For anyone who has ever presented information, whether it’s in a debate or simply a presentation or pitch doesn’t matter; be aware there are a number of strategies often used in attempts to convince an audience, or to attack or disprove an argument or point of view.

I am writing about these primarily because awareness of these strategies, which we correctly refer to as fallacies, has been beneficial to me in my quarter of a century of both presenting and speaking to audiences, debating points and positions, as well as listening to the arguments of others.

It is your awareness of these fallacies that will help you to respond to and even counter their inappropriate use.

This article is Part 1 of 4, with the first two of these fallacies.

Number 1. The Ad Hominem Fallacy

The ad hominem fallacy is a common logical fallacy where an argument is rebutted by attacking the character, motive, or other attribute of the person making the argument, rather than addressing the substance of the argument itself.

The term “ad hominem” is Latin for “to the person.”

This fallacy is often used in debates and discussions where emotional appeal takes precedence over factual evidence and logical reasoning.

Interestingly there are several types of ad hominem fallacies. These include, but are not limited to, the following:

Abusive Ad Hominem

Directly attacking someone’s appearance, personal habits, or character instead of their argument.

Circumstantial Ad Hominem

Suggesting that the person making the argument is biased or predisposed to take a particular stance, and therefore, their argument is invalid.

Tu Quoque (you also)

Discrediting someone’s argument by asserting their failure to act consistently in accordance with its conclusions.

The ad hominem fallacy is problematic because it distracts from the argument’s merits and shifts the focus to personal characteristics that are irrelevant to the argument’s validity. It can be particularly persuasive in influencing public opinion or in a debate setting where emotional impact can overshadow critical thinking.

Recognising and avoiding ad hominem attacks is crucial for maintaining a rational and respectful discourse.

Examples of the Ad Hominem Fallacy in Action

In both the business world and politics, the ad hominem fallacy can often surface during heated debates, negotiations, or public disputes where the focus shifts from the substantive issues at hand to personal attacks.

A well-documented example from the realm of politics is during electoral campaigns, where candidates frequently target each other’s character, history, or personal life rather than focusing solely on policy differences or visions for the future.

One notable instance occurred during the 2016 United States presidential campaign. Throughout the campaign, candidates frequently engaged in personal attacks against their opponents.

For example, then-candidate Donald Trump often used nicknames and personal critiques against his opponents, such as “Crooked Hillary” for Hillary Clinton, which focused on Clinton’s character and alleged wrongdoings rather than solely debating her policies or qualifications for presidency.

Similarly, opponents of Trump questioned his temperament and character as arguments against his suitability for the presidency, often focusing on his behaviour and comments as evidence of his unfitness for office.

In the business world, ad hominem attacks can occur during public disputes between companies or within debates on business ethics and practices. For example, during a dispute between two CEOs or company leaders, one might attack the other’s personal integrity or past business failures rather than addressing the actual business issue or dispute at hand.

Such attacks are often highlighted in media coverage of corporate disputes, drawing public attention away from the substantive business issues and towards the personalities involved.

These instances demonstrate how ad hominem attacks can serve to distract from meaningful discussion of ideas, policies, or business strategies, instead fostering an environment where personal attacks become a substitute for substantive debate.

Number 2. The Straw Man Fallacy

The straw man fallacy occurs when someone’s argument is misrepresented or oversimplified to make it easier to attack or refute. Instead of engaging with the actual argument, the person committing the fallacy argues against a weaker version of it, which they construct for this purpose.

This misrepresented argument is referred to as a “straw man” because, like a man made of straw, it is easier to knock down than a real human being.

The straw man fallacy is commonly used in debates and discussions to undermine the opponent’s stance without having to genuinely engage with their actual points.

This tactic can be effective in swaying the opinion of an audience that may not notice the misrepresentation.

This is a typical structure of the straw man fallacy:

1. Person A presents an argument.

2. Person B creates a distorted, exaggerated, or otherwise altered version of Person A’s argument (the “straw man”).

3. Person B attacks this distorted version of the argument.

4. Person B claims victory over Person A by appearing to have refuted their original argument.

However, because Person B never actually engages with Person A’s real argument, the straw man fallacy does not contribute to a constructive or meaningful discussion.

Recognising and pointing out this fallacy when it occurs can help steer conversations back to the actual issues at hand.

An Example of the Straw Man Fallacy in Action

In Australian politics, a notable example of a straw man fallacy was used in the debate surrounding the carbon pricing mechanism, which was introduced by the Gillard government in 2011. The policy aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by putting a price on carbon. However, the policy was met with significant opposition, particularly from the Liberal Party and its leaders at the time.

Opponents of the carbon pricing mechanism, including then-opposition leader Tony Abbott, frequently misrepresented the policy as a “carbon tax” that would have devastating effects on the economy, including significant increases in household electricity prices and the overall cost of living for Australians.

Abbott and his supporters argued that the carbon pricing would lead to unprecedented economic hardship, including job losses and the closure of businesses, framing it as an extreme measure that would hurt every Australian household.

While it’s true that the policy involved costs that would likely be passed on to consumers to some extent, the portrayal of the policy as a direct, punitive tax on everyday Australians was a simplification and exaggeration of its actual design and intended effects.

The carbon pricing mechanism was, in fact, a complex policy designed not just to increase costs but also to incentivise reductions in carbon emissions and fund renewable energy projects.

Critics of the policy used the straw man argument of a “carbon tax” to simplify and distort the debate, focusing public attention on potential negative impacts while ignoring the policy’s environmental and long-term economic rationales.

This example demonstrates how the straw man fallacy can be used in political discourse to simplify complex policies into easily attacked caricatures, thereby skewing public debate and understanding.

CLICK HERE for Part 2.

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For more information about George Lee Sye and his work with his Global Leadership Skills program, visit where you’ll discover what is possibly ‘the most extensive and effective change leadership training and development program in Australia today’.

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