Giving a Persuasive Talk

Powerful tactics for inducing change.

Posted Dec 10, 2018

The Noun Project, CC 1.0
Source: The Noun Project, CC 1.0

Here on, I’ve written previously on public speaking: Good Public Speaking Without Fear and interviewed one of the world’s most successful speakers, Tony Robbins, in which he outlined the steps to an effective talk.

In this article, I focus on a specific type of talk: the persuasive speech. That can be as brief as a two-minute presentation at a staff meeting or as major as a keynote speech at a convention.

1. Understand your audience

Before starting to plan your talk, try to understand your audience’s needs and values and, where possible, accommodate to them.  Rarely is a talk the time to change someone’s core values: liberal to conservative, laid-back to driven, money-oriented to cause-driven, etc. If you don’t know enough about your audience, ask the person who asked you to speak or to a few people who will be attending. At minimum, come early to your talk and chat with attendees so you can at least tweak your message. Coming early also builds rapport.

2. Thank people

A surprising percentage of audience members feel some antipathy toward a speaker: “Who does s/he think s/he is? S/he’s no better than me? I should be up there?” You can mitigate that by starting your talk by thanking people. For example, “Pat, thank you for asking me to speak here today. I also want to thank Robin who helped me understand what would most benefit the attendees. Finally, I appreciate all of you for being here. I’ll do my best to make it worth your while.”

3. List your main points

Before launching into the guts of your talk, in a sentence or two, list the one, two, no more than three major points you’ll be making. Many talks fail for the tyranny of content—Try to cover too much and you cover nothing. Think of all the too-dense talks you’ve attended in which, within a week, you’ve forgotten most of what was said.

4. Expound on your main points

For each major point, and there may only be one, state it clearly, then expound on it by appealing both to head and heart: A fact or statistic appeals to the head, an anecdote and/or passionate delivery appeals to the heart.

Certain words and phrases facilitate buy-in. I know a communication professor who worked for an under-the-radar institute that provides the Democratic Party with trainings and guides urging focus-group-approved language, for example, "a balanced approach," " let’s get it done," "common sense," and "move forward." It trains Democrats to describe opposing views as "dangerous," "a risky scheme," "elitist," "sexist," or "racist." It exhorts the use of “we” rather than “I” words: "community," "together," "all of us," "shared values," "collective," "all-in," "inclusive," and "we." To neutralize if not convert conservatives, it urges calling conservative arguments "radical," "unAmerican," and "not what our Founding Fathers would want."

While those tactics frequently work also in non-political situations, often, there usually is language particular to your audience that can be key to getting buy-in and their acting on your call(s) to action. Sometimes it’s not just a matter of vocabulary but of delivery style: level of formality and whether to use a neutral, regional, or cultural accent. Some politicians dramatically vary their language and style depending on their audience.

5. Summarize

Tie everything up by restating your main point(s), each perhaps with a particularly powerful supporting sentence.

6. Inspire to action

Offer a capstone anecdote that moves the audience to action. Conclude with that exhortation to action, for example, “If we do this, we can put our heads on the pillow each night confident that we’re making a difference, a big difference, and living a life well-led. Let’s do this!”

The takeaway

I wish humankind were persuaded by purely rational argument. But if I am to avoid being guilty of pie-in-the-sky, out-of-touch idealism, I felt it was worth writing this article, both to help you be more effective in the real world and to alert you to the tactics that well-trained speakers, the media, and writers use to manipulate you into doing their bidding. We can resist! Let’s get it done!  ;-)

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