If there are two definitive features of Greek civilization, they are loquacity and competition.–Aristotle
Textbooks in social psychology mention “persuasion,” but not consistently so. Often, the preferred term is “attitude change.” As if the idea of persuasion were unseemly, dirty even! Persuasion smacks of manipulation, propaganda, and demagoguery. And for good reason.
Demagogues and the social scientists who studied them made important contributions to the study of attitude change in the early 20th Century (Bernays, 1928). The Yale school of attitude change, which ruled the paradigm for decades, arose from government-funded research designed to find out how citizens could be persuaded to support the WWII effort by, for example, buying war bonds (Hovland et al., 1953) .
Rhetoric and Dialectic
The roots of rhetoric reach deeper, of course, into the soil of ancient Attica and offshore plantations, notably Syracuse. The sophists discovered the power of word over mind, and they playfully explored the tricks that could be played on others so that they would give up resistance. The art of rhetoric was agonistic; it was embedded in the Greeks’ love of competition and their desire to win. Recall their invention of the Olympic (and other) games and their delight in having dramatists compete for prizes for their plays.
Aischylos is still a household name in part because he won gold medals in the theater of Dionysos.
In time, the competitive variant of rhetoric became suspect, and, led by Socrates, the dialecticians struck back. How, you may wonder, can a dialectician beat a rhetorician in a game of words, and what is a dialectician anyway? Answers can be found in Plato’s Protagoras and Gorgias, dialogues named after famous sophists (ie, rhetoricians) who were duly savaged by Socrates in conversation. Being a dialectician, Socrates sought Truth with a capital T, but not being able to refer to bodies of empirical evidence–which did not exist at that time–he had to argue from logic, his main move being to trap his opponents in their own contradictions, non-sequiturs, and other reasoning fallacies.
Socrates prevailed, at least in Plato’s retelling, because his sophist opponents (and other interlocutors in the agora) made a critical concession. They endorsed basic logic and agreed that they should not hold self-contradictory beliefs. Alas, experience teaches that many of our conversation partners do not make this basic concession. They will hold on to pairs of irreconcilable beliefs after being shown that one might be true, but not both.
This is where polite conversation breaks down, and we may have to pull out the bottom drawer of the rhetorical toolbox (eg, Krueger, 2016, on Schopenhauer’s advice). There is not much hope when resistance to reason takes such a stubborn form. As a last resort, one might invite the other party to reveal their criterion for attitude change. What would it take for their minds, in their mind, to be changed? If the answer is that no such condition can be imagined, it is time to look for conversation elsewhere.
The question “What is your requirement of attitude change” is rarely asked, perhaps surprisingly. It is, however, a smart rhetorical move in its own right. As most people wish to see themselves as open-minded, they may be reluctant to declare that they are unmovable in principle. Once they pause to consider the question, they are one step down the road to self-persuasion, which, as we have learned, is a powerful method of changing a mind (Aronson, 1999).
Setting aside the most recalcitrant audiences, we are sometimes called upon to deliver persuasive speeches, and there is an art and science of how to do this well. My university (Brown) offers a small sought-after course Barbara Tannenbaum has taught for 50 years (it is sometimes taught by instructors Barbara has trained).
Barbara prefers speaking to writing, so there is no manual I can reference. I did take her course years ago, however, and I have talked with Barbara many times about social psychology and the practice of persuasive speech. In the process, Barbara convinced me to take the elements of Aristotle’s rhetoric seriously, and I persuaded her that experimental social psychology adds value to the art.
A brief synopsis of Barbara’s recommendations can now be found in the last chapter of Danny Warshay’s (2022) book on entrepreneurship. Danny teaches a course that prepares students to make pitches to venture capitalists. They need to persuade the capitalists to invest in their projects, a task that brings forth the ancient Ionian agon, or competition. The would-be entrepreneurs play a zero-sum game.
Credibility and Audience Centering
Barbara’s list of recommendations is rich. In this limited space here, I highlight two ideas: establishing one’s credibility and centering one’s message on the audience’s interests. Danny, channeling Barbara after she has guest-lectured in his course for 1.5 decades, suggests that it is best to “have someone else brag about you in an introduction” (p. 258). For his part, he introduces Barbara as “a rock star professor at Brown” (p. 255), and we already see how introductions can go badly–and who would introduce an unknown undergraduate with a pitch, and how would they do it?
I take a different view. Of course, it is nice if you are already a household name so that your introducer can redundantly declare that you need no introduction. This does not apply to most of us. I advise against leaving the introduction to someone else because it surrenders the power of speech to someone likely to mess it up. The most common problem is, as illustrated by Danny’s introduction of Barbara, praise that is too exuberant and vague. Other praise reduces to cheap signaling (“He has an MBA from Harvard.” Who cares?).
Credibility is established best by delivering a competent and articulate speech. The bulk of Barbara’s advice goes to this. Credibility can be baked into the performance of persuasion; it need not be an added feature. Indeed, once you assert that “You should believe me because I am a doctor,” you are already undermining the power of your speech by suggesting that it cannot stand on its own.
Inescapably, your persuasive speech is about you. You want to accomplish something; you want to persuade others; you know that your performance reflects on you; you are secreting the sweat that stains your armpits. This is why Barbara’s advice to understand and respect what the audience needs and wants is so important and hard to follow.
If you want to reach your persuasive goal, you must show your audience how they can win. Whatever you are advocating must be shown to have an instrumental value for attaining the audience’s aims. If their proximal goals are known, this is well, and it can drive your speech. If these goals are unknown, it is safe to assume that audiences wish to be happy, healthy, wealthy, and well-regarded by their peers.
If this sounds all too easy, it is. In the context of debate and conflict, in the Ionian arena of the agon, you are reduced to knowing that the other party wants to win just as much as you do. And this is not a situation where you want to ask, “What’s in it for the audience?”
Instead, you may need to reach deeper into the rhetorical toolbox and pull up some of those dirty tricks. When you do, tell your audience that you use dialectics and not rhetoric. While they puzzle over what that means, you move in for the kill.