Influence others: the art of persuasion

“When Aeschines spoke, they said,
‘How well he speaks.’
But when Demosthenes spoke, they said,
‘Let us march against Philip.’”

—David Ogilvy,
in Ogilvy on Advertising

The power of persuasion

The Art of persuasion: Demosthenes at the seashore









As a boy in ancient Greece, he dreamed of becoming a great speaker. But it seemed impossible.
His speech wasn’t clear, and he suffered from stammering. However, he was prepared
to go to quite some lengths to get to his goal:

  • He practiced speaking in an underground study, making sure he couldn’t go out by shaving one half of his head.
  • He practiced speaking with pebbles in his mouth and by repeating verses when running or out of breath.
  • He practiced speaking in front of a large mirror. To gain a powerful, strong voice, he often spoke over the the roar of the sea, alone on the seashore.

Even today, thousands of years later, he is recognized as one of the greatest orators of all time. His name? Demosthenes.

The main reason he is considered so great is that he was able to rouse a dormant people to action. In ancient Greece, this might have to been to go to war (“Let us march against Philip”).

Today, it is what drives the wheels of business, of statesmanship and law-making, of personal relationships and daily life

Do you find it difficult to convince others?

Don’t worry! It’s easy to learn the basic principles of the art of persuasion; and as you practise, you will get better and better at it.

There are three important tasks to accomplish when you’re trying to persuade.
The first is to convince your audience of your authority and authenticity. Why should they listen to you? Are you an expert on the subject? If you’re a well-known expert on the subject, then you’re already on solid ground. However, if your audience knows nothing about the subject, they may not know enough to accept you as an expert even if you’re a world-famous authority.
You can still be convincing by your tone, by your confidence, by getting all your facts right.
The second task is to activate their emotions. Emotions are extremely powerful, and an appeal to the heart can be more effective than one to the head. If your emotions are involved, your heart often overrules your head when it comes to taking action of any kind. YOu can appeal to feelings of love, anger, fear, desire. If you want people to do something, you must make them want to do it.
The third task is to appeal to their logical, rational mind. Your appeal to their emotions can be buttressed by rational, logically convincing ideas. It is a good idea to access graphs and figures to prove your point.
You might not have to accomplish all these three tasks every time, but each is a powerful method in its own right; if you can use all three, so much the better.

But what do you say?

Once you’ve decided what combination of these three tasks you need to accomplish, you still have to create the material.
The first step in this creative process is to find the arguments you will use to persuade your audience. What is the need you are trying to address? What is the message you need to get across? Who are the people you are talking to? What are their points of view? How do you want them to change those? How will you present the message? How long will it be? When is the best time to do it? Some of these answers will help you get the idea you need. There are some more tips on creativity here
You must then organise your message so that its effectiveness is maximized. First, get your audience’s attention; if you’re writing your message, it may be a striking headline or a picture that catches the attention. When you know they’re listening, give the message clearly and truthfully, and call for the action you need; then provide supporting arguments and proofs. You must deal with objections and counter-arguments, refuting them and showing why they don’t hold water. At end, remind the audience of the facts of your case by summarizing everything you’ve said and call for action again.

That’s it in a nutshell; but there’s lots more. If you’d like to learn the art of persuasion formally, here’s a free online course from Harvard University.
There are many others. Just google “rhetoric courses online”.

The art of persuasion is an extremely valuable skill. Whether through writing or speech, the ability to convince others of the value of your ideas is extremely important. It’s the fundamental ability you need to succeed in anything you’ve made up your mind to do.

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