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Kevin Chesters: Let's all have an argument

Kevin Chesters is the partner/chief strategy officer of The Harbour Collective.

Let's all have an argument says Kevin Chesters

“Stop arguing”

“I don’t want to argue with you”

“If we’re going to avoid an argument…”

Arguments get a seriously bad rap. Almost from the moment we are old enough to speak we are discouraged from having them. We are taught they are negative things. We are encouraged to believe that if we get into an argument, we have somehow wandered into a territory it would be unwise to be. We have ‘lost it’.

But I want to lay out a case for the humble argument, why we should be having more of them and why we should all be more skilled at the skill of arguing.

Now to start I’m not talking about some drunken rant, or the kind of shouty slanging matches that have become something of a depressing reoccurrence in post Brexit referendum Britain. Those kinds of arguments are just annoying and unhelpful. But I’m talking about the skill of arguing that I happen to think is invaluable in what we all do for a living.

The dictionary describes an argument as: “The process of demonstrating, through reason, the likelihood or necessity of a given proposition.” Now I’d argue (sorry) that this is something that do - and should be doing - every day in agency life, internally and externally.

As agency folk we need to be able to argue. We need to be able to set out our point of view and be able to defend it. We need to be able to argue for something we want to happen or against something we think is unwise. We need to be able to construct a simple, coherent and cogent argument whatever function we perform in the agency. It’s not just a client facing skill.

As creatives you need to be able to argue for the brilliance and primacy of your idea or execution. As planners you need to able to construct a logical and bulletproof argument for why your insight and strategy are the right path to perfection. As account handlers, you need to argue about pretty much everything – for the changes to an idea, against the changes to an idea, for more budget, for more time, for… the list is endless. Yet just like the skills of interviewing, the skills of constructing an argument are rarely taught. And they are an acquired, practiced skill.

Ask yourself, whoever sat you down and taught you the rules of the perfect argument? Who taught you about premise or conclusion? Who taught you about validity, claim and evidence? When were you taught about the principles of what makes a good argument and what leads to a bad one? I would hazard a guess that 99% of people reading this article have never done any formal training on constructing an argument and having one – whether on paper, on the phone, via email or face-to-face. It seems insane to me that we have so little training in such a vital art.

As a minor detour by the way, we should also be encouraged to argue more often for things we truly believe in. It’s not wrong to say ‘no’ to a client if their POV is going to make the creative work less good or their course of action is counter to logic or evidence. It’s not wrong to fight for an idea you love - either within your agency or outside it. Arguing shows that you give a shit. But back to the main point, how can we learn to argue better?

The best, first place to learn is from a master. Artistotle. The Greek fella. He was stupendous at arguing and no one thought he was just being a difficult twat. He set out three elements of the perfect argument that are a cracking place to start. He called them the three methods of persuasion.

LOGOS: Logic. Evidence. Data. Proof. It’s a great place to start with building any argument. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts – so it’s good to be able to appeal to reason. Michael Gove was talking total rot (unsurprisingly) when he said we have had enough of experts. No sane person has. Build your argument on the foundations of fact. Start with Logos.

ETHOS: Authority. It helps if you have a senior title, but you don’t need it. Build your argument on your qualification and credibility, because it will stand you in good stead. You will – more often than not – be representing good, experienced, awarded & lauded people from your agency or organisation. This counts when building a strong POV. Lean on it.

PATHOS: Gwyneth at the Oscars time! Believe me, emotion matters. You can go a long way with passion, enthusiasm and character. You can’t get anyone to believe in what you are saying if you don’t believe in yourself. This works much better in f2f arguments than on emails or on paper – which is why you should always insist on presenting work ‘in the room’. And practice, practice, practice. Learn to love the mirror.

And like anything in this world it is a combination of the above that will create the most coherent and successful arguments. Logos + Pathos = Ethos (in my humble opinion).

We need to argue. To bastardise an argument of Gordon Gekko “Arguing is good”.

We all need to have more arguments, believe me. Arguments are vital and it’s a vital skill to learn.

You could try and argue with me about this but I wouldn’t advise it. I’ve had plenty of practice.

Kevin Chesters is the incoming partner/CSO of The Harbour Collective

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