Persuasive Strategies


Man holding a sign that says Don't believe anyone, including me.

“Danny Shine Speaker’s Corner” by Acapeloahddub. Public domain.

In addition to understanding how your audience feels about the topic you are addressing, you will need to take steps to help them see you as credible and interesting. The audience’s perception of you as a speaker is influential in determining whether or not they will choose to accept your proposition. Aristotle called this element of the speech ethos, “a Greek word that is closely related to our terms ethical and ethnic.[1] He taught speakers to establish credibility with the audience by appearing to have good moral character, common sense, and concern for the audience’s well-being.[2] Campbell & Huxman explain that ethos is not about conveying that you, as an individual, are a good person. It is about “mirror[ing] the characteristics idealized by [the] culture or group” (ethnic),[3] and demonstrating that you make good moral choices with regard to your relationship within the group (ethics).

While there are many things speakers can do to build their ethos throughout the speech, “assessments of ethos often reflect superficial first impressions,” and these first impressions linger long after the speech has concluded.[4] This means that what you wear and how you behave, even before opening your mouth, can go far in shaping your ethos. Be sure to dress appropriately for the occasion and setting in which you speak. Also work to appear confident, but not arrogant, and be sure to maintain enthusiasm about your topic throughout the speech. Give great attention to the crafting of your opening sentences because they will set the tone for what your audience should expect of your personality as you proceed.

I covered two presidents, LBJ and Nixon, who could no longer convince, persuade, or govern, once people had decided they had no credibility; but we seem to be more tolerant now of what I think we should not tolerate. – Helen Thomas


Another way to enhance your ethos, and your chances of persuading the audience, is to use sound arguments. In a persuasive speech, the argument will focus on the reasons for supporting your specific purpose statement. This argumentative approach is what Aristotle referred to as logos, or the logical means of proving an argument.[5]

When offering an argument you begin by making an assertion that requires a logical leap based on the available evidence.[6] One of the most popular ways of understanding how this process works was developed by British philosopher Stephen Toulmin.[7] Toulmin explained that basic arguments tend to share three common elements: claim, data, and warrant. The claim is an assertion that you want the audience to accept. Data refers to the preliminary evidence on which the claim is based. For example, if I saw large gray clouds in the sky, I might make the claim that “it is going to rain today.” The gray clouds (data) are linked to rain (claim) by the warrant, an often unstated general connection, that large gray clouds tend to produce rain. The warrant is a connector that, if stated, would likely begin with “since” or “because.” In our rain example, if we explicitly stated all three elements, the argument would go something like this: There are large gray clouds in the sky today (data). Since large gray clouds tend to produce rain (warrant), it is going to rain today (claim). However, in our regular encounters with argumentation, we tend to only offer the claim and (occasionally) the warrant.

To strengthen the basic argument, you will need backing for the claim. Backing provides foundational support for the claim[8] by offering examples, statistics, testimony, or other information which further substantiates the argument. To substantiate the rain argument we have just considered, you could explain that the color of a cloud is determined by how much light the water in the cloud is reflecting. A thin cloud has tiny drops of water and ice crystals which scatter light, making it appear white. Clouds appear gray when they are filled with large water droplets which are less able to reflect light.[9]

Table 16.1: The Toulmin Model
Basic Argument


I had a hard time finding a place to park on campus.


The school needs more parking spaces.


If I can’t find a place to park, there must be a shortage of spaces.

Argument with Backing


Obesity is a serious problem in the U.S.


U.S. citizens should be encouraged to eat less processed foods.


Processed foods contribute to obesity more than natural or unprocessed foods.


“As a rule processed foods are more ‘energy dense’ than fresh foods: they contain less water and fiber but more added fat and sugar, which makes them both less filling and more fattening.” (Pollan, 2007)[10]

Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end. – Leonard Nimoy

Booth at restaurant

“Dining Booth” by Wayne Truong. CC-BY.

The elements that Toulmin identified (see Table 16.1) may be arranged in a variety of ways to make the most logical argument. As you reason through your argument you may proceed inductively, deductively, or causally, toward your claim. Inductive reasoning moves from specific examples to a more general claim. For example, if you read online reviews of a restaurant chain called Walt’s Wine & Dine and you noticed that someone reported feeling sick after eating at a Walt’s, and another person reported that the Walt’s they visited was understaffed, and another commented that the tables in the Walt’s they ate at had crumbs left on them, you might conclude (or claim) that the restaurant chain is unsanitary. To test the validity of a general claim, Beebe and Beebe encourage speakers to consider whether there are “enough specific instances to support the conclusion,” whether the specific instances are typical, and whether the instances are recent.[11]

The opposite of inductive reasoning is deductive reasoning, moving from a general principle to a claim regarding a specific instance. In order to move from general to specific we tend to use syllogisms. A syllogism begins with a major (or general) premise, then moves to a minor premise, then concludes with a specific claim. For example, if you know that all dogs bark (major premise), and your neighbor has a dog (minor premise), you could then conclude that your neighbor’s dog barks (specific claim). To verify the accuracy of your specific claim, you must verify the truth and applicability of the major premise. What evidence do you have that all dogs bark? Is it possible that only most dogs bark? Next, you must also verify the accuracy of the minor premise. If the major premise is truly generalizable, and both premises are accurate, your specific claim should also be accurate.

Small ships blast water at an oil rig that is on fire.

“Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling unit on fire” by US Coast Guard. Public domain.

Your reasoning may also proceed causally. Causal reasoning examines related events to determine which one caused the other. You may begin with a cause and attempt to determine its effect. For example, when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, scientists explained that because many animals in the Gulf were nesting and reproducing at the time, the spill could wipe out “an entire generation of hundreds of species.”[12] Their argument reasoned that the spill (cause) would result in species loss (effect). Two years later, the causal reasoning might be reversed. If we were seeing species loss in the Gulf (effect), we could reason that it was a result of the oil spill (cause). Both of these claims rely on the evidence available at the time. To make the first claim, scientists not only offered evidence that animals were nesting and reproducing, but they also looked at the effects of an oil spill that occurred 21 years earlier in Alaska.[13] To make the second claim, scientists could examine dead animals washing up on the coast to determine whether their deaths were caused by oil.


While we have focused heavily on logical reasoning, we must also recognize the strong role that emotions play in the persuasive process. Aristotle called this element of the speech pathos. Pathos draws on the emotions, sympathies, and prejudices of the audience to appeal to their non-rational side.[14][15] Human beings are constantly in some emotional state, which means that tapping into an audience’s emotions can be vital to persuading them to accept your proposition.[16]

One of the most helpful strategies in appealing to your audience’s emotions is to use clear examples that illustrate your point. Illustrations can be crafted verbally, nonverbally, or visually. To offer a verbal illustration, you could tell a compelling story. Nancy BrinkerFor example, when fundraising for breast cancer research, Nancy Brinker, creator of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, has plenty of compelling statistics and examples to offer. Yet, she regularly talks about her sister, explaining:

Susan G. Komen fought breast cancer with her heart, body and soul. Throughout her diagnosis, treatments, and endless days in the hospital, she spent her time thinking of ways to make life better for other women battling breast cancer instead of worrying about her own situation. That concern for others continued even as Susan neared the end of her fight.[17]

Brinker promised her sister that she would continue her fight against breast cancer. This story compels donors to join her fight.

Speakers can also tap into emotions using nonverbal behaviors to model the desired emotion for their audience. In the summer of 2012, the U.S. House of Representatives debated holding the Attorney General in contempt for refusing to release documents concerning a controversial gun-tracking operation. Arguing for a contempt vote, South Carolina Representative Trey Gowdy did not simply state his claim; instead he raised his voice, slowed his pace, and used hand motions to convey anger with what he perceived as deception on the part of the Attorney General.[18] His use of volume, tone, pace, and hand gestures enhanced the message and built anger in his audience.

Speech is power: speech is to persuade, to convert, to compel. It is to bring another out of his bad sense into your good sense. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

In addition to verbal and nonverbal illustrations, visual imagery can enhance the emotional appeal of a message. For example, we have all heard about the dangers of drugs, and there are multiple campaigns that attempt to prevent people from even trying them. However, many young adults experiment with drugs under the assumption that they are immune from the negative effects if they only use the drug recreationally. To counter this assumption regarding methamphetamines, the Montana Meth project combines controversial statements with graphic images on billboards to evoke fear of the drug (see the Montana Meth Project for some disturbing examples). Young adults may have heard repeated warnings that meth is addictive and that it has the potential to cause sores, rotten teeth, and extreme weight loss, but Montana Meth Project’s visual display is more compelling because it turns the audience’s stomach, making the message memorable. This image, combined with the slogan, “not even once,” conveys the persuasive point without the need for other forms of evidence and rational argument.

Appeals to fear, like those in the Montana Meth Project ads, have proven effective in motivating people to change a variety of behaviors. However, speakers must be careful with their use of this emotion. Fear appeals tend to be more effective when they appeal to a high-level fear, such as death, and they are more effective when offered by speakers with a high level of perceived credibility.[19] Fear appeals are also more persuasive when the speaker can convince the audience they have the ability to avert the threat. If audiences doubt their ability to avoid or minimize the threat, the appeal may backfire.[20]

I would rather try to persuade a man to go along, because once I have persuaded him, he will stick. If I scare him, he will stay just as long as he is scared, and then he is gone. – Dwight D. Eisenhower

David Brooks argues that, “emotions are not separate from reason, but they are the foundation of reason because they tell us what to value.”[21] Those values are at the core of fostering a credible ethos. All of Aristotle’s strategies, ethos, logos, and pathos, are interdependent. The most persuasive speakers will combine these strategies to varying degrees based on their specific purpose and audience.

Ethics of Persuasion

A man addressing a crowd.

“Speakers Corner Speaker 1987” by Deborah MacLean. Public domain.

In addition to considering their topic and persuasive strategy, speakers must take care to ensure that their message is ethical. Persuasion is often confused with another kind of communication that has similar ends, but different methods—coercion. Like persuasion, coercion is a process whereby thoughts or behaviors are altered. But in coercive acts, deceptive or harmful methods propel the intended changes, not reason. Strong and Cook contrasted the two: “persuasion uses argument to compel power to give way to reason while coercion uses force to compel reason to give way to power.”[22] The “force” that Strong and Cook mention frequently manifests as promises for reward or punishment, but sometimes it arises as physical or emotional harm. Think of almost any international crime film you have seen, and you are likely to remember a scene where someone was compelled to out their compatriots by way of force. Jack Bauer, the protagonist in the American television series 24, became an infamous character by doing whatever it took to get captured criminals to talk. Although dramatic as an example, those scenes where someone is tortured in an effort to produce evidence offer a familiar reference when thinking about coercion. To avoid coercing an audience, speakers should use logical and emotional appeals responsibly.

The pendulum of the mind alternates between sense and nonsense, not between right and wrong. – Carl Jung

Persuasive speakers must be careful to avoid using fallacies in their reasoning. Fallacies are errors in reasoning that occur when a speaker fails to use appropriate or applicable evidence for their argument. There are a wide variety of fallacies, and it is not possible to list them all here. However, speakers should watch for four common categories of fallacies: “fallacies of faulty assumption,” which occur when the speaker reasons based on a problematic assumption; “fallacies directed to the person,” which occur when the speaker focuses on the attributes of an individual opponent rather than the relevant arguments; “fallacies of case presentation,” which occur when the speaker mischaracterizes the issue; and “fallacies of suggestion,” which occur when the speaker implies or suggests an argument without fully developing it.[23] See the Table 16.2 on the following page for examples of each of these types of fallacies. To learn more about fallacies, see Chapter 6 by Russ (Critical Thinking and Reasoning), or see the supplemental handout found on the Persuasive Speaking chapter homepage.

Table 16.2: Examples of Fallacies
Fallacies of Faulty Assumption
Casual Fallacy

It is cloudy outside, and I feel sick. Cloudy days make me sick.

The school board voted to buy new picnic tables for the lunch room. Many students were out sick the following day. The students must be upset about the picnic tables.

Bandwagon Fallacy

Everyone takes out a loan to buy a car, so you should too.

None of the cool kids wear helmets when they ride bikes. You should take yours off.

Begging the Question

The Lion King is an excellent film because it has excellent animation.

Marijuana is good for you because it is natural.

Fallacies Directed to the Person
Ad Hominem We should reject President Obama’s healthcare legislation because it is socialism.
Poisoning the Well

Before the defense makes their closing statement, keep in mind that their client has not said one truthful word throughout the trial.

My opponent is going to try to manipulate you into thinking her plan is better for the city.

Appeal to Flattery

First, I wanted to tell you that this is my favorite class. I tell all my friends how much I love it. I just think I deserve a better grade on my exam.

You are such a generous person. I know you’ll want to donate to this cause.

Fallacies of Case Presentation
Non Sequitur

 I don’t plan to vote today because I am moving next week.

You should clean your room because I am going to do the laundry.

Red Herring

I should not be fined for parking in a red zone when there are so many people out there committing real crimes like robbery and murder.

War is wrong, but in times of crisis we should support the president.

Appeal to Misplaced Authority

This diet is the best one for people with my health condition. Oprah said so.

I want to visit the Museum of Modern Art. My English professor says they have the best collection anywhere!

Fallacies of Suggestion

I’m not saying he cheated; he just did uncharacteristically well on that exam.

If she wants to work for a crook, that’s her business.


Either you’re with us or against us.

Love it or leave it.


I have so much to do today. I have to get my car fixed, finish a paper, take a nap, and pick my mom up from the airport.

So many highly respected musicians will be there: Paul McCartney, Elton John, LMFAO, Billy Joel…

There are some positive steps you can take to avoid these pitfalls of persuasive speaking and ensure that you are presenting your message in the most ethical manner. We have already discussed some of these, such as offering credible evidence for your arguments and showing concern for the audience’s well being. However, you should also offer a transparent goal for your speech. Even with a hostile audience, where you may wait until later in the speech to provide the specific purpose statement, you should be forthcoming about your specific purpose. In fact, be truthful with your audience throughout the speech.

It is appropriate to use fictional scenarios to demonstrate your point, but tell the audience that is what you are doing. You can accomplish this by introducing fictional examples with the phrase, “hypothetically,” or “imagine,” to signal that you are making it up.[24] Additionally, be sure to offer a mix of logical and emotional appeals. Blending these strategies insures that you have evidence to back up emotional claims, and that you are sensitive to the audiences’ emotional reactions to your logical claims. Attending to both aspects will help you be more ethical and more persuasive.

The most important persuasion tool you have in your entire arsenal is integrity. – Zig Ziglar

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  2. Beebe, S.A. & Beebe, S.J. (2003). Public Speaking: An Audience Centered Approach (5th ed.). Boston: Pearson.
  3. Campbell & Huxman 2009
  4. Zarefsky, D. (2005). Public Speaking: Strategies for Success (Special edition for The Pennsylvania State University). Boston: Pearson.
  5. Braet, A.C. (1992). Ethos, pathos, and logos in Aristotle’s rhetoric: A reexamination. Argumentation, 6(3), pp. 307–320.
  6. Campbell & Huxman 2009
  7. Herrick, J.A. (2011). Argumentation: Understanding and Shaping Arguments. State College, PA: Strata Publishing.
  8. Herrick 2011
  9. Brill, R. (2003, July 21). Why do clouds turn gray before it rains? Scientific American. Retrieved from:
  10. Pollan, M. (2007, April 22). You are what you grow. The New York Times. Retrieved from:
  11. Beebe & Beebe 2003
  12. Donovan, T.W. (2010, July 10). 7 Long term effects of the Gulf oil spill. Huffington Post. Retrieved from:
  13. Donovan 2010
  14. Beebe & Beebe 2003
  15. Reike, R.D., Sillars, M.O., & Peterson, T.R. (2009). Argumentation and Critical Decision Making (7th ed.). Boston: Pearson.
  16. Dillard, J.P. & Meijnders, A. (2002). Persuasion and the structure of affect. In J.P. Dillard & M. Pfau (Eds.), The Persuasion Handbook: Developments in Theory and Practice (309–328). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  17. Komen National. (n.d.). St. Louis Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure: Who We Are. Retrieved from:
  18. Gowdy, T. (2012). Trey Gowdy’s emotional speech on Holder contempt [Video file]. Retrieved from:
  19. Beebe & Beebe 2003
  20. Witte, K. & Allen, M. (2000). A metaanalysis of fear appeals: Implications for effective public health campaigns. Health Education & Behavior, 27(5), 591–615.
  21. Brooks, D. (2011, November 17). TED 2001: David Brooks explains why there is no reason without emotion. Huffington Post. Retrieved from:
  22. Strong, W. F., & Cook, J. A. (1992). Persuasion: Strategies for public influence (3rd ed.). Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing.
  23. Herrick 2011
  24. Beebe & Beebe 2003