A More Powerful Argument: The Toulmin Model

From a LECTURE SERIES BY Professor Jarrod Atchison, Ph.D.

One of the most widely studied models of argumentation was designed by Dr. Stephen Toulmin, a British philosopher and scholar of formal logic. The beauty of the Toulmin model is its simplicity — yet it reveals that truly mastering argumentation requires a series of high-stake decisions to be made “in the moment”.

Structure of an Argument: The Toulmin Model

The Three Components To An Argument

Once you start to think about arguments in terms of their component parts, you will start to listen differently to how people are arguing. Dr. Toulmin breaks arguments down into three distinct parts.

  1. The Claim: The first component of the Toulmin model is the claim—the conclusion that we are seeking to establish over the course of the argument. A claim is a statement that requires support. By itself the statement carries little argumentative force. It is missing evidence on which to ground it so the audience can start to accept it.
  2. The Grounds: for an argument represent the facts, data, statistics, or any other type of evidence. The grounds are the second component of the model.
  3. The Warrant: According to Dr. Toulmin, the connection between the evidence and the claim is not automatic. In most arguments, people make strong claims and have some data, but they invest relatively little time in connecting them. The connection is the warrant—the third component of the model. Its key to focus your attention on the warrant – because it is the connection between the grounds and the claim is often the most vulnerable part of an argument.

Rather than getting caught up in the power of the claim, which is often where people use their boldest language, you will be listening for their actual warrants. When you realize that they are vulnerable for attack on their warrants, you will start to evolve in terms of which arguments you prioritize when you respond.

Organizational Decision Making and the Toulmin Model

Toulmin Model in the Workplace

In organizational decision making, almost everyone benefits from slowing the conversation down and using the Toulmin model to help diagram the arguments as they develop. One of the most important venues for using this exercise is the committee meeting. The committee spends time examining an issue, and they work on developing a report and a presentation designed to persuade the organization to adopt their recommendations.

This is a transcript from the video series The Art of Debate. It’s available for audio and video download here.

The issue is in how the committee arrives at its findings. The more controversial the subject and the more powerful the recommendations, the more likely the committee is to be peppered with questions by stakeholders who feel that their perspectives have been ignored in the final presentation.

Audience members ask, “Have you considered” this or that, and the committee members scramble to justify its exclusion while simultaneously demonstrating that they did their due diligence. A great committee can balance this exchange and move forward with their credibility intact. But if just one important question is not answered satisfactorily, the issue can be sent back for further consideration. And that’s just in the presentation.

Power of Debate in Decision Making
One of the primary reasons committees fail to generate successful recommendations is that they rarely use the power of debate in their decision making.

The main issues arise inside the committee meeting itself. One of the primary reasons committees fail to generate successful recommendations is that they rarely use the power of debate in their decision making. They fail to use debate in arriving at the recommendations, testing their recommendations against potential objections, or developing nuance that accounts for the potential objections by limiting the scope of their claims.

The Toulmin Model – Three Steps For A More Powerful Process

One of the easiest ways to improve a committee decision-making process is to hand everyone on the committee an outline of the Toulmin model with blank space to fill in the component parts. With a short presentation on what the model is and the differences between a claim, the grounds, and the warrant, you will be surprised at how many arguments will disappear as people struggle to satisfy the demands of a good argument. The arguments that do survive are far more nuanced and vastly superior to simple discussion.

Three steps are necessary to make this practical assessment a reality.

  • Someone in your organization must commit to learning the Toulmin model. Ample information is available online. This person will be responsible for giving a 10- to 15-minute presentation to the committee, including at least two good examples to show what a fully developed argument looks like.
  • The Toulmin leader must distribute blank versions of the model to the committee and give them time to develop their arguments. If the committee is going to meet more than once, allow people to take the model home and work on it before the next meeting.
  • The committee chair must agree that the committee will attempt to base its presentation on the three best arguments it can generate using the model. The selection process of the three best arguments helps the committee members develop nuance and anticipate potential objections.

Introducing change into any organization carries risk, but the quality of the final product will justify taking this structured approach to argumentation. The process of talking through the model creates ample opportunities to anticipate the best arguments against the final recommendations, along with helping to generate the best version of the committee recommendations.

From the Lecture Series The Art of Debate
Taught by Professor Jarrod Atchison, Ph.D.