How to Speak Persuasively

By: Vincent Stevenson

Speaking to inform is the norm - but how do you convince your audience that what you say is worth acting upon?

Not dissimilar to having a debate perhaps or trying to persuade a sceptical audience over to your point of view. How should you approach this?

Without doubt the first step is to understand your audience and learn what they will like to hear. This is absolutely vital if you need to win them over on something that they will naturally be against; what in fact you are doing is selling them an unpalatable concept which is then made palatable by offering them "a sweetener" where this sweetener sounds greater than the sourness of the original bad news.

As an illustrative example, imagine that you need to inform a group of very busy processing clerks that on top of their work they all have to learn a new system in which to process their data, and that there is nothing in it for them. Imagine telling them this in a seminar and you can hear the groans screaming out at you before you've begun to speak. It is inevitable that a workforce with reduced morale would result in a tailing off of productivity as well as individuals looking to move to different companies. Implementing a new system is never easy.

But it doesn't have to be like that!

Find out what will please the audience

Nobody implements a new system for fun (well maybe some organisations do!Whenever you are trying to persuade the audience or sell an idea, the benefits must be illustrated in 'What's in it for me?' terms. Whatever it is there will be something that you can use to persuade the audience to be right there with you.

Convince convince convince!

Now is the time to prepare your persuasive speech. Firstly, write down your specified objective (in this example, how you will use the overall benefits of the new system to ensure that these will lead to an upbeat mood in the audience by convincing them that, despite their extra workload, this really is very good news for them). The prospect of additional work should not be allowed to dwell in the minds of audiences; while you point out that there will be more work (no point trying to cover it up or dismiss it as it will emerge as a fact eventually and failure to be honest about it will probably lead to monumental problems in the future), it is only in terms of saying that this is a necessary pre-requisite for us all to reap the benefits which you then enthusiastically describe, especially those which impact the audience. In addition look out for other selling points - many organisations are so poorly run that finding things to offer the audience is usually pretty easy; for example, in this case you may well find promising to involve the clerks in the project so that they feel they are co-owners as opposed to enforced participants will do wonders for morale and willingness to take on the new system. Another possibility is for the new system to automate some of the currently manually produced reports thus reducing the workload of the clerks - this would be introduced as part of the opening seminar speech as a great innovation even if the automation could be carried out within the current system.

Steer the audience from their point of view to yours

The same principles would be used if you wished to attempt to persuade a liberal minded audience that life time incarceration, with no chance of parole, should be introduced for say muggers. Stating that anyone should be locked up for the rest of their life with no chance of proving that they have reformed will naturally inflame a liberal audience, but this same audience would probably agree with you that everything possible must be done to avoid innocent people being mugged in the street. At this point you would have the audience on your side but you would probably lose them very quickly if you stated that part of the solution is lifetime incarceration for offenders. However, if you emphasised that the offenders needed help and it was your intention to campaign to improve the rehabilitation programmes within prison, coupled with a through review process to ensure that muggers had been rehabilitated prior to release, you would still have the audience on your side. You may well be able to get away with saying that there is a chance that some people are beyond reform and therefore will have to stay in prison for ever - even the most liberal person would surely baulk at releasing a mugger who is almost certain to be looking for a victim upon release; you may well also get away with saying that resources are scarce, that there are many other deserving causes and that, regrettably, rehabilitation services will of necessity not be as widely available as is desirable or necessary.

In conclusion

Persuasive speaking is really one of understanding the audience's mindset, talking in terms that show you are broadly empathetic to their attitudes and acknowledging that their views are of considerable value which must be fully taken into account when deciding upon an action. Whether it's locking up muggers for life or introducing a new data processing system you will need to convince the audience that the alternatives lead to consequences which that audience will clearly be able to see are worse for everyone including themselves; try and let the audience work it out for themslves otherwise the audience could become scepticle. Persuasive speaking can be achieved by all, as always, the success lies in the preparation.
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