Persuasive Strategies, Part One


A.K.A. How To Embody Richard Gere as Billy Flynn in Chicago

As a speech coach, one of the most common questions I hear from clients is “how can I be more persuasive?” They explain that they understand why their skills/experiences/insights are valuable to their clients, but they just aren’t sure how to explain it to them effectively. Or, perhaps, they think it’s so simple to identify the worth of someone else’s products, but when it comes to crystallizing and selling the value of their own services, they freeze up.

Any of this sound familiar?

Selling yourself is difficult, especially as a woman; we’re socialized almost from birth to be deferential and modest. BUT! Even if #TheMan has made you second-guess yourself in the past, you can still learn to sell your brand better than a spray-tanner at a bikini competition.

You see, the issue many speakers struggle with is that they approach persuasion as an all-or-nothing proposition: they stare at a blank page, cursor blinking ominously, and assume that it’s all up to them to fill that page, from scratch. Luckily for you, that is NEVER TRUE.

The study of persuasion stretches back over 2,500 years; many, many people have put so much thought into how to do it well that all you, the 21st century speaker, need to do is plug your information in like a paint-by-numbers. So, let Dr. Lanie be your Bob Ross and let’s get started.

What are you trying to say?

The first thing we need to do, my intrepid little painters, is ask yourself: what am I actually trying to say?

I know, you thought you already had this covered. Surely you knew by the time you started reading this article what you wanted to persuade people about, or you wouldn’t have come looking for this piece in the first place, right?

Wrong, unfortunately. Your persuasive topic or pitch is the foundation of the entire persuasive house you’re building. If it’s vague, generic, overly ambitious, or confusing, your house has no chance of standing.

SO, important things to consider:

Is my topic too broad?

Consider this: how would you persuade an audience to support an issue like “environmental protection?” While a worthy and important topic, how do you decide whether to focus to on state, national, or global protections? Are we  talking about rivers, oceans, air, underground digging? Individual responsibility or corporate regulations?

Yikes. You can see how what might seem like a simple, agreeable topic can quickly spiral into something unmanageable. As a general rule, it is easier to persuade an audience to adopt a specific, narrow position – so instead of “environmental protection,” consider “state-level legislation protecting rivers from corporate runoff.” Your job immediately becomes easier.

Does this need to be said?

The scope of the topic isn’t the only issue at hand, however. We also must consider public attitude toward our topic. In my public speaking classroom, there’s always a handful of students who want to write a persuasive speech advocating for abolishing puppy mills. It seems like a great idea, at the outset – puppy mills promote unhealthy breeding! They create artificial price hikes! They discourage individuals from adopting pets out of shelters! Dogs are kept in abysmal living conditions!

There’s just one problem. Have you ever known anyone who was specifically PRO-puppy mill? While some dog owners might prefer pure-bred animals, you’ll almost never find anyone advocating for the conditions animals are kept in in a puppy mill setting – even the puppy mill owners know they’re engaged in shady business. In short, if everyone already agrees with you, you can’t persuade them! You’re not contributing anything to the discussion at play, and therefore your voice is not adding value. It’s harsh, but it’s true.

This puppy has never felt grass or LOVE, and if you don’t already know that’s wrong you’re a monster. Image credit:

Persuasion, by definition, requires moving an audience to change their beliefs or behaviors. Trying to “persuade” your listeners to adopt a position they already agree with is wasted time. Again, this is where specificity is your friend. To bring it back to a business angle, if you’re trying to persuade people of something that is accepted as a common truth in your industry, you need to start back at the drawing board and reconsider what your message should be.

Who are you talking to?


They’re a basic truth in advertising, for good reason. The same set of evidence or emotional appeals won’t always work on two different audiences. If you’re pitching the  decriminalization of marijuana to teenage boys and middle-aged mothers using the same pitch, then I hate to break it to you, but you’re doing it wrong.

Refining your persuasive appeals for your audience’s specific needs means you need to know who your audience is. Viagra was developed as a blood pressure medication, but we all know that’s not where it’s biggest persuasive appeals currently lies. Are you certain you are targeting your message to the proper audience?

If the answer to that question is yes (you are absolutely certain you have identified the proper target demographic for your services) and you’re still not seeing the results you want, it’s time to reconsider the types of persuasive appeals you’re using – but I’ll save those details for PERSUASIVE STRATEGIES, PART TWO.

In summary, don’t assume you know what your persuasive strategy should be without doing the appropriate background research into a) whether your message is specific, necessary, and appropriate in scope; and b) whether you’re targeting the right audience, in the right way. Stay tuned for part two, wherein we learn the brass tacks of formatting your specific persuasive messages.

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