9 Persuasive Speaking
Tucker, Barbara and Barton, Kristin, “Exploring Public Speaking” (2016). Communication Open Textbooks. Book 1. http://oer.galileo.usg.edu/communication-textbooks/1
- Define and explain persuasion.
- Understand three main types of persuasive appeals.
Every day we are bombarded with persuasive messages. Some messages are mediated and designed to get us to purchase specific products or vote for a particular candidate, while others might come from our loved ones and are designed to get us to help around the house or join the family for game night. Whatever the message being sent, we are constantly being persuaded and persuading others. In this chapter, we are going to focus on persuasive speaking. We will first talk about persuasion as a general concept. We will then examine four different types of persuasive speeches, and finally, we’ll look at three organizational patterns that are useful for persuasive speeches.
We defined persuasion earlier in this text as an attempt to get a person to behave in a manner, or embrace a point of view related to values, attitudes, and beliefs, that he or she would not have done otherwise. Perloff (2003) defines persuasion as:
A symbolic process in which communicators try to convince other people to change their attitudes or behavior regarding an issue through the transmission of a message, in an atmosphere of free choice. (p. 8)
First, notice that persuasion is symbolic, that is, uses language or other symbols (even graphics can be symbols), rather than force or other means. Second, notice that it is an attempt, not always entirely successful. Third, there is an “atmosphere of free choice,” in that the persons being persuaded can choose not to believe or act. And fourth, notice that the persuader is “trying to convince others to change.”
Some of this may sound like splitting hairs, but these are four important points. The fact that audience members have a free choice means that they are active participants in their own persuasion. They can choose whether the speaker is successful. For our purposes in this class, it calls on the student speaker to be ethical and truthful. Sometimes students will say, “It is just a class assignment, I can lie in this speech,” but that is not a fair way to treat your classmates.
Perloff’s definition distinguishes between “attitude” and “behavior,” meaning that an audience may be persuaded to think, to feel, or to act. Finally, persuasion is a process. Successful persuasion actually takes a while. One speech can be effective, but usually, other messages influence the listener in the long run.
Two Definitions of Persuasion
Persuasion is an attempt to get a person to behave in a manner, or embrace a point of view related to values, attitudes, and beliefs, that he or she would not have done otherwise.
Perloff’s definition of persuasion is, persuasion is a symbolic process in which communicators try to convince other people to change their attitudes or behavior regarding an issue through the transmission of a message, in an atmosphere of free choice.
Change Attitudes, Values, and Beliefs
The first type of persuasive public speaking involves a change in someone’s attitudes, values, and beliefs. An attitude is defined as an individual’s general predisposition toward something as being good or bad, right or wrong, or negative or positive. Maybe you believe that local curfew laws for people under twenty-one are a bad idea, so you want to persuade others to adopt a negative attitude toward such laws.
You can also attempt to persuade an individual to change her or his value of something. A value refers to an individual’s perception of the usefulness, importance, or worth of something. We can value a college education or technology or freedom. Values, as a general concept, are fairly ambiguous and tend to be very lofty ideas. Ultimately, what we value in life motivates us to engage in a range of behaviors. For example, if you value technology, you are more likely to seek out new technology or software on your own. On the contrary, if you do not value technology, you are less likely to seek out new technology or software unless someone, or some circumstance, requires you to.
Lastly, you can attempt to get people to change their personal beliefs. Beliefs are propositions or positions that an individual holds as true or false without positive knowledge or proof. Typically, beliefs are divided into two basic categories: core and dispositional. Core beliefs are beliefs that people have actively engaged in and created over the course of their lives (e.g. belief in a higher power or belief in extraterrestrial life forms). Dispositional beliefs, on the other hand, are beliefs that people have not actively engaged in but rather judgments that they make, based on their knowledge of related subjects, and when they encounter a proposition. For example, imagine that you were asked the question, “Can stock cars reach speeds of one thousand miles per hour on a one-mile oval track?” Even though you may never have attended a stock car race or even seen one on television, you can make split-second judgments about your understanding of automobile speeds and say with a fair degree of certainty that you believe stock cars cannot travel at one thousand miles per hour on a one-mile track. We sometimes refer to dispositional beliefs as virtual beliefs (Frankish, 1998).
When it comes to persuading people to alter core and dispositional beliefs, persuading audiences to change core beliefs is more difficult than persuading audiences to alter dispositional beliefs. For this reason, you are very unlikely to persuade people to change their deeply held core beliefs about a topic in a five- to ten-minute speech. However, if you give a persuasive speech on a topic related to an audience’s dispositional beliefs, you may have a better chance of success. While core beliefs may seem to be exciting and interesting, persuasive topics related to dispositional beliefs are generally better for novice speakers with limited time allotments.
An attitude is defined as an individual’s general predisposition toward something as being good or bad, right or wrong, or negative or positive.
A value refers to an individual’s perception of the usefulness, importance, or worth of something.
Beliefs are propositions or positions that an individual holds as true or false without positive knowledge or proof.
Core beliefs are beliefs that people have actively engaged in and created over the course of their lives (e.g. belief in a higher power or belief in extraterrestrial life forms).
Dispositional beliefs are beliefs that people have not actively engaged in but rather judgments that they make, based on their knowledge of related subjects, and when they encounter a proposition.
The second type of persuasive speech is one in which the speaker attempts to persuade an audience to change their behavior. Behaviors come in a wide range of forms, so finding one you think people should start, increase, or decrease shouldn’t be difficult at all. Speeches encouraging audiences to vote for a candidate, sign a petition opposing a tuition increase, or drink tap water instead of bottled water are all behavior-oriented persuasive speeches. In all these cases, the goal is to change the behavior of individual listeners.
Why Persuasion Matters
Frymier and Nadler enumerate three reasons why people should study persuasion (Frymier & Nadler, 2007). First, when you study and understand persuasion, you will be more successful at persuading others. If you want to be a persuasive public speaker, then you need to have a working understanding of how persuasion functions.
Second, when people understand persuasion, they will be better consumers of information. As previously mentioned, we live in a society where numerous message sources are constantly fighting for our attention. Unfortunately, most people just let messages wash over them like a wave, making little effort to understand or analyze them. As a result, they are more likely to fall for half-truths, illogical arguments, and lies. When you start to understand persuasion, you will have the skill set to pick apart the messages being sent to you and see why some of them are good and others are not.
Lastly, when we understand how persuasion functions, we’ll have a better grasp of what happens around us in the world. We’ll be able to analyze why certain speakers are effective persuaders and others are not. We’ll be able to understand why some public speakers can get an audience eating out of their hands, while others flop.
Furthermore, we believe it is an ethical imperative in the twenty-first century to be persuasively literate. We believe that persuasive messages that aim to manipulate, coerce, and intimidate people are unethical, as are messages that distort information. As ethical listeners, we have a responsibility to analyze messages that manipulate, coerce, and/or intimidate people or distort information. We also then have the responsibility to combat these messages with the truth, which will ultimately rely on our own skills and knowledge as effective persuaders.
Why is Persuasion Hard?
Persuasion is hard mainly because we have a bias against change. As much as we hear statements like “The only constant is change” or “Variety is the spice of life,” the evidence from research and from our personal experience shows that, in reality, we do not like change. Recent research, in risk aversion, points to how we are more concerned about keeping from losing something than with gaining something. Change is often seen as a loss of something rather than a gain of something else. Change is a step into the unknown, a gamble (Vedantam & Greene, 2013).
In the 1960s, psychiatrists, Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe, wanted to investigate the effect of stress on life and health. As explained on the Mindtools website:
They surveyed more than 5,000 medical patients and asked them to say whether they had experienced any of a series of 43 life events in the previous two years. Each event, called a Life Change Unit (LCU), had a different “weight” for stress. The more events the patient added up, the higher the score. The higher the score and the larger the weight of each event, the more likely the patient was to become ill. (The Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, 2015)
You can find the Holmes-Rahe stress scale on many websites. What you will see is that the stressful events almost all have to do with a change in some life situations. These changes can include the death of a close family member (which might rate 100 LCUs), loss of a job, even some good changes like the Christmas holidays (12 LCUs). Change is stressful. We do not embrace things that bring us stress.
Additionally, psychologists have pointed to how we go out of our way to protect our beliefs, attitudes, and values. First, we selectively expose ourselves to messages that we already agree with, rather than those that confront or challenge us. This selective exposure is often seen in choices of mass media that individuals listen to and read, whether TV, radio, or Internet sites. Not only do we selectively expose ourselves to information, we selectively attend to, perceive, and recall information that supports our existing viewpoints.
This principle led Leon Festinger (1957) to form the theory of cognitive dissonance, which states, among other ideas, that when we are confronted with conflicting information or viewpoints, we reach a state of dissonance, which can be very uncomfortable, and we will do things to get rid of the dissonance and maintain “consonance.” The easiest way to do so is to not expose oneself to conflicting messages in the first place.
Additionally, as mentioned before, during a persuasive speech the audience members are holding a mental dialogue with the speaker or at least the speaker’s content. They are putting up rebuttals or counter-arguments. These have been called reservations (as in the audience member would like to believe the speaker but has reservations about doing so). They could also be called the “yeah-buts” because the audience members are saying in their minds, “Yeah, I see what you are arguing, but—”. These reservations can be very strong, since, the bias is to be loss averse and not to change our actions or beliefs.
In a sense, the reasons not to change can be stronger than even very logical reasons to change. For example, you probably know a friend who will not wear a seatbelt in a car. You can say to your friend, “Don’t you know that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (2009) says, and I quote, ‘1,652 lives could be saved, and 22,372 serious injuries avoided each year on America’s roadways if seat belt use rates rose to 90 percent in every state’?” What will your friend probably say, even though you have cited a credible source?
They will probably come up with some reason for not wearing it. Their response could even be something as dramatic as “I knew a guy who had a cousin who was in an accident and the cop said he died because he was wearing his seatbelt.” You may have had this conversation or one like it. Their argument may be less dramatic, such as “I don’t like how it feels” or “I don’t like the government telling me what to do in my car.” For your friend, the argument for wearing a seat belt was not as strong as the argument against it, at least at this moment. If they are open-minded and can listen to evidence, they might experience cognitive dissonance and then be persuaded.
Solutions to the Difficulty of Persuasion
With these reasons for the resistance audience members would have to persuasion, what is a speaker to do? Here are some strategies.
Since change is resisted, we do not make many large or major changes in our lives. We do, however, make smaller, concrete, step-by-step or incremental changes in our lives every day. Having reasonable persuasive goals is the first way to meet resistance. Even moving someone a little bit is progress. Over time, these small shifts will eventually result in a significant amount of persuasion.
Secondly, a speaker must “deal with the reservations.” First, the speaker must acknowledge they exist. The acknowledgment shows audience awareness, and then the speaker must attempt to rebut or refute them. In reality, since persuasion involves a mental dialogue, your audience is more than likely thinking of counter-arguments in their minds. Therefore, including a refutation section in your speech, after your presentation of arguments in favor of your proposition, is a required and important strategy.
There are some techniques for rebuttal or refutation that work better than others. You would not want to say, “One argument against my proposition is…, and that is wrong” or “If you are one of the people who believe this about my proposition, you are wrong.” On the other hand, you could say that the reservations are “misconceptions,” “myths,” or “mistaken ideas” that are commonly held about the proposition. Generally, strong persuasive speeches offer the audience what are called two-tailed arguments. Two-tailed arguments bring up a valid issue against your argument which you, as the speaker, must then refute. After acknowledging them and seeking to refute or rebut the reservations, you must also provide evidence for your refutation.
Two-tailed arguments bring up a valid issue against your argument which you, as the speaker, must then refute.
Ultimately, this will show your audience that you are aware of both sides of the issue you are presenting. Your knowledge makes you a more credible speaker. However, you cannot just say something like this:
“One common misconception about wearing seatbelts is that if the car goes off a bridge and is sinking in water, you would not be able to release the belt and get out. First, that rarely happens. Second, if it did, getting the seat belt unbuckled would be the least of your worries. You would have to know how to get out of the car, not just the seat belt. Third, the seat belt would have protected you from any head injuries in such a crash, therefore keeping you conscious and able to help anyone else in the car.”
This refutation is a good start, but there are some assertions in here that would need support from a reliable source. For example, the argument that the “submerging in water” scenario is rare. If it has happened to someone you know, you probably would not think it is rare.
The third strategy is to keep in mind that because you are asking the audience to change something, they must view the benefits of the change as worth the stress of the change. If you conduct a good audience analysis, you know they are asking, “What’s in it for me?” What benefit or advantage or improvement would happen for the audience members? It could be the benefit of being logical, having consonance rather than dissonance, being consistent with the evidence and authorities on a subject, or there might be some benefit from changing behavior.
If the audience is being persuaded to sign an organ donor card, which is an altruistic action that cannot benefit them in any way because they will be dead, what would be the benefit? Knowing others would have better lives, feeling a sense of contribution to the good of humanity, and helping medical science might be examples. The point is that a speaker should be able to engage the audience at the level of needs, wants, and values as well as logic and evidence.
How to Persuade
In the fourth century BCE, Aristotle took upon the study of the public speaking practices of the ruling class in Athenian society. For two years he observed the rhetoric of the men who spoke in the assembly and the courts. In the end, he wrote Rhetoric to explain his theories about what he saw. Among his many conclusions, which have formed the basis of communication study for centuries, was the classification of persuasive appeals into ethos, logos, and pathos. Over the years, Aristotle’s original understanding and definition of these terms have been refined as more psychological research has been done.
Ethos has come to mean the influence of speaker credentials and character in a speech. Ethos is one of the more studied aspects of public speaking. During the speech, a speaker should seek to utilize their existing credibility (based on the favorable things an audience already knows or believes about the speaker, such as education, expertise, background, and good character), and to improve or enhance their credibility (through citing reliable, authoritative sources, strong arguments, showing awareness of the audience, and effective delivery).
The word “ethos” looks very much like the word “ethics,” and there are many close parallels to the trust an audience has in a speaker and his or her honesty and ethical stance. In terms of ethics, your speech will be truthful. Another matter to consider is your own personal involvement in the topic. Ideally, you have chosen the topic because it means a great deal to you personally.
For example, perhaps your speech is designed to motivate audience members to take action against bullying in schools, and it is important to you because you work with the Boys and Girls Club organization and have seen how anti-bullying programs can have positive results. Sharing your own involvement and commitment is key to the credibility and emotional appeal (ethos and pathos) of the speech, added to the logos (evidence showing the success of the programs and the damage caused by bullying that goes unchecked). However, it would be wrong to manufacture stories of personal involvement that are untrue, even if the proposition is a socially valuable one.
Aristotle’s original meaning for logos had philosophical meanings tied to the Greek worldview that the universe is a place ruled by logic and reason. Logos in a speech is related to standard forms of arguments that the audience would find acceptable. Today we think of logos as both the logical and organized arguments and the credible evidence used to support the arguments in a speech.
In words like “empathy,” “sympathy,” and “compassion,” we see the root word behind pathos. Pathos, to Aristotle, was using the emotions such as anger, joy, hate, desire for community, and love to persuade the audience of the rightness of a proposition. One example of emotional appeals is using strong visual aids and engaging stories to get the attention of the audience. Someone asking you to donate money to help homeless pets may not have a strong effect, but seeing the ASPCA’s commercials that feature emaciated and mistreated animals is probably much more likely to persuade you to donate (add the music for full emotional effect).
Emotions are also engaged by showing the audience that the proposition relates to their needs. However, we recognize that emotions are complex and that they can be used to create a smokescreen to logic. Emotional appeals that use inflammatory language, like name-calling, are often unethical or at least counterproductive. Some emotions are more appropriate for persuasive speeches than others. Anger and guilt, for example, do have effectiveness, but they can backfire. Positive emotions such as pride, sympathy, and contentment are usually more productive.
One negative emotion that is useful and that can be used ethically is fear. When you think about it, we do a number of things in life to avoid negative consequences. Avoiding negative consequences often means making decisions out of fear. Why don’t we drive 100 miles an hour on the interstate? Fear of getting a ticket, fear of paying more for insurance, fear of a crash, fear of hurting ourselves or others. Fear is not always applicable to a specific topic, but research shows that mild fear appeals, under certain circumstances, are very useful. When using fear appeals, the speaker must:
- Prove the fear appeal is valid.
- Prove the fear applies to the audience.
- Prove that the solution can work.
- Prove the solution is available to the audience.
Without these “proofs,” the audience may dismiss the fear appeal as not being real or not applying to them (O’Keefe, 2002).
Ethos is the influence of speaker credentials and character in a speech.
Logos is both the logical and organized arguments and the credible evidence used to support the arguments in a speech.
Pathos is using the emotions such as anger, joy, hate, desire for community, and love to persuade the audience of the rightness of a proposition.
For example, a student gave a speech in one of our classes about flossing teeth. He used dramatic and disturbing photos of dental and gum problems, and he also proved that the dramatic photos of gum disease really did come from lack of flossing. The solution to avoid the gum disease was readily available, and the student proved through his evidence that the solution of flossing regularly did work to avoid the disease. Fear appeals can be overdone, but mild ones supported by evidence are useful.
Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson, & Company.
Festinger, L., & Carlsmith, J. M. (1959). Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58, 203–210.
Frankish, K. (1998). Virtual belief. In P. Carruthers & J. Boucher (Eds.), Language and thought (pp. 249–269). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Frymier, A. B., & Nadler, M. K. (2007). Persuasion: Integrating theory, research, and practice. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.
Perloff, R. M. (2003). The dynamics of persuasion: Communication and attitudes in the 21st Century (2nd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 5–6.
Petty, R. E., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1986). The elaboration likelihood model of persuasion. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 19, 123–205.
Sherif, M., & Hovland, C. I. (1961). Social judgment: Assimilation and contrast effects in communication and attitude change. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.