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Persuasion Techniques Study Guide

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Updated on Sep 19, 2011

Lesson Summary

If you would persuade, you must appeal to interest rather than intellect.

Benjamin Franklin, American writer, statesman, and scientist (1706-1790)

People are always trying to influence your choices and decisions. "Vote for me!" "Buy my product!" Those are out-in-the-open persuasions; you know what someone is trying to get you to do. But there are subtle ways to persuade, and in this lesson, you'll learn to recognize both kinds used in speaking, writing, and advertising. And you'll discover how you can use those same techniques to your advantage.

Persuasion is the art of using argument, reasoning, or influence to change what people do or the way they think. Everyone uses persuasion techniques, even you. As a kid, you may have tried to persuade your parents to let you stay up an hour later, buy you a toy you wanted, or let you sleep later.

As you grew up, you continued to use persuasion. Maybe you decided to ask for a raise because you felt you'd earned it. So you went to your boss with examples of good work you'd done for the company. In other words, you tried to make the boss think a certain way—that you were a great employee who deserved a raise. But instead of agreeing to a raise, the boss explained that things weren't so good at corporate headquarters. He said stock prices were down and, "I know you understand, being one of our best and brightest, why we can't increase your salary at this time." Your boss turned the tables by using persuasion, including evidence and flattery, to change your mind about the raise!

People also use persuasion in more organized ways. Political groups and advertisers try to influence your vote and how you spend your money. Persuasion that is exceptionally systematic and organized is known as propaganda, which uses multiple techniques to attempt to bring about a change in a group of people.

A History of the Art of Persuasion

Aristotle studied and taught philosophy, science, and public speaking in Greece during the fourth century bce. In one of his most famous works, The Art of Rhetoric (meaning "persuasion through language"), he stated that the ideal form of argument was an appeal to reason, called logos. But he acknowledged two other powerful techniques, ethos—an appeal to character—and pathos—an appeal to emotions. These same techniques are still in use today.

  • Logos: Appeal to Reason. This works because most people think they are reasonable and logical. Someone makes an argument based on the theory that "any logical, reasonable person would agree!" He or she might contend, "Of course, we all know that if we don't do X now, then Y will surely be the result!"
  • Pathos: Appeal to Emotion. Aristotle understood that not everything we do is based on logic. We all have emotions, or feelings, and this kind of persuasion can work in three different ways. First, someone can express his or her own feelings on a subject, hoping to influence others. Second, someone can try to get an emotional reaction from listeners in order to persuade them. Third, someone can both express his or her own emotions and at the same time arouse those feelings in listeners. For example, environmental groups use this approach by saying things like, "Thousands of baby seals are brutally murdered for their skins, in front of their horrified mothers. Shouldn't we act now to save these innocent creatures?"
  • Ethos: Appeal to Character. Here, Aristotle refers to the character of a speaker, who must be seen as worthy in the eyes of an audience. In other words, for a person's art of persuasion to work, others must see him or her as trustworthy, honest, and/or intelligent. That way he or she earns credibility as someone who can be relied on and believed. Here's an example: "I spent 12 years in the U.S. Navy, serving our country with honor. I learned how the military operates and am the only candidate with direct, personal contact with our armed services. So I know better than any other candidate how to maintain and improve our military to make it the best in the world."
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