Strive for Fallacy-Free Persuasion

When it comes to persuasion, there is something to beware of: fallacies. Fallacy is a term that refers faulty reasoning. You can think of these as breakdowns, holes, or problems in your argument. They sometimes come in the form of presenting irrelevant evidence to support claims, making “leaps” in reasoning that defy logic, and basing arguments on invalid assumptions, to name a few.

Sometimes fallacies occur intentionally. In the worst cases, unethical influencers use fallacies to manipulate or deceive the receiver. Certainly, intentional use of fallacies violates persuasion ethics, which destroys the credibility of the communicator and undermines relationships.

But most often, fallacies occur unintentionally. Perhaps you lack strong evidence to support a claim and you stretch just a little too far in trying to make a case. Perhaps you might not have structured your argument and supporting evidence carefully enough and the result is that your evidence doesn’t quite match your claims. Perhaps you are so passionate for your position that you let yourself get carried away and claim more than the evidence truly supports. Even when fallacies are unintended, they still can be harmful, as they can undermine the strength of your overall persuasive argument and raise concerns with your trustworthiness as a communicator.

In this section, you will learn how to deal with fallacies in persuasion.

Spot Common Fallacies

The first step of dealing with fallacies is to spot them. Spotting and correcting fallacies in your own writing will strengthen your skill as a persuasive communicator. Additionally, learning to identify fallacies will make you a more savvy receiver who can spot other people’s errors in reasoning. There are numerous types of fallacies. Here are some of the most common ones you may see in business communication messages.

Ad Hominem

The ad hominem (Latin for “to man”) fallacy is one in which someone attacks the person holding an opposing view rather than engaging with the substance of the argument. You can spot ad hominem attacks whenever an individual or even a group of individuals is insulted or name-called. You might even spot ad hominem attacks by frequent use of the words “they,” “you,” or “you people.”

Example: When persuading others to vote no on an initiative proposed by Joe: “Joe hasn’t had a good idea yet” or “Of course Joe would say that. He would do anything to avoid hard work.”

Instead: Focus on the merits and limitations of claims, arguments, and evidence, not on the person presenting them.


The bandwagon fallacy is based on popularity: If many people like something or do something, it must be proper, effective, safe, etc. While popularity has a role in some business decisions (for example, the popularity of a product may be important for projecting future sales), it should not be used to support all claims or as a substitute for other kinds of evidence. You can spot bandwagon appeals when communicators cite things like “most people,” “everyone,” or even present results of opinion polls.

Example: Deploying an artificial intelligence assistant to handle our customer service calls is a savvy business decision because all our competitors are doing it.

Instead: Base your decisions and arguments on how the idea applies to your specific and unique situation, not on what others are doing or thinking.

False Dilemma

The false dilemma fallacy occurs when receivers are presented with a simplified black-and-white choice between two positions that eliminates consideration of other middle ground positions. You can spot false dilemma fallacies by looking for “either/or” wording. You might also be able to spot this fallacy if you can think of other reasonable options than those that are presented.

Example: We can either focus on reducing costs or we can prioritize sustainable sourcing.

Instead: When possible, explain the different options available and demonstrate that your recommendation is the best of all options. When there are too many different options to cover, be explicit that you are presenting only a few options but that other options are available.

Slippery Slope

The slippery slope fallacy is one in which the worst possible outcome is presented as the inevitable conclusion to taking a particular first step. It essentially denies the potentially complex sequence of steps and decisions that would have to be made to arrive at a particular conclusion. You can spot this fallacy by looking for “if/then” wording followed by an extreme logical leap. Sometimes people will inadvertently alert you to this fallacy by prefacing their comments by saying, “It’s a slippery slope to . . .” While they may think they are warning you of inevitable negative outcomes, they are simultaneously pointing out their own fallacious reasoning.

Example: If we don’t adopt a remote work policy, we will be left with zero employees just in time for our busy season.

Instead: Focus your argument on realistic immediate and long-term consequences of the decision. Describe each step between the initial decision and the projected outcome and provide evidence to support those steps.

False Cause

The false cause fallacy (or sometimes referred to as a correlation/causation fallacy) occurs when someone attempts to show that one phenomenon caused something else to happen without sufficient proof. Sometimes evidence may show that two things happened at the same time, or even that one followed the other. But just because two things are related, it doesn’t mean that one caused the other.

The false cause fallacy can be one of the most difficult to spot because it relies on close evaluation of evidence and strong critical thinking. You might ask, does this causal relationship make sense? Are there other phenomena that might have caused it? Does this causal relationship occur at other times or under other conditions?

Example: Our sales have dropped because of our competitor’s new advertising campaign.

Instead: Claim causation only after careful analysis of the evidence. Evaluate other plausible conditions. Rule out other conditions. You also can be explicit that even though there is a correlational relationship, it may or may not indicate causation.


The strawman fallacy happens when someone distorts the opposing position in order to make it easy to refute. Someone using a strawman argument might mischaracterize, oversimplify, or exaggerate the opposing position. Then after “winning” the easier argument, they consider the original argument decided. To spot this fallacy, you have to use your critical thinking and pay careful attention to any shift in the argument.

Example: When faced with a proposition to expand into a new international market: Abandoning our local market and gambling on untested foreign markets is a recipe for disaster. (The original proposal was for expansion, not for changing markets entirely.)

Instead: Make the effort to understand opposing positions, then present them fairly and honestly. Debate the matter at hand, even if it is difficult to do so.


Your Turn: Spot the Fallacies

Unfortunately, fallacies are all around you. One of the best ways to build your fallacy-spotting skills is with practice. Look online to find any social media forum where people are arguing about something. It can be a discussion forum on Facebook, Nextdoor, your local newspaper, or any other app or website with long threads of comments. Fallacies can be generated for nearly any topic. You don’t even have to seek anything overtly political or sensitive to find a passionate exchange. Sometimes even conversations about trees and pets are enough to trigger debate.

Pick a thread and see how many fallacies you can spot.

Questions to Ponder
1. Which fallacies did you see the most?

2. How did people respond to the fallacies? Did they notice the fallacies? Did fallacies trigger different kinds of responses?

3. How could similar positions be advocated without fallacies?

Admit and Fix Mistakes

Despite your best efforts, there will be times when fallacies will find their way into your arguments. When that happens, you will need a plan to respond.

As described above, most of the time fallacies are introduced unintentionally. But that doesn’t mean that your receiver will automatically will assume that your fallacy was unintentional. When fallacies appear in your argument, you run this risk of your receiver thinking that you intended to manipulate or deceive. So the most important thing you can do is to restore trust and credibility immediately.

Therefore, when you receiver spots a fallacy, the best approach is to admit your mistake and fix it. Admitting your mistake could be as simple as saying, “You’re right, that doesn’t work,” “I agree, that doesn’t really follow” or “I see what you’re saying.” Fixing your fallacies could involve any of a number of different strategies. For example, you could provide better evidence that directly supports your claim; adjust your claim to match the evidence; drop your claim if sufficient evidence does not exist; or concede your point if there is sufficient evidence to the contrary.

Making an effort to admit and fix your mistakes will go a long way to retaining and/or restoring your credibility with your receiver.


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Business Communication: Five Core Competencies Copyright © 2023 by Kristen Lucas, Jacob D. Rawlins, and Jenna Haugen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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