How to be persuasive in 3 simple steps

How to be persuasive in three simple steps

 Of all the forms of torture inflicted in corporate life, Death by PowerPoint is the most pervasive.

It’s not just because the software encourages a lazy approach to presenting, with the speaker usually playing a poor supporting role to slides loaded with text, dripping with bullet points and peppered with impossibly complex visuals.

It’s also because PowerPoint presentations tend to rely on factual information alone to convey their messages and move their audiences to action.

The limitations of memory

One problem with that approach is that listening is hard work, our minds tend to wander and we can only absorb so many facts in one sitting. As psychologist Susan M Weinschenk points out in her excellent book 100 things every presenter needs to know about people, we can only hold three or four chunks of information in our working memories – and that’s assuming we are paying full attention with no distractions!

The other drawbacks of the factual approach, as I pointed out in a previous post, are these:

  • We tend to filter information through the prism of our pre-existing opinions and beliefs, giving undue weight to what suits us and ignoring what doesn’t.;
  • Facts don’t touch our emotions, which play a primary role in decision-making.

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle was no expert on PowerPoint. But he knew that facts alone were not enough to clinch an argument. And his theories are as relevant today as they were 2,300 years ago when he wrote his famous tome On Rhetoric.

The three modes of persuasion

Aristotle described three essential ‘modes’ that need to be expertly blended to create a persuasive argument: ethos, logos and pathos.

Ethos rests on the authority or credibility of the speaker, derived from skills, experience, qualifications, position and reputation. It’s also about trustworthiness and shared values. If you are an acknowledged expert in your field, you have a head start when it comes to ethos. But you also need to convince your audience that you understand and share their concerns and have their interests at heart.

Logos is the appeal to logic – using data, facts and statistics to win the argument. It is difficult to be persuasive without logos (although some modern political leaders seem to carry it off!) but, as we have seen, logos on its own has serious limitations.

Pathos is the appeal to an audience’s emotions – a much neglected aspect of many modern presentations. The feelings you wish to evoke, depending on the purpose of your presentation, could range from sympathy and compassion at one end of the spectrum to anger, envy or even hatred at the other. Between these two extremes sit a variety of other feelings including pride, respect, happiness, sadness, hope, fear, patriotism and humour.

The power of great stories

There are many ways to evoke emotion in your audience. You can show a powerful visual, cite a startling fact or statistic, use emotive language, describe the impact of a current problem, even tell a joke (if it’s relevant, inoffensive and you are sure you can remember the punchline!)

But one of the best ways to use pathos is by telling a story that is relevant to your topic, that has a clear dramatic arc and that illustrates one of your key points.

Where facts are hard to digest and easy to forget, stories are engaging and memorable. We have been listening to them since infancy and are hard-wired to respond to them.

For those who need a more scientific justification for telling stories, I can offer two:

  • When you listen to an engaging story, your brain ‘syncs up’ with the storyteller in such a way that permits the transfer of ideas, sensations and emotions. This is known as ‘neurocoupling’.
  • While facts engage only a very small area of the brain, stories activate multiple brain regions, which increases our ability to retain them and their inherent messages many times over.

Matching modes to audience

Ethos, logos and pathos are vital elements of all presentations, but their relative proportions are likely to vary according to the topic and the audience.

So, for example, ethos may be more important than pathos if you are addressing a group of experts on their pet subject; pathos may take precedence over ethos if you are telling your personal story at a patient group meeting; and logos will probably be pre-eminent if you are explaining the technical complexities of a new gadget to a bunch of prospective buyers.

This fits in with the overarching rule of presentations – that the audience is king. And more of that in my next blog.

My offer to you

Clearsay works with senior executives in all sectors to develop and improve their spoken communication skills for use in presentations, media interviews, negotiations and critical meetings. For more information, return to the Home Page.