Familiar with the art of persuasive speaking? Attractive speakers are more persuasive than an unattractive one—it’s called the last acceptable bigotry.
By Mike McCurley, Family Lawyer
Art. When one speaks of the “art” of persuasive speaking, what exactly does one mean by “art”? Art suggests beauty, movement, color and sound. Persuasive speaking combines verbal imagery, sound, and physical delivery, including the nonverbal expressions, of the speaker. Art is also a skill or talent. For a few, persuasive speaking comes easily. For most, persuasive speaking is acquired through the deliberate study of persuasive speaking techniques. This paper is a discussion of theories, principles and methods used by persuasive speakers. Reading this paper, in and of itself, will not make one a persuasive speaker. Becoming a student of the theories, principles and methods of great persuasive speakers and implementing those theories, principles and methods into one’s own speeches and presentations will improve the quality of one’s persuasive speaking. As the appendices to this paper is a study of individuals whose persuasive speaking abilities impacted history. Persuasive speaking is as more about psychology than the topic about which one speaks. The rules of human behavior create certain standards for the impact of one’s speak upon the degree to which one is persuasive to the listener.
II. Vox Veritas1
Pər-ˈswā-zhən. What is ‘persuasion?’ Webster defines persuasion as “the act of influencing the mind by arguments or reasons offered, or by anything that moves the mind or passions, or inclines the will to a determination.”2 Persuasive speech addresses issues which are meaningful to the listener and provides the audience with the speaker’s solution. Persuasive speaking is deliberate. The persuasive speaker provides the listener with reasons to agree with the speaker’s point of view. The persuasive speaker provides the listener with an understanding of the issue leading only to the speaker’s conclusion. Changing the attitude of a listener requires the speaker to be respectful of the opposing position while explaining why the opposing position is the wrong conclusion. In order to influence the mind of the listener, move the passions of the listener, or to incline the will of the listener to a certain determination, one must present oneself as trustworthy and credible. The “power of candor,”3 the power of truth is that “the truth isn’t the truth until people believe you, and they can’t believe you if they don’t know what you are saying, and they can’t know what you are saying if they don’t listen to you, and they won’t listen to you if you aren’t interesting, and you won’t be interesting unless you say things imaginatively, originally, freshly.”4
Aristotle surmised that there are three reasons that people believe: ethos, pathos and logos.5 Aristotle believed that public speaking, or rhetoric, balanced ethos, pathos, and logos with ethos being the speaker and his or her character as revealed through the communication; pathos being the audience and the emotions felt by the audience during the speech; and logos, being the actual words spoken by the speaker.6 Ethos refers to the perception of the character of the speaker, being the speaker’s personal credibility. The listener determines the positive characteristics to be assigned to the speaker. Pathos refers to the emotional reason that compels one to believe; the speaker appeals to the listener’s needs and values. Logos is belief based upon logical or rational proof. The listener is persuaded to believe based upon statistics and examples.
Aristotle maintained that ‘Ethos’ was achieved by what the speaker says, not by preconceived notions of what character traits the listener assigned to the speaker prior to the commencement of the speech. Modern psychological studies, however, reveal that a listener does anticipate the credibility of a speaker based upon the speaker’s reputation or résumé and does assign a degree of preconceived credibility to a speaker. This psychological phenomenon is referred to as “initial credibility” and is derived from the listener’s perception of the speaker’s credentials and expertise. The speaker can improve the likelihood of being assigned positive initial credibility by understanding the underlying psychological theories explaining how positive characteristics are assigned by individuals to others. Credibility is dynamic and can be increased or decreased during the course of the interaction of the speaker with the listener. Terminal credibility is the level of credibility assigned to the speaker by the listener at the conclusion of the presentation.
Pathos is the emotional connection made by the speaker with the listener. The speaker seeks the common ground between himself and the listener. The speaker must be attuned to the values, motives, experiences and attitudes of the listener. Credibility is then established by the speaker by presenting the issues in the framework of the shared values and areas of similarity between the speaker and his listener. This phenomenon is known as “derived credibility” is assigned during the presentation by the listener as the listener recognizes the actual communication by the speaker. An appeal to the emotional listener also includes a request for a commitment. As simplistic as it may be, a speaker connecting emotionally to his listener has determined what the listener wants to hear and delivers the message by appealing to the shared commonality.
Logos appeals to reason and logic; it depends on inductive or deductive reasoning. The process of inductive reasoning examines specific facts and then reaches a generalization or conclusion. Inductive reasoning moves from the specific to the general. The process of deductive reasoning begins with a generalization or conclusion and applies it to specific facts. Deductive reasoning moves from the generalization to a specific conclusion. Persuasive speaking which relies on reason and logic most often uses the syllogism and enthymeme. A syllogism is the formal method of deductive reasoning, for example: All children are minors. Amy is a child. Therefore, Amy is a minor.7 Enthymeme is a shortened syllogism, meaning one or more minor premises are left unstated, for example: Some children are name Amy; therefore, Amy may be a child. Persuasive speaking which utilizes logic, present facts to the listener leading to a conclusion or generalization which mirrors the speaker’s position. Persuasive speaking could also begin with a proposition generally considered to be true and applies facts to arrive at the position that the speaker wants the listener to adopt.
One of the most renowned trial lawyers in the United States is Gerry Spence of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Mr. Spence has obtained more multi-million dollar verdicts without an intervening loss than any other lawyer in America9 and is the author of sixteen books, including the New York Times bestseller “How to Argue and Win Every Time.” Gerry Spence’s most recent contribution to Litigation Magazine is entitled “Persuading Yourself You Can Win.”10 Spence identifies personal credibility as the foundation of persuasive ability: “[A] lawyer . . . can be frightened but [also] be real and honest . . . . [a] trial is always a race for credibility. If the lawyer is credible, fully credible . . . that lawyer will win. The jurors recognize that that lawyer is real, that that lawyer can be trusted. And the trusted lawyer will always win.”11 Spence maintains that credibility is supported by two pillars: trustworthiness and expertise.12 In order to be credible, one must be true to themselves rather than an imitation of someone else.13 In order to be credible, the persuasive speaker must walk the walk and talk the talk. One cannot be credible if one speaks of caring, but does not care, or when one speaks of believing but does not believe.14 All of the elements of communication must come together in order for one to be completely truthful.15
III. The Science of Persuasion
In order to be credible, one must be true to themselves and not an imitation of someone else.16 Whether trying a case to a judge or a jury, one must be aware of the effect of a first impression. First impressions are particularly crucial because eleven key decisions are made about a person during an initial encounter, including decisions regarding one’s credibility, competence, honesty, and trustworthiness.17 Only one-tenth of a second is needed to formulate those decisions about a stranger by merely looking at the stranger’s face.18 Perception is reality. The persuasive speaker’s goal is to be perceived favorably by the listener.11 All subsequent information communicated to the listener by the speaker is filtered through those eleven initial decisions.12 The speaker should aspire to always maintain personal integrity with the listener, as that trustworthiness is the foundation of the relationship between the two.13 Every move, every inflection, every word and every gesture made during a presentation is a communication to the listener. To be perceived as credible, one must be credible.14
Perceived truth forms most of one’s understanding of the world. Each persons determines truth based upon personal observations, the accounts of others, newspapers, television, the internet, books, and other media. Most information is not acquired through personal observation and experience therefore the reliability of the information to which one is exposed is critical to what one perceives to be true. For this reason, the honesty, integrity, and reliability of the source of information is key to one’s perception of the truth. The listener is gauging whether the speaker is one who personally observed the events being relayed; whether the speaker is repeating what another relayed (hearsay); whether the speaker is an expert who is explaining the analysis of a matter; whether the speaker is a person prone to exaggeration; or, whether the speaker is one who has been reliable in the past.
Minimizing miscommunication is essential to credibility. As one is speaking, the listener is deciphering the meaning of the speaker. The listener must understand what the speaker is communicating. The Meta Model of Language, now called Neuro-Linguistic Programming, identifies three processes by which people transform sensory input to the brain into their own world view.15 In communication, the speaker’s actual experiences undergo three types of transformation: generalization, deletion, and distortion.16 Generalization is a process by which one reaches a conclusion based upon only one or two experiences. Deletion is when one selects only certain aspects of an experience and omits others. Distortion is the modification of the experience.17 The three transformations are a dangerous mental shorthand that may occurs in presenting an argument. Awareness of the Meta-Model in preparing one’s closing argument can avoid speaker to listener miscommunication such as:
●Rather than summarizing the evidence with a statement such as “Mother is an irresponsible parent,” a persuasive closing argument highlights the most persuasive examples of Mother’s irresponsible parenting and avoids generalization to the benefit of the listener.
●Rather than stating only that “Mother drove erratically with the children in the car,” a persuasive closing argument includes the effect of the erratic driving on the children and avoids deleting key, persuasive facts from the listener’s consideration.
●Rather than stating that “The children never have clean clothes,” a persuasive closing argument does not distort, by minimizing, the reality of the clothing: it is stained, it smells bad, and the children are called names by other school children because of their appearance due to Mother’s negligent care. A caveat: in that trust is the foundation of the relationship between the speaker and the listener, with regard to the persuasive ability of the speaker, one is cautioned against embellishing facts because embellishment is also distortion of the facts.
Primacy and recency are terms often associated with persuasive speaking. Both terms are short-hand for a psychological effects first noted by Abraham Luchins in 1957.18 An opening statement is persuasive speaking, as the goal of a litigator is to persuade the jurors to make findings as to certain facts. Primacy is the psychological effect in which the first belief formulated about a subject or a person is most deeply believed, and the hardest belief to alter.19 In a nutshell, primacy is the first impression. Recency is the effect wherein it is easiest for one to remember the last thing heard, or the last impression.20 Applying these principles to persuasive speaking requires one to open the presentation with one’s strongest facts.21 Factors that a persuasive speaker most wants the listener to recall are strategically placed at toward the end of the presentation.22 In preparing and drafting a speech or presentation, one must be deliberately aware of the placement of the key issues in the presentation.23
The Rule of Threes is another tool for persuasive speaking. The Rule of Three describes the use of three related elements. Two varieties of the Rule of Three are the hendiatris and tricolon. A hendiatris is a combination of three successive words, for example: yesterday, today, and tomorrow. A tricola consists of three parallel elements, such as: “I came, I saw, I conquered.”24 Toastmasters trains it members to build their speeches and presentations around ideas or concepts grouped in threes because the human brain responds to and remembers things in sets of three.25
A lesser-known rule of three is verbage, voice, and visualization. Verbage relates to the words selected by the speaker. The most persuasive speeches contains language that the listener can hear and visualize.26 A persuasive speaker uses descriptive and colorful words. One must be cognizant, however, of the danger of exaggeration which undermines credibility. The key is to balance the choice of words between vivid words that evoke passion and vivid words that tend to exaggerate. 27 Think in terms of “your mind’s eye.” A persuasive speaker chooses words that assist the listener is “seeing the point.”28 Voice relates to the tone, cadence, inflection, volume and tenor of the speaker’s voice. A persuasive speaker does not read the speech. A persuasive speaker tells a story and engages the listener. Rather than a dry, monotone run-down of facts, the persuasive speaker varies the cadence volume tenor and emphasis of his voice to punctuate key aspects of the argument.29 A persuasive speech is delivered from the heart with passion and conviction. Visualization relates to what the listener sees when viewing the speaker, whether it is a PowerPoint in conjunction with the speech or the gestures and body language of the speaker. As the listener watches the speaker, the listener should see a synchronization between the voice and the gestures or mannerisms of the speaker. A persuasive speaker practices the speech before its delivery in front of a test audience, a mirror or to a video camera in order to “see what the listener sees.”30
Psychological studies show that there is a generalized bias that attractive people are honest.31 Physical attractiveness affects the perception of one’s credibility.32 Attractive or “likeable” speakers are more persuasive than an unattractive speaker. The attractiveness factor has been called the last acceptable bigotry.33 The standard of conformity to acceptable attractiveness includes weight and height.34 The science behind this phenomenon is what psychologists refer to as the engagement of “peripheral route processing” rather than “central route processing.”35 In central route processing, the listener is making a cognitive decision based upon the content of the speech.36 A person who engages in central route processing has an understanding of the issues presented by the speaker. Peripheral route processing by the listener does not rely on the content of the speech but on “non-content cues.”37 Peripheral route processing is reasoning that occurs when the listener does not understand the issues presented by the speaker. Issues are not evaluated on their merit when one reasons by peripheral route processing.38
Body language and the demeanor of the speaker are also non-content cues which influence a listener. The demeanor of a speaker affects the speaker’s credibility based upon two assumptions made by the listener: (1) the speaker with exhibit some ‘sign’ or ‘tic’ that will reveal when the speaker is not being truthful; and, (2) the listener is able to correctly interpret the signs indicating untruthful statements.39 “Most liars can fool most people most of the time”40 because there is no true cue upon which one can absolutely detect truth from a lie.41 Studies reveal that the content of a speech presented by a confident and powerful speaker is perceived to be more as accurate.42 As such, a speaker who exudes confidence is perceived to be more honest and more credible than a speaker who lacks confidence.43 A speaker who is anxious, nervous, or fearful is perceived as being dishonest.44 One who fidgets or continually shifts back and forth while speaking is also perceived to be less credible. This particular psychological phenomenon regarding confidence undergoes further assessment of the degree of credibility depending upon whether the speaker is male or female. Confident men are perceived as more truthful than confident women.45
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Mike McCurley has a nationwide reputation as a zealous advocate and for never backing down from a challenge. He has represented celebrities and wealthy business owners, as well as parents who are putting everything on the line for the sake of their children. Mike is well known for analyzing a client’s legal problem and assembling the best team to confront that challenge. The appropriate team might be one lawyer and one paralegal, or it might require several lawyers, a forensic accountant, a psychologist or psychiatrist, and a substance abuse expert.