You are used to experiencing persuasion in many forms, and may have an easy time identifying examples of persuasion, but can you explain how persuasion works? Osborn and Osborn define persuasion this way: “the art of convincing others to give favorable attention to our point of view” (Obsorn & Osborn, 1997). There are two components that make this definition a useful one. First, it acknowledges the artfulness, or skill, required to persuade others.
Whether you are challenged with convincing an auditorium of 500 that they should sell their cars and opt for a pedestrian lifestyle or with convincing your friends to eat pizza instead of hamburgers, persuasion does not normally just happen. Rather it is planned and executed in a thoughtful manner. Second, this definition delineates the ends of persuasion—to convince others to think favorably of our point of view. Persuasion “encompasses a wide range of communication activities, including advertising, marketing, sales, political campaigns, and interpersonal relations”(German, Gronbeck, Ehninger, Monroe, 2004). Because of its widespread utility, persuasion is a pervasive part of our everyday lives.
Although persuasion occurs in nearly every facet of our day-to- day lives, there are occasions when more formal acts of persuasion—persuasive speeches—are appropriate. Persuasive speeches “intend to influence the beliefs, attitudes, values, and acts of others” (O’Hair & Stewart, 1999). Unlike an informative speech, where the speaker is charged with making some information known to an audience, in a persuasive speech the speaker attempts to influence people to think or behave in a particular way. This art of convincing others is propelled by reasoned argument, the cornerstone of persuasive speeches. Reasoned arguments, which might consist of facts, statistics, personal testimonies, or narratives, are employed to motivate audiences to think or behave differently than before they heard the speech.
There are particular circumstances that warrant a persuasive approach. As O’Hair and Stewart point out, it makes sense to engage strategies of persuasion when your end goal is to influence any of these things—“beliefs, attitudes, values, and acts”—or to reinforce something that already exists. For instance, safe sex advocates often present messages of reinforcement to already safe sexual actors, reminding them that wearing condoms and asking for consent are solid practices with desirable outcomes. By the same token, safer sex advocates also routinely spread the message to populations who might be likely to engage in unsafe or nonconsensual sexual behavior.
In a nutshell, persuasive speeches must confront the complex challenge of influencing or reinforcing peoples’ beliefs, attitudes, values, or actions, all characteristics that may seem natural, ingrained, or unchangeable to an audience. Because of this, rhetors (or speakers) must motivate their audiences to think or behave differently by presenting reasoned arguments.