26 Persuasive Speechmaking: Pitching Your Idea and Making it Stick

Lynn Meade

Man holding microphone speaking

Let me tell you about my persuasive journey.

Not long after I graduated high school, I found myself selling electronics. My favorite thing to sell was car stereos. In the salesperson role, I made pitches to individuals, to families, to corporations, and even pitches on the main stage at the trade show. What I learned firsthand is that people usually were there because they liked stereos, they needed stereos, or they were thinking of buying a stereo. I just needed to help them find the right fit stereo. What that meant for me was I needed to learn to read people.

I sold stereos back in the day when CDs were just becoming popular (I guess I’m old, huh?). In my CD bag, I had the best CD from each genre. I was ready to play MC Hammer’s Can’t Touch This, AC/DC Back in Black, The Cure’s Boys Don’t Cry. I had the top song and top CD from each genre.  When someone came into the store, I would “read” the person to guess their musical preferences. I would put the matching CD in the player and crank it up. I would know instantly when I would get it right because the customer’s face would light up and they would nod to the music. Often, people would come to me and to the stereo that was playing and buy that unit. It was a valuable lesson. People were not buying the CD player as much as they were buying the song they liked and buying from a salesperson who got could relate to their interests. Yes, they would look at the features and the company name, but the fact that I knew their music was very persuasive.

Knowing your audience is like knowing the customer. You must get a good “read’ so you know the right way to pitch your idea. I cannot overemphasize the importance of audience analysis which leads me to my first main point.

Audience Needs are Key

University professor Clay Warren said, “The mistake of a novice persuader is saying what you want to say rather than what the audience needs to hear.” That does not mean pandering, but it does mean taking a lot of time to think about them–the audience. When I am asked to give a persuasive speech, I always gather all the details about the audience and then the event, and then I spend time thinking. Thinking about the audience. I imagine their faces and think about who they are. I think about their motivation for listening. I think about how what I have to say can in some way, make their life better. Only after I have a strong mental picture of my audience, do I then begin to write the speech.

There is an entire chapter to help you think about the audience and needs. 

 

 Consider these examples. A popular topic for persuasion speeches in college classes is persuading my classmates to donate blood. Most speakers will talk about the need for blood donations, the need created by a low blood supply, and the need to contribute to the community. When I ask my college students why they really donate blood, I get answers like, “Points for my sorority,” “To win the homecoming competition,” “To get a free T-shirt,” and “Because my friends were doing it.” The point here is that there are multiple layers to why people are persuaded.

 

I am currently pitching an idea to the upper administration. As I am carefully researching, someone close to the key administrator said, “Don’t just show him your ideas, show him what will be his return on investment? He is a numbers person, break down your main points in terms of numbers, dollars, and cents, increased enrollment, improves retention.” Information like this is key when analyzing the audience for a persuasive message.


My next story takes us to my time as the director of a not-for-profit. I spent my days making public appearances for publicity, fundraising, and volunteer recruitment. We had impressive numbers to share with funders, we had a large client base, a well-trained group of volunteers, and a good reputation.  When I first began making presentations, I felt like while the audience was hearing about our organization and thinking it was a good place to volunteer or donate, many would agree but not act. If the organization was to keep serving the community, we needed more volunteers and more money.

I realized part of the problem was the way we had been “pitching” the organization. We overemphasized the hard data–the number of people served and the number of volunteers and the audience couldn’t visualize what we were doing. They couldn’t “see” the impact of their donation. They couldn’t “see” what they would be doing as a volunteer.  I began collecting stories. Here is one such story.

Miss Sally lives out in a small rural city at the end of a long dirt road. She lives alone and her neighbors are just out of sight. One day when she went out back of her house to check how much propane was in her outdoor propane tank, she slipped and fell. She broke her hip. She laid outside for three days unable to get back to her house to call for help.  Luckily, the mail carrier noticed her mail building up and looked around and found her. He called an ambulance and after hip surgery, she is on the road to recovery. Social services connected her to our group and now a volunteer calls her every day. If she doesn’t answer, someone goes out and checks on her. Once a week someone stops by at lunchtime and eats with her. They share stories, and laughter. If she needs an errand run, a volunteer picks up items and brings them. Sally is one of the 105 people that with just a little bit of help can remain independent.

As you can imagine, the responses to speeches that included stories were so much different. People were much more likely to give money or to volunteer once they were told a story because they could see, Ms. Sally. Some people even asked about her. They could imagine the pleasure they would get from calling someone to check on them. Donors thought of someone they know and how they want their loved ones cared for. “Seeing” a person instead of an organization made all the difference. This leads me to my second point; the audience needs to “see” to be persuaded.

The Audience Needs to “See” to be Persuaded

If you are persuading an audience to buy a product, they need to visualize how it works and how it fits into their life. If you are persuading an audience to make a social change, they need to visualize how the world will be better because of this change. If you are persuading an audience to donate to an organization, you need to help the audience visualize the impact of their donation.

Visualization can be achieved by literally showing visuals, by demonstrating the product, or by telling a story.

There is an entire chapter to help you work on incorporating a story into your speech. 

 

Oftentimes a story will help awaken emotions in an audience. This is known as pathos.  Pathos is the passion of the speaker and the types of things that the speaker talks about.  Warren reminds us “facts go through your brain like water through a sieve. But a story creates an emotional connection. If you get the emotion, you will remember. It is harder to attach an emotion to a number.”

The Audience Needs to Be Given the Facts in a Way that They Can Understand, Relate, and Remember

Yes, you want to identify with an audience and help them feel something, but you also need facts in your speech. You need to do the research and you need to present the arguments. Keep in mind — facts alone are rarely persuasive. It is the way you present those facts that makes them persuasive. When giving your numbers, pair them with a story. When giving statistics, helped the audience to visualize them.

There is an entire chapter to help you work on representing stats, numbers, and charts.

Make sure you chose to talk about facts that match the audience. For some, the review of a social media influencer is more convincing than the reviews from a publication.  For an academic audience, the names of the researchers and the names of the journals they publish in will garner attention, but for other audiences, the title of the person as “cardiologist at a top research institute” would be more persuasive.


One more story. I spent time as a manufacturer’s representative. I traveled to five states setting up distributorships for a “generic” brand of diesel engine parts. The parts we sold were made at the same factory as the name brand, they were just stamped with a different name and then put in different boxes. In that role, I made individual presentations and a lot of board room presentations. The hardest part seemed to be convincing people that our parts were as good as the name-brand ones. Our parts were more than 50% less in price which seems like a good thing. Unfortunately for us, ingrained in many people’s heads is the idea that expensive means good and name brand parts are of better quality.  It took six months to get our first big account, but once we had one major account, sales became much easier.  The perceived credibility of the product and the credibility of our sales team came, not from how good the product was or our credentials, but our credibility came from the status of a big-name company that was using our product.

This leads me to my last big point; the audience needs to trust you.

The Audience Needs to Trust You

Credibility is key to the success or failure of a presenter. The whole speech rests on credibility, if they don’t trust you, they won’t listen.  You build your credibility by how you are dressed, how you are introduced, how you tell the audience why you are competent in this area helps the audience listen. In my story, our credibility came from the name of the big company that used our parts.

Your credibility helps create trust and trust is essential to persuasion.

 

 

Ethos: Credibility

 Ethos (credibility)  is all about your character, your intentions, your good judgment, as well as your respect for yourself, your speech, and your audience. Aristotle said there are three components of ethos and all three should be employed.

  • Phronesis  (froh-nee-sis) practical wisdom. Prudence. It implies good judgment and excellence of character and habits.
    ” To do the right thing in the right place, at the right time, in the right way.” -Carr
  • Arete (ah-reh-‘tay) is the moral virtue of your argument. It refers to excellence of any kind but when applied to speech it means to persuade in a morally virtuous way.
  • Eunoia (you-noh-iea) is the goodwill you establish. It is what happens when a speaker considers the audience and cultivates a relationship of trust with them.

 

 

Watch this short TED-Ed video that connects what we have just discussed on credibility and audience needs.

 

 

Now that I shared with you some of the foundational principles of persuasion, let me share a few more thoughts about persuasion that will help you as your build your speech.

Make it Do-Able

Persuasion needs to be doable. Be specific with what you want the audience to do. Are you wanting them to consider an opposing viewpoint? Are you wanting them to donate blood? Are you wanting them to give to a charity? Are you wanting them to see the value of a liberal arts education? Are you wanting them to buy your product? Tell them specifically what you want.

The other way to make it doable is to give them realistic goals. I recently took part in a health and fitness program at the university. The program was aimed at helping people engage in healthy practices. If the program told everyone to go and run five miles a day, it would have looked impossible to most of the participants. Instead, the program focused on things you could do at your desk like chair yoga. Instead of telling everyone to change their diet, they asked participants to add one more serving of fruit or vegetable to their diets this week. Having things that were doable increased participants’ motivation. The increased motivation increased success.  Setting realistic goals was also key when I did sales. Instead of immediately asking groups to take on whole parts lines, we would encourage them to stock two of the most popular items and test out customer satisfaction with those items. When I worked with donors, we would ask some for a one-time donation of five thousand dollars while we would ask others for ten dollars a month based on what we knew about the audience’s financial means.

Finally, you should make the persuasion doable by telling them how to accomplish what you’ve asked. I had a student tell us to go to Mount Ida to dig crystals. I had no idea where that was. His speech was successful because he showed us on the map where it was located. He showed up pictures of what we would see when we got there, and he told us specific things we should pack. He made it easy to comply. Coincidently, I dug two duffle bags worth of crystals and they are sitting in my garden today. If you are making a sales pitch, you may be telling them how to use the order form or how to access the website. The more you show things, the more they visualize themselves doing it, the more likely it is that they will follow through.

Overcome Objections

Anyone who has been through advanced sales training knows a key part of any sales pitch is the part where you are overcoming objections. In a one-on-one sales pitch, a salesperson might say, “Are there any things standing in your way?” In a persuasive presentation, you do the same thing, just not as overtly. Let me tell you a little about a flu shot and how it relates here.

When you get a flu shot you are given a little dose of the flu so that your body can build immunity from future attackers. Basically, you get a little of the flu so you can become immune. Similarly, giving someone a little dose of an argument can help prepare them for future persuasive attacks.  McGuire called this inoculation theory. In short, you can help prepare people to deal with objections. This can happen in several ways.

This can happen by forewarning. You warn someone they may hear things that disagree. “My opponent will say that…., but that simply isn’t true.” The simple suggestion that there are different points on the other side helps the individual think about how they might argue for their side. Maybe, I’m trying to persuade you why chiropractic treatment can be helpful for headaches. I might say, “You may hear that chiropractors are just bone crackers that get you addicted to treatment to get money out of you. I certainly heard that before I tried treatment, but my own experience has been…” You warned them of what they might hear (a little dose of the flu) and you helped them to gain immunity.

The other way this can happen is by counterarguments–called refutational preemption. You imagine what counterarguments your audience might have and then you address them in your speech. When I sold aftermarket diesel engine parts, I imagined they might object because our product wasn’t name-brand so they might think it was inferior. Because of this, I would say, “Let me tell you why the quality of our product is equal to the competition” and then I would show them a chart showing the metallurgical data and quality statistics.  When persuading people to donate to the not for profit, I imagined they might object to giving money because they are already giving somewhere else so I would say, “There are many worthy causes to give your money and time to so let me tell you why this is a worthwhile cause….”

When making a good inoculation, make sure you don’t try to make the other side’s argument too strong, or they might end up agreeing with the other side. In addition, don’t distort what the other side represents. That would make it a strawman fallacy (and in my opinion, unethical). Worst of all, making distorted arguments hurts your credibility and you would risk losing the audience’s trust.

Try This
When working on a persuasive presentation ask several people, “Why might someone object to this?” or “Why might someone not want to try this?” When they answer. Resist the temptation to justify. Don’t be defensive, just listen and write down the things they say. Go back to your speech and see how you might preemptively deal with those objections in your presentation.

Look for Agreement

When someone says, “No.” Their whole body begins to disagree. They may lock their jaw, squint their eyes, or cross their arms. Keeping your speech positive and seeking agreement can draw an audience into your topic. Dale Carnegie in his famous book, How to Win Friends and Influence People suggested getting the audience to say, “Yes” multiple times. Even better if they nod yes as well.  “Can we agree tuition is too high–yes. Can we agree it is hard to eat healthy as a college student–yes. Can we all agree…fill in the blank…yes?”

Begin with the End in Mind

When thinking about your persuasion speech, ask yourself how you will measure success? Success in speech class should always be more than the grade you earned.  Earnestly try to persuade your classmates of something that will make their lives better.

Begin with the end in mind and ask yourself, what does success look like?  I once had a group of students give a speech asking the city to add a traffic signal out front of the college–the city took it into consideration and added the light. Lives were saved because they gave a speech. That is measurable success.  I had a student persuade us why we should go to Kansas City for a weekend trip, several students went and thanked the student for the recommendation. That is measurable success. I spoke before the Kiwanis asking them for a donation and they became a financial partner, because of their donation hundreds of homebound seniors received companions, yet again a measurable success.

What about those speeches that ask people to change attitudes?  How will you know if your persuasion worked? If you pitched your product and no one bought it, did you succeed?  Sometimes getting the word out is a success.  Success will not always be tangible. Sometimes you won’t persuade the audience members listening, but they will talk to their associates who will be persuaded. Write down what you want to happen as a result of your speech.

Always begin with the end in mind. 


 

At this point, I want to share with you some excellent persuasive speeches and draw your attention to a few key elements. This video has to be watched on the TED YouTube channel.

 

Persuasion of Fact: The Power of Story

 

Most of society has been acting like race exists but it doesn’t matter.
Did you know that race doesn’t really exist in scientific terms? ‘We’ have known this for a while but for some reason we still act like skin color means something.  In fact, race doesn’t exist, but in our society it does matter.

Notice

He uses stories to draw us in about the topic of race. In doing so, he helps us to avoid being defensive or guarded about the topic and we are more willing to listen.

 

 

Culture Makes a Difference

There are a lot of demographic differences that can influence how a person is persuaded, and an important one of those is culture. I want to focus on the biggest three cultural differences that can influence how you approach a persuasive speech.

Individualism vs Collectivism

  • Individualistic cultures stress the value of “I.” People in individualist cultures typically value independence and uniqueness and are socialized to see themselves as separate and distant.
  • Collectivistic cultures stress the value of “we.” People in collectivistic cultures value group membership. They tend to work towards the good of the group and are more compliant with authority.
  • A speech that tells the audience how to be independent or how to stand out above the crowd would appeal more to an individualistic audience where a speech that tells the audience how they can fit in and be part of the group would appeal more to a collectivistic culture.
  • One study showed the difference in detergent ads. “Cleans with a softness that you will love” was preferred by individualistic societies vs “Cleans with a softness your family will love” was preferred by collectivistic societies.

High vs Low Context

    • Low context cultures tend to be direct and linear. There is an emphasis on facts as the most important.
    • High context cultures tend to be indirect. Because of the indirectness, it may be harder to “read” the situation unless you have taken time to get to know the individual.
    • Doctor recommended would appeal more to high context individuals where a focus on the features and advantages of the product would be more persuasive to low context individuals.
    • A speech that is very specific and direct would appeal to a low context culture where a speech that implies or “hints” would appeal more to a high context culture.

 


Persuasive Speech Patterns

There are many patterns you can use as you create your speech. Here is a brief list of the most common ones.

Problem-Solution

State the problem
Tell us why it is a problem
Offer up a solution to the problem
Persuade us to do something based on the solution you offered

Problem-Cause-Solution

State the problem
Tell us why it is a problem
Tell us what caused the problem
Offer us a solution to the problem
Persuade us to do something in reaction to the solution offered

Comparative Advantages

Duh! Compare the advantages of one product or idea to another.

Monroe’s Motivated Sequence

This model, designed by Alan Monroe, was originally designed for policy speeches but has been expanded to other types. Sales presenters take note, this one may be for you.  Participants in one study appreciated this format because of how organized it made presentations.

Monroe’s Motivated Sequence
Attention: Get the audience’s attention (This step usually includes a grabbing statement, a preview, and a credibility statement)
Need: You make the audience feel a need for a change. This is usually where you should evidence of a need.
Satisfaction: You satisfy the need. What is the solution or plan to take care of the need you demonstrated?
Visualization: Help your audience visualize the benefits How will they profit from enacting your plan.
Action: Tell the audience exactly what you want them to do or to feel. (This step usually includes a review, a call to action, and a closing statement)

 

In conclusion, words are powerful. When you are given the privilege of standing before a group of people, they have given you the gift of time. You owe it to them to give them something worthwhile. I have given you some powerful persuasive tools, use them wisely, apply them ethically.


I compiled a few of my favorite persuasive theories and put them in a chapter to help you fine-tune your persuasion. The Science of Persuasion

 

Key Takeaways

Remember This!

  • Audience needs are key.
  • The audience needs to “see” to be persuaded.
  • Credibility is essential.
  • Persuasion needs to be doable.
  • Look for agreement.
  • Overcoming objections.
  • Consider how you will measure success.
  • Consider cultural differences.
  • Use the pattern that best fits your speech.

 

Bonus Feature

Watch these young voices make persuasion speeches at March for Our Lives

 

Guardian News. (2018). March for our lives: Five of the most powerful speeches. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wf5am4wQsc0 Standard YouTube License.

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Micciche, T., Pryor, B., & Butler, J. (2000). A test of Monroe’s Motivated Sequence for its effects on ratings of message organization and attitude change. Psychological Reports.  86(3 Pt 2), 1135–1138. https://doi.org/10.2466/pr0.2000.86.3c.1135

McGuire W. J. (1961). The effectiveness of supportive and refutational defenses in immunizing and restoring beliefs against persuasionSociometry 24, 184–197. https://doi.org/10.2307/2786067

McGuire, W. J. (1961). Resistance to persuasion conferred by active and passive prior refutation of the same and alternative counterarguments. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63(2), 326–332. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0048344

Peterson, A. (2014). What I am learning from my white grandchildren–truths about race. Anthony Peterson. TEDxAntioch. [Video] YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u5GCetbP7Fg​ Standard YouTube License.

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Wright, G. & Ferenczi, N. (2018). Cross-cultural dimensions impacting persuasion and influence in security contexts. Center for Research and Evidence on Security Threats. https://crestresearch.ac.uk/comment/cross-cultural-dimensions-impacting-persuasion-and-influence-in-security-contexts/

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Advanced Public Speaking (BETA) by Lynn Meade is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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