Chapter 13: Persuasive Speaking

Before we can have a discussion about persuasive public speaking, we need to encounter the age-old assertion that there is a category of public speaking known as “informative public speaking” or “speaking to inform.”

Rule #2 of communication: All communication is persuasive.

Public speaking is communication. Therefore, all public speaking is persuasive.

The notion that somebody is speaking merely to inform the audience is—at best—an attempt to neutralize the inherently persuasive nature of all communication or an attempt to shield the audience from fearful ideas that persuasion is necessarily manipulative (which is not true).

This chapter will begin with some of the learning points that are typically included in an “informative speaking” section because the principles taught have merit. However, they are part of a persuasive speaking structure, albeit a less overt form of persuasion.

13.1 – “Informative Speaking”

Proponents of an “informative speaking” model will often suggest that a key difference is that the content provided is entirely fact-based—and irrefutably fact-based at that. However, the presentation of facts is, in and of itself, a persuasive action. They may also point out that an informative speech does not overtly state a call to action or express an opinion. While a call to action is a persuasive speaking device, the absence of one does not mean the communication was not persuasive. Equally, the arrangement and presentation of facts on a topic is an expression of opinion; this topic merits the audience’s interest and attention and the arrangement of these facts should change or sustain the audience’s thinking on the topic. There is nothing neutral about public speaking; the “informative” model attempts to be neutral, however. Don’t be neutralized; be persuasive.

Nonetheless, the classical models of informative speaking can still be useful, at least as food for thought and for the process and order they use to convey information.

These narrative structures may offer a historical account of events, demonstrate a process for performing a task, such as baking muffins, chronicle the events of a person’s life, or categorize information in an interesting way.

Key tenets of these models is to the narrow in scope and focused on a very specific subject, and—most importantly—to be accurate in the information conveyed.

13.2 – Why Persuade?

For many people, there is something a little uncomfortable about the word “persuasion.” It often gets paired with ideas of seduction, manipulation, force, lack of choice, or inducement, as well as more positive concepts such as encouragement, influence, urging, or logical arguments.

However, if you think of persuasion simply as a formal speech with a purpose of getting people to do something they do not want to do, then you will miss the value of learning persuasion and its accompanying skills of appeal, argument, and logic.

Persuasion is something you do every day, in various forms. When you invite somebody to a social gathering, you’re using persuasion. When you apply for a job, you’re using persuasion. When you thank somebody for helping you, you’re using persuasion. All of your communication is, in some way, persuasive.

If you had to over-simplify persuasion into a formula, this is what it would look like:


You will be using the information and argumentation to change (or sometimes sustain) the audience’s beliefs, attitudes, and actions.

Persuasion can be defined in two ways, for two purposes. The first is “the process of creating, reinforcing, or changing people’s beliefs or actions” (Lucas, 2015, p. 306). This is a good, simple straightforward definition, although it does not encompass the complexity of persuasion.

Think of persuasion as a continuum or line going both directions. Your audience members, either as a group or individually, are sitting somewhere on that line in reference to your central idea statement, or what is called a proposition in this chapter. In your speech, you are proposing the truth or validity of an idea, one which the audience may not find true or acceptable. Sometimes the word “claim” is used for proposition or central idea statement in a persuasive speech, because you are claiming an idea is true or an action is valuable.

For example, your proposition might be, “The main cause of climate change is human activity.” In this case you are not denying that natural forces, such as volcanoes, can affect the climate, but you are claiming that climate change is mainly due to pollution and other harmful activities of humans. To be an effective persuasive speaker, one of your first jobs after coming up with this topic would be to determine where your audience “sits” on the continuum. Imagine a seven-point scale with -3 on the left, zero in the middle, and +3 on the right.

|  -3  |  -2  |  -1  |  0  |  +1  |  +2  |  +3  |

+3 means the audience already strongly agrees with the proposition and is committed to acting on this agreement.

+2 means the audience agrees with the proposition, but not to the point of acting upon it or only acting on it in small ways.

+1 as mildly in favour of the proposition, but they think it’s probably true or don’t see a need to take any action.

0 means neutral; the audience member has no opinion or feels too uninformed to make a decision.

-1 means mildly opposed to the proposition, but willing to listen to those with whom they disagree.

-2 means disagreement to the point of dismissing the idea pretty quickly.

-3 means strong opposition to the point that they may not listen or are committed to acting contrary to the proposition.

Since everyone in the audience is somewhere on this line or continuum, persuasion in this case means moving them further along the positive side of the spectrum. Thinking about persuasion this way has three values:

  • You can visualize and quantify where your audience “sits.”
  • You can accept the fact that any movement toward +3 or to the right is a win.
  • You can see that trying to change an audience from -3 to +3 in one speech is just about impossible. Therefore, you will be able to take a reasonable approach. In this case, if you knew most of the audience was at -2 or -3, your speech would be about the science behind climate change in order to open their minds to its possible existence. However, that audience is not ready to hear about its being caused mainly by humans or what action should be taken to reverse it.

Also, remember that the proposition should be interesting (and maybe controversial). Some people in the audience should naturally disagree with your proposition or at least have no opinion; they are not “on your side.” It would be foolish to give a speech when everyone in the audience totally agrees with you at the beginning of the speech (unless the purpose of your speech is fundraising or something like that).

Those who disagree with your proposition but are willing to listen are often the target audience. These are the members of your audience on whom you are truly focusing your persuasion. At the same time, another cluster of your audience that is not part of your target audience are those who are extremely opposed to your position to the point that they probably will not give you a fair hearing. Finally, some members of your audience may already agree with you, although they don’t know why.

To go back to our original definition, “the process of creating, reinforcing, or changing people’s beliefs or actions,” and each of these purposes implies a different approach. You can think of creating as moving an audience from 0 to +1, +2, or +3. Reinforcing is moving the audience from +1 toward +3 in the hope that they take action (since the real test of belief is whether people act on it). Changing is moving from -1 or –2 to +1 or higher.

The basis of your persuasion is language; even though “a picture is worth a thousand words” and can help add emotional appeal to your speech, you want to focus on communicating through words. Also, Perloff’s definition distinguishes between “attitude” and “behaviour,” meaning that an audience may be persuaded to think, to feel, or to act. Finally, persuasion is a process. Successful persuasion takes a while. One speech can be effective, but usually additional messages influence the listener over time.

13.3 – Why is Persuasion Hard?

Persuasion is hard mainly because we have a bias against change. As much as we hear statements like “The only constant is change” or “Variety is the spice of life,” the evidence from research and from our personal experience shows that, in reality, we do not like change. Ideas of risk aversion point to how we are more concerned about not losing something than with gaining something. Change is often seen as a loss of something rather than a gain of something else. Change is a step into the unknown, a gamble (Vedantam & Greene, 2013).

The theory of cognitive dissonance states, among other ideas, that when we are confronted with conflicting information or viewpoints, we reach a state of dissonance (Festinger, 1957). This state can be very uncomfortable and we will try to get rid of the dissonance and maintain “consonance.” Ideally, at least for a public speaker, the dissonance is relieved or resolved by being persuaded (changed) to a new belief, attitude, or behaviour. However, the easiest way to avoid dissonance is to not expose oneself to conflicting messages in the first place.

Additionally, as mentioned before, during a persuasive speech, the audience members are holding a mental dialogue with the speaker, or at least the speaker’s content. They are putting up rebuttals or counter-arguments. These have been called reservations (as in the audience member would like to believe the speaker, but has reservations about doing so). They could be called the “yeah-buts”—the audience members are saying in their minds, “Yeah, I see what you are arguing, but—.” Reservations can be very strong, since, again, the bias is to be loss averse and not to change our actions or beliefs.

With these reasons for the resistance audience members would have to persuasion, what is a speaker to do?

Here are some strategies.

Since change is resisted, we do not make many large or major changes in our lives. We do, however, make smaller, concrete, step-by-step or incremental changes in our lives every day. Going back to our seven-point scale, trying to move an audience from -3 to +2 or +3 is too big a move. Having reasonable persuasive goals is the first way to meet resistance. Even moving someone from -3 to -2 is progress, and over time these small shifts can eventually result in a significant amount of persuasion.

Secondly, a speaker must “deal with the reservations.” First, the speaker must acknowledge they exist, which shows audience awareness, but then the speaker must attempt to rebut or refute them. In reality, since persuasion involves a mental dialogue, your audience is more than likely thinking of counter-arguments in their minds. Therefore, including a refutation section in your speech, usually after your presentation of arguments in favour of your proposition, is a required and important strategy.

However, there are some techniques for rebuttal or refutation that work better than others. You would not want to say, “One argument against my proposition is…and that is wrong” or “If you are one of the people who believe this about my proposition, you are wrong.” On the other hand, you could say that the reservations are “misconceptions,” “myths,” or “mistaken ideas” that are commonly held about the proposition.

Generally, strong persuasive speeches offer the audience what are called two-tailed arguments, which bring up a valid issue against your argument, which you, as the speaker, must then refute. After acknowledging them and seeking to refute or rebut the reservations, you must also provide evidence for your refutation. Ultimately, this will show your audience that you are aware of both sides of the issue you are presenting and make you a more credible speaker.

The third strategy is to keep in mind that since you are asking the audience to change something, they must view the benefits of the change as worth the stress of the change. If you do good audience analysis, you know they are asking, “What’s in it for me?” What benefit or advantage or improvement would happen for the audience members?

If the audience is being persuaded to sign an organ donor card, which is an altruistic action that cannot benefit them in any way—because they will be dead—what would be the benefit? Knowing others would have better lives, feeling a sense of contribution to the good of humanity, and helping medical science might be examples. The point is that a speaker should be able to engage the audience at the level of needs, wants, and values, as well as logic and evidence.

13.4 – Traditional Views of Persuasion

In the fourth century BCE, Aristotle took up the study of the public speaking practices of the ruling class in Athenian society. For two years, he observed the rhetoric of the people who spoke in the assembly and the courts. In the end, he wrote Rhetoric to explain his theories about what he saw. Among his many conclusions, which have formed the basis of communication study for centuries, was the classification of persuasive appeals into ethos, logos, and pathos. Over the years, Aristotle’s original understanding and definition of these terms have been refined as more research has been done.


Ethos has come to mean the influence of a speaker’s credentials and character in a speech. During the speech, a speaker should seek to utilize their existing credibility, based on the favourable information an audience already knows or believes about the speaker, such as education, expertise, background, and ethical character. The speaker should also improve or enhance credibility through citing reliable, authoritative sources, strong arguments, showing awareness of the audience, and effective delivery.

The word “ethos” looks very much like the word “ethics” and there are many close parallels to the trust an audience has in a speaker and their honesty and ethical stance. In terms of ethics, your speech should be truthful. Another matter to consider is your own personal involvement in the topic. Ideally, you have chosen the topic because it means something to you personally.


Aristotle’s original meaning for logos had philosophical meanings tied to the Greek worldview that the universe is a place ruled by logic and reason. Logos in a speech was related to standard forms of arguments that the audience would find acceptable. Today, we think of logos as both logical and organized arguments and the credible evidence to support the arguments.


In words like “empathy,” “sympathy,” and “compassion” we see the root word behind pathos. Pathos, to Aristotle, was using the emotions such as anger, joy, hate, desire for community, and love to persuade the audience of the rightness of a proposition.

All human decisions are ultimately based on emotion, so a good speech needs to touch some emotion in the audience.

Emotions are also engaged by showing the audience that the proposition relates to their needs. However, we recognize that emotions are complex and that they also can be used to create a smokescreen to logic. Emotional appeals that use inflammatory language—name-calling—are often unethical or at least counterproductive. Some emotions are more appropriate than others. Anger and guilt, for example, do have effectiveness, but they can backfire. Positive emotions such as pride, sympathy, and contentment are usually more productive.

One negative emotion that is useful and that can be used ethically is fear. When you think about it, we do a lot in life to avoid negative consequences,; we act out of fear. Why don’t we drive 180 kilometers per an hour on the highway? The answers are fears of getting a ticket, fears of paying more for insurance, fears of a crash, or fears of hurting ourselves or others. Fear is not always applicable to a specific topic, but research shows that mild fear appeals, under certain circumstances, are very useful. When using fear appeals, the speaker must do the following:

  • Prove the fear appeal is valid
  • Prove that it applies to the audience
  • Prove that a solution is viable, and
  • Prove the solution is available to the audience.

Without these “proofs,” the audience may dismiss the fear appeal as not being real or not applying to them (O’Keefe, 2002). Mild and reasonable are the keys here. Intense, over-the-top fear appeals, especially showing gory imagery, are often dismissed by the audience.

Because we feel positive emotions when our needs are met and negative ones when our needs are not met, aligning your proposition with strong audience needs is part of pathos.

13.5 – Constructing a Persuasive Speech

In a sense, constructing your persuasive speech is the culmination of the skills you have learned already. In another sense, you are challenged to think somewhat differently. While the steps of analyzing your audience, formulating your purpose and central idea, applying evidence, considering ethics, framing the ideas in appropriate language, and then practicing delivery will of course apply, you will need to consider some expanded options about each of these steps.

Formulating a Proposition

As mentioned before, when thinking about a central idea statement in a persuasive speech, we use the terms “proposition” or claim. Persuasive speeches have one of four types of proposition, which determine your overall approach. Before you move on, you need to determine what type of proposition you should have (based on the audience, context, issues involved in the topic, and assignment for the class).

Proposition of Fact

Speeches with this type of proposition attempt to establish the truth of a statement. The core of the proposition is not whether something is morally right or what should be done about the topic, only that a statement is supported by evidence. These propositions are not facts such as “the chemical symbol for water is H20.” Propositions or claims of fact are statements over which people disagree and there is evidence on both sides, although probably more on one than the other. These are examples:

Converting to solar energy can save homeowners money.

Experiments using animals are essential to the development of many life-saving medical procedures.

Climate change has been caused by human activity.

Notice that none of these mention values—good or bad. The point of these propositions is to prove with evidence the truth of a statement, not its inherent value or what the audience should do about it.

Propositions of Definition

This is probably not one that you will use, but it bears mentioning here because it is used in legal and scholarly arguments. Propositions of definition argue that a word, phrase, or concept has a particular meaning. Lawyers, legislators, and scholars often write briefs, present speeches, or compose articles to define terms that are vital to courts, parliaments, citizens, or disciplines.

Propositions of Value

When a proposition has a word such as “good,” “bad,” “best,” “worst,” “just,” “unjust,” “ethical,” “unethical,” “moral,” “immoral,” “beneficial,” “harmful,” “advantageous,” or “disadvantageous,” it is a proposition of value. Here are a few examples:

Homeschooling is more beneficial for children than traditional schooling.

Capital punishment is morally wrong.

A vegan diet is the most ethical for people, animals, and the planet.

Propositions of value require a first step: defining the “value” word. If a war is unjustified, what makes a war “just” or “justified” in the first place? That is a fairly philosophical question. What makes a form of transportation “best” or “better” than another? Isn’t that a matter of personal approach? For different people, “best” might mean “safest,” “least expensive,” “most environmentally responsible,” “stylish,” “powerful,” or “prestigious.” The first job of the speaker, after introducing the speech and stating the proposition, is to explain what “more beneficial” or “morally wrong” means. Then the proposition would be defended with separate arguments.

Propositions of Policy

These propositions are easy to identify because they almost always have the word “should” in them. These propositions call for a change in policy or practice (including those in a government, community, or school), or they can call for the audience to adopt a certain behaviour. Speeches with propositions of policy can be those that call for passive acceptance and agreement from the audience and those that try to instigate the audience to action, to actually do something immediately or in the long-term.

The federal government should act to ensure clean water standards for all citizens.

The Department of Motor Vehicles should require drivers over the age of 75 to take a vision test and present a certificate of good health from a doctor before renewing their licenses.

College tuition should be fully funded by the government.

As mentioned before, the proposition determines the approach to the speech, especially the organization. Also as mentioned earlier in this chapter, the exact phrasing of the proposition should be carefully done to be reasonable, positive, and appropriate for the context and audience.

Organization Based on Type of Proposition

Organization for a proposition of fact

If your proposition is one of fact, you will do best to use a topical organization. Essentially that means that you will have two to four discrete, separate arguments in support of the proposition. Here’s an example of a preliminary outline:

Proposition: Converting to solar energy can save homeowners money.

  1. Solar energy can be economical to install.
    1. The government awards grants.
    2. The government gives tax credits.
  2. Solar energy reduces power bills.
  3. Solar energy requires less money for maintenance.

Again, this outlines is just preliminary because preparing a speech of fact requires a great deal of research and understanding of the issues. A speech with a proposition of fact will almost always need an argument or section related to the “reservations,” refuting the arguments that the audience may be preparing in their minds, their mental dialogue. To complete this outline, along with introduction and conclusion, there would need to be quotations, statistics, and facts with sources provided.

Organization for a proposition of value

A persuasive speech that incorporates a proposition of value will have a slightly different structure. As mentioned earlier, a proposition of value must first define the “value” word for clarity and provide a basis for the other arguments of the speech. The second or middle section would present the defence or “pro” arguments for the proposition based on the definition. The third section would include refutation of the counter arguments or “reservations.” The following outline draft shows a student trying to structure a speech with a value proposition. Keep in mind it is abbreviated for illustrative purposes and, thus, incomplete as an example.

Proposition: Hybrid cars are the best form of automotive transportation available today.

  1. Automotive transportation that is best meets three standards. (Definition)
    1. It is reliable and durable.
    2. It is fuel efficient and cost efficient.
    3. It is environmentally responsible.
  2. Studies show that hybrid cars are durable and reliable. (Pro-Argument 1)
    1. Hybrid cars have 99 problems per 100 cars versus 133 problem per 100 conventional cars, according to TrueDelta, a car analysis website much like Consumer Reports.
    2. J.D. Power reports hybrids also experience 11 fewer engine and transmission issues than gas-powered vehicles, per 100 vehicles.
  3. Hybrid cars are fuel-efficient. (Pro-Argument 2)
    1. The Toyota Prius gets 48 mpg on the highway and 51 mpg in the city, but the comparable Toyota Corolla gets only 40 mpg on the highway and 31 mpg in the city.
    2. The Ford Fusion hybrid gets 47 mpg in the city and in the country, which is better than any other Ford vehicle.
  4. Hybrid cars are environmentally responsible. (Pro-Argument 3)
    1. They only emit 51.6 gallons of carbon dioxide every 100 miles.
    2. Conventional cars emit 74.9 gallons of carbon dioxide every 100 miles.
    3. The hybrid produces 69% of the harmful gas exhaust that a conventional car does.
  5. Of course, hybrid cars are relatively new to the market and some have questions about them. (Reservations)
    1. Don’t the batteries wear out and aren’t they expensive to replace?
      1. Evidence to address this misconception.
      2. Evidence to address this misconception.
    2. Aren’t hybrid cars only good for certain types of driving and drivers?
      1. Evidence to address this misconception.
      2. Evidence to address this misconception.
    3. Aren’t electric cars better?
      1. Evidence to address this misconception.
      2. Evidence to address this misconception.

Organization for a proposition of policy

The most common type of outline for speeches with propositions of policy is problem-solution or problem-cause-solution. Typically we do not feel any motivation to change unless we are convinced that some harm, problem, need, or deficiency exists, and even more, that it affects us personally. As the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” As mentioned before, some policy speeches look for passive agreement or acceptance of the proposition. Some instructors call this type of policy speech a “think” speech, since the persuasion is just about changing the way your audience thinks about a policy.

On the other hand, other policy speeches seek to move the audience to do something to change a situation or to get involved in a cause and these are sometimes called a “do” speech (or speech to actuate) since the audience is asked to do something. Although a simple problem-solution organization with only two main points is permissible for a speech of actuation, you will probably do well to utilize the more detailed format called Monroe’s Motivated Sequence.

This format, designed by Alan Monroe (1951), who wrote a popular speaking textbook for many years, is based on John Dewey’s reflective thinking process. It goes in-depth with the many questions an audience would have in the process of listening to a persuasive speech. Monroe’s Motivated Sequence involves five steps, which should not be confused with the main points of the outline. Some steps in Monroe’s Motivated Sequence may take two points.

  1. Attention. This is the introduction, where the speaker brings attention to the importance of the topic, as well as their own credibility and connection to the topic. This step will include the thesis and preview.
  2. Need. Here the problem is defined and defended. This step may be divided into two main points, such as the problem and the causes of it, since logically a solution should address the underlying causes, as well as the external effects of a problem. Make the audience see the severity of the problem and how it affects them, their family, or their community. The harm or need can be physical, financial, psychological, legal, emotional, educational, social, or a combination of these. It will have to be supported by evidence.
  3. Satisfaction. A need calls for satisfaction in the same way a problem requires a solution. This step could also, in some cases, take up two main points. Not only does the speaker present the solution and describe it, but they must also defend that it works and will address the causes of the problem, as well as the symptoms.
  4. Visualization. This step looks to the future either positively or negatively. If positive, the benefits from enacting or choosing the solution are shown. If negative, the disadvantages of not doing anything to solve the problem are shown. There may be times when it is acceptable to skip this step, especially if time is limited. The purpose of visualization is to motivate the audience by revealing future benefits or through fear appeals by showing future harms.
  5. Action. This can be the conclusion, although if the speaker really wants to spend time on moving the audience to action, the action step should be a full main point and the conclusion saved for summary and a dramatic ending. In the action step, the goal is to give specific steps for the audience to take as soon as possible to move toward solving the problem. Whereas the satisfaction step explains the solution overall, the action step gives concrete ways to begin making the solution happen.

The more concrete you can make the action step, the better. Research shows that people are more likely to act if they know how accessible the action can be. For example, if you want students to be vaccinated against the chicken pox virus (which can cause fatalities in people of any age and can cause a serious disease called shingles in adults), you can give them directions to and hours for a clinic or health center where vaccinations at a free or discounted price can be obtained.

In some cases for speeches of policy, no huge problem needs solving. Or, there is a problem, but the audience already knows about it and is convinced that the problem exists and is important. In those cases, a format called “comparative advantages” is used, which focuses on how one possible solution is better than other possible ones. The organizational pattern for this kind of proposition might be topical:

  1. This policy is better because…
  2. This policy is better because…
  3. This policy is better because…

If this sounds a little like a commercial that is because advertisements often use comparative advantages to show that one product is better than another.

Building Upon Your Persuasive Arguments

Once you have constructed the key arguments and order of points (remembering that, if you use a topical order, your strongest or most persuasive point lands last), be sure your points are well supported. In a persuasive speech, you need evidence.

Your evidence should be from sources that the audience will find credible and, if possible, new or novel. In other words, the best evidence is that which is from credible sources and the audience has not heard before (Reinard, 1988; McCroskey, 1969).

Further, in order to be effective and ethical, your supporting evidence should be relevant and used responsibly.

After choosing the evidence and arranging it in the correct parts of the speech, you will want to consider using metaphors, quotations, rhetorical devices, and narratives that will enhance the language and “listenability” of your speech. Narratives are especially good for introduction and conclusions, to get attention and to leave the audience with something dramatic. You might refer to the narrative of the introduction again in the conclusion to give the speech a sense of symmetry and finality.


This chapter was adapted from Exploring Public Speaking, 4th Edition by Barbara Tucker and Matthew LeHew, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


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