Persuasion is change. It is not simply providing a list of pros and cons and leaving the decision up to the audience. It is not a litany of opinions on how the world ought to be. It is not even a series of facts about a product with a suggestion that the audience “ought to buy sometime soon… maybe… in the future… if you want to…”
In its most basic form, persuasive speeches identify a need for change, provide arguments for change, a plan that will facilitate change, and an urge to action. Of course, that’s easier said than done, as evidenced by the descriptions above of what a persuasive speech is not. So, let’s look more closely at these basic elements to develop more powerful persuasive speeches.
As stated boldly in the beginning, persuasion is change. If you walk into a room full of people who love ice cream and say, “I’m here to convince you that ice cream is a wonderful thing,” you really don’t have a lot of work to do. If everyone already agrees with you, then you haven’t changed them in any way. You might have whipped up a frenzy, and maybe everyone is ready to go get some ice cream, but their attitude toward ice cream was unchanged.
So, before persuasion can even begin, you have to assess a need for change.
Assessing Need for Change
Now that you know that change is a necessary condition for persuasion, you can begin the process of assessing the need for change. There’s a fairly simple way to do that, though it will require some work on your part.
First, determine what your goal is by filling in the blank:
I want people to do/think/believe _________________.
Keeping with the ice cream example, let’s say you are thinking about trying to convince people that ice cream is a good thing. But before you can even do that, you have to fill in the blank:
The Current Condition
People are doing/thinking/believing _________________.
(What sources/evidence supports your claim?)
So, are people not eating ice cream? Do they think it’s wrong to eat it? Do they believe the hype against ice cream?
Notice the question of sources and evidence to support your claim that people are acting or thinking in a certain way. It’s one thing to fill in the blank and make such a declaration, but is it true? How do we know you are making some wild claim?
It’s easy enough to say “millions of people across America are not eating ice cream despite it being the most delicious treat ever!” But, how many millions of people are behaving this way? Where did you pull that (rather vague) number? Is that information reliable?
If your response is that we ought to just trust you because you know it’s true, then you can be sure that your premise (i.e. the condition) is a faulty one, circumstantial at best. In short, we need some evidence that supports your belief in the condition before you can move them toward changing to the ideal.
Arguments and Counter-Arguments
Arguments are often confused with features. For example, claiming that “there’s tons of different flavors available” may or may not be true (again, where’s the evidence?), but more importantly, how exactly does that convince an audience to want to eat ice cream? What you really need is to assess three simple ideas:
If people don’t do/think/believe the ideal (see above), _________ will be the result (generally bad).
(Again, provide evidence and sources that support this possibility.)
If people do/think/believe the ideal, ____________ will result (generally good).
(Again and always, provide evidence and sources that support this possibility.)
People may not wish to do/think/believe in the ideal because _______, but that’s not a valid reason because ___________.
(For both, bring the evidence and the sources.)
This will be perhaps the most time-consuming portion of your speech, and it certainly will require a lot of research, but that is a necessary function of change. Audiences are not going to believe you just because you say so. Evidence and reason (making sense of the evidence) will ultimately bring about change.
Often overlooked in persuasive speeches, providing a plan of action may be little more than simply encouraging the audience to believe what you want them to believe (i.e. the ideal) rather than what they already believe (the current condition). However, some topics may leave the audience ready for change, but with no real idea of how to change. Even though this becomes almost an informative speech at this point, bringing in an outline for change will often help facilitate that change.
For example, let’s say you are trying to convince an audience of smokers to stop smoking. You’ve gotten all the research you need to show them consequences of continuing to smoke, evidence of the benefits for quitting, and you’ve even addressed the reasons they might resist quitting. They are ready to quit, but they don’t have a plan. Left without a plan, they might easily shrug and continue to smoke. Giving them a plan (the nicotine candy bar plan, the cold turkey sandwich plan) will help them feel like there’s a way to change.
Urge to Action
Finally, you must spend a little time urging the audience to act (change). This is probably best done as part of your conclusion. Spend some time summarizing the major arguments (consequences, benefits, resistance) to help them see how the ideal is far better than the current condition. Ask or demand that they change, and ask or demand that they change immediately. Don’t be afraid to add in the sense of urgency. Add in the emotion. Perhaps you can bring in anecdotal evidence as a final argument; maybe you changed a long time ago and you are now enjoying a better quality of life than before.
Remember, change is the purpose of this speech. Understanding that is the key to success. Develop that need for change by determining the where your audience is and where you want them to go. Show them the need for change with the benefits of changing and the consequences for not changing. Assure them that there’s a plan available to them, and spend some time urging them to act. Make sure you bring in the research that backs you up, and you will have a powerful persuasive speech.