Making the Case: An Engineer’s Guide to Advocacy

Engineers are regularly tasked with making a case for their work. Whether it is to colleagues considering design alternatives, to management deciding whether to proceed in a particular direction, or to customers choosing whether or not to invest in a solution, the engineer who has invested time and thought in a proposed solution must present its merits in a light that will enable the audience to see the virtues of what is proposed. The case that is made must be persuasive if that alternative is to be chosen.

The training of the engineer points her to crafting a solution, but the reality is that even the best solution poorly advocated will often not be chosen. Unfortunately, little time in their formal education is typically given to making the engineer an effective advocate. On the other hand, the fundamental principles of advocacy are not difficult to understand and can easily be grasped and utilized.

The job of advocacy rests on communication. The purpose of effective communication is to communicate the ideas of the “sender” —in this case the engineer acting as the advocate—to the “receiver(s)” —those making the decision. The solution has been created/chosen by the advocate because it has the capacity to answer the needs created by the problem being addressed. The advocate’s job is to guide the decision makers to see the proposed answer’s merits as a solution.

Elements of Advocacy
It is easy to see that three elements of advocacy have already emerged in this discussion. The first is the receiver—the party who needs to understand the solution. The second is the sender—the advocate seeking to convey the merits she has already seen in the proposed solution. And finally, the third element is the message itself—the “container” of the argument.

These elements have long been recognized. The formal discipline around argumentation is known in philosophy as “rhetoric.” Although that word has come to be used as if it means speech that is empty or misleading, in the world of philosophy it is understood to mean the use of language to persuade. Its concepts have long been understood. The focus on the three elements laid out above can be traced back to Aristotle in the 4th century BCE.

In his Rhetoric, Aristotle discusses the three concepts of pathos, ethos and logos. Within the framework of rhetoric, pathos, or feeling (emotion), resides in the receiver. Rhetoric, Aristotle argues, must consider how the audience “feels” about the argument being made. It is, as modern psychology has underscored, a feeling of confidence in the solution that will drive the decision.

Rhetoric also must take into account the ethos or the credibility of the advocate. This is the “ticket” to the platform for making an argument. The advocate must be seen as credible by the receiver before the argument can be given any attention.

Aristotle’s third concept is logos—literally the “logic” —of the argument itself. In order to be favorably received, the argument must be well supported. It must be grounded in evidence, its assumptions must be justified, and its conclusions must follow from its premises.

It is the logic of the argument that is most commonly valued by the would-be advocate. We are experts at gathering data and supporting conclusions. Most of us could use help in arranging and presenting our evidence and crafting the flow of our argument, but the logical structure of the argument itself is most often the strongest part of our rhetoric.

The value of the advocate’s credibility is also fairly well understood. It is typically constructed from a combination of educational pedigree, a recitation of experience, and a sample of knowledge work products. However, the critical aspect of credibility in relation to the argument at hand can be obscured in the general recitation in a curriculum vitae (CV) or speaker’s introduction. The audience is looking for reasons why they should listen to advocacy for this particular solution, in this particular situation and from this particular advocate. The key is the tie of the advocate’s credibility to the particularities of the situation and the solution.

The receivers of the advocacy are tacitly directing credibility questions to the advocate. “Do you understand the solution?” “Do you understand our problems?” “Why should we accept your judgment?”

Many of these questions can be answered in an introductory recitation of qualifications. But, it is important to recognize that the delivery of the advocacy can undermine what is built there. The CV may indicate an educated advocate, but the delivery can wipe some or all of that impression away with poor grammar, misused words and inarticulate expressions. Failure to check the facts or the accuracy of the citations to authority can signal that the advocate does not have the depth of understanding claimed in the statement of qualifications. It would be hard to overstate the damage to credibility that is done by advocacy that smacks of a lack of education. Qualifications must not only be claimed but they must be reflected in the advocacy as well.

This element is the most commonly understood. The argument must flow from its premises to its conclusion. Stated more aptly, it must build a bridge from the current reality (what is known by the audience) to the new solution (what is not known). The audience will resonate with concepts that they recognize, and the logical steps from there to the “newness” of the solution will create a comfortable bridge for them to cross.

The logic of the steps must be supported by the evidence offered in support of the argument. The facts must be “right” and properly grounded in references to research findings or outside authority. This support can range from engineering experience to testing data to reported research, but each concept presented needs enough support to be convincing.

Like the qualifications supporting the element of credibility, any weakness in one aspect of the evidence will not only weaken the concept being supported, but will cast doubt on the whole of the logic. Audiences can be experts at finding weaknesses, and the presence of even small holes in the argument will often discredit the whole. It is wise to “map” the argument from point to point and examine the evidence for weaknesses.

The pathos, or “feeling,” element is the least understood and yet, in many ways, the most important of the three elements. Succinctly stated, this represents how receivers feel about the solution being proposed. In proposing a solution, the advocate is proposing a change. Psychology tells us that people will change only when they see that the proposed change will be more comfortable for them than remaining where they are.

That means that it is the subjective feeling about the change that will play a large role in the decision to change. In their book Switch, Chip and Dan Heath use a metaphor drawn from Jonathan Haidt (The Happiness Hypothesis) of an elephant with a rider aboard. The rider, metaphorically representing the logical mind, ostensibly “controls” the direction of the elephant, who represents, for the purposes of the illustration, the emotions. While the rider is supposedly in control of the direction and pace of the elephant, the reality is that if the elephant decides to proceed counter to the directions of the rider, the elephant will prevail in his choice.

The task posed by the pathos element then, consists of convincing receivers of the value of moving from the status quo to the proposed change. This is done by presenting evidence of how much better off they will be after adopting the change. The argument contains two ends—convincing receivers that they are uncomfortable where they are, and convincing them that they will be more comfortable in “solution land.”

Acting on the Elements
In Switch, the Heath brothers talk about the “map to change” in terms of “directing the rider, motivating the elephant and shaping the path.” In terms of pure advocacy this could be rephrased as “convince the rider to listen, comfort and assure the elephant, and describe the destination.”

In establishing an effective ethos, the engineer should establish their expertise through an introductory document or presentation. This should be short and cogent to the problem at hand. With this foundation, the advocate should then speak authoritatively without equivocation or hesitancy, taking care that the expression of the argument carries the hallmarks of work that is worthy of the claimed qualifications. This should be done authentically, neither claiming more respect than is merited nor forgetting to establish enough to be credible in all that is said.

The argument advanced should be logical and well-supported. The receiver should be able to follow the logic from point to point, with every point supported by valid evidence. The logos should be solid and inspire confidence in the receiver. The sender’s reasoning should be laid out clearly so the receiver can follow it to the sender’s conclusion.

Finally, the pathos requires that the receiver be comfortable that the adoption of the proposed solution will leave him better off than the argument finds him. This means that the perils of the present position should be laid out against the potential benefits of the proposed solution. By understanding the ability of the solution to alleviate the present problem, the receiver will be motivated to adopt it by the sender’s reasoning.

Inattention to any one of these will cast doubt over the validity of the advocacy. A strong logical presentation that holds emotional promise will be seen as a mere creation of smoke and mirrors if the credibility of the advocate is in question. In the same way, a credible advocate making a sloppy case will likely fail to effect a favorable response no matter what the emotional payoff appears to be because the solution will be seen to be unattainable. A more likely result in this case is that the advocate will lose some measure of credibility. Finally, a strong case by a credible advocate which doesn’t have emotional appeal as an enhancement to the receiver’s current state is unlikely to gain traction as worth the investment in a change.

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