SPEAKING TO INFLUENCE

John Coleman

Classic persuasion techniques worth repeating.

What are the basics of persuasive speech? They may be simpler than you think. By practicing them now, you can quickly make them second nature.

Finding the right strategies and making them habits is the first step to effective public speaking. What follows are seven strategies for writing a good persuasive speech. These principles can be a good place to start. The next step is to practice … and keep practicing.

The Structure of Persuasion
To build a basic persuasive speech, particularly if you have limited time, consider a very simple structure: problem, cause and solution.

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

First, isolate the problem and limit its scope. Set boundaries. For example, it would be hard to address the topic of global income inequality in a 10- to 15-minute speech. Limiting the scope of the problem to something like “income inequality between male and female state employees in Virginia” could make it both manageable and actionable.

Second, emphasize the problem’s urgency. 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 the topic of income inequality, link it to popular news items or “hooks” like Occupy Wall Street.

And finally, show why your problem is significant to your audience. As Rodman and Adler comment, “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.” Who is your audience, and why should they care?

Identify the Cause(s)
Next, identify the problem’s causes. People often have a psychological need 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.

First, limit the causes you address 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. Amid a sea of obvious and not-so-obvious reasons for the atrocities, I had to identify the primary causes 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.

Second, argue the causes with sensitivity. Chances are high that at least some of the people in your audience, through negligence or action, are a small part of the cause you describe. Communicating this is never an easy task, but it is 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.

Finally, keep the causes compelling. While it is 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.

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.

First, make your solutions actionable. There are a lot of problems — hurricanes, volcanoes, bad breath — but we can’t solve all of them. Select topics your audience can meaningfully address, and then get creative. Find solutions that will allow your audience to act with a reasonable chance of success.

Second, make solutions personal. Anyone can write to a local government representative, but few people do. 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.

Third, 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.

The Content of Persuasion More than two thousand years ago, Aristotle outlined three basic components of a persuasive speech in his book Rhetoric: logic, emotional appeal and credibility. And while the thinking behind these principles has existed for millennia, their applicability is still strong.

Speak with Logic
Primary to Aristotle’s framework is logic (logos). In George A. Kennedy’s translation, On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse, “Persuasion occurs through the arguments when we show the truth or apparent truth from whatever is persuasive in each case.” And you can use logic in your speeches in at least two ways: clear, linear reasoning and fact-based thinking.

First, logical argumentation must be a product of clear, fair reasoning. While that 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 to six parallel chains holding your speech together. If one of the chains breaks or is unpersuasive to a given listener, the other four may hold and inspire action. In building the chains, however, you must link each through the entire speech: problem to cause, cause to solution, and solution back to problem.

Second, persuasion should rely on 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 fact-based is to cite credible sources, particularly for assertions that may be unfamiliar to the listener. Utilizing sources can buffer your fact base and improve your credibility. Do your research, and the effort will shine through.

Speak to the Heart
Complement the logic in your speech with emotional appeal (pathos). If fair and effective, emotional appeal is often the difference between a compelling speech and a forgettable one. As Aristotle noted, “[There is persuasion] through the hearers when they are led to feel emotion [pathos] by the speech.” It is the emotional appeal that prepares listeners to accept your message and compels them to act.

Structurally, pathos and logos work in tandem. Start most speeches with a funny or serious story and follow with logic and fact. Repeat this structure throughout the speech. Long stretches of emotional material drain and desensitize listeners. Likewise, endless chains of logic may bore or exhaust them. Weaving the two creates balance, touches listeners’ hearts and engages their minds. Tell stories and take the time to make some of your statements and parables aesthetically beautiful.

In coordinating these appeals, however, refrain from manipulation or attempts to obscure rather than complement logic. 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, but be responsible. If someone or something deserves outrage, there is nothing wrong with pointing that out, but do not arouse negativity where none is necessary or useful.

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

First, generate authority 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.

Second, share your own experience and character. “[S]ince 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 and to prepare the judge.” If you are an expert, let your reputation precede you. If you are known to be an honest and fair person, your reliability may be the only credibility you need. Build a solid reputation and it will enhance your performance at the podium.

Finally, 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, too.

Create an “Us”: The Power of Identification

Connect with the Audience
Perhaps the most difficult task for a persuasive speaker is overcoming the separation between speaker and audience. That’s why it is important to view persuasion not only as talking to your audience but as talking with them or as one of them. Until you truly make your audience a part of your speech, you’ll fail to connect on the deepest level.

Despite all its complications, there is a structure to persuasion. There are specific ways to enhance that structure with logic, emotion and credibility. And there is a mode of thought that can help you put the audience first and reframe the very way in which you view persuasion and influence.

When I entered college I knew next to nothing about persuasive speech. By habituating myself to the fundamental strategies of persuasion, I was able to guide my thoughts, train my mind, and structure my communications to make them more consistent and effective. Train yourself in these basics to build a foundation of what is almost certain to add confidence and effectiveness to your speech.