The Art of Persuasion
Debates, rallies, and town halls are taking place all across the United States as we near our country’s 58th quadrennial U.S. presidential election on November 8. These presentations provide a great opportunity to identify and learn effective persuasion techniques that both politicians and lawyers use. Some of those common oral persuasion techniques are as follows:
Charisma: Be firm, bold and confident. Great advocates are not perfect, and not every position on each issue is a winner, but presenting arguments with assurance and speaking in a clear, forthright tone makes all the difference. Charismatic speakers are more often followed than not.
Organization: Appear organized and deliver an organized argument. When delivering an argument, the advocate should have all necessary materials close at hand and neatly arranged. An advocate who presents a disjointed argument without a clear theme and progression will lose the attention of the audience, regardless of how compelling the substance of the argument actually may be.
Clear and Understandable Delivery: It is very difficult to accept the resounding persuasive appeal of an argument when one cannot understand it. It is essential that an advocate deliver his or her argument in a clear and understandable manner. The advocate must enunciate his or her words clearly, must speak with a moderate pace that can be easily understood, must avoid using unfamiliar jargon or idiomatic expressions, and should appropriately use pauses and vocal inflection to emphasize the key points of his or her presentation.
Lead With the Strongest Point: Great advocates do not build up to the strongest point — they lead with it. Amplify the most important points at the start, and try to articulate the theme of the argument in the first sentence or two.
Slippery Slope: This technique combines extrapolation and fear. Instead of predicting a positive future, it warns against a negative outcome. It argues against an idea by claiming it’s just the first step down a “slippery slope” toward a bad outcome. It is easy to claim that a small step will lead to a result that most people will not like, even though small steps can lead in many directions.
Rule of Three: Having three facts or arguments to support a position carries weight. Three points is the sign of the powerful speaker. Using the rule of three allows the speaker to emphasize the points, appear to have a depth of support for the position, and increases the odds of the message being remembered.
Credibility: Credibility, as classical rhetoricians recognize, involves intelligence, character, and goodwill. Intelligence means having knowledge of the subject and arguing in a clear, logical fashion. Character means displaying traits your audience admires—like honesty, sincerity, integrity, and moral commitment. Goodwill means treating your audience with respect, putting your case in terms they can understand, and acknowledging their points of view. Aristotle notes that credibility is often the controlling factor in persuasion; if the audience does not perceive the speaker as credible, then the audience will not be as attentive to the message itself.
Professional Appearance: While probably not as important as some of the other key qualities noted here, it is always helpful for an advocate to have an appropriate appearance and sense of decorum. This relates to credibility, image, and charisma.
Win the Framing Battle: Perhaps the most common retort and political debates, and legal arguments, is “that’s not the issue.” The advocate that accurately and most convincingly frames the issues usually wins the argument. The right answers usually depend on putting the right question. Framing the right question illustrates clear and deep thought. The best advocates form the issue in such a way that there is only one possible answer.
The remaining political debates this election season provide an excellent educational opportunity. In addition to gaining insight about which candidate to vote for, one can also identify effective oral persuasion techniques. These same techniques are used by trial attorneys, appellate lawyers, public relations directors, and many other oral advocates. Those techniques can even be used by laypersons to “win” debates at cocktail parties.
Warning: Do not try these techniques with your spouse or significant other!