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Book Summary: Win Every Argument – The Art of Debating, Persuading, and Public Speaking

Win Every Argument (2023) is a guide to the art of argument by one of the world’s most combative debaters: journalist, anchor, and writer Mehdi Hasan. Drawing on ancient theories of persuasion, neuroscientific theories of cognition, and the rhetorical tricks of contemporary politicians, Hasan reveals the secrets to winning arguments in today’s post-factual world.

Introduction: A short introduction to the ancient art of rhetoric.

Mehdi Hasan has been arguing his whole life. Today, it’s how he makes his living. As a TV pundit and anchor, he’s gone toe-to-toe with presidents, prime ministers, and spy chiefs inside the White House, Downing Street, and even the Saudi embassy.

Hasan doesn’t just love arguing, he also sees it as the lifeblood of democracy. Arguments, he says, expose us to new ideas and help us solve our problems. Philosophically speaking, they lead us to the truth. As the English thinker John Stuart Mill put it, to know only your side of an issue is to know little. In other words, if you can’t back up your own claims and refute those of your opponents, you don’t really have a good reason for preferring either opinion.

Knowing how to argue well also has practical benefits: it’s a soft skill that can help you advance your career and advance your lot in life. In the words of Winston Churchill, oratory is a precious gift: those who wield it enjoy a “power more durable than that of a great king.”

In this summary, we’ll be looking at this vital skill and helping you win your arguments. To do that, though, we first need to correct some common misconceptions about what we’re doing when we argue.

Book Summary: Win Every Argument - The Art of Debating, Persuading, and Public Speaking

Persuasive arguments appeal to facts and feelings

Facts don’t care about feelings. So goes the internet adage, anyway. It’s an appealing idea: truth is truth, whether or not we want to believe it. From this thought follows the equally appealing idea that debate is an inherently rational activity. It’s about following the facts and accepting the better argument – the argument which best fits the evidence.

But it’s never been that simple. The ancient Greeks called the language deployed in such debates rhetoric – a word derived from rhetor, meaning “public speaker.” But for philosophers like Plato, rhetoric was downright pernicious. Honey-tongued debaters, he said, tend to be amoral. Theirs is an art of persuasion that’s just as easily turned to deceiving audiences as it is to the noble task of uncovering truth. Other thinkers didn’t go that far. Aristotle, who wrote the book on rhetoric, literally and figuratively, noted that proper reasoning or logic and rhetoric may be separate pursuits, but they can – and often do – overlap.

For Aristotle, persuasive speech has three modes. The first is ethos – the Greek word for “character.” Ethos in this context concerns the credibility of a person. We’re more inclined to accept what a practicing doctor has to say about vaccinations, for example, than an anonymous blog author. At least, we should be, anyway; as we saw during the pandemic, the link between expertise and credibility isn’t as strong as it once was – but that’s a different topic.

The second is pathos or “emotion.” In Aristotle’s words, “Our judgments when we are pleased and friendly are not the same as when we are pained and hostile.” Imagine that our doctor’s credentials haven’t persuaded their reluctant patient, so they start telling the patient a story about a couple in perfect health who refused to get vaccinated. Both died within 15 days of each other, the doctor says, leaving behind four young children. That’s pathos: the attempt to sway an audience by appealing to powerful emotions such as love and fear.

Finally, there’s logos or reasoning. This form of persuasion deals in facts and figures. If our doctor points out that multiple peer-reviewed studies show that COVID vaccines result in a 90 percent decrease in the risk of hospitalization and death, they’re appealing to logos.

In contemporary debates, it’s usually logos that’s asked to do the heavy lifting. That makes sense: we extol facts and figures, data and statistics, because we want our arguments to be rooted in truth. In an ideal world, the evidence would do its own talking. But that’s rarely how public debates play out. In the real world, logically unassailable arguments fall short and leave audiences cold. People are stubborn. Reactive. Overconfident. Afraid of change. More importantly, they’re emotionally invested in beliefs, ideas, and ideals. That adage, then, has it back to front: often enough, it’s our feelings which don’t care about the facts.

For self-avowed rationalists, the issue is simple: we’ve forgotten how to reason properly. If we trained ourselves to think more dispassionately, public debates would become more rational.

That view assumes that reason and emotion are separate – and contradictory – things. But new research into human cognition has called that assumption into question. As the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio summarizes the findings of this new research, humans are neither thinking nor feeling machines, but “feeling machines that think.” Let’s break that down.

In his acclaimed book Descartes’ Error, Damasio looks at people who’ve suffered damage to the part of the brain which handles emotional processing – the prefrontal cortex. At first glance, these people seemed to be reasoning machines: theirs was a black-and-white world of pure logic in which the fuzzy gray tones of emotions had disappeared. Being unemotional, though, didn’t make them more rational. Instead, they became “uninvolved spectators” in their own lives who struggled to assign different values to different options. They could know, but they couldn’t feel. Reason, Damasio concludes, isn’t a standalone faculty. Without feelings, our decision-making landscape becomes “hopelessly flat.” In short, to make rational decisions we need a jolt of emotion.

What does that have to do with winning arguments? In a word, everything. To win an argument, you have to get your listeners to make a decision – they have to choose you over your opponent. If neuroscientists like Damasio are right and the heart leads the head, pure logos won’t cut it: you also have to appeal to listeners’ feelings. This isn’t about jettisoning reason and simply saying what people want to hear. The point, here, is that audiences may only accept better, more truthful arguments once the person making them has established an emotional connection. Put differently, pathos may be the best vehicle to deliver logos.

If you want to persuade people, tell stories

How, then, can you appeal to listeners’ emotions while still making rational, evidence-based arguments? Well, you can tell stories.

Storytelling is as old as humanity. We’ve been telling each other stories ever since our distant ancestors started painting wooly mammoths on the walls of their caves. According to the evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, around two-thirds of our daily conversations consist of a particular kind of story: gossip. When humans communicate, in other words, they tell stories.

The persuasive power of well-crafted stories is well documented. Take a 2007 study by Deborah Small, a professor of psychology and marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Small and her coauthors found that people are much more likely to give money to charity if they’re told stories about an “identifiable victim” than they are if they’re presented with accounts of “statistical victims.” Simply put, a story about the suffering of a single child with a name and a face pulls at our heartstrings. A description of millions of nameless and faceless people suffering in the same way, by contrast, leaves us relatively cold. The trick, as charities understand, is to make the individual child a symbol of all that statistical suffering. That’s one way pathos can be deployed in the service of logos.

As Small explains, focusing on a single individual creates a relatable narrative. It’s concrete and personal in a way that abstract statements like “820 million people around the world go hungry every day” aren’t. When we’re told about the awful hunger cramps this one child suffers every day, we suddenly get it. We can understand and even feel their pain. Good stories light up the emotional regions of the brain that handle things like empathy. When that happens, we receive that emotional jolt we mentioned earlier. That jolt transforms an abstract moral idea – it’s wrong that people don’t have enough to eat – into a concrete decision to do something about it.

The takeaway here is simple. No matter how serious or technical the subject you’re discussing, it’s much easier to get your point across if you tell gripping and relatable stories. Sometimes, personal anecdotes will help you do that. In other contexts, you can think about how the topic impacts the lives of real people. People with names and ages, families and friends, hopes and fears and dreams. If you want to win arguments, talk about them and tell their stories.

Sometimes it’s okay to play the man, not the ball

In sports like soccer and basketball, you’re told to play the ball, not the man – or woman. Tackles that win the ball are fair game. If you bring down your opponent, though, you’ve committed a foul. It’s the same in public debates – or so we like to think.

Your aim is to go after the argument, not the person making it. Bringing down an opponent is the logical equivalent of a sporting foul: a fallacy. It’s ad hominem – an argument “to the person.” In theory, the merits of the person speaking have nothing to do with the soundness of what they’re saying. As Michael Austin, the author of a best-selling study about rhetoric called Reading the World, puts it: if Adolph Hitler said the world was spherical, that wouldn’t make it flat.

In theory. The thing is, there aren’t umpires to call fouls in real-world debates. As the British philosopher Tom Whyman jokes, “Only an idiot would dismiss ad hominem arguments.” For better or worse, shooting the messenger is an effective rhetorical tactic. Just ask Donald Trump. Pundits condemned his vitriolic ad hominem attacks and dubbed him a schoolyard bully. But calling his opponents liars, weirdos, and crooks won him the Republican Party’s nomination and then the presidency. “Low-Energy Jeb” and “Lyin’ Ted” never stood a chance.

So where does that leave us? We have three options, really. First, we could become unabashed Trumpians and insult our way to victory. Let’s assume we don’t want to do that, though. Second, we could take the high road and play the ball even when our opponents don’t. Or third, we could split the difference and make occasional use of ad hominem arguments. That’s the option Mehdi Hasan recommends. The key, he says, is to use this tactic in appropriate contexts.

What does he mean by appropriate? To explain that, we need to circle back to Aristotle. Recall what the Greek philosopher said about ethos. This mode of persuasion, he argued, is about credibility. As Aristotle sees it, we’re more ready to believe good people. This is especially true, he says, when “exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided.” Often enough, he adds, a person’s character and reputation may be their most effective means of persuasion.

What do you do, then, if your opponent hones in on your greatest asset and starts trying to demolish your credibility? If you’re unwilling to respond in kind, you’ve given them an unfair advantage right out of the starting gate. So to return fire is anything but unjust: in fact, it restores a level playing field. That’s one context in which ad hominem retorts might be justified. In other cases, Hasan suggests, there are sound reasons for you to take the initiative.

Consider conflicts of interest. Imagine a major study is published which claims to show that climate change isn’t nearly as bad as we thought. The caveat: it was entirely funded by fossil fuel companies. In theory, that fact doesn’t speak to the validity of the study’s claims and we should take it on its own merits. But being fair-minded doesn’t mean being naive. We might want to hold fire before dismissing the study’s findings, but failing to apply extra scrutiny to a case in which there’s such a clear conflict of interest would be to risk getting duped. That the authors of such a study were paid by companies with a less than purely academic interest in the topic is obviously relevant! That’s just common sense.

Then there’s hypocrisy. In the United States, pro-choice advocates often point out that prominent public opponents of abortion rights have privately supported women in their lives having abortions. The Republican lawmaker and pro-life campaigner Tim Murphy, for example, had to resign from Congress in 2017 after it was reported that he’d asked his mistress to have an abortion. Again, in theory, that’s irrelevant. Whether life begins at conception or fetuses feel pain has nothing to do with whether Tim Murphy is a hypocrite.

But the fact is, we do care about hypocrisy – and rightly so. If you can’t abide by the rules you’d have others live by, there might be a problem with your beliefs. Or maybe you just think rules are for other people. Either way, there are questions to be answered – questions that go to the heart of political and moral debates. Calling someone a hypocrite, in other words, isn’t necessarily a schoolyard insult. In some cases, it brings substantive issues like justice, equality, and the structure of our societies into view.

In short, Ad hominem arguments can play an important role in debates. If we want to judge the usefulness of such arguments, philosopher Alan Brinton suggests, we should remind ourselves that they are rhetorical, not logical. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, not a science of premises and conclusions. As we’ve seen, sometimes such arguments are little more than name-calling; in other cases, they can help us think more clearly about the issues we’re debating. It all comes down to context. Dismissing arguments out of hand is, indeed, a fallacy. Ad hominem arguments that address opponents’ credibility, raise biases, or put them on the defensive, by contrast, are legitimate rhetorical moves that go all the way back to ancient Athens.


Winning arguments isn’t a matter of being right or wrong – it’s about persuasion. That has an obvious downside: unscrupulous actors can use all kinds of dirty tricks to come out on top. But that doesn’t mean that the facts don’t matter. Effective arguments make those facts compelling by appealing to people’s emotions and calling out bad-faith actors.

About the author

Mehdi Hasan is an award-winning British-American journalist. He is the host of The Mehdi Hasan Show on MSNBC and NBC’s streaming channel Peacock. Hasan is a former columnist and podcaster at The Intercept and a former presenter on Al Jazeera English, and his op-eds have also appeared in the New York Times and the Washington Post.


Psychology, Communication Skills, Philosophy, Nonfiction, Self Help, Politics, Business, Leadership, Personal Development, Education, Business Writing and Communication, Public Speaking, Reference, Relationships, Rhetoric, Social Interactions in Relationships, Business Life and Careers, Business Life and Skills, General Reference


Win Every Argument shows how anyone can communicate with confidence, rise above the tit for tats on social media, and triumph in a successful and productive debate in the real world.

MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan isn’t one to avoid arguments. He relishes them as the lifeblood of democracy and the only surefire way to establish the truth. Arguments help us solve problems, uncover new ideas we might not have considered, and nudge our disagreements toward mutual understanding. A good argument, made in good faith, has intrinsic value—and can also simply be fun.

Arguments are everywhere—and especially given the fierce debates we’re all embroiled in today, everyone wants to win. In this riveting guide to the art of argument and rhetoric, Hasan shows you how. As a journalist, anchor, and interviewer who has clashed with politicians, generals, spy chiefs, and celebrities from across the world, Hasan reveals his tricks of the trade for the first time.

Whether you are making a presentation at work or debating current political issues with a friend, Mehdi Hasan will teach you how to sharpen your speaking skills to make the winning case.


“Impeccably timed, speaking to a moment when many people find themselves drawn into arguments but also fearful of saying something that will hurt someone or (and) get the person saying it into trouble…An entertaining primer on rhetorical techniques.” ―Jennifer Szalai, The New York Times

“I refused to write this blurb for Mehdi Hasan. He won that argument! Now I am doing it. That’s how good he is at arguing! I better start reading, quick.” ―Judd Apatow, Emmy Award-winning writer and director

“Mehdi Hasan’s book is a masterpiece of rhetorical argument and effective persuasion! From Demosthenes to Churchill, Cicero to Martin Luther King, Hasan lays bare the essential elements of how to delight, instruct, and move an audience. His erudition is as impressive as his wit. And his moral passion is as authentic as his love of words and life.” ―Cornel West, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Chair at Union Theological Seminary

“I’ve seen Mehdi win every argument he’s entered since we were at school. This is a masterclass from one of the most formidable debaters and interviewers of our time.” ―Riz Ahmed, Oscar-winning actor and musician

“Mehdi was one of the toughest interviews I did in the White House. In this book, he takes us on a journey through his own experience over years as a journalist and through compelling examples from history to capture the thrill of winning arguments. His book includes the kind of specific advice and applicable tactics that will make readers want to finish the book and immediately go find a sparring partner.” ―Jen Psaki, former White House Press Secretary

“Mehdi is a generationally talented interviewer. He has mastered his craft, and in this book, he generously spills his secrets.” ―Jonathan Swan, Emmy Award-winning reporter at The New York Times

“Win Every Argument is hugely entertaining, deeply knowledgeable, and filled with illuminating tips and stories from Mehdi Hasan’s life of debating, interviewing and advocating for his beliefs. Read this book to find your own voice while learning both the art and history of persuasion.” ―Ben Rhodes, author of After the Fall

“Inside our digital echo chambers, it is far too easy to forgo persuasion in favor of performance. Yet Hasan reminds us that we will never change the world unless we change people’s minds. An indispensable handbook for our high-stakes and polarized times.” ―Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine

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