Persuasive Strategies, Part Two

We are constantly swimming in a vast sea of persuasive messages; we receive so many of them, in fact, that they become quite easy to tune out. From small children begging their parents for ice cream, to catchy radio jingles, to those high school acquaintances selling detox teas on social media, at any given moment you can probably identify a message targeting you and attempting to change how you behave or what you believe.

It’s not subtle, but it can be an effective form of persuasion…

How does a savvy speaker make that deluge of persuasive messaging work in her favor? After all, as any parent or frustrated Facebook user can tell you, not every attempt to persuade will meet its intended goal. But the principles of a strong, effective persuasive message have remained the same for more than 2,000 years because they WORK. Many speakers just aren’t paying attention – but that is good news for YOU, because it clears the field and lets your message be a priority.

Recall from part one of this series that many persuasive speakers struggle as a result of a vague definition of the scope and specificity of their topic, as well as confusion over who the audience for the presentation is. But if you feel confident that you have identified all the necessary building blocks to form your persuasive foundation, then you are ready to consider the best ways to format your persuasive appeals.

Understanding the value of organization

When we get excited about an opportunity or a topic, many of us respond the same way: by rushing out and compiling as many ideas as possible into a big heap, like ecstatic participants in a Supermarket Sweep. While this approach might lead to big wins in the breakfast cereal aisle, effective presentations need to be concisely targeted to achieve maximum efficacy. Understanding the variety of ready-made persuasive organizational structures is the fastest way to lead your audience to your desired conclusion. That grocery-shopping tactic of sequentially listing unrelated facts to support your main point is known as the direct method, and like many initial reactions, it’s easy but not particularly impressive. The direct method gives speakers a place to deposit their thoughts, but does NOT provide listeners with any framework that might help them accept new ideas.

Hold up, Susan, we need to make a plan!

Instead, most persuasive topics can be tackled using either a causal format or a problem/solution format. A problem/solution set-up is ideal for tackling complex issues because it lets the speaker break down what, exactly, the problem IS, before advising the audience on how to fix it. This approach also helpfully allows the speaker to set the terms for discussion in their favor. Consider a controversial issue like gun control. A speaker using a problem/solution set-up would detail the different aspects of how and why America’s current stance on gun control is harmful, before explaining how, exactly, those problems may be fixed. Framing the problem in your favor – perhaps by comparing rates of gun deaths in America to other nations, or by describing the number of accidental deaths that improper gun management causes – sets up listeners to be more amenable to your proposed solutions.

On the other hand, a causal pattern is a great choice for persuasive propositions that do NOT have complex solutions. A causal pattern allows the speaker to describe a problem in the introduction of the speech, then spend the bulk of her time describing the causes and effects of the problem. Policy changes, like the gun control issue, require the speakers to dedicate time to explaining the solution because multiple angles exist from which to tackle the struggle. Sometimes however, the solution doesn’t need a drawn-out explanation – in these cases, a causal pattern may be a better choice. Imagine, for example, a persuasive pitch designed to convince listeners to stop buying bottled water. The solution is simple: drink tap water and carry a reusable bottle. Rather than expending energy describing where to buy a reusable bottle (unnecessary detail), a well-organized speaker will focus her efforts on describing the causes and effects of the problem of single-use disposable water bottles. By explaining how corporate influences maneuver us into purchasing those bottles, and how those bottles pile up in oceans and landfills, audiences will be moved to adopt the speaker’s view point. Causal structures are especially well-suited to speeches advocating for the audience to change their beliefs or attitudes, rather than a more concrete action.

These considerations of organizational structure are always intended to provoke speakers into considering what will be most effective in convincing their audience to take action. Remember, persuasion is inherently about convincing the audience to change something about the way they act, behave, or think; you cannot assume that the tactic that made YOU change your mind is necessarily the same tactic that will make THEM change their minds.  So, consider what beliefs your listeners might already hold that impact the topic at hand, as well as how current events might impact the room, and structure your presentation accordingly (and hey, give a holler if you need some assistance).

Stay tuned for part three of this series on persuasive strategies, in which we discuss how, why, and when to incorporate differing types of evidence into your speech!


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