How to Open Lecture/Demo

It’s all in how you say it.

On the left is an example of the ABSOLUTELY WRONG WAY  to phrase a money policy at a retail establishment.

On the right is a template for saying the same the THE RIGHT WAY. How would you describe the same policy to earn customers instead of irritating them?

Card Fee

Choose the Good Opening Sentence:

  1. An argument cannot be won in the first sentence, but it can be lost.
  2. First sentences are very important.
  3. Most authors of articles of all kinds have trouble writing first sentences.
  4. There are several ways an article can be started.
  5. Some ways of starting essays are better than others.
  6. If you are starting to write an essay, you should be very careful about your first sentence.
  7. Readers are attracted to good opening sentences.

What’s so good about it?

  1. It makes two strong paradoxical claims.
  2. It sums up a very strong argument the essay will make.
  3. It is itself an argument.
  4. It makes a challenge to the reader.
  5. It’s memorable.
  6. It can be debated, demonstrated, illustrated.
  7. It’s a good example of itself.

Notice I didn’t say it’s true?

It might not be, but it could be, which is what engages readers. If they have any interest in argument at all, they’ll want to know whether the essay contains a convincing proof of this premise.

Start again.

An argument cannot be won in the first sentence, but it can be lost. Success in arguing depends on persuading readers of the truth of a clearly stated premise. Let’s break that down:

  1. Persuasion
  2. Truth
  3. Clarity
  4. Premise

1. Persuasion. We will not prove anything in our essays. Proofs are for mathematicians, not essay writers. We will persuade our readers by being reasonable but firm. We’ll appeal to their logic (logos), their emotions (pathos), and their humanity (ethos). Any hint of illogic, cheap sentimentality, or prejudice, even in the first sentence, can make readers wary of our intentions. We don’t want them defensive; we want them receptive. If they dig in to protect a cherished belief before we get them to listen, WE LOSE the argument.

2. Truth. Truth is different than proof. While what we say will probably be provocative, it must always be possible. To be caught in a lie would completely destroy our credibility, without which WE LOSE the argument.

3. Clarity. Because the truth is multifaceted, true declarations can be richly ambiguous, but that’s no excuse to be unclear. Even as they describe nuanced opinions, our claims, to persuade, must be clear. The quickest way to lose an argument is to keep the reader wondering what we mean by what we say. If we can’t be understood, WE LOSE the argument.

4. Premises. It goes without saying that we need to convince our readers of something in particular. The premises cannot be false, but neither can they be obvious. They are premises because they require evidence and persuasion. Without them, WE LOSE the argument.

Example 1. The Marshmallow Test

a) From a very early age, we are either gobblers or nibblers, and only dire circumstances can change us. b) As psychologist B.J. Casey has demonstrated with an experiment spanning more than 40 years, children who gobbled a single test marshmallow instead of waiting for a promised second marshmallow have continued to suffer from lack of will power throughout their lives. c) Those who managed to delay (and therefore double!) their gratification have been more behaviorally more successful ever since—healthier, less obese, less addictive, even better SAT test-takers by an average of 210 points! d) For years, observers credited the marshmallow abstainers (the nibblers) for their astute and strategic self-denial, but it’s perhaps more likely the gobblers just don’t trust the game.

Just 4 sentences; many many claims.

a) Makes a provocative claim that is not just bold but also central to the author’s argument. We seem to be one type or another, but our experiences and environment can change us.

b) Apparently, nibblers are better at delaying gratification in everything for their entire lives, which makes them less impulsive, and more moderate in their behaviors.

c) The proof is that they’re less prone to modern problems (and better on tests!).

d) But a subject who does not trust the authority to deliver a second marshmallow (or who might fear losing the first marshmallow!) will never see the logic of saving the first one. In a rigged game, eating the marshmallow isn’t impulsive, it’s wise.

Example 2. Nice Work if You Can Get it

a) Vancouver’s heroin addicts have been hired by the city to do important work: maintaining a clean addiction. b) Every day, like good employees, they report for duty at one of several safe zones for addicts known as Insites. c) There, in return for staying healthy and refraining from crime, they are paid in drugs—careful doses of heroin in clean needles—all at taxpayer expense. d) And the taxpayers approve because they’ve been suffering the alternatives for decades.

Just 4 sentences; many many claims.

a) Uses an analogy to make a provocative claim: that the addicts have a job to do and are on the city payroll.

b) Advances the “addicts as employees” analogy while detailing one of their responsibilities: to show up for work.

c) Details the terms of the arrangement: Can’t do crime, pay is delivered by professionals to avoid illness.

d) Emphasizes the economics of the deal. Taxpayers who are tired of the crime and the sleaziness of street drug trade are paying for cleaner streets . . . and saving money over the alternatives.

Example 3. Too Old to Die

a) Poor Margaret Bentley wants to die, and her doctors would probably let her if only she could tell them. b) Advance health directives made by healthy young people who want to avoid the torments of a lingering death are usually sufficient to prevent doctors from artificially prolonging life. c) But when a patient such as Bentley is no longer competent to press her case, she can find herself in a legal battle with her younger self. d) 50-year-old Margaret didn’t want to turn 90, but 91-year-old Margaret can’t confirm that she agrees.

Just 4 sentences; many many claims.

a) Makes a provocative claim that is not just bold but also central to the author’s argument. Margaret Bentley is clearly suffering in a particularly thorny legal limbo. It’s probably truer to say that young Margaret Bentley wants to have killed old Margaret Bentley, but that paradox will become clear.

b) This establishes that the legal mechanism is a routine that people exercise to avoid the MB problem, but clearly “usually” isn’t helping Margaret.

c) In this case, the older Margaret Bentley continues to accept food although the younger Margaret Bentley had stipulated that she wanted to be allowed to decline food when she was no longer living a meaningful life. Clearly MB created this mess herself with a sloppy directive. But all of that needs to wait. It’s too much information for the first paragraph.

d) We need a sentence to clarify that the legal conflict is between the same person at two different ages. Lawyers and bioethicists will have a field day determining whether young Margaret Bentley is “the same person” as old Margaret Bentley, among other wonderful conundrums that make this topic such a rich source of Definition essays.

Example 4. Too Young to Die

a) Some say age is defined by how long we’ve been alive (our distance from birth), but for terminally ill children, age should be defined as how long they have have to live (their distance from death). b) Here in America, we’re struggling to grant euthanasia for adults who have come to the end of their long and meaningful lives. c) Meanwhile, the Belgians are granting children, some as young as six, the legal right to bring their lives to a peaceful, planned conclusion. d) The two groups have something essential in common: they’re within a year of dying, and that gives them the right to decide how long to bear the pain.

Just 4 sentences; many many claims.

a) Make a definition claim that has nothing to do with the dictionary definition. For the purposes of this argument, the author claims that our true age is not how long since we’ve been born but how long before we die. That makes terminally-ill kids old enough to make their own choices.

b) This establishes that Belgium has made its peace with euthanasia, which the US has not, and that the granting of death with dignity laws is indeed a slippery slope. Once it’s granted, it will likely be expanded. The author has no problem with that situation.

c) Makes a subtle rhetorical case for the peaceful solution of planning and executing death on the patient’s terms; the sentence avoids any gruesome arguments about the suffering the child would otherwise suffer. (That will come later, when we’re ready for it.)

d) This is the conclusion of a deductive syllogism.

  • Patients within a year of death deserve euthanasia.
  • Children with terminal diagnoses are within a year of death.
  • Terminally-ill children deserve euthanasia (despite their chronological age).

In-Class Exercise

In your small group, analyze the effectiveness of the argument made in just four sentences. What sort of argument is it? Causal? Definition/Classification? Proposal? Several types in one? Does the author successfully and briefly guide the reader through a complicated argument? Would you read the second paragraph?


22 thoughts on “How to Open Lecture/Demo”

  1. In 4) Too Young to Die, a controversial topic has arised. Belgium has granted terminally ill children as young as 6 to decide whether they want to die or not. However, American struggles to wrap their heads around that idea. This paragraph is effective because it provides insight from two different parties and also is structured in such a way that keeps the reader interested. I think it could be a causal argument because it almost sounds like because other places are doing it, it makes us wonder if we should be doing it too. I would definitely read the second paragraph because the last sentence sort of keeps you guessing if the writer supports the idea to let young children decide when they want to pass or if they are completely against it altogether.


    1. Your thinking is clear, AO, but your language is very wordy. Changing no ideas, I’d like to suggest a quick edit:

      4) Too Young to Die raises a controversial topic. Belgium permits terminally ill children as young as 6 to decide when they will die. Americans struggle to wrap their heads around that idea. This paragraph effectively provides insight from two parties and keeps the reader interested. As a causal argument it suggests that because Belgium approves of child euthanasia, we should too. The writer doesn’t divulge his opinion. I would read the second paragraph to find out what he believes.

      There are no transitions in this distilled version, so it’s not finished yet. But do you see the improvement in this second draft?
      I thrive on interaction, AO.
      If you respond, I’ll quickly learn that you value feedback.


  2. The argument being made is casual. It’s not trying to clarify anything, and it’s not trying to propose an idea to us. The argument isn’t complicated, but they are posing the idea that there are only two types of people. People who are patient and people who aren’t. People who aren’t patient will be more likely score lower on the SAT, not receive the reward of a second marshmallow, and possibly have more addictive personality. This is a bold argument, but since I don’t feel alienated in any way, I’d probably read the second paragraph.


    1. I’m afraid this author failed for you, Knuckles. The idea as I understood it was that the common knowledge about the Marshmallow experiment is incorrect. Gobblers aren’t impulsive or impatient; they’re just practical. They’ve been disappointed by too many adults to trust in the second marshmallow. If they continue to live their lives for short-term gain, it’s because they don’t believe in delayed rewards. Am I misreading the paragraph?


  3. The type of argument example one is, causal claim. It only has one argument throughout the example. The argument is not that complicated but the author does a good job with guiding through the argument. I would most likely read the second paragraph of the argument.


    1. Actually, SG, I think the author pulls a switch in the last sentence that upends the expectations set up by the first three. See my Reply above to Knuckles. What do you think?


  4. Example 1: Causal argument. The argument isn’t complicated, the author clearly states there are two types of people. He uses the terms Nibblers and gobblers to express children who either are patient in receiving something they were promised or children who are more into receiving what they have now. I would read the second paragraph.


  5. I’m just four sentences the author gives us the illustration of Belgians giving children the right to plan out their deaths if hey are terminally ill. Giving them the chance to make that years worth left of living into whenever they want. In America we do not give the elderly this opportunity of planned peaceful suicide but they do in Belgium for children. Both groups, elderly and terminally ill have coming death in common.


  6. The paragraph we analyzed was example four. The argument made was a proposal that terminally ill children should have the choice of death. The author does successfully guide us through this argument and I would read the second paragraph to see his argument further.


  7. I think the argument made in #2 is Proposal. It makes the argument that the insights are beneficial to both heroin addicts and taxpayers. It guides the reader through a pretty complicated argument with strong claims. I do think a counterargument with a rebuttal would make it better, though I would read the second paragraph.


    1. You’re certainly correct to demand refutation of counterarguments, PR. Resistance to this plan was boisterous, and the author will have to acknowledge those misgivings and explain how they were overcome. (But that’s a lot to ask of a 4-sentence first paragraph.)


  8. Example 3:
    This makes a Proposal Argument. It suggests that Margaret Bentley’s younger self would have agreed with her older self that she did not want to live to 91. I believe that the author was successful in making a brief but conclusive argument. I would read the second paragraph.


  9. Example 2 – Nice Work if You Can Get it

    This is a causal argument. I say this because it is showing the effects on the town if the employers supply small amounts of heroin to addicts instead of them getting lethal doses. The town is okay with this because they have been dealing with the terrible alternative. I do not think it was completely successful, but I would read the second paragraph to get more information on this topic.


    1. How does it fail, PJ?
      [Side note. There are no actual employers. The city provides the heroin, and the addicts just have to avoid crime to keep getting it. They’re employees only metaphorically.]


  10. Example 1:Is a casual sort of argument, this argument is not complicated. However the author suggests that their are two types of people those who nibble and those who gobble. These are used to express whether a child is patient when receiving something or a child who is more into what they are receiving and rather have it right away. I would probably read the second paragraph


  11. Example 2:
    Starts off by using a casual claim that Vancouver’s heroin attics essentially are doing a great job at keeping their addiction and doing nothing to try and stop it. Example two uses a lot of analogies about these heroin attics but, sentence two creates the analogy that these heroin attics from Vancouver have to go to work everyday and that they go to work by doing heroin again. The third sentence brings up another analogy that the heroin attics are being paid in drugs for their hard work and that the taxpayers have to pay for it. Finally, it ends with another casual claim analogy that the tax payers are paying for this because they want cleaner streets and these addicts off the streets.


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