or just tell people what they want to hear. What I’m saying is that you should present your argument in such a way that people feel comfortable getting on board with that argument, because you’ve specifically tailored it to their interests or identities.
  • So remember: cite facts, figures, and quotes that not only bolster your own argument but also appeal to the specific audience in front of you. 
  • the average human loses “concentration after eight seconds.”
  • Start with a strong opening line. — To quote the legendary Dale Carnegie, “Begin with something interesting in your first sentence. Not the second. Not the third. The First! F-I-R-S-T! First!”
  • Start with a question; start with a story
  • Aristotle 101:
  • He called these his three proofs or “modes” of persuasion: ethos, pathos, and logos. An appeal to ethos relies on the “character” and “credibility” of the speaker. — Aristotle writes, “persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible.”
  • An appeal to pathos relies on our human emotions and feelings: fear, anger, joy, and the rest. The words empathy and sympathy, notes Beqiri, derive from pathos. …“persuasion may come through the hearers, when the speech stirs their emotions.
  • Our judgements when we are pleased and friendly are not the same as when we are pained and hostile.”
  • An appeal to logos is founded on logic and reason, on facts and figures. In fact, the word logic itself comes from logos, the Greek word meaning “reason.”
  • When the doctor speaks of studies and statistics, she is rooting her argument in logos:
  • In our speeches, our presentations, and our debates and arguments, we tend to rely on logos above all else. We want our arguments to be based in bedrock truth. But when we’re trying to change people’s minds, that’s not enough. It’s not how our minds work.
  • Aristotle. He tended to give equal treatment to all three of his modes of persuasion. But the reality is that pathos beats logos almost every time. …But even when you have your facts locked down, they won’t have any impact unless you incorporate feelings as well.
  • Study after study shows that if you can tap into your audience’s emotions, you are more likely to win over their minds.


  • Aristotle, who argued that the introduction and the conclusion of a speech are the two most important and memorable junctures to make that emotional appeal to your audience. Start with emotion and end with emotion.
  • Is pathos king? Maybe…
  • When you’re looking to win an argument, you’re trying to guide your listeners to make a decision. You want them to choose you over your opponent. And that choice requires an appeal to feelings and emotions. The heart steers the head. And if it’s heart versus head, I promise you, pure logic is losing nine times out of ten.
  • How do you reach the heart? – (R.M.; have a heart…).
  •  Tell a story…– A story about a single child, with a name and a face, in need of help, has a much bigger and more direct impact on our level of empathy than a story about millions of nameless and faceless people in need. That’s pathos over logos in a nutshell. — “story is up to 22 times more memorable than facts alone.”
  •  Tell them why they should care!
  • Remember ethos—the last of Aristotle’s three “modes of persuasion”? As the great philosopher explained in his Rhetoric, “persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible.” He correctly pointed out that we tend to believe “good men more fully and more readily than others: this is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided.”
  • This isn’t rocket science. You want your audience to trust and believe you—and not your opponent. …You need to establish your own credibility while challenging your opponent’s.
  • Is it really unreasonable to ask a person to explain why their acts don’t match their words?
  • The best plan, in my view, is to challenge your opponent’s three Cs—their character, their credentials, and their claims. If all three crumble, they’re going down. 
  • Listen!
  • When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen. — Ernest Hemingway
  • Listen critically! — So here are my top three ways to improve your ability to listen critically.
  1. Keep an open mind — Listen for valid points or clever lines that you’ll then need to address or concede in your own remarks. …You should be confident in your own arguments, yes, but also remain open-minded enough to see where an opponent is strong or where you may have fallen short.
  2. Clear your mind — Don’t daydream or, worse, snooze as others around you are speaking and advocating. And…you don’t want to miss out on what’s being said.
  3. Take notes — Critical listening benefits from a sharp mind and a good memory—but both can be bolstered by good old-fashioned note-taking. …Some of the most successful people on the planet are fastidious notetakers.
  • Listen with empathy — Stephen R. Covey called empathetic listening the “highest form” of listening. “In empathic listening,” wrote Covey, “you listen with your ears, but you also, and more importantly, listen with your eyes and with your heart.”
  • The empathetic listener is always “fully present,” says author Melody Wilding. 
  • Deliberately use the Rule of Three:
  • There are plenty of tried-and-tested rules to rhetoric, but one of the most important rules, one that you should never forget, is the Rule of Three. … There is a clarity to it. A neatness, a form, an order, to the number three.
  • Carmine Gallo noted, Steve Jobs wanted to tell them “three stories from my life. That’s it. No big deal. Just three stories.”
  • There’s an old Latin phrase: Omne trium perfectum. Everything that comes in threes is perfect. …the Rule of Three. It says that ideas or arguments put forward in three words or three parts, in a trio of some shape or form, in the words of speech coach Dave Linehan, are “more interesting, more enjoyable, and more memorable for your audience.”
  • The tricolon is only one form of triad. There is also the hendiatris, in which three words in a row are used to communicate one main point. Think “liberté, égalité, fraternité”—the French national motto. Or “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
  • Did you catch that? “Black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics.” Three groups! Back to Dr. King: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” Three times!
  • BEGINNING, MIDDLE, END — three gives you a “stable structure”; it gives you “a beginning, a middle, and an end.”
  • Separate your speech, presentation, or argument into: Introduction; Body; Conclusion. …In the Body, make sure you present three main arguments. In the Conclusion, make sure you summarize and repeat those three main arguments.
  • In fact, tell your audience or interlocutors in advance that you plan to deploy the Rule of Three. Don’t be afraid to say: “I’ve got three reasons why you should listen to me.”
  • The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude larger than is needed to produce it. — Alberto Brandolini, computer programmer
  • The Gish Gallop. This is a speaking method that involves, to quote the Urban Dictionary, “spewing so much bullshit in such a short span that your opponent can’t address let alone counter all of it.”
  • The Gish Galloper, argues Carl Alviani in Quartz, knows full well that it takes more time and energy to “disprove” a “false claim” than to make one—time and energy that you almost certainly don’t have.
  • Confidence is everything.
  • There are the obvious ways to prepare and practice: working on your delivery beforehand, so you have less to worry about on the big night; doing your homework in advance of a debate, so that you know the topic inside and out…
  • FAKING CONFIDENCE — What if you have to go onstage … tomorrow? Amy Cuddy:  “Don’t fake it till you make it. Fake it till you become it.”
  • Another way to think of it is the “as if” technique. “If you want a quality,” noted William James, dubbed “the father of American psychology,” “act as if you already had it.” 
  • Keep calm!
  • COOL, CALM, COLLECTED — If you lose your cool during an argument, odds are you’ll lose that argument. 
  • Practice—Practice makes perfect!
  • The more you practice, the better you get, and slowly the fear goes away. Reps, reps, reps. — Arnold Schwarzenegger
  • Demosthenes “the perfect orator” said Cicero — By putting pebbles in his mouth while practicing his speeches. Yeah, literal stones!
  • Churchill himself resolved never again to behave like those orators who “before they get up, do not know what they are going to say; when they are speaking, do not know what they are saying; and when they have sat down, do not know what they have said.”
  • But remember: your goal is to be prepared but not sound prepared. 
  • Do your homework
  • Research — “Research,” according to the Hungarian Nobel Prize–winning biochemist Albert Szent-Györgyi, “is to see what everybody else has seen and think what nobody has thought.”
  • The Grand Finale
  • Every good speech deserves a grand finale.
  • Once you’ve done your research and structured your argument; once you’ve added one part logic, one part emotion, one part humor, and a healthy sprinkling of judo moves; once you’ve practiced it all until it’s perfect—you still need to have a rousing finish.
  • William Safire, who served as speechwriter for President Richard Nixon, cautioned that “a well-prepared, well-delivered speech without a peroration dribbles off and leaves an audience unsatisfied.”
  • Aristotle (again): For Aristotle, an ideal peroration is “composed of four things”:
  • It seeks to draw the audience in; It drives home the stakes of the argument; It makes one final appeal to pathos, It summarizes the key points of your argument, thereby “awakening [the hearer’s] recollection.”
  • The trick to the peroration is to strike a balance between: (1) restating your main argument so that it sticks, and (2) grabbing your listeners’ emotions and attention, so that they leave on a high! You want to capture both their hearts and their minds, and a great peroration will do both.
  • End with a call to action …Is there something specific you want your audience to do after they’ve absorbed your argument? Something concrete. Something simple. Something singular. Something memorable.
  • Remember the basics; all the basics — In my experience, it works best to start with the basics of public performance: how you look, how you sound, and how you time each moment of your speech.
  • voice
  • eye contact (eyeball to eyeball contact) – when you speak; and especially when you listen…
  • get personal/be personal
  • praise your audience (“suck up”)
  • your overall body language

And I end my synopses with my own Lessons and Takeaways.  Here are my five Lessons and Takeaways from this book:

#1 – Maybe the number one rule:  do your homework; on all aspects!

#2 — Maybe the number two rule:  practice; seriously practice.

#3 – Know your side; know the other side; know both sides!

#4 – Take notes; by hand. Write your speaking notes; by hand…

#5 – In other words, take every communication opportunity seriously.  That moment can make a huge difference in what comes next.

Even if this book cannot truly guarantee that you can win every argument, it can, if you heed its insights, it can help make you a more effective speaker/presenter, and overall communicator.  I think it is worth a spot on your reading stack, and worth a careful read…


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