Learn from these Examples of Persuasion

Do you need to convince a boss or a friend about something that matters? Use these examples of persuasion as a starting point for your arguments.

pictures of people speaking to an audience with text: 'From Aristotle's principles of persuasion to recent speeches, you can learn a lot about convincing others from these examples.'

I was impressed with an article I read recently about the way Volodymyr Zelensky has won the attention of the world with his defense of democracy and western values. It gives several examples of how effectively he uses some techniques of persuasion to get support for Ukraine.

When the Russians attacked the nuclear plant at Chernobyl, he was quick to alert Europeans to the danger there. He addressed Russians as well, reminding them of how they had worked together to try to limit the damage in 1986 when the plant first started releasing radiation. He made an urgent, emotional plea to them to “Take to the streets and say that you want to live"!

His appeals for democracy have possibly had even greater effects. The article emphasizes that his daily messages have built up a clear picture over time. "Watch the whole series and what first comes through is a Lucasian monomyth about the defiance of evil by the forces of good."

(They're pointing out that he's telling the story as if it were part of Lucas' star war series, where Ukrainians are the small band on the front lines facing the powerful forces of evil.)  

The article gives several more examples of how Zelensky has not only kept western attention over time but reminded us of why democracy, self-determination, and human rights matter.

I'm impressed again at the power of words and ideas to even affect the course of a war.

Aristotle's Principles of Persuasion

In ancient Greece, Aristotle also taught persuasion: the power of words to change behavior. He believed persuasion had three main elements: ethos, logos, and pathos.

Ethos is establishing authority so listeners will trust your arguments. Logos is logic or rational argument, providing evidence and reasons for people to believe you. Pathos is perhaps most important of all: appealing to emotion, often by using stories that help people feel connected to you and your cause.

Aristotle had a lot more to teach, but I want to mention two more of his ideas. He emphasized the value and beauty of metaphors-- using something your audience knows as a comparison to help them understand something else. Aristotle also insisted on the importance of brevity. Keeping your message short can make it more memorable-- and more effective.

His advice has helped people win followers for over 2,000 years. The Harvard Business Review has a great discussion of Aristotle's techniques and their modern applications (including to TED talks and to business.) It has a fascinating discussion of the way billionaire Warren Buffett applies these ideas and especially how he uses metaphors.

In one example, Buffett compared health care costs to a tape worm destroying the American economy from the inside. That vivid (if ugly) metaphor is effective in shaking people up, if nothing else!

Powerful Examples of Persuasion in American History

A quick search will suggest so many historical examples of persuasion, from Greek and Roman times on (and undoubtedly in non-western cultures as well.) I want to give a few examples from American history.

Patrick Henry:

Patrick Henry gave one of the most famous speeches in American history to the Second Virginia Convention on March 23, 1775. The convention was trying to decide what Virginia’s response to the intensifying conflict with Great Britain should be.

Henry believed that war was unavoidable. He argued that it was too late for reconciliation—Britain was intent on taking away their liberties. He also insisted that time was against them. The longer they waited to fight, the fewer resources they would have to fight with.

Although he backed his arguments with reasoning, Henry’s main appeal was emotional:

“The question before the House is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery…

…There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged!”

... Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR):

Another example of effective persuasion was Franklin D. Roosevelt first “Fireside Chat,” on March 12, 1933. He had just declared a “banking holiday” to end a “run” on the banks, as people feared they would lose the little they had left in savings.

Roosevelt realized that many people were panicking. They felt the institutions they had trusted were failing them. Events felt completely out of control. He invited them, in a sense, to sit at home with him, around his fire. He wanted them to feel he cared and that he had everything under control after all.

He managed to convince many that he and his advisors saw a way to resolve their problems. His advisers understood what had been happening in the banking system and were taking the necessary steps to restore it. All he asked ordinary people to do was to have confidence in their efforts.

His efforts to bring ordinary people into the picture worked. He explained what the government was doing and that their needs and worries weren’t forgotten. His reassurance reduced the panic and enabled the government to stabilize the situation.

I knew elderly people who still looked up to Roosevelt over 50 years later because they felt he had cared about them at that time of national crisis.

Roosevelt began his chat:

“My friends, I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking… I want to tell you what has been done in the last few days, and why it was done, and what the next steps are going to be."

(After explaining the banking system in detail, FDR ended his chat like this:)

"After all, there is an element in the readjustment of our financial system more important than currency, more important than gold, and that is the confidence of the people themselves. Confidence and courage are the essentials of success in carrying out our plan. You people must have faith; you must not be stampeded by rumors or guesses. Let us unite in banishing fear. We have provided the machinery to restore our financial system, and it is up to you to support and make it work.

It is your problem, my friends, your problem no less than it is mine. Together we cannot fail.”

Other Persuasive Speeches from Recent History

There have been other great examples of persuasion in recent history. Think about Churchill’s wartime eloquence, Martin Luther King Jr’s Dream speech, & even Steve Job’s 2005 Stanford graduation speech.

You might consider that speech more inspirational than persuasive. Still, Jobs was making a clear argument that people should follow their hearts and not “settle” for less or pursue other people’s expectations. (If you have had trouble understanding terms and idioms in that speech, I explain some of them here.)

Can you think of ways to apply these techniques and examples of persuasion in your own life? Might they help you convince your boss about the value of a project you are proposing, or a stubborn friend about the need to address climate change?

If you want to actually persuade someone to change course, please also check out How to Change Someone's Mind. There are more useful hints and persuasive techniques there (often reinforced by recent neuroscience discoveries.) They might be what it takes to make a difference.

In our contentious time, any ways to start a dialogue and speak across the dividing lines are important!

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