The Equation for Persuasion

The Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that one of the keys to human excellence is habituation – if you force yourself to do something the right way long enough, it becomes second nature. Today, this is not a novel concept.

Habituation works. Business aficionado and self-help guru Stephen R. Covey made a small fortune with his how-to manual The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. My high school basketball coach improved our fast breaks by making us run monotonous half-hour lay-up drills. And Toastmasters is founded on the premise that there is nothing more powerful than real-world experience, constructive criticism and practice.

As a public speaker, I learned the benefits of habituation through four years of competition on the Berry College Speech Team. I’ve seen those benefits carry forward through my work in management consulting and my time as a graduate student at Harvard University. And I believe that finding the right strategies and making them habits is the first step to rhetorical success.

What follows are seven basic persuasive speech strategies that I’ve accumulated through nearly a decade of public speaking and writing about communication. A few of these strategies will help you structure your speeches, some will serve you in developing your content, and one is an overarching concept designed to aid your identification with audiences. They apply specifically to the art of persuasion; once internalized, they can make you a more consistent and effective persuasive speaker.

Problem, Cause, Solution
The Structure of Persuasion: There is no universal order to persuasive speech, but certain structural elements are almost always necessary – elements that prove even more essential when formulating a speech quickly or with little prior speaking experience. Almost any persuasive speech needs a problem, cause and solution.

Isolate the Problem(s)
If you are to persuade an audience, your first task is to demonstrate, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that a verifiable problem exists. As George Rodman and Ronald B. Adler note in their seminal text Understanding Human Communication, “If your listeners don’t recognize the problem, they won’t find your arguments for a solution very important.”

You can establish an effective problem in a few basic steps: Isolate it, limit its scope, underline its urgency or severity, and sell its significance.

Isolate the problem and limit its scope. Set boundaries. For example, it would be hard to address the topic of worldwide economic recession in a 10- 15-minute speech. But limiting the scope of the problem to something like “recent layoffs in the state of Georgia” could make it both manageable and actionable.

Underline the problem’s urgency or severity. At any given moment there are millions of problems in the world. Why is yours important enough for the audience to act on? Use examples and statistical evidence to show the recent escalation of the problem or, as with rising unemployment, its severity.

Show why your problem is significant to your audience. As Rodman and Adler note, “It’s not enough to prove that a problem exists. Your next challenge is to show your listeners that it affects them in some way.” How might the recession affect your audience? Is it happening in their communities? Could it impact their sisters, friends or children? Who is your audience, and why should they care?

Identify the Cause(s)
Next, identify the problem’s causes. People love to affix blame, and whether a cause is human, circumstantial or environmental, it must be clearly identified, logically connected to the problem, argued with sensitivity and delivered with passion.

Limit your causes and logically connect them to the problem. When I delivered a speech on human trafficking several years ago, the causes of trafficking were numerous, ranging from poor legal systems to organized crime. But amidst a sea of obvious and not-so-obvious reasons for the atrocities, I had to establish the primary driving forces and – through logic and reliable evidence – link them to the problems I described. This rhetorical “connective tissue” is important. If the audience doesn’t buy the connection between problem and cause, it is less likely to act.

Argue the causes with sensitivity. The chances are strong that all or part of your audience, through negligence or some action, is at least a small part of the causes you are describing. As a consultant, I sometimes had to confront very able and intelligent people and inform them that their business problems were, at least partially, a result of their own actions. This is never an easy task, but it’s easier when you find common ground. Most people share the same basic goals: to live comfortably, help others, love, protect their families, adhere to a certain moral code and succeed at their jobs. Find this common ground and communicate the ways in which you can collectively reach those goals.

Keep the causes compelling. While it’s easy to exude energy when describing the horrors of a problem or the actionable ways in which your audience can confront them, many speakers let the “causes” portion of a speech slip into a dry rhythm. Don’t let that happen. Personalize the causes. Never let that portion lag in enthusiasm or style.

Formulate Workable Solutions
Once you have clearly presented the problem, and persuaded the audience of its causes, you must formulate solutions that are actionable, personal and immediate.

Make your solutions actionable. There are a lot of problems – hurricanes, volcanoes, halitosis – but not all of them can be solved. Select topics that can be addressed by your audience and then get creative. Find solutions to your problem that will work and will allow your audience to act with a reasonable chance of success.

Make solutions personal. Anyone can write her local government representative, but few people do. Anyone can sign a petition, but admonishing an audience member to do so rarely moves her to more substantive action. For your solutions to work, audience members must feel as if they are helping “hands-on” and that their actions will have a direct and lasting effect. As Carson-Newman College professor Chip Hall says, “If a speaker doesn’t show the audience how they can make a difference, there may be little point in their hearing the speech.”

Give your solutions immediacy. If your audience needs to mail in money, bring the stamped and addressed envelopes with you. If they need to read further information, distribute pamphlets. Solutions are best served hot – get the audience to act as soon as possible.

Logos, Pathos and Ethos
The Content of Persuasion: Next, fill this structure with compelling content. More than two thousand years ago, Aristotle outlined three essential components of effective persuasion in his book On Rhetoric: logos, pathos and ethos. These concepts are as fresh as the day they were written. Use them well, and you’ll win your listener’s hearts and minds.

Speak with Logic (Logos)

Primary to Aristotle’s framework is logic (logos). He wrote, “Persuasion occurs through the arguments when we show the truth or apparent truth from whatever is persuasive in each case.” And his appeal to logos can be achieved in at least two ways: linear reasoning and fact-based thinking:

Linear reasoning. While this reasoning can take many forms, it is often easiest and most effective to lay out a number of independent pieces of the problem and then link those pieces to their respective causes and solutions. Think of this as a series of five or six parallel chains holding your speech in the air. If one of the chains breaks (is unpersuasive to a given listener), the other four may still hold and inspire action. In building the chains, however, each must link through the entire speech – problem to cause, cause to solution, and solution back to problem.

Fact-based thinking. Mix individual stories with statistics, and incorporate hard, verifiable facts. One of the best ways to ensure that your thinking and your speech are based in fact is to cite credible sources for your assertions, particularly assertions that may be unfamiliar to the listener. Using sources effectively can buffer your fact base and cement your credibility. Do your research, and the effort will shine through.

Speak to the Heart (Pathos)
Complement this logic with an appeal to the emotions, or pathos. Fair and effective use of emotional appeal is often the difference between a compelling speech and a forgettable one. It prepares listeners to accept your message and compels them to act.

Structurally, pathos and logos work in tandem. It is often advisable to start a speech with a funny or heartwarming story and then follow with logic and fact; the same structure is useful throughout the speech. Long stretches of emotional material drain and desensitize listeners. Likewise, endless chains of logic may bore them or exhaust their mental capacities. Interspersing the two creates balance, touching listeners’ hearts and engaging their minds.

In coordinating these appeals, however, conscientious speakers must refrain from manipulation or attempts to obscure rather than complement logic. As Chip Hall says, “While it’s morally wrong to manipulate the emotions of your audience, making them feel, in a responsible way, can open their eyes to the plight of those affected by your speech topic.” Never blind your listeners with emotion – use pathos to open their eyes.

Finally, remember that emotion works both ways – just as you can inspire empathy for a problem or victim you can also evoke anger toward the cause of that problem. There is room for both when the rhetoric is handled carefully and responsibly. If someone or something deserves blame, there is nothing wrong with pointing that out. But handle accusatory rhetoric with caution – the last thing you want is to arouse negativity where it isn’t needed or useful. 

Speak from Authority (Ethos)
Finally, the capstone of Aristotle’s rhetorical triad is the appeal of credibility, or ethos. You can create this appeal in three primary ways: using external sources, relying on your own history and character, and showing passion.

  • You can generate authority quickly and effectively through the use of credible external sources – the same sources used to build a fact base and satisfy the appeal to logic. Cite organizations or individuals that carry intellectual weight, and rely on the statistics and stories of those with a history of neutrality and accuracy.
  • Generate authority through your own experience and character. “Since rhetoric is concerned with making a judgment,” wrote Aristotle, “it is necessary not only to look to the argument, that it may be demonstrative and persuasive, but also [for the speaker] to construct a view of himself as a certain kind of person.” If you are an expert, let your reputation precede you. If you are a generally honest and fair person, your reliability may be the only credibility you need. Work hard to build a solid reputation and it will enhance your performance at the podium.
  • You have to care about your topic if you want your audience to do so. In the words of two-time U.S. national persuasion finalist Alex Brown, “Speaking with passion is most important. You may have a well researched, intelligently crafted script, but the audience must see that your words come from your heart or true persuasion is all but impossible.” When you believe, others will follow.

The Art of Persuasion: Incorporating the above strategies into a persuasive speech can help you cover the basics, but even with all the right structure and content it is easy to lose an audience’s support or attention. That’s why it’s important to view persuasion not only as “persuasion” (talking to your audience) but as “identification” (talking with them or as one of them). This is where persuasive speech transitions from exercise to art.
In 1950, theorist Kenneth Burke formalized his conception of identification in the book A Rhetoric of Motives. He noted that in order to persuade an audience, you have to overcome the natural human divisions that separate you from the audience members and find common ground.

You must build a community with your audience – conquering divisions – before you can persuade them. This can be accomplished in many ways – the effective use of pathos, body language, and carefully crafted credibility, among others – but it will flow naturally when you learn to focus on becoming part of the unique community in the room.

Adding It All Up
If you want to persuade your audience to do something, give your arguments structure and enhance that structure with logic, emotion and credibility. Then bring it to the next level by identifying with your audience members and inviting them to join you in action.

When I entered college I knew next to nothing about effective persuasive speech. But by habituating myself to the fundamental strategies of persuasion, I was able to guide my thoughts, train my mind, and structure my communication in a way that made them more consistent and effective. Try these concepts and you will also become a more persuasive speaker. Don’t be overwhelmed. Get the basics right, practice frequently, and everything else will follow. 

John Coleman is a former U.S. national speech champion, a graduate student at Harvard University and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator .