Skip to content
head of Aristotle on ancient Greek coin

White paper writer tip #2: Build an argument

Every white paper writer must learn how to build a coherent argument.

Without one, your white papers won’t convince anyone of anything.

But a white paper that presents a strong argument can be right on the money. It can generate great results for years running.

The question is, what makes a a good argument? And how do you build one?

For answers, let’s look back. Way back. To ancient Greece and the great thinker Aristotle, shown on the coin above.

Believe it or not, Aristotle can give us some practical tips on how to build a good argument in a white paper.

Build an argument tip #1: Understand ethos, logos, and pathos

More than 2,300 years ago, Aristotle analyzed the elements of persuasion. To help do this, he studied the orators in the Greek Senate and the popular dramas of his time.

What he found is very powerful. His analysis can still help writers to create white papers today.

Here are Aristotle’s three elements of persuasion:

  • Ethos, a speaker’s credibility or convincing proof for their views
  • Logos, the logic or inherent reasonableness of an argument
  • Pathos, an appeal to emotion or self-interest in the audience

For best results, these three elements must be used in the proper proportion, with not too much but not too little of each one.

Note: To find out more, Google “Aristotle logic” or “Aristotle ethos” and you’ll turn up a wealth of information.

Build an argument tip #2: Use each element in proper proportion

To me, an ideal mix of these three elements in a white paper is about 60% evidence (ethos), 30% logic (logos), and 10% rhetoric (pathos).

piechart of white paper arguments

If you use nothing but a barrage of facts (all ethos), your white paper won’t connect the dots.

Your message will lack passion, and you’ll fail to engage readers.

You need a thread of logic to carry your argument from point A to point B.

 

And sometimes just a hint of rhetoric at the start or end of a white paper can suggest a wider vision and elevate your argument to a higher plane.

If you argue every point logically, but without much evidence (logos without ethos) your white paper will seem superficial and unpersuasive. As though you couldn’t be bothered to do your research.

Logic without evidence is just opinion. This can easily invite counter-arguments from opinionated naysayers or competing vendors.

See how a good white paper writer juggles these three elements?

Build an argument tip #3: Don’t rely too much on calls to emotion (pathos)

If you often resort to rhetoric, your white paper may sound fluffy and unrooted, more like a sales pitch than a white paper.

This is why the number #1 failing of too many white papers is too much selling.

Sales copy is all about a promise or a dream. So it’s heavy on the pathos, with explicit calls to the reader’s self-interest and emotions like fear, greed, pride, or vanity.

But white papers are different. I believe these documents should be persuasive essays based mainly on facts and logic (ethos and logos), not emotion (pathos).

Not completely without pathos, as show in the pie chart above. But you want to use pathos like the whipped cream on top of the pie, not the whole filling.

When all else fails, it’s okay to use a little rhetoric. A flight of fancy. An extended metaphor. A call to arms. Just don’t do it too often.

Build an argument tip #4: Build both intrinsic and extrinsic ethos

One final wrinkle. Ethos comes in two forms: intrinsic and extrinsic, inner and outer.

Intrinsic ethos comes from the innate credibility of a speaker, mainly from their profession or experience.

On a medical topic, a doctor has intrinsic ethos or credibility, but a professional soccer player, not so much. Talking about the World Cup, a doctor has much less credibility than a soccer player, or less intrinsic ethos.

Extrinsic ethos comes from the evidence presented. As we’ve seen, this is vital for white papers.

A doctor presenting the findings of a meta-analysis of many journal articles builds up good extrinsic ethos. A soccer player showing highlights of soccer games and charts of World Cup results does the same.

But a doctor talking about a World Cup match is simply giving his opinion. You may agree or not, but they don’t have much extrinsic ethos to stand on.

Build an argument tip #5: Think like a lawyer

I often say a white paper writer should “think like a lawyer.” But what does that really mean?

Simply put, you must assemble a mountain of evidence that proves your case beyond any reasonable doubt.

Just like in a trial, the best evidence includes:

  • Facts
  • Figures
  • Names
  • Numbers
  • Dates
  • Statistics from impeccable sources
  • Quotes from expert witnesses

The more credible, mainstream, and reliable your sources, the better.

For example, government reports, industry associations, analysts who track your sector, and respected trade journals are all good sources.

Joe Schmoo’s blog? Not so much.

But evidence (ethos) alone is not enough.

Remember: Every good trial lawyer knows how to connect the dots along the trail of evidence by touching on legal precedents and accepted ideas. And they work hard to boil down their argument to reasonable-sounding logic (logos).

And then for a stirring conclusion, the best trial lawyers ratchet up the calls to emotion (pathos) to wring tears out of the jury’s eyes.

Build an argument tip #6: If you don’t have all three elements, be wily

This chestnut has been tossed around legal circles for more than 100 years:

If you’re weak on the facts, argue the law.
If you’re weak on the law, argue the facts.
And if you’re weak on both, pound the table!

This maps nicely onto using Aristotle’s three elements to build a white paper.

To build an effective argument, a white paper writer should proceed as follows:

  1. Look for factual evidence to back up your argument (ethos). If you can’t find much, go to the next step.
  2. Show how your position follows logically from accepted ideas or practices (logos). If you can’t build some strong logic, go to the final step.
  3. Choose an appropriate rhetorical device (pathos). But use it with discretion. After all, if you pound the table every five minutes, your gesture soon loses its impact.

Tip: If you can’t pull together the ethos and logos to make a strong argument for a white paper, consider writing a shorter document that relies more on pathos, like a sales sheet.

A real-world example

I recently worked on a white paper about the problem of healthcare-associated infections (HAIs): the infections patients get after undergoing treatment or an operation.

Here’s how we used Aristotle’s three elements of persuasion in this white paper.

Ethos (intrinsic): To build this element, the white paper is signed by a credentialed nurse whose bio is included in a section called About the Author.

As well, the cover photo shows an OR team in the middle of an operation. This suggests, “We know what you do” and even “We’re with you.”

These items build the credibility of the paper’s author and publisher.

Ethos (extrinsic): This white paper cites more than 60 journal articles in the special format used by the American Medical Association.

Since the target readers are mainly surgeons and nurses who often read medical journals, the white paper is structured to follow the same evidence-based approach.

Logos: Although the white paper provides a mountain of evidence, we made sure to build a logical pathway through it.

Our storyline says that HAIs endanger patients and cost hospitals money… but that many infections could be prevented by investing a little more time, attention, and money.

It’s a reasonable argument, supported by facts and expert opinion. And it frames the view that hospitals should invest in new technology.

That’s using the element of logic to tie together the evidence into a persuasive argument.

Pathos: But there’s passion and calls to self-interest in this white paper, too. Here’s a typical example:

Imagine: Your patients could die. Your reputation and the good name of your team and your institution could be damaged. Your hospital could lose millions of dollars from prospective patients who go elsewhere.

These dire warnings are sprinkled throughout. But you can’t have all bad news. After hearing about a big problem, people yearn for a solution.

The white paper ends with some upbeat pathos, using phrases like, “Deliberately aiming to reduce HAIs can pay off handsomely” and “That’s a win-win in the war on germs!”

Conclusions

To sum up, the key to building an effective argument in a white paper is to follow this process:

  • Gather and use convincing evidence (ethos)
  • Link all the evidence together with reasonable-sounding logic (logos)
  • Add a final touch of rhetoric to drive the message home (pathos)

When you do all that, your white paper will make Aristotle—and your client—very proud!

 


See tip #3 in this series on why you must plan every white paper, including a link to a free presentation.


 

Do you use Aristotle’s three elements of persuasion in your white papers? Do you have any more tips to share? Please leave your comments below. 

About Gordon Graham

Author of close to 300 white papers on everything from choosing enterprise software to designing virtual worlds for kids, for clients from Silicon Valley to Switzerland, from tiny startups to 3M, Google and Verizon. Also wrote White Papers for Dummies which earned 50 5-star ratings on Amazon. And Gordon was recently named 2019 Copywriter of the Year by AWAI.

If you liked this post...

Will artificial intelligence replace white paper writers?

Will artificial intelligence replace white paper writers?

Have you seen all the articles about how artificial intelligence (AI) is now doing creative...
Magnifier Glass Over The Red Inscription Writer Cut Out Of Paper

8 reasons to hire a white paper writer who knows your industry

Some say that the best white paper writers are generalists who can write about any...
photo of Niagara Falls frozen by polar vortex

White papers and… the polar vortex?!

If you live in the Midwest, the Pacific Northwest or Canada, you probably experienced a...

4 Comments

  1. Sarah Greesonbach on April 14, 2016 at 12:28 pm

    Mind = blown. I love how you turn this art into a science with many of your articles. Playing around with the dose of ethos, logos, and pathos could apply to email marketing and sales pages, too!

  2. Gordon Graham on April 14, 2016 at 12:41 pm

    Absolutely! These three elements apply to any type of persuasive writing, presentation, or speech.

  3. Chris Quirk on May 4, 2016 at 2:23 pm

    I hope folks realize how good this is. I had the pleasure of reading a lot of Aristotle in seminars in graduate school. One tutor memorably said: “You don’t want to argue with Aristotle very often because he’s almost always right.”

    • Angie Gallop on June 8, 2016 at 10:41 am

      Chris: We are walking around here at TPWG feeling chuffed. Thanks so much for your comment!

Leave a Comment