The Seven Habits of Persuasive Speakers

A U.S. national forensics champion shares fundamental strategies for influencing an audience

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Aristotle believed that one of the keys to human excellence is habituation: Force yourself to do something the right way long enough and it becomes second nature. Today, this is not a novel concept.

Business consultant and self-help guru Stephen R. Covey made a small fortune with his how-to book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. My high school basketball coach made our team fast-break kings by running monotonous half-hour lay-up drills. And Toast-masters is founded on the premise that there is nothing more powerful than real-world speaking experience, constructive criticism and practice.

In college, I learned the benefits of habituation on the Berry College Forensics Team. (Forensics is the term college speech programs use to refer to competitive intercollegiate speech.) Under the tutelage of Dr. Randy Richardson, I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel across the country and compete against the hottest young speakers in the United States. With no prior experience I went from utter novice to National Forensics Association (NFA) national champion. Along the way I learned a fundamental lesson from my coaches, competitors and friends: Speech is a complex activity founded on a few fundamental principles. Finding the right strategies and making them habits is the first step to rhetorical success.

What follows are the seven basic persuasive speech strategies that I accumulated over four years of competition. Three are structural, three are content-based, and one is an overarching concept designed to bind and reframe the previous six. They apply specifically to the art of persuasion. While none is sufficient for success, once combined and internalized, they can make you a more consistent and effective persuasive speaker.

The Structure of Persuasion: Problem, Cause, Solution

There is no universal chronology to persuasive speech; however, there are certain structural elements that are almost always necessary - elements that prove even more essential when formulating a speech quickly or with little prior speaking experience. This structure is called the "problem, cause, solution" paradigm.

  1. 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 and severity, and sell its audience significance.

    First, isolate the problem and limit its scope. Set boundaries. For example, it would be hard to address the topic of worldwide domestic violence in a 10-15 minute speech. But limiting the scope of the problem to something like "violence against women in the state of Georgia" could make it both manageable and actionable.

    Second, underline the problem's urgency and severity. At any given moment there are millions of problems in the world. Why is yours important enough for the audience to act? Use examples and statistical evidence to show the recent escalation of the problem or, as with violence against women, its severity.

    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." How might violence against women 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?

  2. 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.

    First, limit your causes and logically connect them to the problem. When I delivered my 2002-2003 speech on post-9/11 immigrant detention policies in the U.S., the causes of abuse were numerous, ranging from a generally unfriendly cultural climate to a lack of clearly defined judicial rights. But amidst a sea of obvious and not-so-obvious reasons for the abuse I had to ascertain the primary drivers 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. The chances are high that all or part of your audience, through negligence or action, is at least a small part of the cause you describe. In my current profession, I must sometimes con-front very able and intelligent people and inform them that their business problems are at least partially a result of their own actions. 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, to help others, to love, to protect their families, to adhere to a certain moral code, and to 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. Don't let them lag in enthusiasm or style.

  3. 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, 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 allow your audience to act with a reasonable chance of success.

    Second, make solutions personal. Anyone can write to her local political representative, and no one does. 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."

    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.

    Aristotle's On Rhetoric has been the essential guide for public speakers since the middle of the fourth century B.C., and with regards to persuasion, it focuses on three key concepts: logos, pathos and ethos. Use these concepts well, and you can flesh out your structure and win over hearts and minds.

  4. Speak with Logic (logos). Primary to Aristotle's frame-work is logic (logos). "Persuasion occurs through the arguments when we show the truth or apparent truth from whatever is persuasive in each case," wrote the philosopher. And his appeal to logos can be achieved in at least two ways: clear, linear reasoning and fact-based thinking.

    First, logical argumentation must be a product of clear, fair reasoning. While its structure 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 them 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 thus inspire that listener to action. In building the chains, however, each must link through the entire speech - problem to cause, cause to solution and solution back to problem. While they run in parallel, they must all support the same basic structure.

    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 for your assertions, particularly those assertions that may be unfamiliar to the listener. Utilizing sources effectively can buffer your fact-base and cement your credibility. Do your research, and the effort will shine through.

  5. Speak to the Heart (pathos). Complement this logic with an appeal to the emotions, Aristotle's pathos. Its fair and effective incorporation 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." And it is the emotional appeal in persuasion that 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 heart-warming story or emotional appeal and follow with logic and fact; the same structure is useful within the speech. Long stretches of emotional material drain and desensitize listeners. Likewise, endless chains of logic may bore them or exhaust their mental capacities; intersplicing 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 professor Chip Hall says, "While it's morally repugnant 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 antipathy toward the cause or root of that problem. There is room for both when the rhetoric is handled carefully and responsibly. If someone or something deserves censure, there is nothing wrong with pointing that out, but handle accusatory rhetoric with caution - the last thing you want is to arouse negativity where none is necessary or useful.

  6. Speak from Authority (ethos). Finally, the capstone of Aristotle's rhetorical triad is the appeal of credibility (or from authority), ethos. For the most part, you can create this appeal in two ways: use external sources and your own history and character.

    First, 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.

    Second, 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 and to prepare the judge." 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.

    Finally, you have to care about your topic if you want your audience to do so. In the words of two-time NFA 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.

    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 sup-port or attention. That's why it is important to view per-suasion 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.

  7. Overcome Division. 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 them and find common ground. Writing A Rhetoric of Motives he commented:
  8. As for the relation between 'identification' and 'persuasion': We might well keep it in mind that a speaker persuades an audience by use of stylistic identifications. His act of persuasion may be for the purpose of causing the audience to identify itself with the speaker's interests, and the speaker draws on identification of interests to establish rapport between himself and his audience.

    There is a lot of subtlety here, but at base, the message is clear. There can be no persuasion without groups. You must build a community with your audience - conquering divisions - before you can persuade them. This can be done through the formulation of sensitive causes, the effective use of pathos, empathetic non-verbals or carefully crafted credibility, but it will flow naturally when you learn to focus on the community in the room. To quote nationally acclaimed speech professor and Burke scholar Dr. Randy Richardson, "The concept of identification directs the critical thinking process of the speaker from the beginning of the research process through the completion of the public speech act. Everything from a speaker's language choices to her wardrobe preferences possesses the potential to enhance or destroy audience identification." By keeping "identification" as the end-goal of your speech, you are almost certain to find more empathy on both the giving and receiving ends.


For 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 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 communications in a way that allowed the humanity of my topics to shine through. The implementation of these concepts may not make you a master persuasive speaker, but it is certain to give you a head start. And by training yourself in the basics, you can add confidence and effectiveness to your speech. Don't be overwhelmed. Get the basics right, practice ceaselessly, and everything else will follow.

By John_Cale

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